My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier in the House of Commons by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, I would like to update the House on my department’s response to the sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated by charity workers in Haiti in 2011 and the measures that we are taking to improve safeguarding across the aid sector. I would like to start by paying tribute to Sean O’Neill of the Times and the two sets of whistleblowers, those in 2011 and later, for bringing this case to light.
In chaotic and desperate situations, the very best safeguarding procedures and practices must be put in place to prevent harm, but when organisations fail to report and follow up incidents of wrongdoing that occur, it undermines trust and sends a message that sexual exploitation and abuse is tolerated. We cannot prevent sexual exploitation and abuse if we do not demonstrate zero tolerance. In such circumstances, we must be able to trust organisations not only to do all they can to prevent harm but to report and follow up incidents of wrongdoing when they occur.
In this duty, Oxfam failed under the watch of Barbara Stocking and Penny Lawrence. They did not provide a full report to the Charity Commission; they did not provide a full report to their donors; they did not provide any report to prosecuting authorities. In my view, they misled, quite possibly deliberately, even as their report concluded that their investigation could not rule out the allegation that some of the women involved were actually children. They did not think that it was necessary to report to the police in either Haiti or the country of origin of those accountable. I believe that their motivation appears to be just the protection of the organisation’s reputation. They put that before those they were there to help and protect—a complete betrayal of trust. It was a betrayal, too, of those who sent them—the British people—and a betrayal of all those Oxfam staff and volunteers who put the people they serve first.
Last week, I met Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam, and Caroline Thomson, Oxfam’s chair of trustees. I made three demands of them: that they fully co-operate with the Haitian authorities, handing over all evidence they hold; that they report staff members involved in this incident to their respective national Governments; and that they make clear how they will handle any forthcoming allegations around safeguarding, historic or live. I stressed that, for me, holding to account those who made the decision not to report but to let those potentially guilty of criminal activity slip away was a necessity in winning back confidence in Oxfam. As a result of those discussions, Oxfam has agreed to withdraw from bidding for any new UK government funding until DfID is satisfied that it can meet the high safeguarding standards we expect of our partners. I will take a decision on current programming after
Given the concerns about the wider sector that this case has raised, I have also written to every UK charity working overseas that receives UK aid—192 organisations—insisting that they spell out the steps they are taking to ensure that their safeguarding policies are fully in place and confirm that they have referred all concerns they have about specific cases and individuals to the relevant authorities, including prosecuting authorities. I have set a deadline of
The UK Government reserve the right to take whatever decisions about future funding to Oxfam, and any other organisation, that we deem necessary. We have been very clear that we will not work with any organisation that does not live up to the high standards on safeguarding and protection that we require. I will also be sharing details of this approach with other government departments responsible for overseas development assistance spending. Although this work is not yet complete, it is clear from the Charity Commission reporting data, and the lack of it from some organisations, that a cultural change is needed to ensure that all that can be done to stop sexual exploitation in the aid sector is being done. We need to take some practical steps now. We should not wait for the UN to take action. We must set up our own systems now.
My department and the Charity Commission will hold a safeguarding summit on
I welcome the UN’s announcement on
I have asked to meet leaders of the audit profession to discuss what more can be done to provide independent assurance over safeguarding to the organisations that DfID partners with globally. I have held my own department to the same scrutiny that I am demanding of others. I have asked the department to go through our centrally held HR systems and our fraud and whistleblowing records as far back as they exist. I am assured that there are no centrally recorded cases that were dealt with incorrectly. Separately, we are reviewing any locally reported allegations of sexual misconduct involving DfID staff. To date, our review of staff cases has looked at 75% of our teams across DfID. It will complete within a fortnight. Our investigations are still ongoing and if, during this process, we discover any further historic or current cases, I will report on our handling of these to Parliament.
DfID, other government departments and the National Crime Agency work closely together when serious allegations of potentially criminal activity in partner organisations are brought to our attention, and we are strengthening this. The new strategy director at the National Crime Agency will take on a lead role for the aid sector. I am calling on anyone who has any concerns about abuse or exploitation in the aid sector to come forward and report these to our counterfraud and whistleblowing team. Details are on the DfID website and all communications will be treated in complete confidence. Later today I will have further meetings, including with the Defence Secretary regarding peacekeeping troops and with the Secretary of State at DCMS regarding the charity sector.
