[Relevant Documents: Eighth Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2017-19, Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, HC 840, and the Government response, HC 1764. First Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2019, Follow-up: sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, HC 111; and the Government response, HC 127. Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 16 July, 22 September, 6, 13 and 20 October and 3 November, on sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector: next steps, HC 605.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them and respect the one-way system around the Room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can speak only if there are on the call lists. This applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list and Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of sexual abuse and exploitation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. When we think of overseas aid workers, we imagine altruistic individuals using their skills to provide essential support to people in need across the world, often with little compensation or formal recognition. Peacekeepers, especially those from the United Nations, also enjoy a favourable public image associated as they are with reducing fatalities and helping communities damaged by conflict to rebuild and recover. When they perform their roles correctly, they represent the best of humanity but when they abuse their positions of responsibility, they harm their relations with the host country population, jeopardise peacekeeping and development efforts and leave victims behind, damaged and with no idea of where to obtain redress. I intend for this debate to focus on how to protect the victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers and prevent further victims from being made in the future.
The involvement of international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers in sexual exploitation and abuse and the difficulties experienced by their victims in obtaining redress has been known about for years. To provide some examples from the Select Committee on International Development report on “Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector” published in 2018, I point to the revelations in 2002 about children being abused in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. In 2007-08, the vast majority of surveyed victims of sexual exploitation in Kenya, Namibia and Thailand said they did not know where or how to report their abuse. Last month, staff from a variety of organisations, including the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, Oxfam and World Vision were discovered to have exploited and abused girls and women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is going on again, again and again.
Host countries damaged by poverty and war naturally have displaced people and it is not the case the peacekeepers and overseas aid workers are merely passive participants in the effects of deprivation and misery in host countries. Sometimes their arrival can actively create the problems. A note by the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1996 entitled “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” concluded:
“In six out of 12 country studies on sexual exploitation of children during armed conflict, the arrival of peace-keeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.”
Most obviously international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers have access to money, food, supplies and other resources that enable them to exercise influence over the population of the host country. This influence is frequently used improperly—for example, to obtain transactional sex. Women sometimes even have to sell their young daughters for food and supplies. That may be shocking but the fact that it happens just shows how desperate the victims are.
As I said at the beginning, overseas aid workers and international peacekeepers have incredibly important roles supporting the most vulnerable across the world. When they engage in sexual exploitation and abuse, they undermine the trust of the people they are meant to protect and of the people who support them at home. Public trust in charities has fallen since these matters were reported, so have donations. Ultimately, sexual exploitation and abuse undermine the efforts of those workers who conduct themselves properly.
Reading the reports of historical sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers, and the responses of organisations involved, provides a sense of déjà vu. First, there are the apologies, often expressed in general terms about falling short of standards, which are undefined. Secondly, there are frequent platitudes about “lessons being learned” and the interests of victims being at the forefront while ultimately inconclusive investigations are commissioned. During that stage, the perpetrators can be allowed to resign quietly and are free to take employment with another organisation operating in a different country, where they continue their abusive behaviour. Thirdly, there is a gradual loss of interest in the issue until, in five or six years’ time, the exact same thing happens again and the same people make the same excuses. That complacency has led to the trend of the last three decades and it must stop.
While ever I am on a Committee looking at how the aid budget is spent on behalf of our taxpayers, I will keep asking the questions that many do not want asked, which I have been doing since I first heard about this shocking problem at the world humanitarian summit in 2016 in Istanbul. I heard about the problem at one of the fringe meetings, where panellists from several different countries discussed the problem and admitted that nothing could be done about it. From that moment on, I asked about it in almost every IDC evidence session until it was recognised that something had to be done, but only when the Oxfam and Save the Children scandal happened was I finally taken seriously.
There are already fears in the current IDC that the latest round of complacency has arrived. In the evidence session on 7 May 2019, we were given an assurance by Frances Longley, then chief executive of Amref Health Africa UK, who said:
“As a sector, we are passionately committed to making that reporting better and more effective, and we absolutely stand side by side with you on that.”
But I wonder what is actually happening. Tracey Smith, then chief executive of British Expertise International, stated:
“The companies have shared best practice. They have looked at the way the sector operates. They have collaborated together, but it is felt that those specific, strategic issues, the support for survivors, cultural change, minimum standards, organisational capacity and capability, are covered by the code of conduct.”
Passion, collaboration and discussion do not produce results and will certainly not do so if they fall back on a vague code of conduct that has hitherto abjectly failed to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable women and girls across the world.
Three problems must be addressed to discourage potential abusers from exploiting women and girls and to support those who have been abused. They relate to reporting, investigation and whistleblowing. Victims of sexual exploitation and abuse encounter significant problems when they attempt to report their experiences. Many different legal regimes may operate in the context of international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers in mission host countries. There is international law, which often comes with immunity in respect of certain actions; the law of the perpetrator’s country, which may or may not provide redress; and the host country’s law, which cannot be reliable if the host country is in political turmoil.
Generally, victims lack the expertise to pursue their cases without legal assistance, and of course they lack the ability to pay for that legal assistance unless they rely on those organisations that may have been responsible for their abuse in the first instance. Different organisations have different structures and complaints procedures, and there may be so many operating in one area that it is impossible to know which the abuser belongs to. Reporting rape and sexual assault is difficult in the best of places, but as Professor Andrew MacLeod stated in the IDC’s evidence session on 6 October this year, in the context of host countries,
“It is like asking the victim of rape to report to the rapist”.
