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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child protection in religious organisations and settings Investigation Report


G.2: Current framework for oversight

2. There are a number of state and local governmental or quasi-governmental bodies that have oversight of some aspects of the services provided by religious organisations, but none of them can or do provide oversight of child protection.

Department for Education

3. The Department for Education is responsible for the policy and legislation concerning children’s education and social care. It does not have direct policy or legislative responsibility for charities or voluntary organisations, including religious organisations.

4. The department’s guidance – Working Together to Safeguard Children (first published in 1991, and most recently updated in 2018), which all state bodies dealing with children must follow unless there are cogent reasons not to do so – includes four paragraphs about charitable and voluntary organisations. It recommends that they should have “appropriate arrangements in place to safeguard and protect children from harm”, and states that “All practitioners working in these organisations and agencies who are working with children and their families are subject to the same safeguarding responsibilities, whether paid or a volunteer”.[1] While this guidance is helpful, it is not directly applicable to charitable or voluntary organisations such as religious organisations and settings, which do not have to follow it.


5. As discussed in Part F, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) is a non-ministerial government department responsible for inspecting a range of educational institutions. It also inspects and regulates various services that care for children and young people.

6. There is no specific regulatory or inspection regime administered by Ofsted for religious organisations and settings providing education to children, except when they run full-time schools or nurseries.[2] A limited number of out-of-school settings may fall within Ofsted’s remit if they are registered on its Early Years Register or Childcare Register, or if they are investigated because they are suspected of operating as an unregistered school.[3] Unless a religious organisation or setting falls within one of these categories, Ofsted will have no role in regulating it.

The Charity Commission

7. Many religious organisations are registered with the Charity Commission.[4] Of the approximately 168,000 charities registered with the Charity Commission, approximately 34,000 are faith-based organisations.[5] Roughly 80 percent of those organisations are connected to the Christian faith.[6]

8. An organisation meets the legal definition of a charity if it:

  • operates to provide services defined as “charitable” under the Charities Act 2011 – which includes education and religion;
  • operates for the “public benefit”; and
  • has a turnover of more than £5,000 per year.[7]

9. Those who make governance decisions in a charity are called trustees. They are under a general legal duty under the Charities Act 2011 to take reasonable steps to protect from harm those who come into contact with their charity.[8] This derives from their duties to act with reasonable care and skill, and the trustees’ duty to act in the best interests of the charity.[9]

The role of the Charity Commission

10. The Charity Commission has no discretion to refuse to register a charity if there are concerns about the charity’s safeguarding arrangements or policies, except in extreme cases where an organisation may fail the public benefit requirement.[10]

11. The Charity Commission ensures that child protection responsibilities and governance are taken seriously and holds trustees to account for the actions of their charity.[11] It expects all registered charities to have child protection policies, but it does not routinely ask for them or require them to be provided.[12] There is no express statutory requirement under the Charities Act 2011 for a charity to have a child protection policy. The Charity Commission has its own safeguarding strategy (last updated in December 2017) for dealing with child protection issues in charities.[13] It states that child protection should be a key governance priority for all charities, and that the failure of trustees to safeguard those in their care, or to manage risk, causes serious regulatory concern.[14] The Charity Commission indicated to the Inquiry that it will be improving its guidance, including by targeting its safeguarding guidance to specific subsectors, and it has enlarged its specialist safeguarding team.[15]

12. The Charity Commission has also identified that safeguarding deficits in the charitable sector arise when there is insufficient priority placed on adequate child protection by leaders, even when there is an adequate policy, by either a poor understanding of the issues or poor implementation.[16]

13. Over the last 10 years, the Charity Commission has developed its approach to taking action in cases of perceived child protection failure.[17] It has increased the amount of its child protection work, particularly since 2017.[18] The Charity Commission’s approach to dealing with safeguarding issues in individual charities is governed by a risk framework, which prioritises cases involving harm to children.[19]

