MPs have criticised Save the Children for spending donors’ money on expensive lawyers to “close down” stories about sexual misconduct allegations at the charity.
The International Development Committee today heard from former Save the Children chair, Sir Alan Parker, as part of its inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.
Parker announced that he would stand down as chair of Save the Children International last month after the Charity Commission opened an investigation into Save the Children UK about its handling of sexual misconduct allegations during Parker's time as chair of the UK arm of the charity.
Two MPs raised concerns about how much the charity had spent on lawyers who had contacted a number of news publications to discourage them from reporting the story.
But Parker said that the charity was just trying to make sure the correct facts were reported.
‘Is this what people expect their money to be spent on?’
Pauline Latham, Conservative MP for Mid Derbyshire, asked about a reported £100,000 that the charity had spent on lawyers.
Parker said he could not confirm the figure as he was not part of Save the Children UK at the time and the committee will write to the charity for confirmation.
He said that lawyers were hired because of the high level of media interest and that “at no time was there a lawyer’s letter to close the story down”.
Latham said: “Obviously they wouldn’t have spent money from DfID on this.” But this means it will have come from funds raised from the public.
She said she had personally raised money for Save the Children though baking cakes and coffee morning and that it “takes a lot of effort”.
“You have possibly spent £100,000 of this to shut the story down – whatever you say it does appear that I way,” she said.
Nigel Evans, Conservative MP for Ribble Valley, added that it looked like Save the Children was trying to “protect its reputation” and asked whether people giving a small donation would be “thinking that is how their money will be spent”.
‘The most important thing was accuracy’
Parker said that the “most important thing was accuracy” as there were some “seriously misleading statements” around.
He said: “We felt very clearly that the facts should be put down by lawyers rather than just the communications department.”
Parker added that “if it is wrongly reported and misreported it is terribly damaging” which can “ultimately take away real money” from beneficiaries.
Parker began the session by apologising and offering support to initiatives to improve safeguarding across the sector.
He said “deeply saddening” when charities “fall short” and that he wat to “take this opportunity to apologise unreservedly”.
He said that Save the Children had acted immediately when it found out about the allegations against Brendan Cox and appointed a third party law firm to investigate and also carry out a wider review.
But he said that it might not have been clear to everyone at the charity how much work was being done because Cox resigned before the process concluded.
This meant there was “no closure” and “justice was not seen to be done”.
He said he was “very sad that we couldn’t reach a conclusion in this case” especially as “an awful lot of people” at Save the Children knew that something was going on.
Better referencing system
MPs also questioned Parker on whether it had provided references to Justin Forsyth, who went on to get a job at Unicef, and for Cox.
Parker said the Cox has not asked for a reference and that the charity had discussed Forsyth with a head hunting agency but that he was unclear about the details.
He said he would support the idea of a obtaining references “in a better way, in a deeper way”.
‘We need a quantum change’
Parker also told MPs that the sector needs a “quantum change” in its approach to prioritise safeguarding and improve culture across the board.
He said Save the Children International had been doing a lot of work in this area, such as appointing a chief people officer to drive through improvements.
Parker said Save the Children International has already introduced a “whole new system of safeguarding” which means that issues are reported directly to the chief people officer 48 hours.
He said it has taken a “huge amount of time” to set up and that it was about changing the culture.
He said Save the Children International would submit written evidence outlining it in further detail.