Often, the women or girls cannot read, so notices that we have been assured are pinned up for the victims to read go unread and therefore the complicated systems for reporting such abuse are a complete waste of time.
This situation is not improved by the behaviours of the institutions involved. In the evidence session on 6 October, Sienna Merope-Synge characterised the “practical reality” of the UN’s assistance as
“usually a black hole of information; that is the standard. At best it may be some charitable crumbs to the victim that is not based on an acknowledgement of legal rights and responsibility.”
In the minority of cases that are reported to the organisation involved, there is no guarantee that effective remedial action will be taken against the perpetrators, even when they are known and identified.
The Oxfam scandal of 2018 is probably the best known example of that. After an investigation by The Times in February of that year, it emerged that senior staff in Oxfam’s mission to Haiti, including the Belgian country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, had hired prostitutes at a villa rented by the charity. An internal investigation commenced, in which several of the abusers admitted using “prostitutes”. The internal report concluded that there was a culture of impunity among Oxfam staff and that some of the “prostitutes” could have been under age, yet that report remained confidential. The perpetrators were allowed to resign and the details disclosed to the Charity Commission were inadequate.
Shockingly, The Times reported that Dame Barbara Stocking, the chief executive of Oxfam at that time, offered van Hauwermeiren a “dignified exit”, because sacking him would have had potentially serious implications for the charity’s reputation. In other words, Oxfam was more concerned with looking good than doing good, and acquiesced in one of its top staff members enjoying all the acclaim of his position while performing none of his responsibilities towards the vulnerable people he was meant to protect. He had already been investigated for inappropriate sexual activity in 2011, when he had worked for Merlin, but he had been allowed to resign and go to another job elsewhere.
In numerous evidence sessions to the IDC, it has become apparent that the problem is not exclusive to Oxfam. Nevertheless, what I want to know is why they believe that women or girls are “prostitutes” rather than victims. How many people in this Chamber went to school with somebody who said, “When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute?” Exactly: these women or girls are victims, as are all sex workers.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. When someone applies for another job—ever mindful of their experience and what they have done before—is there not an obligation on that charitable body, or whoever, to ensure that when it seeks a character reference it contains the full details of what the person did before they left their former job?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I think that the problem with character references is that those giving them can be sued, and they often have to be public. Often, the person applying for a job has to know what has been said in their character reference, which I feel is completely wrong. Very often, what someone has done is known about, but they resign before the end of the investigation into their activity, which means there is no blot on their copybook; nobody knows about their behaviour and they move on. That is a serious problem and I hope that we will hear from the Minister as to how he will address it.
Reporting sexual exploitation and abuse is often discouraged by those organisations that do not have transparent structures. Many whistleblowers, having approached the media or other organisations, are summarily dismissed and unable to work again in a similar role. These are not isolated examples; there are many examples.
One recent example that attracted notoriety is that of Anders Kompass, a former employee of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 2014, he approached French authorities regarding sexual exploitation and abuse that he had learned about by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. He was suspended for not having gone through the formality of asking his superior for guidance before whistleblowing and for including personal details of the victims in his report. He was later exonerated by an independent panel. The UN’s allegations were spurious. However, six years later the investigations into the allegations against the French peacekeepers have still not been completed. It is often difficult to avoid the impression that organisations complicit in sexual exploitation and abuse are more concerned with protecting themselves than with punishing the perpetrators, with scant regard for the victims. Given the difficulties at every stage, from perpetration and reporting to whistleblowing and investigating to obtain redress, fundamental changes must be implemented to ensure the safety of women and girls in the world’s most deprived areas. We must not forget that it is a problem for a few boys as well, although a much smaller number than for girls.
Currently, frontline aid workers do not require Disclosure and Barring Service checks to operate in host countries. DBS checks ensure that people working with children and vulnerable adults do not have a history of abuse, which is an effective move towards protection. Since overseas aid workers support mainly very vulnerable children and adults, a requirement that they obtain DBS checks or something similar might improve the situation. There is an aid worker registration scheme that would prevent perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse from moving around the sector after their abuse has been detected. The scheme could be made effective if donors and Governments were encouraged to make their donations conditional on an organisation being a member of the scheme.
Twenty-one of the 30 major donors that form the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD have agreed to pilot the scheme. Regular reporting of safeguarding and misconduct data would also ensure that victims are actively sought out rather than expected to report their abuse to organisations that, understandably, they do not trust. The establishment of an ombudsman by the international aid community could reduce the complexity of legal systems and complaints procedures that contribute to the chronic under-reporting of sexual exploitation and abuse. Such abuse by peacekeepers and overseas aid workers is an appalling fact of life for vulnerable people in the world’s most deprived and war-torn areas. It is thought that because sexual exploitation and abuse of under-age children has been tackled primarily in the churches, particularly in this country through the Scouting and Guiding groups and all those other places where it was happening, many of the perpetrators are gravitating towards the aid sector because they can go abroad where they are anonymous and can get away not with murder, but with sexual exploitation and abuse. My hope is that effective reforms will be implemented to improve the situation and that the victims are not simply forgotten, as they have been time and again.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) was the Secretary of State for the Department for International Development, she had an international summit just across the road, where many of us present believed that much would be done and achieved as a result of a spotlight on the problem. Things have changed, but nowhere near enough. The whole culture must change, not only to ensure that proper reporting is done, but to stop men’s abuse of women and girls. Men need to know that there is absolutely no tolerance of such behaviour, and that if it happens they will be sacked immediately and will be unlikely to get another job where they have access to the most vulnerable.
