The Charity Commission has been criticised by MPs, including the chair of the select committee which scrutinises the regulator, and a former investigator for not acting quickly enough on allegations about Oxfam.
Speaking on Channel 4 News, Damian Collins MP, chair of the Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee, said that there are “difficult questions” for the Charity Commission as to why it did not act sooner. This comes from revelations that Oxfam’s head of global safeguarding, Helen Evans, had raised concerns with the regulator.
Collins said the DCMS committee would speak to Baroness Tina Stowell, the proposed new chair of the Charity Commission, in a committee hearing next week.
He said: “If this doesn’t warrant a really serious investigation at the highest level, what would? These are some of the worst allegations that can be made against any organisation, let alone a British charity carrying out aid work with the support of the British government. So this should have been taken much more seriously at the time. I think there are very difficult questions for the Charity Commission itself as to why it didn’t act.
“We as a committee will be having hearings next week to interview the nominee to be the new chair of the Charity Commission. We will certainly be asking her about this.”
The Labour Party's shadow secretary of state for international development, Kate Osamor also criticised the Commission. In a statement yesterday she said: “The Charity Commission and government departments have serious questions to answer: why did they take no action in response to concerns raised by Helen Evans in June 2015 and August 2015? Are there other whistleblowers that have brought safeguarding concerns to the Charity Commission only to be ignored?
“It is crucial that we now understand how far this appalling scandal reaches, and whether the Charity Commission is operating effectively as an independent regulator.”
Former Commission investigator says action should have been taken sooner
The Charity Commission has been criticised for not opening a statutory inquiry, its most serious form of investigation, when concerns were raised by Evans with the regulator in 2015. Instead it opened an operational compliance case. The Commission announced on Monday evening that it had now opened a statutory inquiry into the charity.
David Orbison, a former investigator for the Charity Commission, told Channel 4 News that a statutory inquiry should have been opened into Oxfam when these allegations were made.
David Holdsworth, deputy chief executive of the Commission, was also speaking on Channel 4 last night.
Responding to a suggestion from journalist Jon Snow that the Commission “fell down on this job”, Holdsworth said: “No, I don’t think we did. I think what we do accept is that we need to learn from how we engaged in communicating with Miss Evans in this case. However, that doesn’t mean we didn’t take her concerns seriously and act on them. Indeed, as a result of her engagement with us, and our engagement with the charity on a regulatory basis, DBS checks have been extended to include voluntary leads in shops, and also they have increased the size of their safeguarding team."
He emphasised that the Commission has used its powers far more in recent years, using them over 12,000 times last year, whereas previously they’d only used them less than 100 times.
He said the Commission had engaged with Oxfam before now, and that they had met face-to-face with trustees and as a result Oxfam’s safeguarding teams were increased, they reviewed their governance procedures, and DBS checks were widened.
Snow questioned whether it was the "Commission that made a mess of this". Holdsworth said they "absolutely did" act on this. He said they had "absolute assurance" from Oxfam that the Haiti incident in 2011 did not include beneficiaries, and that since they've found out that that is not the case as a result of "requiring and demanding infomation from the charity", they have reassessed its position and opened a statutory inquiry.
He said the reason the regulator is now moving to statutory inquiry is as a result of additional information coming forwards which rightly we have reassessed and we have decided to take different action”.
The regulator has also been criticised elsewhere, including in an editorial from the Guardian, where it said: “The Commission accuses Oxfam of being less than open; but in the end, the inadequacy of the response to sexual exploitation by senior aid workers in Haiti must lie at the regulator’s door.”
Report showed Oxfam as ‘best practice’
A report into sexual assault against humanitarian aid workers, released last year, showed that the problem of sexual harassment was widespread in the aid sector.
The report Stop the Sexual Assault Against Humanitarian and Development Aid Workers was produced by Tufts University in the United States of America and gave recommendations to assist agencies in preventing and responding to sexual harassment and assault against aid workers.
Dyan Manzurana, one of the reports authors, appeared on Newsnight last night where she revealed that this problem was “widespread throughout the sector” but Oxfam had actually been shown in the report as an example of “best practice” which other organisations can learn from.
She said: “I’m concerned by the heat Oxfam is taking now as it looks like this is an Oxfam problem, but this is industry wide.”
A spokeswoman from the Charity Commission said: “Ms Evans, a former employee of Oxfam, contacted the Commission in 2015 raising issues around safeguarding at the charity. It is important to make clear that Ms Evans did not raise with us concerns about specific incidents that had not been appropriately responded to by the charity in 2015. Her concerns were around the charity’s wider approach to safeguarding.
"We took the concerns Ms Evans raised very seriously and engaged with Oxfam on a formal regulatory basis to address them. This included meeting with the charity and requesting detailed information about its safeguarding procedures. We engaged with Ms Evans via email on several occasions and indeed Ms Evans acknowledged our initial response at the time; stating that she appreciated 'the time taken by the Charity Commission to look into safeguarding concerns'."