14. There have been increased reports from charities themselves in the light of the guidance and advice from the Charity Commission. Since 2007, charities and their trustees have been subject to the requirements of the serious incident reporting regime.[20] Under this regime, charity trustees have a responsibility to report adverse events that result in or risk significant harm to a charity’s beneficiaries, staff, volunteers or others who come into contact with the charity through its work.[21] Reports should also be made if there has been harm to a charity’s work or reputation (child protection failures or complaints are seen as causing harm to the beneficiaries, staff or others, and to their reputation and work). Between April 2014 and April 2019, the Charity Commission received 1,049 serious incident reports from faith-based organisations (excluding Anglican or Roman Catholic churches).[22] Of these, 88 percent involved safeguarding matters, as defined by the Charity Commission.[23]

15. The Charity Commission has no role in investigating or dealing with individual incidents of abuse.[24] We were told that, while it has sought to expand its remit over the past 10 years, the Charity Commission does not have the resources or the powers to oversee child protection in charities or provide an auditing mechanism.[25] It has a small faith outreach team of three full-time and three part-time staff, which engages with charitable religious organisations and settings (across five faiths: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism) to raise awareness.[26] Its objectives are “essentially to promote good governance on key topics, which includes safeguarding, although it is not limited to safeguarding. It covers, also, financial management and other topics”.[27]

16. The Charity Commission does receive reports of concerns about safeguarding. It estimated that only 10 percent of serious incident reports are then referred for further investigation – known as ‘compliance activity’. The majority of its compliance work comes from other sources (such as complaints from individuals or media reports).[28] Most of this work involves the giving of “section 15 regulatory advice”, which usually involves the Charity Commission providing a charity with an action plan, with which they are expected to comply.[29] In the most serious cases, the Charity Commission would launch a statutory inquiry into the charity.[30] A statutory inquiry enables the Charity Commission to formally investigate matters of regulatory concern within a charity, and to use protective powers for the benefit of the charity, its beneficiaries, assets or reputation.[31]

17. Only a very small minority of statutory inquiries undertaken by the Charity Commission concerned matters relating to child protection in religious organisations and settings. Between 1 April 2014 and 6 November 2019, it opened 622 statutory inquiries, of which 137 (22 percent) involved charities in which the keyword ‘religious activities’ featured in their names or objectives.[32] Of these 137 cases, 13 had a safeguarding component.[33] Among these were:

  • An inquiry into the Manchester New Moston Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This investigated, among other things, the charity’s handling of safeguarding matters, including its safeguarding policy, procedure and practice, and how the charity dealt with risks to it and its beneficiaries – particularly as regards the conviction and release of a former trustee. As set out in its report published in July 2017, the Charity Commission identified significant flaws in safeguarding procedures, including not reporting abuse and having a ‘confrontation’ between the complainant and her accuser.[34]
  • An inquiry into the Jalalabad Association, a Muslim charity, which included concerns about safeguarding issues. As set out in its report dated October 2019, the Charity Commission discovered that teaching of the Qur’an had been undertaken with classes of children at the premises, but the trustees were unable to produce any documentation demonstrating whether appropriate Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks had been undertaken or safeguarding measures considered.[35]
  • An inquiry into the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain (another charity operated by the Jehovah’s Witnesses), which is ongoing. It is examining, among other things, the charity’s handling of safeguarding matters, including the creation, development, substance and implementation of its safeguarding policy. In announcing the opening of the inquiry in 2014, the Charity Commission noted that its:

“concerns have been amplified by recent criminal cases concerning historic incidents of abuse involving individuals who appear to have been connected to Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations and/or the charity. In addition, there has been growing public interest in how the charity and congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses deal with safeguarding matters”.[36]

There has been considerable criticism from the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the Charity Commission’s handling of this investigation. Mr Paul Gillies, the Director of the Office of Public Information for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, told us that an ongoing inquiry in relation to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain is “manifestly unfair” and “allegedly premised on unidentified complaints, which have never been disclosed”.[37] He also said that the five-year inquiry had been “spasmodic” but that Watch Tower Britain had “taken all reasonable steps to engage with the Charity Commission”.[38] Mr Harvey Grenville, Senior Technical Advisor for the Charity Commission, did not recognise “the characterisation or implication that somehow The Watchtower charity and the Branch Committee are fully co-operative with us”, and noted that the level of legal challenge undertaken by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the context of the two inquiries was “simply unprecedented”.[39] In 2020, the Jehovah’s Witnesses initiated a judicial review of the Charity Commission’s statutory inquiry, which had not concluded at the time of the finalisation of this report.[40]

