Archbishops’ Council blocked safeguarding governance review

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Exclusive by Rosie Dawson

The Church of England’s Archbishops’ Council blocked an attempt to review the governance of the Independent Safeguarding Board, according to a member of its own audit committee.

Clive Billenness, a lay member of General Synod and a member of the Council’s audit committee, said early warnings about a failure of governance in relation to the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) had been ignored.

Two of the board’s members, Steve Reeves and Jasvinder Sanghera, were sacked by the Archbishops’ Council on 21 June, which announced that the ISB was to be disbanded.

The audit committee is meeting within the next fortnight to consider whether to request an independent external report into the Council’s handling of the Independent Safeguarding Board.  

The ISB was set up in 2021 with an initial two-year remit to move the church towards a fully independent system of safeguarding.

Last summer, Mr Billenness requested a review into how the board had been set up and to make recommendations for the way forward. His proposal had the support of two ISB members, Steve Reeves and Jasvinder Sanghera, and the Rev Ian Paul, an Archbishops’ Council member, but it was turned down by the council in the autumn.

Mr Billenness had previously supported a synod motion put forward by Gavin Drake in February 2022 to debate the board’s remit. But the synod voted to move onto other business. Mr Billenness said several people had since expressed “buyers remorse” about closing down the debate.  

Mr Drake is making another attempt to have the ISB debated at the General Synod in York,  which starts in two days time.

Mr Billenness, an auditor for 30 years, has worked for the Audit Commission, and been seconded to the National Audit Office. He has also worked for management consultants KPMG and the deputy prime minister’s office.

“I’ve never in my life as an auditor been in a situation where I’ve said ‘look at this’ and they say ‘go away’ and been kind of ignored. This was a new experience for me,” he said.

Mr Billenness said he was troubled by the implications of a comment made by Justin Welby at the Religion Media Centre Festival last month in which the archbishop drew a distinction between his views on safeguarding and “the official view”.

At the festival, he said: “This is not the official view, but it’s my view — until we have a fully independent safeguarding system in the Church of England, we cannot hold our heads up.”

 It raises the question about who is governing the church, Mr Billenness said. “The archbishop is the boss. It does make you wonder where that official view is coming from.”

On the sacking of two members of the ISB, Mr Billenness said: “These were two highly accredited internationally recognised experts on safeguarding, both honoured by the crown for their work in this area. They are experts. When they tell you there’s something wrong, it’s a good idea to listen to what they are telling you.

“One of my worries is that if you were an international expert on safeguarding, would you consider working for an organisation who fired the last two experts when they expressed their concerns?”

Mr Billenness said Mr Reeves and Ms Sanghera were now victims of church abuse. “They have joined the ranks of people who have been abused in some way by the Church of England. It’s clear they have been through a traumatic process. I think we have a duty to care for them.”

A spokesperson for the Archbishops’ Council said: “The Archbishops’ Council is committed to developing fully independent scrutiny of safeguarding within the Church of England to ensure the Church is a safer place for everyone, to be transparent and accountable, and to hear the voices of victims and survivors.

“The Annual Report of the Audit Committee is on the agenda for discussion at Synod and members will have an opportunity to ask questions at this stage, and during a presentation and questions relating to safeguarding independence”.


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