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ISB remains off the Synod’s agenda despite members’ concerns

06 February 2023

Clive Mear/Church Times

The Synod chamber in Church House, Westminster

The Synod chamber in Church House, Westminster

A FOLLOWING motion submitted last week to put the Church’s Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) on the agenda of the General Synod has been blocked twice.

At the same time, the ISB board members have described the current infrastructure of the ISB under the Archbishops’ Council as “unsustainable”.

Safeguarding is one of the final items on the agenda on Thursday, and will include a presentation on the work of the National Safeguarding Team (NST) (News, 20 January). The Synod will be asked by the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Jonathan Gibbs (currently lead bishop on safeguarding) to “take note” of the accompanying papers.

Last week, Martin Sewell (Rochester) introduced a following motion asking the Synod to “note with concern” the absence in the NST papers of any reference to the ISB (News, 3 February), which was set up by the Archbishops’ Council in 2020 to hold the NST to account (News, 15 December 2020). It has since been subjected to challenges about its independence and functioning (News, 31 January).

By Friday, Mr Sewell had been informed by the Acting Clerk to the Synod, Jenny Jacobs, that the chair for the safeguarding items (the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn) had ruled the motion out of order because it was not compliant with Standing Orders. Specifically, the following motion was not “relevant to and within the scope of its subject matter” of the original NST motion.

Mr Sewell and David Lamming, a former Synod member, redrafted their motion to refer to a previous motion from Dr Gibbs, carried by the Synod during its July sessions last year, which had requested “regular updates on progress at each group of sessions, especially concerning the strengthening of independent accountability and oversight of the Church’s safeguarding work at all levels” (News, 15 July 2022).

Over the weekend, however, this, too, was ruled out of scope, again, on the grounds that: “The ISB is not a workstream for which the NST is responsible.”

Mr Lamming and Mr Sewell have since argued that the relevant standing orders do not allow the designated chair to make a ruling before a session. “By contrast, in respect of rulings on questions, there is provision, but when the Synod is not in session, the person to make the ruling is the Chair of the Business Committee.”

Mr Lamming suggested on Monday morning that “platform tactics” were being deployed to prevent the Synod discussing the ISB. “If a motion related to the ISB is not added to the agenda, despite Synod’s resolution last July requesting a regular update on progress at each group of sessions, ‘especially concerning the strengthening of independent accountability and oversight of the Church’s safeguarding work’, it will confirm the continuing truth of Bishop Pete [Broadbent]’s incisive comments in his article in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal.”

On Thursday, the two remaining board members of the ISB, Jasvinder Sanghera and Steve Reeves (the chair, Professor Maggie Atkinson, remains stepped aside from her duties over data breaches), published a short report explaining that, “Despite attempts to secure an opportunity to update Synod in person, no time was made available.”

On its independence, the two board members write: “The current position of the ISB in the Church’s infrastructure is unsustainable.” The ISB is independently contracted by the Archbishop’s Council trustees, who fund the Board and employ is staff. “In practice the arrangements are insufficiently distanced from the Church to inspire public confidence,” the pair continue. This includes its IT system.

“In its first year, the ISB has experienced multiple instances in which its independence and freedom to operate has been hampered. The ISB does not consider that it is sufficiently independent from those it is responsible for scrutinising. The independent minds of board members need to be supported by an independent body, the operation of which cannot be frustrated by the Church.”

The board members have proposed a “separate legal entity” for an interim period. Planning for the “longer term path of independence” was under way, and the first formal round-table discussion would be held at the end of March, they conclude.

Mr Sewell now plans to raise the issues with the ISB and independence with the Presidents of the Synod (the Archbishops of Canterbury and York) under urgent business, during the first debate of Synod on Monday afternoon: to “take note” the Business Committee report.

A spokesperson for the Church of England said: “Safeguarding is taken very seriously by Synod and is included in every session which this time is dedicated to hearing form the new national director. The ISB participated in the last session of Synod and the Business Committee has noted their desire to present in July.”

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