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Independent Safeguarding Board seeks to extricate itself from the Church of England

24 April 2023


Cover of the ISB annual report

Cover of the ISB annual report

THE Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) has confirmed that it plans to create a separate legal entity to extract itself from Church of England structures. The board’s first year has been marred by staffing problems and too close a link with the body it is supposed to be holding to account.

The proposal for greater independence is set out in the board’s first annual report, which says that initial cost controls imposed on the ISB by the Archbishops’ Council, including a shared media team and IT systems, had thus far compromised its independence and workflow.

Its annual report was published on Monday by the two remaining ISB board members — the lead survivor-advocate, Jasvinder Sanghera, and Steve Reeves — the day after the pair launched a scathing attack on what they described as the Church’s “clear interference” in their work.

They told The Sunday Telegraph that the Archbishops’ Council, which employs the ISB as independent contractors, had undermined their ability to be truly independent of the Church. The ISB was established by the Archbishops’ Council in 2021 to oversee the work of the Church’s National Safeguarding Team (NST) (News, 1 October 2021).

They also referred to a “lack of transparency” in the Church, and a “reluctance to provide information”, saying that at times they had been “met with hostility” in their work.

Their annual report is more measured, although similar issues surrounding independence and workflow are raised. The ISB began by having to share the Church’s central media and communications team, which at first had been “seen as a pragmatic approach to controlling unnecessary costs but quickly became an arrangement which would not engender the confidence of survivors or the public”.

The ISB continued to share the same IT system as the Church, the report explains, which had also “presented operational challenges to the ISB in the delivery of its work”, and had resulted in similar concerns from survivors. There had been no formal information-sharing agreement, it adds, resulting “in an inability to complete some basic functions of the ISB role, including matters of significant public interest”.

The Church Times understands from the Archbishops’ Council that delays over the agreement stemmed from an issue around data control, and has been told that a standard practice mechanism for information-sharing with an external organisation was not taken up by the ISB.

The annual report also acknowledges the difficulty of staffing — the former chair, Professor Maggie Atkinson, recently resigned her position after months of internal disputes concerning her conduct in the post (News, 31 March). This began when complaints were made by survivors that she had breached their personal data, at least two instances of which were upheld by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The data breaches of Professor Atkinson, who is thanked for her work in the report’s introduction, is acknowledged later on, primarily in relation to the increased workload for the other board members.

The authors add, however: “We fully recognise that the current position of the ISB in the Church’s infrastructure is unsustainable, and that the independent minds of our board members need to be supported by an independent body, the operation of which cannot be frustrated by the Church.

“Proposals have been made to both Archbishops in November 2022 to create a separate legal entity which will deliver the ISB’s functions in the interim period, while the longer-term path to independence is developed.”

A consultation period for feedback on these proposals is imminent, they write.

The recent appointment of Meg Munn as acting chair of the ISB is also acknowledged in the report, but there is no reference to the accusation, reported by the Telegraph and earlier by the Church Times, that the Archbishops’ Council did not consult survivors or communicate the appointment to the remaining ISB board members until after the fact.

The ISB report states that, to provide a framework for its future administration, operating principles and standing orders had been approved which state “clearly the expectation that all board activity is conducted with the highest of standards of independence, inclusivity, and integrity.

“This helps ensure that the ISB can operate effectively as an unincorporated body, rather than three separate board members. The ISB accept that these Standing Orders should have been prioritised and approved at the inception of the ISB.”

Beyond the two board members, who work part-time two days a week, and Ms Munn, there are three staff members: a communications consultant, a manager, and an administrator.

The total expenditure of the ISB since September 2021 was £559,781. The largest item (£156,806) was legal costs, of which £28,622 was spent on the aborted safeguarding review of Christ Church, Oxford. The ISB was asked by the Archbishops’ Council to conduct the review in March 2022, but it was never completed, and the Council has recently removed this responsibility from the ISB (News, 3 February).

The ISB board members write in their report: “We were disappointed to hear that the Council made this decision, with the full knowledge of why it has been delayed.

“We would also like to apologise to all parties that have been impacted by the decision, particularly those to whom we made an undertaking to keep informed of developments. If the ISB had been consulted, we would have met our obligations.”