18. Some of the Charity Commission’s investigations have taken a significant period of time to complete and report, which may in part be due to resourcing and complex processes of investigation. The current system is not an adequate mechanism for oversight and inspection. The Charity Commission is not funded, constituted or empowered to act as an inspectorate and its powers are not that of an inspectorate-style regulator.[41]

19. Registration with the Charity Commission does not amount to quality assurance of its conduct. It also does not mean that a charity’s safeguarding policies and procedures are appropriate, as there is no requirement to provide information about child protection policies and practices or a regular audit of them (although such policies and practices can be requested during registration, compliance or investigatory action or as part of outreach activity).[42] Charities also still under-report serious incidents, despite it being an obligation imposed upon them by the Charity Commission.[43]

20. A regulatory approach which now encompasses safeguarding issues is in place but this is only able to tackle limited numbers of cases. The Charity Commission has been clear that charitable organisations should not regulate themselves internally, due to “the inherent weakness which can arise in managing conflicts of interest or loyalty and the complexity of safeguarding itself”. In its view, the regulation of safeguarding and adult or child protection is best managed by an independent body or bodies experienced in safeguarding but cognisant of the spiritual context, and that are able to hold organisations to account for their safeguarding management and practice.[44]

Other central government bodies

Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

21. The Office for Civil Society within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport is responsible for ‘civil society’ policy. This includes young people, volunteering, social enterprises, social investment and public service mutuals in England.[45] It is also responsible for policy relating to charities.[46] While the Office for Civil Society is the policy lead for non-statutory youth services and positive activities for young people outside of school settings in England, it has no statutory, legislative or supervisory responsibilities in connection with religious organisations or settings.[47]

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

22. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has policy responsibility for engagement with faith communities.[48] It has no statutory, legislative or supervisory responsibilities in connection with religious organisations or settings, nor does it have any role or responsibilities for setting or monitoring standards for child protection within religious organisations or settings.[49]

23. Ms Penelope Hobman, Acting Director of the Integration and Communities Directorate at the MHCLG, explained that there are a series of initiatives to support MHCLG’s work on faith engagement.[50]

23.1. The Faith Leader Training Initiative is a voluntary, non-theological training programme in England – in conjunction with the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, based at Birmingham University – which seeks to improve faith leaders’ understanding of various social, political, cultural, practical and governance topics.[51] Impetus for this programme came from the government’s Integrated Communities Action Plan (2017), which supported faith leaders to promote shared values.[52] There are also modules about child sexual exploitation, grooming and safeguarding within organisations. By October 2019, there had been 257 participants registered for sessions.

23.2. Strengthening Faith Institutions (SFI) works to “professionalise” places of worship, providing bespoke support depending on the particular challenges faced by particular faith institutions, although it usually only becomes involved following referral by the Charity Commission, statutory bodies such as the police or local authorities, or through other forms of intervention.[53]

24. The MHCLG’s role is limited and emanates from concerns about radicalisation and extremism.

Home Office

25. The Home Office has a Tackling Exploitation and Abuse Unit, which manages policy on child protection and victims of sexual abuse, and includes a safeguarding hub.[54]

26. The Home Office is also responsible for policy on vetting and barring in relation to those working with children, which is dealt with in detail in Part D.

Parliamentary groups

27. There is an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG, a crossbench organisation of peers and Members of Parliament) on Safeguarding in Faith Settings, which is to work on the understanding of the unique child protection challenges of communities of faith. It recently published a paper about extending the criminal law to include clergy and religious figures in positions of trust, as referenced in Part C.[55]

The Children’s Commissioner

28. The Children’s Commissioner is an office independent of central government whose role is to promote and protect the rights of all children in England. The Commissioner can intervene and enter into any organisation to inspect it, and can undertake independent reports similar to a public inquiry.[56] To date, it has not specifically considered children and religious organisations.

