The Oxfam GB scandal: safeguarding lessons

  • Insight

16 July 2019

The recent reports on the findings of the Charity Commission and the Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change highlight the safeguarding lessons every charity can learn from Oxfam GB. 

Identifying serious problems in the “culture, morale and behaviour” of Oxfam GB, both reports conclude that Oxfam GB’s governance and culture with regard to safeguarding had repeatedly fallen below the standards expected and amounted to mismanagement by the trustees.

Our Head of Charities, Victoria Simpson, discusses what can be learned from the findings of both reports.  

Lessons for the charity sector

The Charity Commission’s report states that “No charity is more important than the people it serves or the mission it pursues”.  Charity trustees are ultimately responsible for all acts carried out by their charity. They have a duty of care to all beneficiaries, staff and other charity workers to keep them safe, and to ensure that appropriate steps are being taken to meet this duty. 

So, what lessons are set out in the reports?

  • Act quickly when early warnings signs of problems first appear

Concerns about the individuals involved had been known about by senior staff in Haiti for some time before action was taken. 

  • Look out for warning signs in the charity’s culture and moral

Oxfam GB’s 2010 internal audit report on the Haiti crisis identified a number of serious risk factors.  These included a lack of leadership due to high staff turnover, cultural and behavioural issues as staff felt unable to speak out about their safeguarding concerns. There was a perceived tolerance of bad behaviour, intimidation of witnesses and incomplete HR records, all of which produced a “toxic environment” in some areas of the organisation, most notably the international arm in Haiti.  Oxfam GB failed to properly deal with these issues and were unable to provide the necessary reassurance to its staff and the public that safeguarding issues were being properly investigated and managed.

  • Embody the principle of “do no harm”

Oxfam GB’s mission statement and values were “not sufficiently embedded in the day to day actions and behaviours within the organisation to reinforce the expected ways of working in line with the code of conduct”. These values should start at the top with the board and executive setting the standards expected in behaviour, positive values and culture of keeping people safe for all others to follow. This creates an environment where it is harder for safeguarding breaches to occur.

  • Have whistleblowing procedures

All charities should have clear processes for whistleblowers to raise concerns.  Those who do so should be “taken seriously and treated with respect and sensitivity”.  The process should allow the individual to be listened to and the charity to be accountable to that individual.  Claims should not be dismissed without proper investigation, as occurred in Oxfam GB. Their workforce did not have the necessary confidence in management and the systems to report their concerns.

  • Are the trustees properly in control?

The Charity Commission accepted that in a charity as large as Oxfam GB, its trustees could not have a detailed oversight of the charity’s day-to-day work and decision-making, and needed to rely upon a competent executive and CEO.  However, in order to meet their legal duties and responsibilities, the trustees still had to be satisfied with the roles carried out by the executive and CEO. This meant having “sufficient oversight and scrutiny of the information and assurances provided by the executive” on key matters such as the serious and widespread misconduct in this case and that “the executive are effectively held to account for the decisions they had made”. This was not done by the 2011 trustees.

  • Have suitable reporting mechanisms in place

There must be effective assurance, accountability and oversight mechanisms in place to ensure that there are proper safeguarding practices and procedures which are being fully implemented. This did not happen here. Safeguarding policies and recognised practices and procedures were not being applied consistently by staff, and not all staff complied with these procedures. This may also mean having specialist committees in place such as those dealing with internal audit, which report to the board.

  • Safeguarding must be a top priority for the charity

Oxfam GB failed to provide sufficient financial resources to properly manage the safeguarding risks faced by an international humanitarian organisation. This placed the safeguarding team under considerable pressure, increased the risks they faced and meant that safeguarding practices became reactive rather than proactive.

  • Be transparent and admit when things have gone wrong

Oxfam GB was criticised for its lack of transparency in its reporting procedures to donors, agencies and regulators.  Reporting on safeguarding issues should be “frank and full”.  Oxfam GB had not disclosed some material facts or the full extent of the breach (such as the fact that the alleged misconduct involved beneficiaries and children).  The Commission took the view that Oxfam GB were instead more concerned about its reputation and protecting its relationship with its donors and stakeholders.  This only further undermined public confidence when the full facts were revealed.

Conclusions

Oxfam GB have cooperated fully throughout the investigation and have issued a number of apologies throughout.  Former CEO Mark Gouldring stated in the 2017/18 annual report that “from 2011, we began to make improvements to our safeguarding practices but it is a matter of deep personal regret that we did not go far enough fast enough.  There are no excuses.  Since February we have embarked on a process of deeper transformation”. 

The current Chair Caroline Thomson has also stated that “things have to change and we will learn from these mistakes”. The Independent Inquiry set out seven key recommendations to help Oxfam change its culture and safeguarding practices. This included:

  • putting new safeguarding operating procedures and practices in place
  • ensuring improved consistency of investigation methods and disciplinary processes relating to safeguarding
  • improved record keeping regarding safeguarding incidents and allegations
  • improved vetting and recruitment practices
  • mandatory induction training
  • strengthening and updating core values and behavioural expectations.

Recent reports from Oxfam indicate that they are getting back on track financially, although the longer-term impact on public trust in Oxfam GB and the wider implications this has for the charity sector are still unknown.  

As we have seen, there are a number of lessons that every charity can learn from the findings in the reports, as set out above. The Charity Commission report concludes: “protecting people and safeguarding responsibilities should be a governance priority for all charities... Protecting people from harm is not an overhead to be minimised, it is a fundamental and integral part of operating as a charity for the public benefit”. 

Following the events in question, we strongly recommend that all charities review their existing policies, procedures and risk register to establish which areas need updating and if further guidance is needed. For more information on safeguarding or any areas surrounding charities and charity tax law, please contact Victoria Simpson.