My absolute priority is to keep the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people safe from harm. It is utterly despicable that sexual exploitation and abuse continue to exist in the aid sector. The recent reports should be a wake-up call to all of us. Now is the time for us to act, but as we do so we should note the good people working across the world in this sector, saving lives, often by endangering their own, and all those, from fundraisers to trustees, who make that work possible across the entire aid sector. In the last week alone, UK aid and aid workers have helped vaccinate around 850,000 children against polio. We should also recognise that that work can be done only with the support of the British people. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating that Statement and of course I welcome him back to the Dispatch Box. I am very pleased to see him there. I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s Statement and her swift and robust action in dealing with this appalling situation of vulnerable women and girls being exploited by men with power acting with impunity in an appalling culture of silence. We must not, however, allow the actions of a few to undermine the efforts of the vast majority of people who carry out their work with integrity and commitment in often dangerous and difficult circumstances. Nor must we let this damage the commitment of the British people, who daily support charities such as Oxfam to save lives in crises and tackle the root causes of injustice. Of course, most importantly, we must not let this stop us helping those who need our help most.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has written to taxpayer-funded charities to ask for written assurances that they have safeguarding in place. While I note that she will be sharing this approach with other government departments, can the Minister give us a categorical assurance that all departments with ODA spend will adopt the same processes and that they too will report to Parliament on the outcome of those efforts? I also welcome her swift commitment to a safeguarding summit on
However, reform must not be just about policies and procedures. It must also be about a change in practice and culture. This appalling situation, as the Secretary of State pointed out, came to light only because of whistleblowers. Trade unions play a critical role in supporting workers in such circumstances. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that trade unions representing workers in this sector are also fully represented at the summit? In the evidence given this morning to the International Development Committee, the point was made that short-term contracts often prevent people speaking out. I welcome the commitment by Oxfam’s chair of trustees that employment procedures will also be reviewed and reported to Oxfam’s governing council in March. But can we be assured that that sort of review looking at those sorts of issues will also be undertaken by other NGOs and charities so that we look across the board and not just at Oxfam?
I note that Oxfam has agreed to withdraw from bidding for any new UK government funding,
“until DfID is satisfied that they can meet the high standards we expect from our partners”, but can the Minister clarify what the criteria for restoring funding will be? What exactly does the Secretary of State mean by “high standards”? I hope that, apart from all the policies and procedures, these will include a clear commitment to ensure proper consultation with workers’ representatives.
My Lords, we are all shocked that aid workers from a respected organisation such as Oxfam could abuse the trust of vulnerable people in Haiti, whose lives had been shattered by the earthquake in 2010. Action must be taken to ensure that such abuse at high levels of a world-renowned charity cannot be repeated, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s Statement.
However, having read the Statement in full, I am disappointed that it talks only about strengthening safeguards going forward. What we really need is a wide and far-reaching inquiry into the scale of historic abuse and that which exists in the sector today. All the indications are that this is but the tip of the iceberg and, to deal comprehensively with the situation, we must have all the facts. In 1999 the national crime agency said that the charity sector was susceptible to being targeted by paedophile rings. We must know if that is the case. Reports that men in positions of power have acted with impunity in exercising control over young women are rife in the sector. There are allegations of abuse in the awarding of short-term contracts by those in permanent senior positions. What we really need is an independent inquiry into the global aid sector—failing that, at least into the UK aid sector—that will leave no stone unturned. Unless we know what has gone on in the past and hold people accountable, we cannot hope to go forward with confidence.
This is also an issue about governance. Oxfam has been found wanting on many levels, and the whole sorry saga has highlighted the failure of good governance by those to whom it answers—the Charity Commission and DfID. Both accepted without question the charity’s version of events and did not probe further into what “sexual misconduct” meant. Both failed to ask the obvious question of whether minors, of either sex, were involved. Both have questions to answer and improvements to make if they are to avoid future failures. Any inquiry must encompass their role in the Haiti cover-up.
I welcome that the UK intends to work closely with the UN. This is a global issue which the global aid community must address collectively, so the proposal for a sort of passport for workers in the UK aid sector is welcome. Will there be government support for a global aid worker accreditation scheme? Inevitably, unless answers to these questions are forthcoming, attacks against the 0.7% of GNI that is devoted to overseas aid will increase. But this would not only be a kick in the face of the vast majority of aid workers, who work tirelessly to alleviate extreme poverty, but jeopardise some of the really worthwhile programmes bringing health, education and sanitation solutions to those in desperate need. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater, so I ask the Minister about the Secretary of State’s decision to bar Oxfam from receiving new government funding. Last year it received £31.7 million from DfID. What assessment have the Government made of the impact on programmes serving the poor and destitute if support is withheld this year? What are they planning do to mitigate the extra hardship this will inflict on aid recipients?
