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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/charity-case-report-oxfam/oxfam-case-report
1. About the charity
Oxfam’s objects are to prevent and relieve poverty and to protect the vulnerable anywhere in the world. Oxfam furthers its objects through interlinked activities of humanitarian relief, development work and advocacy and campaigning. Oxfam is an affiliate member of Oxfam International.
Further information about the charity can be obtained from the Commission’s register of charities.
2. Why the Commission got involved
We engaged with Oxfam over its handling of a number of concerning allegations about recent and non-recent safeguarding incidents involving senior programme staff, including allegations of sexual harassment of other staff. Our case focused on establishing how the charity manages safeguarding, including its response to such individual allegations. This has included considering the steps the trustees take to ensure all people who come into contact with the charity, including its staff and volunteers, are protected from harm and distress.
3. The action we took
We conducted a detailed review of relevant records relating to the charity’s strategic and day to day management of safeguarding, including related HR matters, and its handling of allegations of incidents involving staff. We also met with the charity’s senior leadership, including its chief executive, and safeguarding managers to discuss our concerns, and to learn more about the charity’s approach, policies and practices around safeguarding and related HR matters. This included reviewing and understanding the mechanisms in place to enable effective trustee oversight over policy, practice and emerging trends in this area.
4. What we found
Oxfam cooperated fully with us. We established that the charity has a strong policy framework around protecting staff and beneficiaries from sexual exploitation and abuse, which is underpinned by the activities of a dedicated safeguarding unit. We also saw evidence of several examples of best practice including the publishing of data and trends about allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation against Oxfam staff and partners.
Many of the allegations reported against senior country staff relating to sexual abuse and exploitation were not substantiated, and the Commission has seen no indication to suggest that the risks to staff at Oxfam are any greater than those facing staff in other similar organisations. However, there clearly have been incidents of behaviour that did not meet the organisation’s culture and values and which have brought into question how confident trustees could be in the charity’s wider people management systems.
We also identified some weaknesses in how trends in safeguarding allegations were picked up, reported to trustees and management follow up properly agreed.
5. Our conclusions
The public hold charities to high standards and expect them to be safe environments so that all who come into contact with them, including a charity’s own staff, are protected from harm and distress.
In engaging with Oxfam following allegations of exploitation and abuse, we have found that the charity does demonstrate elements of good practice in its safeguarding management and how it responds to allegations. But we concluded there is further work for the charity to do to in respect of HR culture, and the overall governance and management of safeguarding in the charity. The Commission considers that the charity needs to be more mindful of the allocation of resources which enables an appropriate balance between proactive and preventative activity and the investigation of individual allegations.
6. Impact of our involvement
The charity has taken swift steps to improve its case management systems and reporting to ensure incidents and trends will now be fully transparent, tracked and reported internally, and externally wherever appropriate. Additionally, as a result of our engagement, the charity has committed to:
an externally led review of its HR culture, to ensure senior programme staff are recruited, trained and managed and supported in a way that ensures that they live the organisation’s values, as well as complying with all relevant laws
extending the terms of reference for an existing independently led governance review to ensure that trustees have appropriate information, oversight and accountability on safeguarding matters
review organisation structures, management reporting lines and resourcing to support the effective delivery of the organisation’s safeguarding objectives
ensure that an effective safeguarding management framework is developed where the charity has shared responsibilities in the Oxfam confederation, in particular with Oxfam International
The Commission expects the charity to report back on its progress by the end of March 2018.
We consider that there will be wider lessons to learn for the sector from this work and intend to publish a further case report in 2018 on the conclusion of our engagement with Oxfam on this matter.
7. Lessons for other charities
The Charity Commission’s recently updated safeguarding strategy makes clear that safeguarding should be a key governance priority for all charities, not just those working with groups traditionally considered at risk. We have published an alert, reminding charities how important it is to provide a safe and trusted environment and safeguard anyone who comes into contact with it including beneficiaries, staff and volunteers.
The alert reminds charities of the importance of ensuring that:
the charity’s culture prioritises safeguarding so that it is safe for those affected to come forward and report incidents and concerns with the assurance they will be handled sensitively and properly
there are measures in place to protect people and adequate safeguarding procedures and policies
there is clarity about how incidents and allegations will be handled should they arise, such as reporting to the relevant authorities, including the Commission.
The Commission is also reminding charities that trustees are ultimately responsible for safeguarding. That means that they are accountable if something goes wrong in a charity, and are expected to take responsibility for putting things right.
The full alert and the Commission’s safeguarding strategy are available on gov.uk.