I wish to ask the Minister what solutions the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has come up with to ensure that this country does not in future become complicit in any form of sexual exploitation and abuse of anyone, never mind the most vulnerable people in the world. What will the Department do to stop it from happening again and again? How does the new, mighty Department plan to follow on from the female Secretaries of State for DFID?
The debate can last until 11 o’clock. At three minutes before 11, I will call Pauline Latham to sum up the debate. That means I am required to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 10.27. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for the SNP, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Until 10.27 we are in Back-Bench time. Five very distinguished Back-Benchers seek to contribute. Members should bear in mind that the longer they speak at the beginning, the less time a distinguished colleague will have to speak at the end, but we have until 10.27 for Back-Bench contributions. I call Sarah Champion.
I apologise for my tardiness this morning, Mr Hollobone; I got a little over-excited with the one-way system. I am incredibly grateful to follow in the wake of my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). I use the word “wake” determinedly and decidedly, because she has really ploughed a way that the rest of us have followed. I can honestly say that the work of the International Development Committee has been led by her championing this, and I am incredibly grateful for that.
The IDC first started to work on this topic in February 2018, following the Haiti scandal. I am really glad that the Government took this seriously and, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, held the summit. We had high hopes for that, and I speak of my optimism both as someone who has campaigned for child protection and now as the Chair of the IDC. The non-governmental organisations took up the challenge led by the umbrella organisation, Bond, that put in place training, policies and lots of resources. The UK NGOs saw this as an opportunity to better their practice and get on top of the issues.
Unfortunately, what we have seen is an endless cycle of scandals leading to policy change, rather than work to address the actual problem that is obvious to all of us if we only take the time to look. It is quite simple—people who prey on the vulnerable go to where the vulnerable are. We have seen big movements within faith organisations and children’s organisations to prohibit and prevent this sort of behaviour, to call it out and to prosecute, and I am incredibly grateful for that.
I am, however, shocked that the aid sector is probably 20 or 30 years behind that. The culture that existed, for example, in faith organisations, still exists within the aid sector. They see themselves as doing good work, as being virtuous, and think that everyone is there for the right reasons, so they do not dig down into the fact that perhaps a very small minority is there for very, very wrong reasons.
Abuse can always happen where there is a power imbalance. By very definition, aid workers work with the most vulnerable people on the planet. The IDC is currently running an inquiry into the sexual exploitation of beneficiaries by aid workers, and I have discovered that there is a very unpleasant layering of racism, colonialism, and deep, deep sexism coming from the aid workers to the beneficiaries. We have to challenge this. We really need to see the Government stepping back onto this platform.
I spoke to a number of women aid workers who belong to a Facebook group that they set up when one of them was raped and did not know where to turn. There are now 8,000 women aid workers in that Facebook support group. They set it up to support one another when they were sexually harassed and abused by their colleagues, but when I spoke to them about the beneficiaries they said, “Of course it is going on there. If they do it to us, of course they are going to be doing it to the beneficiaries, where there is even less comeback or awareness and the power imbalance is even greater.” They described it as the wild west: these men—and it is almost exclusively men—coming in as saviours on their white horses, but now they tend to be white UN Hummers and Land Cruisers.
I want to focus a little bit on the UN, because a lot of the abuse we are seeing is by UN peacekeepers. We are very grateful that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF appeared before our Committee. They are the two branches of the UN that have been on the front foot in trying to address abuses in the system. However, there are many branches to the UN and unfortunately the abuse is repeated time and again. It should not be. In 2013, a UN investigation declared sexual exploitation and abuse
“the most significant risk to UN peacekeeping missions, above and beyond other key risks including protection of civilians”.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself asserted that “a single substantiated case” of SEA
“involving UN personnel is one case too many”.
Yet civilian and military personnel associated with peacekeeping operations continue to perpetrate sexual exploitation and abuse, despite the development of policy frameworks designed to prevent it and hold perpetrators to account. However, the cycle of abuse—oh, shock!—and action, rather than focusing on prevention, is the reason we are constantly in this loop; and it is a loop and has been going on since that statement. Haiti continued from 2004 to 2017, with peacekeepers stationed there trading sex with children for food, and dozens of women left pregnant from rape.
I have discovered that there is almost a currency exchange going on. I speak to different peacekeepers and aid workers in camps around the world, and it is standard: “If you want a tarpaulin, I spend the night with your daughter.” That is the exchange that we are allowing to be perpetuated. From 2013 to 2015 in Central African Republic, more than 108 cases were investigated, including the sexual abuse of women and children. Twenty-six peacekeepers, from France, Chad and Equatorial Guinea, were accused of forcing children into acts of bestiality. Human Rights Watch also documented gang rapes by armed UN peacekeepers near the base where women were scrabbling around looking for food. They were then threatened with death if they reported it.
In 2017 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, UN peacekeepers were accused of rape, sexual abuse and exploitation, accounting for roughly a third of all allegations against peacekeepers in 2017. Women, again, were left pregnant and forced to care for children on their own. Video from Tel Aviv in 2020 shows a woman straddling a man in the back seat of a vehicle from the UN Truce Supervision Organisation unit.
