What can other charities learn from the Charity Commission’s final Oxfam report?

The final Charity Commission report into safeguarding issues at Oxfam, which concluded that senior staff failed to alert law enforcement to allegations aid workers in Haiti were having sex with minors, is an important reminder that all charity trustees should continue to consider safeguarding to be a vital focus for their charity.

Oxfam’s problems in this area were not just cultural, but also systemic – and lessons can be learnt regardless of the scale and complexity of operations of the charity, or what sector it operates in.

The final report

The 143-page report was highly critical of the management of Oxfam during the period in question. There were references in internal Oxfam communications to “underage prostitutes” as opposed to “exploited and abused children”. Oxfam also demonstrated a lack of understanding as to whether use of prostitutes in Haiti was illegal so that it was in breach of its own code of conduct for employees. To make things worse, Oxfam offered its country director the opportunity to resign and have a “phased and dignified exit” even though he not only allowed the various problems to occur on his watch, but was also under investigation himself for using prostitutes in Oxfam residences.

The Commission set out all these issues, and many more besides, in excruciating detail.

Oxfam is a large, complex charity. However, looking at the bigger picture, it becomes clear that there are lessons for all charities to be found in this report.

Key issues highlighted in the report included:

  • Failures to pay attention to early warnings about staffing incidents and problems from would-be whistle blowers.
  • Problems with the handling of the internal investigation, especially around the resourcing, capacity and experience of the investigators and their conduct during the investigation.
  • A failure to properly investigate as part of the internal investigation whether minors were involved in any of the incidents being investigated, despite Oxfam receiving an allegation that minors were involved in some incidents.
  • A failure to report appropriate incidents to law enforcement agencies, in addition to problems with the level of detail included in reports of the incidents to regulators and other stakeholders, such as the Charity Commission and the DFID.
  • A focus on managing the reputational risks to the charity and minimising the disruption to its activities. This led to Oxfam failing to apply the charity’s staffing policies and procedures consistently in the case of the country director, who avoided disciplinary action and resigned instead.
  • A lack of transparency in Oxfam’s handling of the issue publicly, which exposed the charity to undue risk.
  • A lack of trustee oversight, briefing and follow-up in relation to the investigation and third party handling / reporting.
  • A number of systemic failings in the charity’s governance in relation to, and its approach to, safeguarding – which have required the introduction of a new safeguarding operating model, and a new safeguarding committee.
  • A failure to commit the increased resources the charity had promised to the safeguarding team.
  • Some past weaknesses in Oxfam GB’s culture, HR policies and practice both at a general level and in the specific context of safeguarding – including ineffectiveness of review mechanisms to ensure Oxfam GB’s HR policies and control framework fit for purpose, and a pattern of employees not following documented policies and procedures.

It is a long list. However, it is important to note that alongside these issues, the report also confirmed that the Commission “recognises that the charity, through its leadership, has made significant progress to improve weaknesses in its safeguarding since 2017 and during the period of this Inquiry.”

Outcome of the report

Safeguarding continues to be an important focus for the Commission, and this investigation into Oxfam was reopened by the Commission as a result of information being published last year that suggested Oxfam had not been full and frank in its reporting to the Commission of the serious safeguarding incident in 2011.

The Commission also said when reopening the investigation that it had concerns that the handling of the incidents would have an impact on public trust and confidence.

In the light of all this, it is unsurprising that the Commission has, alongside the publication of its report, both given an official warning to Oxfam, and made a regulatory direction that requires the charity trustees to provide regular updates to the Commission about its progress in the area of safeguarding.

What broader lessons can the sector learn?

In terms of broader lessons for the sector, charity trustees should take this as yet another opportunity to reflect on the continued importance of safeguarding as a focus for the Commission and the sector.

In particular, charity trustees should bear in mind:

  • As far as the Commission is concerned, charities will be judged not by their words but by their actions in this area – it is not enough to pay lip service to safeguarding.
  • Charity trustees have ultimate responsibility for safeguarding and the reporting of serious incidents. This means that although they can delegate responsibilities, they must ensure they have sufficient oversight of the responsibilities they have delegated to comply with their trustee duties in this area.
  • Higher risks will require greater oversight, and where responsibilities are delegated to an executive, charity trustees must be willing to hold the executive to account.
  • Failure to ensure that their charity is a safe place not only for beneficiaries, but also staff, volunteers and anyone else who comes into contact with the charity can mean that trustees are in breach of their legal duties to comply with their charity’s governing documents and the law, to act in the best interests of their charity, to act with reasonable care and skill, and to ensure their charity is accountable.
  • Every charity must have the right policies and procedures in place to address safeguarding, and should review and update these such policies and procedures to fit with best practice.
  • However, documents alone are not enough to create effective safeguarding. Policies, procedures and best practice must be followed.
  • Charity trustees should also seek to create an internal culture which embeds responsible behaviours and conduct throughout their charity, and encourages those affected by safeguarding issues, or aware of them, to come forward with the information.
  • Charity trustees should consider whether they are dedicating appropriate resources to safeguarding – having the correct policies and procedures in place will not help if those charged with investigating safeguarding issues, for example, are too few in number or insufficiently trained in the area.
  • If safeguarding issues do occur, trustees should make sure full details of any incidents are reported in a timely fashion to all the appropriate authorities – including law enforcement and any appropriate regulators, such as the Commission.

To report an incident to the Commission, charities should use the new online reporting form found in the Commission’s guidance on reporting serious incidents, in the “How to report” section.

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