I will mention just one other thing, which has disturbed me throughout the media coverage over the past few weeks, and that is the use of the term “beneficiaries”. Will DfID consider using a term other than beneficiaries, which sounds as though people are in receipt of an inheritance rather than baby milk? Perhaps “aid recipients” would better describe their vulnerable state. It is no more of a mouthful than beneficiaries: both have five syllables.
I am very grateful for the comments and the general support of the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for the Statement and the action proposed. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, is absolutely right that we have to call for a significant culture change. It is about an abuse of power by men often in positions of authority, the likes of which we have seen in other settings around the world, and it needs to be addressed in robust and forceful ways.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about other government departments. This is very important. That is why the Secretary of State met the Secretary of State for Defence today and will be meeting the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. She will also be meeting the Minister for Civil Society in the course of this because there has to be a cross-government approach to ensure that we are entirely consistent in seeking the changes that we wish to see.
That is correct. The Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State will be meeting tomorrow morning to discuss these matters, among others. But the noble Lord is absolutely right. I totally accept his urging in that area. We have received his advice on that point and it will be responded to.
The noble Lord raised a very good point about trade unions. As to whether the invitation would more probably be to the
The noble Lord asked what requirements would be made of Oxfam before it would be considered for government funding. It is clear that it will have to fully co-operate with the Haitian authorities by handing over all the evidence it holds, that it reports staff members involved in this incident to their respective national Governments, and that it makes clear how it will handle forthcoming allegations around safeguarding, historic or live. That is the basis on which decisions will be made and the Secretary of State said that she will take those decisions next week, when she has received responses to those points.
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, who said the Statement was about going forward, that we have taken steps. I point out that, in terms of DfID, we have gone through our centrally held HR systems and our fraud and whistleblowing records as far back as they exist, to check that no cases have escaped the scrutiny that they should have.
I was really asking for an independent inquiry. This will have a huge impact on the public mood about giving to charities and we have to show to the public that it is not just us investigating ourselves but that an independent eye has been cast over everything.
Yes, that point is well worth making. It is one reason why we have brought in independent expertise from outside to strengthen our ability to review. I would also point out for the record that Oxfam itself has voluntarily agreed to withdraw, as opposed to being barred, from the position. As regards other government departments, the Permanent Secretary has written to all those that administer ODA, including the Foreign Office, to drive the cross-Whitehall message that there will be zero tolerance in this area, and asking them to mirror the actions we are taking at the Department for International Development.
In recognising the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, in relation to work that is undertaken in particularly dangerous and difficult circumstances, I was in Iraq last week, as my noble friend knows, where I met DfID, charity and voluntary workers. They are working in incredibly dangerous and difficult circumstances. It would be a disaster for the communities if the work being undertaken was deferred by even a few days or weeks. Will my noble friend therefore exhort all contributors, whether large or small, to continue to make donations to the charities to which they contribute, so that those charities can continue to make their crucial contribution to societies, whether in Iraq or around the rest of the world?
I am very happy to give that undertaking. My noble friend is absolutely right that British people are generous to people around the world. In many ways, the great tragedy of what has happened is that the failure to act in a transparent and timely way has genuinely put lives at risk, because people might stop giving in the way that he talked about. Oxfam alone has around 10,000 people in 90 countries; it is working with DfID at present in places such as Yemen and South Sudan, delivering life-saving materials. In everything we do, we are going to ensure that our prime concern is for the people whom we are trying to help. We will not deal with contracts in a pre-emptive way until we are absolutely confident that those people who need our help, whether they are called beneficiaries or aid recipients, are our number one concern. They must be protected at all times. That is what the charities themselves should have been thinking all the way through.
My Lords, there are several references in the Lords register to my voluntary positions with charities in this sector, so I should reference that before asking my question. I will say, though, that I would like the Minister to convey to the Secretary of State that the way in which she has handled this issue in the last 10 days has been impressive. To take a constant position through these days that has put the interests of the children first and not used the issue as a political football or been defensive in any way about the role of the department or other agencies, has been the right approach. I hope that she will continue to do that.
The Statement today has been comprehensive and impressive on where we are right now. However, it contains one omission: what did DfID know in 2011? There is a reference in the early part of the Statement to the lack of reporting in full to the Charity Commission and to the authorities, but there is no reference to any reporting to DfID. What, if anything, was done by Ministers or officials with any such report? It is important that we have some clarity on that.
