The Oxfam Scandal – Inquiry published by Charity Commission

Back in February 2018, we wrote a blog in the wake of the Oxfam Safeguarding scandal, about “How effective Safeguarding is Imperative to Good Governance and Protecting Your Reputation” . On 11 June 2019, the Charity Commission finally published it’s findings[1]following an 18-month statutory enquiry into the charity. Below we reproduce some excerpts from the report which summarise the findings. We strongly recommend that anyone involved in the administration of charity governance, read the full report to ensure that the important lessons are taken on board.

Important lessons for all involved in the Charity sector

The Chair of the Commission, the Rt Hon Baroness Stowell of Beeston MBE, makes it clear in her Foreword thatEveryone involved in charity, all volunteers, all staff, all trustees are custodians of what charity means in the eyes of the public” and further that “Leadership of any size of charity means pursuing a charitable mission selflessly and putting that mission before anything else.”

Following numerous, public safeguarding allegations involving senior staff, including the Haiti scandal, where it was alleged that Oxfam staff had engaged in sex with prostitutes (some of which may have been underage), the Commission opened a Statutory Inquiry, the overarching purpose of which “was to examine the charity’s governance, including leadership and culture of safeguarding matters, and their management, policies and practices.” The Inquiry covered both the handling of the specific allegations in Haiti and the charity’s wider approach to safeguarding, both historically and currently.

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What were the main findings of the Report?

The Inquiry found that:

  • The charity’s governance and culture with regard to safeguarding has repeatedly fallen below standards expected and failed to meet promises made.
  • decisions on safeguarding made between 2012 and 2017 meant resourcing and capabilities did not adequately match the risks faced by the charity.
  • The charity’s actions were not sufficient to implement the strategic level improvements they themselves identified and committed to as necessary.
  • As late as 2017, promises that the resources for safeguarding would be increased were not delivered.
  • Oxfam sometimes failed in its responsibility to provide a safe environment for its beneficiaries, staff and other charity workers in the delivery of its overseas work and here in the UK.
  • This is evident in what happened in Haiti in 2011. A culture of tolerating poor behaviour existed in Oxfam in Haiti at the time. There were early warning signs of this from 2010.
  • Oxfam GB’s approach to reporting to donors, agencies and the Charity Commission as its regulator was not as good as it should have been. The Inquiry concludes that Oxfam GB’s initial reporting of Haiti should have been more full and frank…The Inquiry is also critical of how the charity presented the resignation of the Country Director at the time.
  • Ultimately Oxfam GB’s culture and response on safeguarding matters throughout the period from 2011 to 2017 fell short of expectations and the commitments made:
    • safeguarding was not ignored by the trustees, but neither the resources committed nor the executive’s implementation was enough to constitute an adequate organisational response
    • the importance of responsible behaviours and conduct was not embedded in part of its daily activities across the organisation and its work and people
    • this led to a workforce that was not empowered or confident enough to challenge poor behaviours
    • nor did the workforce have the necessary confidence in management and systems for reporting concerns
    • the risk to, and impact on, the victims appeared to take second place at times and was not taken seriously enough; victims, whistle blowers and those staff who tried to raise concerns were let down.

