With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on my Department’s response to the sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated by charity workers in Haiti in 2011, and on the measures we are taking to improve safeguarding across the aid sector.
Let me start by paying tribute to Sean O’Neill of The Times and to the two sets of whistleblowers—those in 2011 and later—for bringing this case to light. On 9 February, The Times reported that when certain Oxfam staff were in Haiti in 2011, they had abused their positions of trust and paid for sex with local women. The incidents happened in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions more homeless and reliant on aid for basic needs such as food and shelter. That is shocking, but it is not by itself what has caused such concern about Oxfam’s safeguarding—it was what Oxfam then did.
In chaotic and desperate situations, the very best safeguarding procedures and practices must be put in to 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 are 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 that 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 it was necessary to report that to the police either in Haiti or in the country of origin of those accountable. I believe that their motivation appears to be the protection of the organisation’s reputation. They put that before those they were there to help and protect, which is a complete betrayal of trust, a betrayal of those who sent them there—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 the 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, and 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 the Department for International Development is satisfied that it can meet the high safeguarding standards we expect of our partners. I will take a decision on current programming after 26 February —at that time, I will have further information that will help me to decide whether I need to adjust how that is currently delivered.
Given the concerns about the wider sector this case has raised, I have 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 that they confirm that they have referred all concerns they have about specific cases and individuals to the relevant authorities, including prosecuting authorities. I have set the deadline of 26 February for replies. We are also conducting in parallel an exercise to make clear our standards to all non-UK charity partners— 393 organisations in total—and to all our suppliers, including those in the private sector, which number more than 500 organisations, and to remind them of their obligations. We are doing the same with all multilateral partners.
The UK Government reserve the right to take whatever decisions about present or future funding for Oxfam or any other organisation as 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. We will share this approach with other Governments Departments responsible for ODA spend. Although that work is not yet complete, it is clear from the Charity Commission reporting data, and lack of it from some organisations, that 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 and set up our own systems now—we should not wait for the United Nations to take action. My Department and the Charity Commission will hold a safeguarding summit on 5 March, where we will meet UK international development charities, regulators and experts to confront safeguarding failures and agree practical measures, such as an aid worker accreditation scheme that we in the UK can use. Later in the year, we will take this programme of work to a wide-ranging global safeguarding conference to drive action across the whole international aid sector. I am pleased to say that the US, Canada, Netherlands and others have already agreed to support our goals of improving safeguarding standards across the sector. The UK is not waiting for others to act and will take the lead.
We have been speaking to colleagues across Government and beyond about what more we can do to stop exploitation and abuse in the UN and the broader multilateral system. The message from us to all parts of the UN is clear: they can either get their house in order, or they can prepare to carry out their good work without our money.
We welcome the UN’s announcement on 14 February that it does not and will not claim immunity for sexual abuse cases. That sends a clear signal that the UN is not a soft target, but we must hold it to account for that. Further actions we have taken in the past week include the creation of a new safeguarding unit. We have also promoted our whistleblowing and reporting phone line to encourage anyone with information on safeguarding issues to contact us. We have appointed Sheila Drew Smith, a recent member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who has agreed to bring her expertise and her challenge to support my Department’s ambition on safeguarding. She will report to me directly. We have asked to meet leaders of the audit profession to discuss what more they can do 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 human resources 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 and delivery partners. To date, our review of staff cases has looked at 75% of our teams across DFID and will complete within a fortnight. Our investigations are still ongoing. If, during this process, we discover any historical or current cases that have not been dealt with appropriately, I will report on our handling of them 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. We are strengthening this work, as the new strategy director at the NCA 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 sector to come forward and report them to our counter-fraud and whistleblowing team. Details are on the DFID website and all communications will be treated in complete confidence. Later today, I have further meetings with the Defence Secretary regarding peacekeeping troops, and the Secretary of State at Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 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 us all. Now is the time for us to act. But as we do, we should note the good people working across the world in the sector—saving lives, often by endangering their own—and all those, from fundraisers to trustees, who make that work possible. Since news of this scandal broke just a week ago, UK aid and aid workers have helped to vaccinate 850,000 children against polio. We should recognise that that good work can only be done with the support of the British people. I commend this statement to the House.