The reason it keeps on happening is that the focus is on the victims to report, and then on banning the perpetrators once they are discovered. It is just not realistic. In the DRC, one organisation had 23 reporting mechanisms, but they were not being used and it took journalists to uncover what was going on. We keep hearing, particularly of the UN, that there is a culture of impunity. The UN says that it has zero tolerance, but in the DRC, UN-marked vehicles were driving the perpetrators to hotels to “interview” the women for jobs. There was also a lot of hostility in DRC towards aid workers. Are we really surprised?
Yesterday, we had a session looking at the report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact on abuses carried out by peacekeepers, and it became clear that there was a lack of commitment in middle management, leading to that feeling of impunity. There is no regulatory body for the UN. The UK could push for that. Transactional sex versus sexual exploitation: there is allowed to be a grey area for what is or is not acceptable. Let us just say that sex with any beneficiary is not acceptable. The UN’s whistleblower protection is, to be honest, useless.
We need an independent mechanism to give confidence to victims. To make lasting change we need strong leadership. I say that, because I know the Minister can do this: he can give us that leadership and take personal responsibility for tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, and make it his priority. He can ensure that the UK uses its diplomatic ties with the UN and Governments around the world to start meaningful discussions on how we can get justice for victims and survivors.
Why does the UK not contribute to the UN trust fund in support of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse? As to prevention, mechanisms to prevent SEA and provide support for victims and survivors should be incorporated in the design of all aid programmes, and budgeted for, from the start. The Government should fund only aid organisations that can demonstrate how to militate against sexual exploitation and that that is integral in all of their work. Aid organisations should challenge the extreme power imbalances between the people delivering aid and the local populations receiving it. The Minister should be championing that and challenging those imbalances. I understand why we are shifting resources from the ongoing humanitarian crisis to the covid-19 response, but we still need to do the base work. The Government have put significant time, energy and resources into looking at the perpetrators and how to prevent them from working, but we need to put the same energy into preventing those abusers from having access to potential victims.
I echo the final point made by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire: we cannot expect victims to come forward and report. We need to be there on the ground—preventing, looking and, most importantly, listening. I have one final ask for the Minister, which is really simple. Currently, NGOs cannot access DBS checks. We need to expand what is classified as regulated activity, and then we can stop this parade of people going to exploit the most vulnerable in the world.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) not just on the work that she is doing today by highlighting this issue, but on all the work she does to highlight the sexual exploitation of women and child marriage. The Minister could do very well to listen closely to what she says at all times, because it is built on many years of experience.
It is with great trepidation that I follow the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who is another expert on these issues. She has dedicated many years to talking about sexual exploitation not just in the international sector—as she has so eloquently just done—but in the domestic sector. Again, the Minister could do very well to listen to the Chair of the Select Committee, because she brings incredible expertise on these issues. They are complex and difficult to solve, and trying to solve them overnight is not something that we will be able to do; it has to be for the long term.
There can be few people in this country who were not shocked to the core by the revelations that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire talked about. They challenged our trust in organisations that are household names—organisations that many of us would freely give to on a regular basis were being brought into the frame for overseeing some of the most horrendous abuse in places such as Haiti and far beyond. We have heard heartbreaking accounts from victims, and we have been shocked at the way that perpetrators were simply allowed to move from organisation to organisation, almost as a matter of right. I was glad to hear about today’s debate because of the ongoing work that the Select Committee has done on this issue, but also because of the inability to find a solution and the need to hold the Government to account.
At the time of the revelations, I was contacted by some of the whistleblowers in one of the international organisations. I was absolutely shocked to the core at the lack of reporting mechanisms. Indeed, as I think the Chair of the Select Committee said, the fact that victims had to report the abuse to the perpetrator is completely unacceptable.
Through their work over the past 10 years, the Government have put themselves at the centre of international development. The UK Government are an acknowledged world leader on these issues, which is why it is important to hear from the Minister how they are taking forward that leadership position. If one thing is for sure, the UK Government cannot step back from that now. We have to step up to the plate and continue to use vigorously our international development clout, which we undoubtedly have, for the good of the sort of people we are talking about.
In their response to the most recent Select Committee report—the Committee has produced two and I think it has almost finished a third report on this issue—the Government rightly said that things cannot be changed in a short period of time. It requires a sustained commitment from each Minister who holds the portfolio that my hon. Friend the Minister has at the moment so that we can see a change, not just in the mechanisms, as has been said today in this debate, but in the ingrained culture that pervades these organisations.
That culture is pervasive because, as the Chair of the Select Committee has said, people who prey on the vulnerable go to where the vulnerable are, whether it is at home or abroad. The recent evidence that the Select Committee has taken for its third report has underlined that. We are talking about a group of workers who have remote and insecure tenure and we have a group of people who are in need of support and have no power at all; they are the most vulnerable people on the planet.
We need clarity from the Government, both today in this debate and in the long term, as to where the international development portfolio sits within the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I am an enormous supporter of the merging of the two Departments, as it could be a power for good to have the leadership of the Foreign Secretary on these issues. That is not to take away from previous International Development Secretaries, but that leadership puts it at the heart of the most powerful people in our Government. However, I am not clear as to exactly where the international development strategy lies within the former Foreign Office’s body of work on a daily basis. I would be grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister if he could set that out today.
I believe that the FCDO—or the former Foreign Office—has a fantastic track record on issues to do with women’s rights around the world, whether under William Hague, when he was dealing with women in areas of conflict, or, indeed, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had that role, dealing with education for girls around the world. This is strongly within Foreign Office culture , but the Minister needs to set out today and as the weeks go on, exactly how that strategy will be embedded in the new departmental structure, as it is important that people understand that.