Other findings and lessons for all charities

  • Carrying out internal investigations – concerns were raised about how Oxfam GB conducted internal investigations in 2011. All charities should be mindful of the following when carrying out investigations:
    • Careful consideration should be given to resourcing, capacity and experience of the investigators in specifically dealing with the matter at hand. In this instance, those investigation were not sufficiently experienced in dealing with PSEA (Physical and sexual exploitation and abuse) and/or handling safeguarding allegations;
    • The conduct of investigators especially during interviews;
    • ensure good investigation standards are met. In this case there was evidence of poor and/or inconsistent record keeping, and poor report writing;
    • ensure security of sensitive information; the leaking of sensitive information leading to impaired safety and confidentiality of witnesses was a major concern of the Commission here.
  • Ensuring allegations are properly followed up, documented and reported where necessary.
    • all lines of enquiry should be fully pursued;
    • even where initial thoughts are that allegations are bogus, sufficient investigation must be undertaken especially in safeguarding cases (in this case the Inquiry stated that “Oxfam should not have taken the risk with the safety of minors”.
  • The risk to and impact on victims takes priority– it is tempting to place security of the charity’s reputation at the forefront (especially if there is potential for loss of funding etc), however, by ensuring impact on victims is the prime concern should in itself help protect reputation.
    • Here, the Inquiry found that the initial investigation was primarily focussed on removing the staff members concerned from Haiti and that risk to and impact on victims was secondary and not taken seriously enough.
  • Disciplinary procedures and processes must be applied fairly across the organisation– On the resignation of the Country Director, the Inquiry found:
    • Evidence indicating that Oxfam GB encouraged his resignation as a solution to his response to the allegations, as a way of managing the risk to the charity’s reputation and minimising disruption to the humanitarian programmes, that a formal disciplinary investigation would have caused.
    • The consequence of this decision, in the Inquiry’s view was that there was no parity of treatment with other staff who were found to have committed or been suspected of the same or similar conduct and a lack of consistent application of the staffing policies and procedures.
    • The correspondence relating to the resignation, made it clear that the intention was to allow a “phased and dignified exit” to the Country Director. The Inquiry’s view was that ensuring such for the individual “would appear insensitive and not an appropriate response the public would expect.”
  • Ensure proper audit trails– executives and trustees should ensure proper audit trails are in place to show that matters of significant concern are properly followed through and concluded.
  • Disclosures and Reporting to third parties– charities must ensure to disclose material facts that when reporting concerns to the Charity Commission (and other governmental bodies as may be the case).
    • In this case, the Inquiry found that Oxfam GB should have been more explicit about the exact nature of the allegations and how serious they were and this was unsatisfactory. Although it found no record that there was a “cover up”, the Inquiry concluded that Oxfam GB should have been fuller and franker in its initial report to its donors and the regulator.
    • In addition, they should have been more frank in their public statements about the resignation of the Country Director.
  • Trustee oversight– trustees must be confident that they have sufficient oversight over key matters and are able to identify and ensure action on issues of concern, holding the executive to account to ensure they fulfil their legal duties and responsibilities.
    • In larger charities it is natural for trustees to be heavily reliant on the delegated authority given to the CEO and executive; to rely on the executive to ensure that the charity’s policies and internal assurance mechanisms are properly implemented in practice. In this context, a trustee board would not normally be expected to be involved in routine staffing matters including investigations into staff conduct issues.
    • However, with more senior the staff, and the more serious or widespread the misconduct, as was the case with Oxfam, the more oversight and assurance scrutiny by them would be expected. In addition, the more detailed and regular reporting to them should be expected as these would be matters of corporate significance and risk for which they would be legally responsible and accountable.
    • Overall the Inquiry found that the former trustees did exercise oversight over the organisational risks arising from the internal investigation and how the executive proposed they would be addressed. However, the Inquiry was not completely satisfied that that oversight and scrutiny of the information and assurances provided by the executive were sufficient to enable the trustees to be satisfied that they were carrying out their legal duties and responsibilities and that the executive were effectively held to account for the decisions they had made and on matters of such significance.

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Regulatory Actions and a Call to All Charities

Following the Inquiry, Oxfam GB was issued with an official warning by theCharity Commission as a sanction for its past failings. It recognised that the charity “has made significant progress to improve weaknesses in its safeguarding since 2017 and during the period of this Inquiry”. However, a regulatory direction was also issued to ensure further cultural and systemic changes at the charity to address the failings and to “provide continued public assurance that the outstanding actions necessary will be implemented.”

Importantly the report refers to all other charities: “Charities now need to ensure they learn the lessons from these findings. Keeping people safe is an integral part of their frontline operations. It is not an added extra.” The Commission again making it perfectly clear that it expects all charities to learn the lessons provided by this failing at Oxfam GB.

Help where you need it

Bridgehouse Company Secretaries are brilliantly placed to help with your compliance with Charity Law and regulatory requirements. We offer a number of services including review of policies including safeguarding practices; review or creation of Regulator Reporting requirements; and Risk Management.

For advice on your charity governance requirements and to get in touch click here.


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