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RNIB in crisis over Pears Centre

News, views and information for people who are blind or partially sighted. Peter White talks to RNIB chair Eleanor Southwood about CEO Sally Harvey's resignation.

Peter White talks to RNIB Chair Eleanor Southwood about the circumstances leading to the recent and sudden resignation of CEO Sally Harvey and the plans the charity has for both its own leadership and also that of its Pears Centre, recently the subject of a critical Ofsted report.
Disability specialist Ian Macrae comments on what Ellie says.

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Tue 10 Apr 2018 20:40

In Touch Transcript - 10-04-2018

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

IN TOUCH – RNIB in crisis over Pears Centre

 

TX:  10.04.2018  2040-2100

 

PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

 

PRODUCER:            CHERYL GABRIEL

 

 

White

Good evening.  Tonight, more dark days for the Royal National Institute of Blind People.  What does the latest accusation, that it’s failed to protect some children in its care, mean for the organisation and the visually impaired people it was set up to represent?

 

It’s been a torrid few years for the RNIB – heavy financial losses, a number of redundancies and now, after a damning report from the education standards watchdog Ofsted, at the beginning of this year, an investigation into its ability to protect adequately children in its care.  The Charity Commission is looking into a series of incidents at RNIB Pears Centre in Coventry.  That’s a school and residential home for visually impaired children with multiple disabilities, including learning difficulties.  One of the cases was of a sexual nature, although it’s understood that police aren’t taking any further action.  The RNIB has been told that if major improvements aren’t made before the middle of this month it could lose its registration to run care homes. 

 

Amongst for the fallout from this investigation has been the resignation of RNIB’s CEO Sally Harvey, after only six months in the job.  She had been in charge of RNIB places that runs homes and residential schools, including RNIB Pears Centre. 

 

So, what on earth is going on at the RNIB?  I’m joined by Eleanor Southwood, who herself has only been chair of the RNIB since last autumn. 

 

Eleanor, first of all, can you tell us a bit more about the role of RNIB Pears Centre and the RNIB’s responsibilities in its running and its management?

 

Southwood

The RNIB Pears Centre is a children’s home and school based in Coventry.  It’s one of a number of specialist services that RNIB runs for young people who are visually impaired and who have additional complex health needs.

 

White

And can you give us an idea of the other centres like that that you run, how many do you run?

 

Southwood

The other facilities that we run, the other specialist services that we run, include three older people’s care homes, a supported living facility at Redhill and two schools.

 

White

And so, in terms of the RNIB Pears Centre what are the incidents which have triggered the – and let’s be frank about this – the disastrous Ofsted report and the Charity Commission’s investigation?

 

Southwood

I want to start by saying that I am profoundly sorry for what has clearly gone very wrong at the RNIB Pears Centre.  RNIB has clearly let down our young people and let down the families and the carers who’ve entrusted those young people to us.  That’s something that we’re taking extremely seriously.  The Ofsted criticisms are serious, they relate to, over a period of time, concerns that Ofsted have had about the way that the RNIB Pears Centre is managed.

 

White

Can I ask you how long?

 

Southwood

The Ofsted notice that we received on the 13th March goes back to 2015 and the kinds of incidents that are raised as concerns are around medication errors, are around record keeping and general issues of how the centre has been managed by RNIB.  This is really serious and our priority, as I’m sure you’ll understand, is the children at the RNIB Pears Centre.  So, the focus, right now, is making sure that those young people are receiving the support and care that they need.

 

White

And there was one case of a sexual nature, can you tell us anything about that?

 

Southwood

The incident that the press has picked up is a single allegation that was made.  RNIB filed a serious incident report with the Charity Commission on the 2nd March referring to this allegation.  And it was an allegation of potentially abusive practice and it was of a sexual nature.  The local multi-agency team have looked at the incident, and that includes the police, and they have indicated that they will not be taking further action.  However, we internally will of course be investigating exactly how the circumstances arose that led to the allegation being made.

 

White

And how satisfied are you that that’s an isolated case?

 

Southwood

The primary concerns raised by Ofsted are around management issues and failures and issues that potentially put – have put our young people at risk.

 

White

Can I perhaps quote from two Ofsted reports four years apart because they make the point?  In 2013, RNIB Pears Centre was rated as outstanding in every category, specifically on safeguarding, the report said, individual risk assessments are in place for all students and for all activities they carry out both onsite and during trips.  Similarly, arrangements for safeguarding a group who are potentially very vulnerable are of a very high standard. 

