Independent Safeguarding Board to Seek Independence

Independent Safeguarding Board to Seek Independence

“Clear Interference” from Church Authorities Alleged

The Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), set up to provide vital scrutiny of the Church of England’s safeguarding processes, has announced its intention to seek full independence from Church structures.

In its first annual report, the ISB acknowledged difficulties it had faced, including the loss of its chair, Professor Maggie Atkinson, who stepped down following complaints about her handling of confidential documentation. Three of these allegations were upheld by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Further challenges to the Board’s independence included the sharing of a media team and IT systems within Church House. The report acknowledges this was initially “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 annual report was published on 24th April by the two current ISB members, Jasvinder Sanghera CBE, a campaigner against forced marriages and abuse, who is the Board’s Survivor Advocate, and Steve Reeves, a specialist in combatting sexual exploitation and abuse in organisational settings. The report outlined clear plans to work towards full independence: “Proposals have been made 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.”

However, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph given the day before the report’s publication, the two Board members were more forthright about the lack of independence. They alleged “clear interference” with their work, a “lack of transparency” and a “reluctance to provide information” from Church authorities, meaning at times they had been “met with hostility”.

The appointment of Meg Munn as interim chair of the Independent Safeguarding Board was described by Ms Sanghera as the “final straw”.  Ms Munn already holds safeguarding posts in the Church of England as chair of the National Safeguarding Panel and as a member of the National Safeguarding Steering Group. As a participant in these bodies, Ms Munn is part of the safeguarding system within the Church, yet as ISB chair, she is responsible for providing independent scrutiny of the same system.

Ms Sanghera told the newspaper that more than forty victims had raised concerns already about the appointment, one that had been described at the time as “too cosy.” She explained, “Survivors expressed that they feel re-abused, and a number of them are unwilling to participate in the work of the ISB if she remains as chair.”

Ms Munn, a former Labour and Co-operative MP who served as a junior minister in the Foreign Office under Gordon Brown, was appointed by the Archbishops’ Council to serve as Acting Chair to the end of 2023. She said, “I am pleased to be asked to take up the role of Chair of the Independent Safeguarding Board. As I know from my work leading the National Safeguarding Panel, independent scrutiny and oversight is a vital part of the Church’s national safeguarding work.  I look forward to building on that and the work of the Board to date.”

The Rt Revd Joanne Grenfell, the Church of England’s lead safeguarding bishop, welcomed the ISB Report: “The Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) was set up to provide important external scrutiny for the Church’s safeguarding work and it is vital that the right structures are in place to do this… 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. This important work goes on every day of the year.”

Claims about the independence of the ISB have been called into question outside the Church. During the past year an advertisement for a Business Development Manager for the ISB was called “misleading” by the Advertising Standards Authority. The Authority ruled that the position on the purported body could not be called “Independent” as it was being advertised by the Church of England. Furthermore, during court proceedings with the former Dean of Oxford, Dr Martyn Percy, it was conceded the ISB is not an independent body in law.

In February 2023, the Board expressed its disappointment at not being permitted to present a report to Synod members: “The Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) is committed to sharing its thinking and emerging findings. Despite attempts to secure an opportunity to update Synod in person, no time was made available. We do not believe that the importance of ISB work is consistent with a ‘fringe’ activity.”

In its paper published before February’s meeting of the General Synod, the Board had accused the Church of England of frustrating its work and hampering its independence: “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.”