I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has talked about this: the 2018 to 2030 strategic vision for gender equality on international development is crucial. It is an important piece of work that sets out the Government’s long-term commitment to issues of gender equality around the world. The issue of sexual exploitation is at the heart of that.
Can the Minister reconfirm the Government’s commitment to that strategic vision in its entirety at this stage, as well as looking at the more practical measures that the Select Committee has now put forward on two occasions to make sure that there is lasting change on issues of sexual exploitation? Embedding measures around whistleblowing and reporting are crucial, as well as having that strategic vision at the heart of the Government’s work.
In conclusion, under the newly-formed FCDO, the Government have an opportunity to renew their international credentials on these issues of support for women around the world. Sexual exploitation, unfortunately, is not going away. Action taken over the last 10 years has put this Government at the centre of these issues on the global stage, and we must not stand back now. Tackling sexual exploitation needs to be at the heart of the FCDO’s strategy for gender equality as we move forward.
I know my hon. Friend the Minister is a great champion of these issues. He is a man of great integrity, and I know that he will bring that to this job. I look to him to ensure that within the Government’s work, this is not just something that is talked about in Westminster Hall debates, but is tackled on a daily basis—not just within his portfolio, but by all of his colleagues within the newly formed Department.
I congratulate the hon. Lady for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on bringing forward the case and presenting it so well. I almost feel in awe of those who have spoken before me, including the hon. Lady for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and the right hon. Lady for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who both do incredible work in this department. I think we owe a debt to those three ladies in particular. I am not taking anything away from those who will speak after me, including the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). I just think that those three ladies have put a wonderful case and we thank them for their work. I am pleased to see the Minister. I am not quite sure whether this is an order, Mr Hollobone, but I think he might be at Westminster Hall more often than I am. It is good to see him.
You may be aware, Mr Hollobone, that I hail from what is not only the most beautiful country in the UK but the most generous. I say that factually: it is understood that Northern Ireland donates the most money per capita to charity than anywhere else in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are that sort of people. I am not taking away from anybody else, but that is what we do. The facts indicate that. I am a great believer in the need to help others. I am a well-known advocate in this place for retaining our international development funding and for using NGOs and Christian charities on the ground. I know many churches that do incredible work. They do it—I say this honestly—because they are generous people and they want to help. That is what it should all be about.
I was very shocked and saddened by reports of exploitation in Haiti by NGO workers. It is clear that, although it is good to use NGOs on the ground, we must be certain that there is no abuse on the ground. I read with dismay a number of briefings presented to me by different NGOs and by Bond, which represents a number of NGOs, indicating the serious response of charities to the thought that any of their staff, anywhere in the world, would take advantage of the most vulnerable people.
It makes my blood boil when I hear that those in power have used and abused their important positions for a loaf of bread. Would anyone here give someone a loaf of bread with a condition attached? No, we would not—or at least I would not, and neither would anyone else in this Chamber. We would give it to them because they wanted it. Would we give someone a tarpaulin because they wanted and needed it? Of course we would, and we would not attach a condition to it. Why is it that these people, including UN peacekeepers and some charity workers, are using their position in such an obscene, violent and criminal way? They are there to help; they are not there to abuse underage children. It absolutely shocks me to the core when I think of what those people have done. I tell you what—no, I cannot say what I was about to say; that would be wrong. I will just say this: let the law of the land take control and bring them to account.
Bond has suggested a number of ways in which we in this place can play our part. First, we should make safeguarding in aid and development a political priority, ensuring that core safeguarding is funded effectively through the grant and contracting processes. I say to the Minister that that is key. It is about making sure that those NGOs and charities have in place a methodology that makes these people accountable.
We need a requirement to ensure that new systems reach the most marginalised and invest in prevention. Bond states:
“In the past two years, increased resources have been dedicated to the development of policies, systems and structures, providing a sound platform for reports to be sensitively and effectively handled and responded to. A vital next step is to ensure that these new systems reach marginalised people in the communities in which NGOs are working.”
NGOs are on the frontline. They have a position of incredible responsibility, but they should be using it for the vulnerable people—for those people who need help. Just help them—do not take advantage of them. Bond adds that investment should go
“prevention, rather than waiting for people to speak up when the damage has been done”.
We also need UK legislation to widen the meaning of regulated activity. Perhaps legislation needs to be tweaked in order to provide an obligation for NGO workers to have DBS checks, and to require NGOs to report to the DBS any cases where harm has been caused, so that these individuals can be not just legally barred but made accountable in the courts of the land and prevented from working with children and at-risk people. Making such checks available to NGOs should be a priority, so I ask the Minister: how will that protection be provided? I know that he is going to reply to the debate, but speaking honestly and from the bottom of my heart, I think we all want that to be in place.
You have been clear about the time, Mr Hollobone, so I will conclude with this. There are many issues that we cannot control, but there are others that we can and we must sow them. This new way of doing things must take priority. We must put in place a new system of working in partnership with NGOs that goes beyond funding. Were direct Government workers to be found guilty of exploitation, we would make changes to prevent repeats. If that is our approach in this land, let us do it in other lands as well. I know that the responsibility for running these charities does not belong to us in this House, but we still have an obligation to make safeguarding changes that permeate through the NGOs, as we seek to ensure that every penny that we put into the charities helps people and does not abuse and exploit the vulnerable any further.
