Oxfam prostitution scandal: Charities report over 1,000 sexual abuse incidents every year, says regulator

Charity Commission says it was not told full story about behaviour of activists in aftermath of Haiti earthquake as scrutiny turns to other humanitarian organisations

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs correspondent
Monday 12 February 2018 12:30 GMT
Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2010
Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2010 (AFP)

Charities are reporting more than 1,000 incidents over the protection of children and vulnerable people every year, the UK’s regulator has revealed in the wake of the Oxfam scandal.

Priti Patel, the former International Development Secretary, has accused the aid sector of building a “culture of denial” around exploitation as scrutiny widens to other NGOs.

Oxfam representatives are to meet with the Government for crisis talks today amid threats to withhold funding from the charity over its handling of allegations of sexual misconduct by its staff.

Penny Mourdant on Oxfam: If moral leadership isn't there then we cannot have you as a partner

The charity has denied attempting to cover up the use of prostitutes by workers in Haiti in 2011 but the Charity Commission said it was not told the full story.

Oxfam reported an internal investigation into misconduct allegations that year but said it related to inappropriate sexual behaviour, bullying, harassment and the intimidation of colleagues.

Michelle Russell, the regulator’s director of investigations, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “We've made very clear that had the details of what has come out over the last few days been told to us, we would have dealt with this very differently.

”We were categorically told there was no abuse of beneficiaries involved in the allegations. Nor were we told that there were issues or possible issues around possible crimes, including those involving minors.

“What we did know - and it was made public at the time - is that it resulted in the sacking of several members of staff and resignations. We were assured that Oxfam had investigated it fully.”

Asked if the problem of exploitation could be more widespread in the charity sector, Ms Russell said: “The charity sector is not immune from these sorts of allegations and incidents happening. We have about 1,000 incidents a year reported to us by charities involving safeguarding issues.

”What is really important - and perhaps this hasn't happened in the past so much - is that there is a light of transparency and accountability on it.“

The watchdog’s most recent annual report on tackling abuse and mismanagement report concluded that most charities were doing good work, but “things can and do go wrong”.

It counts the safeguarding of vulnerable people including children, the elderly and disabled as a key priority and said any failures can amount to mismanagement at the highest level.

In 2016/17, 1,203 serious current or historic safeguarding incidents were reported and hundreds more were found in compliance investigations.

Separate figures on sexual harassment compiled by charities in 2017 showed that Oxfam recorded 87 incidents, Save The Children 31, Christian Aid two, and a “small number of cases” in the British Red Cross.

Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save The Children, said “problems of predatory men in powerful positions, abusing their authority and their power” were experienced by every organisation.

He told the Today programme that all 31 cases made public by the charity related to sexual harassment and had triggered dismissals and police reports.

“We take this incredibly seriously, my staff are out there helping children in some of the most dangerous and difficult places in the world,” Mr Watkins added. “We owe it to them to make sure they are protected.”

Andrew MacLeod, the former chief of operations of the UN’s Emergency Coordination Centre suggested that paedophiles could be using charities to access children in the developing world.

He said those accused of using prostitutes in Haiti should have faced prosecution in the country if the women involved were adults, and in the UK if they were children.

“The impact of sex tourism laws make it unlawful for anybody to have sex with children under the age of 16 anywhere in the world or aid, abet or support that,” Mr MacLeod added.

“Since 1999 the National Crime Agency, or its precursor, have been warning that predatory paedophiles, as we cracked down in the developed world, are now going to the developing world to get access to children.

“Their chosen methodology is through charity…people need to go to jail.”

Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary, said the Oxfam allegations had put its relationship with the Government at risk.

She accused the charity of lying and failing in its “moral leadership”, adding: “I am affording them the opportunity to tell me in person what they did after these events and I'm going to be looking to see if they are displaying the moral leadership that I think they need to now.

“If the moral leadership at the top of the organisation is not there then we cannot have you as a partner.”

Ms Mordaunt said Oxfam had also “categorically” stated to her department that beneficiaries were not involved in the misconduct and no harm was done.

Her predecessor, Priti Patel claimed there was a “culture of denial” about exploitation in the aid sector.

She said she was not aware of allegations within Oxfam, but had raised the issue of abuse involving aid workers in disaster zones with the Department for International Development (DfID) while heading the department.

“There has been in my view, not just a cover-up with Oxfam, there is a denial, a culture of denial in the aid sector about the exploitation and sexual abuse that has taken place historically for decades,” she told BBC Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics.

Four members of Oxfam staff were dismissed and three, including the country director, resigned before the end of the 2011 investigation.

Representatives said allegations that underage girls may have been involved were not proven and have announced a package of measures to improve safeguarding, including improved recruitment and vetting, a new whistleblowing helpline and a strengthened commitment to report concerns to authorities.

Caroline Thomson, Oxfam's chair of trustees in the UK, said the charity was “ashamed of what happened” and had made big improvements.

“As recent events have shown, sexual abuse is a blight on society and Oxfam is not immune. Indeed, NGOs that work in often fragile and unstable environments can become targets for abusers,” she added.

“It is not sufficient to be appalled by the behaviour of our former staff - we must and will learn from it and use it as a spur to improvement.”

Additional concerns raised about the recruitment and vetting of staff involved in the scandal were being examined, she added.

Charities have been told they will have funding withdrawn if they fail to comply with authorities over safeguarding issues.

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