Elyzabeth Hawkes: Safeguarding is more important than ever

Elyzabeth Hawkes, deputy CEO of POhWER and its designated safeguarding lead, discusses the need for strong safeguarding and why it's more important than ever in 2023

For 10 years I have managed Britain’s largest advocacy operation at a charity called POhWER. Nationally we employ over 375+ advocacy, information and advice professionals committed to supporting vulnerable, socially excluded, and marginalised people. POhWER works with local authorities around the country helping people to access their rights and entitlements and safeguard them from harm and abuse.

Regardless of your purpose or mission, people are the most valuable asset and have a right to be valued, supported, and safeguarded no matter what charity they come into contact with.

I don’t imagine anyone working within the charity sector would disagree with this statement, but would we all agree that the principles and framework of safeguarding is one of the essential building blocks in a charity’s foundation to ensure not only regulatory compliance but that of an inclusive open culture that ensures we foster dialogue we need to have and don’t just listen and ignore?

The Charity Commission for England and Wales provides a long list of risk and harm that charities should be alert to, and the policies, procedures, and practices you should have in place to fulfil your safeguarding duty.

Despite this, safeguarding can far too often be seen as someone else’s responsibility and something that affects other people; it can be seen as a duty or service provided to the beneficiaries supported by many charities daily rather than a duty towards our own staff and colleagues. For those charities that don’t deliver a direct service to people, is safeguarding something that they have a duty to adhere to?

It is clear that as a society we are also seeing unprecedented demand on health and social care systems. They are working under increasing pressure, resulting in significant levels of unmet needs and delays in accessing care and support. What is also clear is that this isn’t only impacting on the beneficiaries or communities that many charities exist to support.

As the DCE and DSL of a national charity I see increasing numbers of beneficiary safeguarding issues that POhWER’s advocates raise and support to ensure their voice and wishes are central to the process. It can, at times, feel like an overwhelming task to make a difference in trying to uphold the basic human rights of individuals to live a life free from degrading treatment and abuse.

Increasingly, though, I also observe staff trying to support beneficiaries with life challenges that have been created by issues that they themselves are experiencing in their own lives or that of their friends and families. Whilst empathy can be beneficial to impactful support it can also be incredibly draining and impact on individual health and wellbeing.

I also observe the increasing emotional impact on our staff of being the beneficiary voice as we stand at times, as what feels like, the one voice solely focused on making sure that the person wishes are still heard and central to the process.

The sector appears to be under increasing pressure as it struggles to recruit and provide services to increasingly vulnerable communities with increasingly limited levels of funding. This restricts the levels of service we can provide to our customer, our partners and stakeholders.

So my safeguarding duty in all of this is not to just make sure that our beneficiaries are advocated for in line with the statutory safeguarding process, It is to make sure that we fulfil our safeguarding duty of care in relation to our staff, partners, providers and other people that work with and this is more important than ever before.

The key to developing and continually improving your safeguarding compliance and integrity is your culture and the willingness and drive to open your eyes and ears both internally and externally to your organisation.

The most crucial and challenging part is to achieve and foster the channels, trust and openness needed for people to be able to raise their concerns, to act and to fulfil their own individual safeguarding duty. People that include your own staff, your partners, providers, customers, and the public.

It is essential for charity leaders to not only give priority to learning from external feedback but to give permission for people to not be ok and have a way to raise it.

Not just through external feedback processes but crucially through internal staff networks, informal and formal processes that are accessible, trusted, and safe.

It is essential to encourage staff to not only be the voice of their beneficiaries but to be empowered to raise their own concerns and also to support each other to be the voice of colleagues, to be the voice to whistle blow, to feel safe to say it’s not ok, to say I am not ok or what I have seen is not ok without fear of reprisal or being labelled as a troublemaker. To be brave and to open your eyes and ears is to promote an organisational culture that engages both externally and internally to actively listen, seek feedback and act, to safeguard and fulfil not only your regulatory duty but of the basic human right that we all have to be safeguarded from harm and abuse.

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