Local authorities


29. The laws in England and Wales give day-to-day responsibility to local authorities to take action in respect of children who have been abused, and to run child protection services.[57]

30. Local authorities in both England and Wales, as part of child protection services, are under a duty to make arrangements to “promote co-operation” with a range of other “relevant partners”, as well as “other bodies” who work to promote the welfare of children.[58]

31. Religious organisations can fall within the category of ‘other bodies’ with whom local authorities are required to work, to the extent that those organisations exercise functions or engage in activities in relation to children in the authority’s area within the meaning of section 10 of the Children Act 2004. In reality, this is limited to those operating full-time schools, or health and social care services, as they otherwise would not be engaged in services that would come under section 10.[59]

32. Under the Children and Social Work Act 2017, in England from June 2018, multi-agency safeguarding arrangements in a local authority area involved:

  • the chief executive of the local authority;
  • the head of the clinical commissioning group – the body that is responsible for providing health services to the local community (or more than one if there is more than one Group); and
  • the chief officer of police.[60]

They have a shared and equal statutory duty to make arrangements for “safeguarding and promoting the welfare of all children in their area”, through a local safeguarding children partnership.[61] This partnership is designed to coordinate child protection services in a local area, acting as a strategic leadership group, engaging others, implementing local and national guidance and, in particular, learning from serious child protection incidents in respect of abuse and neglect.[62] In Wales, regional safeguarding boards undertake a similar role.[63]

33. Under Part 7 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, local authorities have to establish safeguarding children boards composed of representatives from local authorities, local health boards, the police and others.[64] There are regional safeguarding children boards and a national independent safeguarding board in Wales.

34. In England, local safeguarding children partnerships have powers under regulations issued under the Children and Social Work Act 2017 to place a duty on ‘relevant agencies’ (including charities and representative organisations of religions for their schools) to cooperate if asked to do so as part of the local safeguarding arrangements.[65] One local authority – the London Borough of Hackney (Hackney Council) – sought to name all out-of-school settings as ‘relevant agencies’, but told us that the legislation lacks teeth and that there is no basis on which organisations who refuse to cooperate can be made to do so.[66] The Department for Education agreed.[67] Another local authority sought to identify a group of faith bodies that acted together as a ‘relevant agency’.[68] Many local authorities that provided evidence to this investigation have not used this power.[69] There are no such powers in Wales.

35. There is a general expectation that religious and voluntary organisations develop policies and processes in line with statutory guidance – in England, this is Working Together to Safeguard Children (published most recently in 2018) and in Wales the All Wales Safeguarding Procedures (published in late 2019). For example, Working Together states that voluntary organisations play an important role in safeguarding children and in supporting families and communities, and that all practitioners are deemed to be subject to the same child protection responsibilities, whether they are paid or a volunteer.[70] Compliance with the guidance is not legally enforceable and religious organisations are under no duty to follow it, or even to take it into account. Some religious organisations in this investigation demonstrated a good understanding of Working Together and referred to it in evidence – others did not mention it at all.

36. This investigation sought evidence from nine local authorities with large and diverse religious communities about the work that they do with religious organisations, given their obligation to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and their obligation to investigate if children have been harmed.[71]

36.1. Although local authorities can ask voluntary bodies to complete information about their child protection activity (often known as ‘section 11 audits’), there is no compulsion for organisations to respond, and religious groups have criticised the process of doing so as cumbersome, complex and unwieldy.[72] These forms were designed for schools rather than voluntary settings such as religious organisations, and so may seek material that is irrelevant to other settings.[73]

36.2. Some local authorities have links with voluntary sector umbrella bodies and, through them, offer training on child protection and newsletters with best practice (although these are not designed specifically for religious organisations).[74] Many also offer free or very low-cost child protection training for not-for-profit organisations.

