Penny Mordaunt, international development secretary, has warned anyone who has sought to exploit the aid sector that their “time is up” and has told them they will be brought to justice.
Mordaunt was speaking at a safeguarding summit being held today by the Department for International Development and the Charity Commission which aims to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse in the sector.
The summit is bringing together UK international development charities, regulatory bodies, and independent experts “to commit to drive up safeguarding standards and take bold steps to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse within charities and by staff abroad.
NGOs and charities in attendance will sign a joint statement setting out the key principles they will adhere to, and agree on a set of practical actions to take forward.
One idea to be discussed is the creation of an independent body to "promote external scrutiny and ensure the highest possible standards across the aid sector".
'Your time is up'
Speaking at the summit, Mordaunt issues a warning to anyone who may be seeking to take advantage of the sector.
She said: “My message to those who have sought to exploit this sector and the human tragedy in which it operates, is this – we will all share information we have with law enforcement.
“We will find you. We will bring you to justice. Your time is up.”
She said at the summit that they have failed in their duty to protect the most vulnerable, unless they do all they can to prevent wrongdoing and hold all those that do wrong to account.
The summit will build upon the action already taken by DfID in response to allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector. This includes establishing a new Safeguarding Unit in DfID to “urgently review safeguarding across all parts of the aid sector and catalyse further action to ensure everything is being done to protect people from harm, including sexual exploitation and abuse”.
It also includes the appointment of Sheila Drew Smith, who is a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to bring her expertise to support DfID’s ambition on safeguarding. She will be reporting to Mordaunt, and is chairing the Safeguarding Summit.
Mordaunt says she has written to every UK charity which receives aid directly, asking that they provide a statement of assurance on their safeguarding environment and policies, their organisational culture, their clarity and transparency, and their handling of allegations and incidents.
DfID has asked 37 organisations for further detail on safeguarding
Mordaunt said that all 179 organisations gave their statement of assurance, and many gave additional details on reporting and allegations. She said that DfID is following up with 37 organisations to “gain further clarity on their assurance, or reporting,” she said that DfID will issue a summary of all its analysis when this work is complete.
She said: “Across the returns, we saw important examples of good practice, but overall, there was too little evidence in the areas of robust risk management, comprehensive reporting, responsibility being taken at the highest level for safeguarding, and of beneficiaries always being put first.”
Allegations involving DfID staff
Mordaunt said that an internal review into historic allegations involving DfID staff has concluded, and that more information on this will be released later today.
She said: “Our Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft will say more on this later, but I think it was vital that we went back through every record we have, since they began, to check action has been taken. And if any new information comes to light through our continued efforts we will ensure appropriate action is taken on this.
“The sector must do the same, and pay particular attention to the issue of reviewing and reporting historic cases. We expect all who wish to work with us, and indeed any organisation that works on development, to take this issue as an urgent priority.”
Mordaunt added: “Now is the time for action and for the British aid sector to take a lead. To set standards, a template and an example, for the rest of the world to follow.”
Baroness Stowell, the new chair of the Charity Commission, also gave a speech at the event, and offered her backing to Mordaunt. She said: "I endorse everything she has just said – especially her aims for today and vision for the future."
'An increase in numbers means we are getting the message across'
Tamsyn Barton, chief executive of Bond, the umbella body for international aid organisations, said today in a statement that the "revelations around sexual exploitation over the past few weeks have shaken us to our foundations".
She said: "Even though in our experience it’s the actions of a small minority, we cannot allow any behaviour by individuals within our own sector that harms the people we were set up to help. We have an urgent duty to those we seek to help, staff and supporters to respond to this wake-up call robustly.
"Most of the NGOs attending today's summit will have seen and signed up to the letter which was published in The Times and Huffington Post last weekend. This letter highlighted our commitment to a series of urgent measures – some are about strengthening existing practices but we are also calling on leadership across the sector to ensure that commitments are turned into action. These commitments include encouraging people to come forward to report unacceptable behaviour, increasing resourcing for safeguarding, reviewing referencing systems, working with authorities and regulatory bodies to make sure those caught abusing their power can’t do so again, and working with the government to overcome institutional and legal barriers around background checks."
She said that it is very important that Bond sends "a clear message to those who experience or witness any form of abuse that they must speak out and we will take action. Any increase in numbers speaking out means we are getting that critical message across."
Barton added: "The sector is taking this very, very seriously, and Bond is working with members closely to make sure it is tackled head-on. Today’s meeting with NGOs, DfID, the Charity Commission and regulatory bodies is a critical part of taking the next step forward together."