There are 12 minutes of Back-Bench time left and two contributions to go. I call Fiona Bruce.
I will be brief. It is always a pleasure to honour my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I support what he has said and I deeply respect the contributions that have been made by other eminent Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I want to take a slightly different line, because I do not want to repeat what they have already said with such gravitas.
I want to focus for a moment on the abuse that has been suffered by women and girls in Pakistan, a country to which the UK pays an estimated £383,000 per day in aid. Many are very young girls from minority groups who are abducted, forcibly married and sexually abused—girls like Huma Younus, who was 14 at the time of her abduction, Maira Shahbaz, who was 14 at the time of hers, and Saneha Kinza Iqbal, who was 15. The list goes on. Research suggests that approximately 1,000 such girls, often from religious minorities, are abducted and sexually abused in Pakistan every year. Unfortunately, not many will see justice.
Should we really be paying a reported £383,000 per day in British taxpayers’ money by way of aid—that adds up to £2.8 billion over 20 years—to a country where the rights of so many women are trampled on, where the rights of minorities are ignored, and where there is no freedom of speech or belief, as enabled by Pakistan’s unacceptable blasphemy laws? Can we allow that to continue without calling it out at the highest level as part of the FCDO strategy and on the ground?
I want to talk a little bit more about Maira Shahbaz. The details come from Aid to the Church in Need, which I commend for its reliable information. I have had the privilege of working with that organisation for 10 years. Aged 14, Maira was abducted during the covid lockdown. She was taken from her home in Madina Town, Pakistan, in April this year. She was bundled into a car at gunpoint by three men—a 14-year-old girl. Her life was suddenly turned upside down. She was filmed and photographed being raped and then forced to convert to Islam and marry one of her abductors. In a statement to the police, she said:
“They threatened to murder my whole family. They have also shown me my naked video and pictures which they have taken on their mobile while raping me.”
She was placed in a shelter for women and girls, but what is really shocking is that when her case was heard in court, the Lahore High Court judge determined that she should be returned to her abductor. She actually had to return to his home. Fortunately, however, she managed to escape. Her lawyer states:
“Maira’s life is in constant danger because she is condemned as an apostate by her abductor and his supporters. Unless Maira and her family can leave Pakistan they will always be at risk of being killed.”
Aid to the Church in Need has launched a petition on her behalf. Her case is ongoing, but she is now forever in danger in her home country. There is the threat of honour killing. Extremists in Pakistan have said that they will kill her at the first chance. Her lawyer has said that men are looking for her, knocking on doors and asking for her whereabouts.
That is all happening while the UK Government continue to pay millions of taxpayers’ money to Pakistan. We need to ask some really important questions. What is being done to protect these vulnerable minority women and girls? How is some of the money being used to support them? What are our aid workers doing on the ground to address this issue? It is not a small issue—thousands of young women are affected. What challenges are our Government making to a judicial system that returns the abused to her abuser? Are the Government putting in place strategic plans to address the issue? To which projects does UK aid contribute to support these vulnerable women and girls? What effective challenges have been made by the UK Government against the utterly unjust blasphemy laws, so often cited to justify such atrocities? Why should such enormous amounts of money continue to be paid to a country that so blatantly fails to address such breaches in fundamental human rights?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. There are five distinguished Back-Bench Members present. I do not include myself among them, but I am humbled by the words of those who have spoken before me, who have worked on the International Development Committee and other long-standing initiatives.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing the debate, on her long-standing work on the issue and on the IDC report on sexual abuse in the aid sector. It is a staggering example of why the IDC needs to continue in future years, which is something I will be pushing for in the coming weeks and months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire talked about the need for agencies not to look good, but to do good. I hope I will add to that point in due course. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) talked about shattering the culture of impunity, which is something I am working on with her. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) talked about the need for a sustained course of action. The UK Government have no excuse, because in 2014 we launched an initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Six years on, nothing has happened, other than lip service. We need more to be done in the short term, so I agree with everything she said about that.
In any conflict or crisis, the sight of aid agency workers or peacekeepers should be welcome. They are the first responders, the international community’s emissaries of good will, peace and assistance. For those suffering from the horrors of war, famine and disease, our NGOs and international organisations, such as the UN, should be welcomed. Their arrival reflects not just medical assistance, food aid and peacekeeping missions, but a realisation that the international community is paying attention to the plight of a people and of a conflict.
Yet, in recent years the bond of trust and faith in our NGOs and those multilateral organisations has been severely damaged by persistent examples of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers, some of which has already been mentioned. In 2002, the UNHCR and Save the Children reported that there had been 67 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by 40 aid agencies and nine peacekeeping battalions in Africa.
In 2004, Kate Holt documented sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers in the DRC. In 2007 and 2008, a study documented that sexual exploitation and abuse was widespread and common knowledge in aid agencies in Kenya, Namibia and Thailand. The list goes on and on. The same can be said for 2008, 2015 and 2018, which saw exploitation in Syria, the DRC and the Central African Republic. These are not exceptions; they are just the incidences that we know about. That is where the problem lies. Imagine the horror of recognising that those who are there to help turn out to be the exploiters and abusers who harm the very people they are there to protect.
Earlier this year, the UN recognised the International Day of UN Peacekeepers. Across this country, we marked the extraordinary work of many peacekeepers across the world. It was right to do that, but it was also a reminder of the work we have to do to ensure that sexual exploitation and abuse is eradicated. Although many in this Chamber joined me in marking that day, I was struck by the remarkable number of people who chose not to do so due to the reports that I have just referenced.