Secondly, it is important to be clear that when traffickers, and in some cases the Mafia, move into emergency zones in the absence of effective government—as with the earthquakes in Haiti or Nepal, or the typhoon in the Philippines, when hundreds of young children were targeted by traffickers to be taken immediately to brothels and slave labour elsewhere in the world—it is the large NGOs that are usually first on the spot to protect those children. In some cases, as on the Nepalese-Chinese border after the earthquake there, they have saved hundreds of children from moving into some form of slavery or perhaps worse. So it is important to register that, while this is essential work to expose the problems that have been going on, which demands a zero-tolerance approach, we should also reinforce our commitment to ensure that children will be protected by some of these NGOs, in the absence of effective government, in some of the world’s worst disaster zones.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord and will certainly convey to the Secretary of State his remarks about her handling of the crisis thus far. I also recognise his deep experience of leadership in this field. He asked a very specific question about what we knew when. I should say that the chairman of the IDC in the other place has confirmed that the committee is commencing an inquiry into this, and we will be co-operating fully.
The Charity Commission is also going to undertake an inquiry into this. The elements of who knew what and when are very important issues, but they will be addressed at that time. At the moment, all we would say is that, although DfID was informed that the investigation had concluded on
My Lords, I have a family interest to declare inasmuch as my daughter has worked for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development for the past 10 years. That is not a material interest, but it is one I should properly declare. Does my noble friend share my view that there may be very inadequate ethical training in many of our charities? Ethical training is not a central part of their DNA, particularly in the larger and more bureaucratic charities. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, that cultural change is desperately needed, particularly in some of our larger charities. Bringing about cultural change takes a very long time. It takes years and it needs ethical training of the highest level. That is something which many charities need to turn their attention to urgently.
My noble friend is absolutely right on this. There is a core problem which we have seen across different organisations. We have had to wrestle with these issues in recent years: the fear of asking the difficult probing questions when they are needed or the failure to be transparent about what has happened. Organisations are doing that—one does not like to say “for understandable reasons”—because they want to protect the reputation of the organisation. If anyone wants to know whether that works, ask Oxfam today when its reputation has been so tarnished and damaged by the failure to take that kind of prompt action and to ask the most difficult and searching questions in these areas at the right time.
My Lords, this is a very painful affair for all of us who have been concerned with aid over many years. I have not worked directly with Oxfam, but I have worked alongside it and on this occasion I want to pay tribute to what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, achieved over many years in bringing standards up over that period. We must not forget what has already been done. The Secretary of State is new and it is quite right that she should send a powerful message to the aid agencies, especially those in receipt of public funds. It is obviously a shocking affair. However, the Minister has considerable experience and knows that there are limits on outrage that can be expressed. Does he not think that collectively the Government and the statutory agencies have gone over the top on this? It is not happening on the scale suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan. As other noble Lords have said, the danger is that it is affecting the work that is going on all the time all over the world. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, made this point, and Andrew Mitchell said it, as did Anna Soubry. The Secretary of State seems to understand this, but only in the last sentence of the Statement.
We need to communicate that, but the noble Earl will recognise that we have had many debates on these things and we are almost always on exactly the same page. The message needs to go out that there is zero tolerance on this. We need to come down very hard to change the culture within the aid sector. That was one of the reasons why the previous Secretary of State took such a strong approach on the allegations against UN peacekeepers and was at the forefront of driving that up the agenda, to the extent that it was at the UN General Assembly and the Secretary-General has taken action on it because it goes to the heart of the problem. People who are there have a duty to protect, not to exploit. As in every type of organisation and institution that faces allegations of this type, the very few people who are doing this are having a devastating effect on the 99% of people who are carrying out that work selflessly and, as my noble friend said earlier, putting their lives at risk to help others, which is in the great tradition. It is in their interests and for them that we ought to be so ruthless in rooting it out.
My Lords, I must declare an interest as from 1985 to 1991 I was director of Oxfam. I was a long-standing supporter of Oxfam before that and I remain a firm supporter of Oxfam. Last weekend, I was in my local shop in Cockermouth talking with the volunteers, who have obviously been affected by this story. For all of us involved in that work over the years—right back to 1942 in the middle of the war, when Oxfam was founded to try to get relief to the Greeks under German occupation—this has been a terrible nightmare. What happened in Haiti was wrong and despicable. It was a complete contradiction of the purpose of Oxfam in its exploitation of individuals, who will remain harmed. I am very glad that the organisation has not just issued an email but been to see the Government to talk to them about how genuinely sorry it is.