36.3. Some local authorities have informal links with individual religious organisations, though some of these links are stronger than others. For example in Bradford, work has been undertaken for many years between Bradford Council and the Council for Mosques, as well as the Anglican and Jewish communities.[75] In Liverpool, the local authority’s relationship has been mainly with the Catholic Church.[76] Tower Hamlets Council told us that they have a Muslim Children’s Safeguarding Coordinator who runs workshops with mosques and had run 87 parenting sessions in schools about the risk of unqualified home tutors. This is not universally replicated in other local authorities.[77]

36.4. All local authorities from which we heard evidence have developed standardised child protection procedures to be used by all statutory bodies and other partners, including identification of how to react to an allegation of abuse, recruitment of those who work with children, investigation of allegations, and training. As set out above, these do not have to be adopted by religious organisations. All nine local authorities wanted to have greater powers (alongside greater resources) in order to help organisations to be able to protect children to an adequate standard.

37. Each local authority has a local authority designated officer (LADO) responsible for helping to ensure that any investigation concerning child sexual abuse, and other forms of abuse that concern individuals acting in a position of trust with children, is coordinated between various agencies, putting the interests of children first.[78] Religious organisations should be referring all allegations of abuse, including child sexual abuse, to the LADO if they involve their staff, religious leaders or volunteers (or to children’s social care in other cases). It would seem from the policies we have seen that some do mention the LADO but many do not, and levels of engagement with the local authority do vary.[79] While most local authorities reported that the Anglican and Catholic Churches had communication with the LADO, the record for other religious bodies was patchy. The reason for this is unclear, but the provision of professional child protection specialists in Anglican and Roman Catholic Dioceses may be a contributing factor.[80]

38. As noted in Part E, not all religious organisations and settings have adequate policies providing contact details of the LADO and making clear the circumstances in which reports will be made. Ms Jasvinder Sanghera, Independent Chair of the Leeds Safeguarding Children Partnership, noted that there is within some religious communities a “nervousness” attached to involving outside agencies, and an impulse to deal with matters internally.[81] Mr Graham Tilby, Assistant Director for Safeguarding for Birmingham Children’s Trust, noted that while some larger faith communities have designated individuals with established relationships with the LADO, this is not the case with “the very small churches or the independent Christian churches or mosques”.[82] Although the LADO is well known to schools, social care settings and the NHS, many of those working in religious organisations seem to be unaware of the LADO or that reports could or should be made to them.

39. We also saw a degree of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Some religious organisations consider that statutory authorities do not understand them, would judge them and have acted in a heavy-handed way in the past.[83] Some of those representing local authorities recognised that previously they have at times lacked nuance and understanding of religious issues when undertaking their statutory duties. However, their overriding concern must be their statutory duty to protect children in each and every case. Those local authorities that gave evidence stressed the need for dialogue, communication, openness, discussion and debate, and recognised that this communication may not have been as effective as it should have been.[84]

40. Many local authorities recognised that children in their area may attend some form of supplementary schooling with a faith focus. Some provide specific advice and support to those who provide supplementary schools in a faith setting, by appointing an officer in the authority with that role.[85] Others have, for example, established ‘safe spaces’ where children can talk and receive counselling (working with a group of local mosques), and also provided training and toolkits to assist in the development of child protection policies for faith-based settings. Local authorities may also assist with the provision of DBS checks for staff and work with the National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education to establish a quality framework for supplementary education.[86] Tower Hamlets Council ran seminars for the East London Mosque and provided advice on improving safer recruitment processes. It also provided guidance for African evangelical churches and an African Families Service Coordinator.[87]

41. Some local authorities have relationships with voluntary action organisations that provide safeguarding training to smaller organisations, including faith organisations.[88]

42. Local authorities have very many pressing child protection priorities and, at present, work with religious organisations on prevention and training is likely to be less of a priority than undertaking statutory child protection work. The fact that the Department for Education has been providing additional monies for pilot schemes demonstrates a need for further resourcing in this area so that local authorities can provide comprehensive assistance, training and partnership working with religious organisations in their area.


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