Despite the reports that have been published and the press attention that come with them, the matter is under-reported. The lack of attention given to the matter does not reflect the incredibly high level of abuse and exploitation. We need to rectify that by collating and documenting information, and protecting survivors so that we can identify abuse and prevent it in future years.
Fortunately, I believe there is a solution. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on preventing sexual violence in conflict, and having worked with Lord Hague when he set up that initiative in 2012, I believe there is a way in which we can end the culture of impunity and tackle sexual abuse and violence in conflicts and crises around the world. One-hundred and forty-seven nations have signed our UN resolution on this topic. It is time we took the action we promised all those years ago and ended the mindset that those who perpetrate such crimes can escape justice. We need radical action to ensure that no one, in any place across the globe, will be able to escape justice if they commit acts of sexual abuse and exploitation.
As faith in multilateral organisations has been so severely hampered over the last few years, I believe that the UK should look to create a new international body that documents crimes, supports survivors and helps to launch prosecutions. Not only would an organisation with this three-pillared approach be a conduit for international organisations to feed in their accounts of sexual exploitation and abuse; it would also allow citizens of every country to seek assistance and to know that the international community is safeguarding their rights, in order to restore the faith that has been so badly lost.
Next year we hold the presidency of the G7. I believe this would be the most opportune moment to launch such an international body—I apologise to the Minister, because I made the same point to him yesterday in this Chamber, but we might as well be consistent. Coupled with a 3% ring fence of our aid budget to tackle gender-based violence, I believe that would reassure people at home and abroad that the UK is still a force for good and that we will not shirk our international responsibilities.
To conclude on a slightly more positive note, I was delighted to read earlier this year about the first ever Pakistani female engagement team, who were deployed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The team, which included psychologists, stress councillors, doctors and nurses, was the right step to help rebuild faith in our peacekeeping missions across the globe. I hope that many other organisations will be taking note and will do the work that is so desperately needed to rebuild the relationship between survivor and aid agency.
Later this month, on 25 November, it is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I am working with Parliaments across the world on a statement of intent and action. We will be holding our own debate in this place on gender-based violence and the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, which I am sure the Minister will probably respond to. I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham, who has already agreed to sign the letter, copies of which I will be sending out later. We have the opportunity to take action. The UK has the platform to do so next year. We need a new international body, and it should be here in the UK, where we are leading by action, not just warm words.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing this debate on such an important and distressing subject. It has been a genuine pleasure to hear so many distinguished contributions from Members who have taken a long-standing and deeply principled stance on exposing this scandal, doing all they can to highlight it to other Members and the public at large, and seeking genuine reforms that can make a real difference to many people in vulnerable situations around the world. We have heard harrowing cases cited from many countries, including Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Namibia, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan. They include cases of exploitation of women and girls in particular—albeit not exclusively—but above all people at their most vulnerable. These cases involve the abuse of power and the power imbalances in the relationship between those there to deliver aid and help on the ground, and those in need of that help. It is about who has power in those situations and who does not. It is about who has control—or, in many cases, who is thought to have control—over access to food, shelter, medicine, jobs and life opportunities, and over the immediate future for people, their families and perhaps even their wider communities.
When that relationship is abused, it undermines trust not only in aid workers, who are there to assist how they can, but in the agencies and the work itself. That is not something that we should allow to stand, because that undermining of trust is hugely debilitating for all concerned—not only for the wellbeing of those in need of the aid, but for those who are exploited indirectly through that and for the aid agencies themselves, which rely on their public standing to carry out all the work they do.
According to Professor Andrew MacLeod of Hear Their Cries, a charity fighting sex abuse in the aid sector, there is almost a culture of impunity for abusers at the moment. As we have heard from many speakers this morning, the organisations frequently act as if they are above the law. In many cases, they find it more convenient to cover up than to act and eradicate this problem. Professor MacLeod also said:
“Predators now target the aid industry to join because they know they get away with it.”
As a result of recent enquiries in Parliament, humanitarian groups and five of seven UN agencies, including the WHO, UNICEF, the International Organisation for Migration, World Vision and the medical non-governmental organisation Alama, have now announced inquiries into the matter. Although I welcome that recognition of the problem, which is overdue, it is far too easy just to talk of “zero tolerance”. Those words come very easily; the challenge is in actually doing something about it. Sadly, it will take a great deal more than simply expressing disapproval to ensure that lasting change is to happen, as the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said.
Yes, there needs to be a culture of safeguarding within aid agencies and organisations—we are all familiar with that and need to ensure it happens—but there also needs to be a culture in which concerns can be reported and taken seriously without fear of consequence, apart from the consequences that need to arise from those concerns being reported. People need to know that their concerns, when expressed, will be taken seriously, particularly victims, but also those within aid organisations who know what is going on and perhaps do not feel that they have the power to report their concerns.
When we deal with aid agencies, we are dealing with organisations that are by definition at the sharp end of the human experience, operating as they do in areas where civil society has perhaps broken down, whether through conflict or chaos. Many of our own domestic institutions have struggled to deal with accusations of sexual abuse, in a country with a functioning judiciary and legal system. We should not underestimate the difficulties of trying to tackle sexual abuse in situations of chaos and conflict, but that cultural change needs to happen nevertheless. One fundamental thing that we could do that would greatly assist that would be to ensure that more women are represented in aid agencies in leadership, management and frontline positions—I am pleased to see so many hon. Members nodding—to ensure balance and supervision that might not otherwise be there. I do not mean to decry the men working in aid agencies who do their very best and are not party to the abuse, but we need that balance, which could help to bring about and embed the necessary cultural change to challenge the abuse that operates in plain sight.
