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Independent Safeguarding Board disbanded and its members sacked as Church ‘resets’

21 June 2023

The exterior of Church House, home to the Archbishops’ Council, seen from Dean’s Yard, Westminster

The exterior of Church House, home to the Archbishops’ Council, seen from Dean’s Yard, Westminster

TWO board members of the Church’s Independent Safeguarding Board have been fired by the Archbishops’ Council owing to a “breakdown” in the relationship between the two parties after months of disputes over the ISB’s independence.

The ISB, created in 2021 to hold the Church to account on safeguarding, will cease to exist. It will eventually be replaced by “a new independent safeguarding body”.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have admitted that this move is a “serious setback” that will “damage confidence” in the Church’s commitment to independent safeguarding.

The two board members — the lead survivor-advocate, Jasvinder Sanghera, and Steve Reeves — were given two weeks’ notice on Wednesday, and an announcement was made by the Council the same day.

The acting chair, Meg Munn, whose appointment was the cause of the most recent disputes, is to stay on “to provide business continuity for the remaining business” of phase one of independent scrutiny of church safeguarding.

A member of the Archbishops’ Council told the Church Times on Wednesday that Ms Munn’s contract would be terminated in the “very immediate future” once the transition to phase two had been reached. The transition was to ensure that the work of the ISB and the survivors with whom it was in contact were not abandoned, and in the hope of “more stability and capacity”.

The council member acknowledged that this would likely be met with dismay and criticism by some survivors, but said: “We need to keep something going otherwise the whole thing would collapse. That’s the worry. . . We can’t abandon the people that we’ve committed to review.”

The announcement said that existing case reviews would be carried out by “independent experts qualified to conduct case reviews, just as at present, and they will be independently commissioned”. Future case reviews would be overseen by one or more independent chairs of the diocesan Safeguarding Advisory Panels.

It was “with regret” that the working relationships between the parties had broken down and that attempts by the Council to get the work on “sustainable footing” had failed, the announcement said.

Last month, Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves served the Council with a formal dispute resolution notice, saying that the Council was continuing to frustrate its work and threaten its independence, while failing to put survivors first (News, 26 May).

Ms Sanghera and Mr Reeves said at the time that the Council, which employed the ISB as independent contractors, had “interfered” and become too involved with its operation. They also objected to the appointment in March of Ms Munn to the board, which they said was done without consultation with either them or survivors. The former chair, Professor Maggie Atkinson, had resigned after months of internal disputes concerning her conduct in the post, including concerns that she had breached survivors’ data (News, 31 March).

The announcement on Wednesday said of the continuation of the ISB: “It has now become clear that that this is no longer viable with its current membership and that the dispute itself risks getting in the way of that urgent priority of moving to the next phase of establishing a new independent safeguarding body.

“The council has therefore agreed a reset.”

The council member told the Church Times that the decision had been reached over several weeks by the whole body, not by individual members, the secretary-general, or by the Archbishops.

He said: “I would hope we gave them [the ISB] a significant if not complete operational independence. Where there were difficulties were around the finances which were tied to us and the governance, [also] tied to us. We need survivors, we need victims, to help us. We need to learn from this, we need to admit our failures as a council.”

He acknowledged that there would be delays in restarting the work, but that, with the current two board members, “we were just going nowhere”. “We just need to learn from that, pick up the pieces, and move forward as fast as we can.” He declined to give a timescale.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York said that they “bitterly regret that we have reached this point”. The decision had not been reached lightly. “We know this is a serious setback and we do not shy away from that — we lament it.

“But it is clear that there is no prospect of resolving the disagreement and that it is getting in the way of the vital work of serving victims and survivors. So the Council has very reluctantly concluded that we need a reset so that we can move swiftly towards a new scrutiny body that is fully independent of the Church.”

Speaking at the Religion Media Festival last week, Archbishop Welby had said that “until we have a fully independent, central safeguarding system — and this is not the official view, but it is my view . . . we cannot hold our heads up.”

The Archbishops’ statement continued: “We recognise that this dispute has damaged confidence. But we believe this is the only way to get independent oversight of safeguarding back on track and move forward as quickly as we can.

“We also recognise that there are lessons for the Archbishops’ Council to learn from this, and it is essential that we do so for the future.”

The council member said that the current structure — the Church employing independent contractors — had failed and a new approach was needed. “While we fund people and contract them and fund the organisation, we are completely connected to it. It’s not a separate body.” He would not dictate to advisers, survivors, and victims what this new body might look like; it required independent consultation.

The General Synod was due to hear from the ISB next month. The Business Committee would be looking at revising this session urgently, he said.

The Archbishops’ statement concluded: “Independent oversight of the Church of England’s safeguarding is an urgent and indispensable first step away from the suspicion of marking our own homework.

“Additionally — we personally believe that we must make rapid progress towards our existing and excellent National Safeguarding Team being functionally independent in order to start to build confidence among survivors.

“At the local diocesan level, further thought is needed, so that Diocesan Safeguarding Officers are sure they can act independently.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Ms Sanghera responded to the decision on Twitter: “I will say more later but this is absolutely appalling. We have spoken with truth & conviction, got on with what we were contracted to do. Now this?”

Mr Reeves also took to Twitter, posting: “As [ISB] members, [Ms Sanghera] and I have had one overriding objective; to work independently and free from undue influence. That shouldn't be a problem for any institution with sound governance, survivor focus, and proper motivation.”

He added: “I’m sure that there will be more to say in due course, but there’s no doubt that this is a deeply disappointing decision for those who want genuinely independent scrutiny of safeguarding in
@churchofengland. Survivors, churchgoers, and the general public deserve better.”

The two board members have been contacted for further comment.

A survivor of church-related abuse said on Wednesday: “The Church of England recruited two independent voices, and as soon as they used that independence to criticise the Church, they were sacked. The appointment of Meg Munn destroyed any credibility that the Archbishops’ Council had, and Ms Munn has worked vigorously to shut down the two independent members ever since.

“This is a new low for Church of England safeguarding, and a kick in the teeth for victims and survivors who had built a relationship of trust with Jasvinder and Steve. I will never trust the Church of England again.”

He suggested that the announcement of details the redress scheme this week was a “completely cynical attempt to overshadow” the termination of the ISB.

The council member denied this: “This is not a smokescreen with redress in front of it. It’s just the timing worked this way.” The council had long been debating how to get through the disputes. “The answer was we can’t; we’re really sorry. We need to reset and move as fast as possible to a fully independent board.”

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