In a further breakdown of ISB finances, the report states that about £80,000 was spent on general legal advice; almost £46,000 was spent on data protection and SARs; and £2000 was spent dealing with complaints.

The ISB is still in the first phase of its work, but its ambitions are broad. They include carrying out several recommendations made in its first report, Don’t Panic — Be Pastoral, published last year (News, 4 November 2022), many of which involve improved communication with and support for survivors, as well as steps towards greater independence.

Communications with the ISB — from survivors, Diocesan Safeguarding Advisers (DSAs), and others — are quoted in its annual report. One survivor said: “I keep asking you to believe me and then I feel avoidance, this causes delays and then it gets toxic, why not just acknowledge what happened without telling me you believe me.”

One DSA said: “Survivors do wish to engage with NST, but I don’t trust the NST, as they may let the survivor down; we need a clear pathway into NST for survivors that wish to engage.”

Listed under future plans at the end of the annual report are: operational independence; an increase of the scope of ISB work and powers to publish reviews and impose sanctions for poor safeguarding practice; a “significant increase” in staff, funding, and financial independence; regulatory independence with independent oversight; and “powers of access to all church files and personnel when required for ISB work”.

Returning to plans for the creation of a separate legal entity, the report concludes: “We are now moving forward to further develop and consult on these proposals for Phase Two of the ISB with a wide range of stakeholder groups from Spring 2023. “We intend to present the initial plans and findings from this to the General Synod in July 2023.” Earlier this year, the ISB board members expressed disappointment that they were not invited to report at the February Synod in London (News, 6 February).

In a note published alongside the report on the C of E website, the new lead bishop for safeguarding, the Bishop of Stepney, Dr Joanne Grenfell, said that it was “vital that the right structures are in place” for the ISB to scrutinise the Church.

“We look forward to working with them as they begin the next phase of their work to scope out what these structures are, and to having conversations about concerns they have raised including from the survivors and victims who have come forward to the ISB to share their experiences. We are committed to hearing their voice. An acting chair was put in place until the end of the year to ensure continuity, and I look forward to working with all three board members.

“We thank Jasvinder Sanghera and Steve Reeves for the annual report published today, and note their comments around their work to date and desire to continue with this independent scrutiny of the Church’s safeguarding. It is vital that we have independent scrutiny, as this informs the core responsibility for all in the Church of ensuring good safeguarding in all our parishes and settings across the country . . . every day of the year.”

Ms Munn, who also chairs the National Safeguarding Panel, will start work with the ISB on 1 May. She was on annual leave this week, but told the Church Times“Both existing members of the ISB have welcomed my appointment. We have had some initial contact and we have all agreed to meet during the first week in May. The meeting will include a discussion of the work that has been completed so far and will provide an opportunity for me to understand the challenges that the Board has faced to date in setting up this body. It will also be the opportunity for the Board to determine the work plan for the coming period.”

On her work with the Panel, she said: “It has always been important to me to ensure transparency of the work of the Panel and that I can be held accountable for its work. [My] blog demonstrates the important scrutiny role that the Panel has fulfilled. The wide range of issues scrutinised is evident, as is a commitment to periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the work of the Panel.”

Ms Sanghera told the Church Times on Tuesday: “It is right that we welcomed the appointed chair [at the time and in the annual report], as it was the case, although we shared our concerns with the General Secretary about this appointment. This was namely that we were not involved in any of the decision-making; a fair process as with all ISB members should be followed; and that we need to ensure survivors are engaged in this process. However, we were informed this was a decision of Archbishops’ Council and therefore one we have to accept. We did forsee these challenges regarding this appointment and shared them in full.

“Since then, we have received up to 47 representations from victims and survivors sharing consistent concerns, all of which we have shared with Archbishops’ Council. We have now requested an invite to the next AC meeting on 9 May as a priority so that we may share our concerns and those of victims and survivors.” 

A spokesperson for the Church of England said: “The Archbishops’ Council appointed Meg Munn as acting chair of the ISB until the end of the year, following the resignation of the original chair, so this important work could continue.

“Meg has pledged to work with the two board members bringing her experience of independent scrutiny of the Church’s safeguarding work from the National Safeguarding Panel. Both board members welcomed Meg to the role of acting chair, and they continue to offer an important voice in the Church’s safeguarding bodies, particularly from a survivor perspective.”

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