We must remember certain points. First, the Government have a responsibility for public funds, and that must be recognised by everyone. Secondly, it is terribly important to recognise that charities, not only Oxfam but right across the field, must be accountable, and, as the Minister has said, being accountable involves transparency, complete integrity and openness. Anyway, it is stupid to do anything else because, as we have seen, almost inevitably it will become known in one way or another and do even more damage than it would have done at the time.
I shall conclude by making a couple of observations. The current leadership, including Mark Goldring and the new chairman who took office only last year, were nowhere near the situation when it occurred; they have been dealing with a situation that they inherited. A lot of very hard work has been going on in seeing how proper standards, regulation and accountability can be put in place. If that is not sufficient, it is quite right that the Government should challenge it, and I am sure that if they work together it can be tackled. However, it is interesting to note that the highly esteemed Tufts University in the United States, which has done an inquiry into this problem, has said that during its inquiry it became convinced that the best regulations now in place were those of Oxfam. There is therefore a certain paradox in the situation.
I thank the Minister for the understanding way in which he has handled this Statement. It is quite right that the organisation has to look to its governance and its transparency. It also has to face up to its responsibility to those countless volunteers; the saddest part of the whole story is what these wicked people in Haiti did to their very own colleagues and the work that they were trying to do. I would like a reassurance from the Minister that in all that the Government are doing, and I totally understand that the Government have to be very firm in the public interest, their objective is to enable Oxfam to be in a convincing position to continue the work that started in 1942—it has been in the front line of so many situations, such as in Kampuchea, South Africa in the bad years, Latin America and the Middle East—and to face the public and speak with authority and morality again.
I thank the noble Lord for his significant contribution. If he has a question, may we please have it? There are other people who still wish to ask questions.
I thank the noble Lord. I realise that what is happening to the organisation to which he has given so much of his life must be breaking his heart, and that he feels passionately about it. I think his words, which he has said in forthright terms on the record, will speak more to the organisation that he cares for than anything that I can add, and I thank him for that.
My Lords, I note that letters have been sent to charities which have received UK aid. I am a patron and supporter of a charity which is undertaking work in 12 countries. I had a long meeting with the trustees yesterday, and we decided to tighten and toughen our safeguards. My point is: could charities which have not received such aid be written to to ask them to tighten up? I am deeply concerned about what can go on, and if they are not UK-aided there are possible concerns and problems.
That is a really good idea and I am happy to take it away and think about it. It may be something for the Charity Commission to take leadership on, but if there is anything we can do to support and strengthen safeguarding, particularly for charities working overseas, we will want to consider it.
As I said, I am happy to take back that suggestion about what more could be done, but the very fact that my noble friend as a trustee is now asking those searching questions of his organisation, although it is not in receipt of government funding, bodes well for the approach which is being taken more generally to improve safeguarding across the sector.
My Lords, the Minister said that difficult, probing questions need to be addressed. Is he aware that that there are not shy of 80 Metropolitan Police officers serving with overseas responsibilities? That does not include those seconded to the International Court of Justice investigating purported international crimes. Would he consider their being marshalled to make further in-depth investigation of the horrors that are before him and reporting back to the Government, who can then address them with host nations?
I am very happy, as I set out, that we are in contact through the National Crime Agency, which has a dedicated director looking into the aid sector more generally. One of our arguments all the way through has been that the law enforcement authorities for those alleged to be guilty of wrongdoing should be informed, whether they are in Haiti or other countries. It is absolutely right that the authorities should be informed and involved as soon as matters come to light.
I remind the House that this is not the first time that large charities have brought the sector into disrepute. It was only a short time ago, your Lordships will recall, that Olive Cooke threw herself off a bridge in Bristol because she was being pursued by large charities. At the time, the then Prime Minister asked me, the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, to form a short, sharp committee to investigate what had happened and produce our results, which led to the formation of the Fundraising Regulator chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Grade of Yarmouth. We managed to do that in three months, unlike a long investigation. Does my noble friend agree that it is the trustees’ responsibility? The trustees need to know what is going on and the trustees need to be held accountable for the actions taking place in their charities.
The trustees’ responsibilities are onerous, detailed and should be taken very seriously. I would expand further on that, but I am conscious that the time limit has been reached and will therefore save my further comments in writing to my noble friend.