 

By 2017 the overall assessment was inadequate.  Under safeguarding, specifically, it said the arrangements aren’t effective, the designated safeguarding lead was unaware of previous safeguarding concerns relating to members of staff as this information hadn’t been made available to her prior to the inspection.  And leaders were unable to provide evidence that all concerns had been followed up in an appropriate way.

 

How could things have deteriorated so much in such a short time?

 

Southwood

The examples are pretty stark aren’t they and I think they evidence quite clearly that things have gone very wrong over a period of time.  And that’s why we are going to be imminently doing an independent review looking exactly at what has happened and how.  And also, to make sure that we can be confident that our staff, our supporters, our volunteers and of course the children and families can be confident about the services that we’re providing.

 

White

This does bring us though, doesn’t it, to the other large event that happened last week – the resignation of RNIB’s CEO Sally Harvey because RNIB Pears Centre was one of the residential homes and schools on her watch.  I mean how could things go downhill so fast without apparently action being taken to put them right?  You said yourself that reports were coming in in 2015 that were worrying?

 

Southwood

The Ofsted notice makes it very clear that this has not happened overnight and that over a period of time RNIB has failed.  We, at the start of this year, put in place an action plan in response to Ofsted concerns.  We didn’t act quickly enough and Ofsted have been clear that our response was inadequate.  We’re taking that extremely seriously and that’s exactly why the independent review that we are conducting will really get to the heart of exactly who knew what and when, of course, whether escalation processes were in place and also were they appropriately used and what action was taken.

 

White

And I mean are you able to tell us at actually what point Sally was in charge of it, clearly as CEO she was in charge of everything, she was responsible, for example, in 2015 when these reports started to come in?

 

Southwood

So, Sally moved into the role of Acting Chief Executive in autumn 2016, I’m obviously not going to speculate about what may or may not come out through our independent review but the review is an extremely important element of us establishing exactly what was known by who and what action was taken and when.

 

White

And indeed, that’s the point in a way I’m trying to get at – not necessarily to put the finger on Sally but at the time of her appointment you said on this programme you thought she was definitely the right person for the job.  Isn’t it rather surprising that people didn’t think, given the timing of these reports, that this might be something that would come back to cause an embarrassment to the RNIB?

 

Southwood

So, I’m obviously not going to start sort of pointing the finger of blame anywhere right now…

 

White

But surely on the business of how you appoint people doesn’t it raise the question that due diligence was maybe not exercised at the time of the appointment, regardless of who it was, shouldn’t somebody have spotted the danger of this situation?

 

Southwood

The process that we used for Sally’s recruitment – and I remember talking to you about it towards the end of last autumn – the process was a robust one and Sally was the best candidate through that process.

 

White

So, you stick by what you said then, which was she’s the best candidate because we did ask you about that in the context of were there any good visually impaired candidates?

 

Southwood

Indeed, you did and Sally was the best candidate in that process.

 

White

So, what do you need to do now as far as RNIB Pears Centre is concerned and how fearful are you that your registration, your ability to be registered to look after these kind of homes, might be removed?

 

Southwood

So, the priority is obviously the children at RNIB Pears.  So, we have entirely changed the management structure and we have brought in independent specialists in children’s services to make sure that on the ground what we’re doing is appropriate in response to the Ofsted concerns.  We have until mid-April to demonstrate to Ofsted that we are meeting their expectations and they will communicate with us in mid-May in terms of the outcome.

 

White

This isn’t the only problem the organisation faces of course, I mean you’ve consistently been running a deficit, the RNIB last year – you spent £12.6 more than you brought in, which is a situation which clearly can’t be allowed to go on.  What do you say to service users who’ll be questioning whether the organisation is in a fit state to run its affairs?

 

Southwood

I really understand how this situation would I think make it quite difficult for people to have confidence in RNIB.  I am absolutely determined that we rebuild that confidence and that trust and that’s with visually impaired people, that’s with all of our staff and supporters and of course everybody who we are seeking to support.  It’s so important because the services we provide are vital.  Something’s gone wrong in part of our organisation and we will get to the heart of that and I will ensure personally that we do.  For the 250 people who today will be told they are losing their sight we must be better.  We must be better for them and it is a future that is worth fighting for.  This is the organisation that made sure that I could read with my fellow pupils when I was at school.  This is the organisation that’s ensured I’m able to get out and about independently and it’s the organisation that’s ensured that people have what they’re entitled to in terms of support – that is a future worth fighting for.  So, we will get through this and we will be better for it.  So, the action that we’re taking immediately is primarily at the RNIB Pears Centre to put in place robust structures to make sure that the children are getting support.

 

White

Can I ask you?  You need, in the short term, an Acting CEO, in the slightly less short term a new CEO, have you made any appointments yet?

