Skip to main content

International Development (Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups)

Volume 644: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2018

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision in connection with the protection of children and vulnerable adults in receipt of official development assistance and disaster relief.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to present this ten-minute rule Bill. Safeguarding is one of the most important aspects of the modern workplace. Robust and comprehensive safeguarding procedures aim to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected from abuse and exploitation. The abuse of power is wrong in any context, but when it happens in the aid and development sector, it can affect some of the most vulnerable people in the world. When people do not have access to food, clean water, shelter, education or medicine, they place their utmost trust in those who are delivering those services. It is crucial that the voices of victims and survivors are at the heart of this debate.

The recent highly publicised scandals in the aid sector are not new. In 2002, the United Nations published a special report after allegations of sexual abuse were made against UN peacekeepers and non-governmental organisations in a number of African countries. That was followed by a Save the Children report in 2008 and a further UN report in 2015. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my friend, the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), who is a long-standing member of the Select Committee on International Development and has been a vocal campaigner for better protection of children and women facing sexual exploitation and abuse—an issue that she highlighted following a visit to the world humanitarian summit in Istanbul in 2016.

In February this year, The Times published the findings of an investigation into the behaviour of some Oxfam staff after the 2011 Haiti earthquake. The most appalling allegations were that humanitarian workers were paying young women and girls for sex. That happened in a community that was facing an extreme humanitarian crisis. The investigation, which was the first in a series, saw the development sector come under intense scrutiny for its safeguarding and reporting mechanisms.

On the back of those allegations, the International Development Committee began an inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector. We wanted to understand why there had been a failure to protect the vulnerable and how safeguarding practice could be improved. We have received more than 50 pieces of written evidence and taken oral evidence from 20 witnesses. Yesterday, the Secretary of State came before the Committee to reaffirm that victims and survivors will be at the heart of any reforms that the Department for International Development undertakes in this area. Last week, as part of our inquiry, we visited the UN in New York. We wanted to scrutinise directly its safeguarding policies and challenge it to do more to protect vulnerable groups. We also visited the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington to look at how they are reforming their safeguarding mechanisms.

A common concern throughout our inquiry has been the lack of a universal approach to safeguarding to cover aid and humanitarian workers. Kevin Watkins from Save the Children highlighted that in his evidence to us, saying:

“as a sector, we would benefit from legislation that established humanitarian aid work as a regulated sector…We need a globalisation of the DBS system.”

Currently there is no coherent system for vetting prospective aid workers. Many UK-based aid organisations require their staff to pass a basic background check before they can work with the vulnerable in this country. However, those checks do not necessarily extend to people working overseas. I would like to see a system that enables organisations to vet prospective humanitarian workers to check their suitability to work with children and vulnerable adults. Ideally, that system would be comprehensive and global, so people working for multilateral organisations such as the UN and the World Bank and for other Governments would be vetted, as well as those working for non-governmental organisations.

Setting up such a system is surely an urgent priority, but it will be challenging. There are well-documented concerns—for example, about data protection and data sharing—that need to be addressed. There is also the issue of cost. At the moment, the onus is on organisations to fund safeguarding checks, but that could put smaller organisations at a disadvantage. We heard last week that United States Agency for International Development delivery contracts often include funding for these kinds of background checks. If we are to establish a successful vetting and referencing system, DFID should consider how it might help to shoulder the cost for these checks. We raised that with the Secretary of State yesterday, and I was encouraged that the Department recognises the challenge, particularly for smaller organisations. It might be costly in the short term, but vulnerable groups surely need to be kept safe whatever the cost.

The last year has been a watershed for the campaign against sexual harassment and assault. The Me Too movement has rightly focused more closely than ever on the behaviour of people in the workplace. How an organisation deals with issues of harassment and abuse sends a signal about its ethos. There are serious concerns that some humanitarian workers have been let off lightly or even exonerated altogether when instances of harassment have occurred. Allegations that abuse or harassment were swept under the carpet for the sake of organisational reputation have been made against a number of aid agencies. That is not acceptable in any workplace, and all organisations should have robust safeguarding mechanisms against issues of this nature. Over the course of our inquiry, it has become apparent that these mechanisms are nowhere near as robust as they should be in the aid and development sector.

As a result of those concerns, the International Development (Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups) Bill was put together. The purpose is to ensure that all UK aid is provided in a way that is likely to contribute to the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults from sexual exploitation and abuse. For that to be achieved, all workers in the aid sector would be regulated in line with the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. The level to which these workers would be checked would be similar to the level to which social workers and teachers are checked. The Bill also makes provision for the Secretary of State to bring us into line with any future international regulations, as well as requiring her to produce an annual report on safeguarding within UK aid.

This year, DFID has taken a leading role in addressing the issue of safeguarding. In February, the Secretary of State wrote to all organisations that receive UK aid, asking them to spell out in detail their safeguarding policies. That included NGOs, multilateral partners and other DFID suppliers, numbering well over 1,000 organisations. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has continued to show leadership and a strong personal commitment on this issue.

This Bill alone will not of course solve all the safeguarding problems in the aid sector, but this is an opportunity for the United Kingdom to develop the very best domestic practice. However, global change is required if we are to see real and sustained improvement. The safeguarding summit in October provides a welcome and vital opportunity to push for a global vetting and referencing system, as well as a long overdue platform for survivors and victims. With strong United Kingdom leadership from DFID, we can ensure that the most vulnerable are protected from predatory practices in the future.

I am grateful to have had this opportunity to highlight a very important issue, which the Select Committee that I chair is addressing at the moment, and I thank Members on both sides of the House for their support for the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.


That Stephen Twigg, Mrs Pauline Latham, Mrs Maria Miller, Sarah Champion, Chris Law, Jim Shannon, Caroline Lucas, Layla Moran, Mr Virendra Sharma, Mrs Helen Grant, Paul Scully and Lloyd Russell-Moyle present the Bill.

Stephen Twigg accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October, and to be printed (Bill 243).

Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) (No. 2) Bill

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Ivory Bill (Programme) (No. 2)


That the Order of 4 June 2018 (Ivory Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.—(David Rutley.)