 

Southwood

Yes, so we have appointed Elliot Line to be our interim Chief Executive.  So, Elliot has been our interim finance director over the past year and has overseen a transformation in our finances.  So, it has been a really tough time financially for us, along with lots of other charities, and we have had to make some fundamental changes.  There is much more change that needs to happen and to be honest some pretty radical changes that we need to put in place quickly…

 

White

So what kind of CEO are you looking for?

 

Southwood

So, the process for recruiting our next Chief Executive will start as soon as possible.  We will make sure it is an open process that makes sure that anybody who is interested and I would love to be able to appoint a blind or partially sighted Chief Executive to RNIB, so we’ll make sure that the process is accessible and as open as possible.  So, we will shortly be putting out the job description and so on, so that everybody can see what we’re looking for.

 

White

You took over as Chair six months ago, did you know what you were letting yourself in for?

 

Southwood

I am enormously proud of the work that RNIB does.  I am however, incredibly disappointed and ashamed to have been part of a collective which has gone so badly wrong.  Since I became Chair the Board has been looking at how we make ourselves more robust in terms of our own governance.  We are complying fully with the Charity Commission and with our other regulators and undertaking our own independent review.  We will be guided by that in putting in place what we need to do to be the best that we can be.  I am personally totally committed to the improvements we need to make and passionate about our future and I will make sure that we fix this, so that we’re able to move ahead.

 

White

Eleanor Southwood, thank you very much for speaking to us.

 

Southwood

Thank you Peter.

 

White

Well listening to that is Ian Macrae.  Ian’s been a journalist and broadcaster in the field of disability for around 40 years.  He edited Disability Now and indeed has worked in the charity sector.  He’s also presented and produced this programme of course and like many of us he’s an RNIB service user. 

 

Ian, you’ve just listened to that, what are we to make of what’s going on at the RNIB?

 

Macrae

Well, part of me just thinks that any organisation which is looking after, providing services for and residential care for disabled children of any sort really ought to be very hot on the whole business of safeguarding really.  You can actually kind of see this and indeed I think it should be seen as an incident waiting to happen.  And any organisation which is providing residential care and services for disabled children really ought to be so vigilant and so diligent about safeguarding because it is just potentially likely that maybe the wrong kind of people are going to be attracted into the sector.

 

White

Now I said you were a service user, like I am, what are the effects of the problems that it’s having, moving away from the Pears Centre, financial, in terms of its image, in terms of its ability to campaign on our behalf, which it claims to do, what is the effect of that on the people who rely on it?

 

Macrae

Well I think there’s a good deal of scepticism and cynicism among the customer base of RNIB.  And that’s because, as a community, we’re quite demanding in the services that we expect, particularly in terms of customer service and produce provision and all that kind of stuff.  And all the evidence recently has pointed to a certain amount of dysfunctionality within the organisation.  We’ve seen senior staff departing in numbers, many of them concerned with areas of policy or indeed with service provision.  And that doesn’t inspire confidence.  As you had said in your conversation with Eleanor Southwood, it’s lost £12.6 million over the last year, that’s not an insignificant amount of money for any business, let alone a charity.

 

White

But it is only fair to say, as Eleanor pointed out, we get a lot from the RNIB.  I opened the front door this morning to get a great big box full of braille books, which they produce.  I get talking newspapers on email that keep me connected to the rest of the world.  There’s a lot of stuff that they’re doing isn’t there?

 

Macrae

Yes indeed, like you I use the electronic newspaper service.  But I now think that more and more people are not looking to RNIB because they think they can get better service elsewhere.  And particularly because customer service has been seen to be rather shoddy of late.

 

White

What do you think its priorities have to be to get out of this mess?  It’s a mess that Eleanor admits it’s in.

 

Macrae

Well, clearly, they have to look for a new Chief Executive.  It would be nice if that Chief Executive was a visually impaired person…

 

White

Although that’s not a guarantee that they would be brilliant.

 

Macrae

Well no and indeed as Eleanor’s predecessor as RNIB Chair pointed out, if I might be a bit mischievous, we sometimes have to accept that we, as blind people, just aren’t as good as everybody else.  But let’s hope that they can find somebody who is visually impaired and who can demonstrate the necessarily skillset.

 

White

Ian Macrae, thank you very much indeed. 

 

And that’s it for today.  We would of course like to hear your views.  You can call our actionline for 24 hours after the programme on 0800 044 044.  Email intouch@bbc.co.uk or click on contact us on our website, from where you can also download a podcast of tonight’s programme. 

 

From me, Peter White, producer Cheryl Gabriel and the team, goodbye.

 

 

 

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