We need to provide mechanisms to ensure that those who are abused never have to report that abuse to an abuser. We need to find ways of ensuring that recipients of aid—no matter where they are or what their situation, their level of literacy or their access to technology—are made aware that aid is not a transaction: that there is no cost to them and that aid agencies are there to provide aid unconditionally. All that requires leadership, clarity, organisational effectiveness and an improvement of culture in the aid organisations, and is urgently necessary to maintain public confidence, particularly among those who receive the aid.
It is also fair to say that a Government response is required. As I draw my remarks to a close, I will make, I hope, a few constructive suggestions, which I would be grateful if the Minister considered. The UK Government’s reputation in international development is long established and well earned. That authority, together with membership of the permanent five on the UN Security Council, gives the UK Government a particularly strong leadership role in demanding reforms of the United Nations and its agencies—the UN sets a standard that many other agencies will follow. Our leadership position would allow us to embed that culture of internal and external accountability.
We could also do more to facilitate the prosecution of alleged perpetrators of abuse. Too often, it is left to the jurisdictions of the countries where the aid is distributed to deliver justice, when civil society may have substantially broken down and there is chaos. We could allow for prosecution at home. We could allow for a special tribunal to carry out those sorts of prosecutions and to make sure the rights of whistleblowers are defended, particularly regarding abusers but also those who are accused but not as yet deemed guilty, to protect everyone’s rights and also to make sure that mechanism of accountability exists.
The FCDO could also lead in establishing a global register of aid workers, which could allow us to track perpetrators of abuse as they seek to move around countries and agencies. I do not underestimate the challenge, but I think it would be a strong declaration of intent, and a practical way to try to eliminate that sort of behaviour and keep those who are not entering the aid sector with positive motivations away from the most vulnerable as they move around agencies and around the world. We could do a great deal more to build up civil society, strengthening the role of women not only within aid organisations but within civil society, as we seek to rebuild it in those zones that are receiving aid. There is also work to be done to embed a culture of training aid workers to spot abuse and empower those they are there to help, and to help people be aware of their rights and how to challenge and report abuses.
In drawing my remarks to a close, I will say that we have a position of leadership. Many of us—certainly in my party, and I know others across the House—had some concerns about the merger of DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We need to be assured that the Government will dedicate the efforts and resource needed to play a part and, more importantly, to help to restore the reputations of aid agencies around the world. We are in a unique position to do that, and I look to the Minister to tell us how we can carry that out.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this crucial debate. It was a real pleasure to serve with her on the Select Committee on International Development, and I commend that Committee and its excellent Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), as well as her predecessor, Stephen Twigg, for their consistent and relentless attention—particularly that of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire—to these crucial issues over many years. We have heard some excellent contributions today, from the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall)—I know he said he was not distinguished, but I thought it was an excellent and absolutely sincerely meant contribution—as well as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and of course the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as well as the spokesperson for the SNP, the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson).
Consistent attention to this issue is absolutely crucial, because as we have heard today, simply investigating and responding in a reactive way to each incident in an isolated fashion is not, and will never be, good enough. I regret to say that these issues have been and are systemic, and not just in the aid sector, among international aid agencies, or among private sector contractors working in international development or peacekeeping. They are systemic in all contexts where vulnerable people exist and, crucially, where there are power imbalances, not least gender-based power imbalances, imbalances that exist between donors and recipients, or those that exist between so-called protectors and the people they are supposed to be protecting.
This is a crucial point because, as many of the Members who have spoken today have said, we have to recognise that predators and abusers actively seek out the vulnerable, and usually manipulate and take advantage of such systemic, specific power imbalances. We know this from decades of our own experiences, domestically as well as internationally. Whether in parts of the Church, among celebrities, in sport, in the media or with looked-after children, we have seen those tactics used to find and exploit victims. It is absolutely right, as has been done, to highlight environments of conflict, extreme poverty and distress as particularly vulnerable environments with vulnerable individuals, and I have seen those myself around the world.
I think of one of the first visits I paid to Malawi when working in the NGO sector, when I went to a World Food Programme feeding station that was responding to food shortages in southern Malawi. I was 25 years old. I was taken to a village where hundreds of people were queuing up to receive their assistance from the WFP, yet they had to wait for their food while I was sat on a chair, in front of everybody else sitting in the dust, for me to give a speech. I was taken aback by that, but unfortunately it is the culture that exists: me as a 25-year-old white man, sitting there on a chair while other people sat in the dust, waiting for their food. In those first experiences, it was clear to me how such a situation can turn into one where there is abuse, imbalance and misuse of power.
The resolute and consistent cross-party action of the International Development Committee in pursuing these issues underpins the Committee’s value and why, in scrutinising our official development assistance, our role in these matters is crucial. I hope the Committee or one similar will continue to scrutinise our official development assistance budget. I urge the Minister to consider that point, which has had support from across the House.
I have seen NGOs, peacekeepers and others do huge good around the world but, I am sorry to say, this is not the first time I have had to speak on these issues. As a former staff member of Oxfam and World Vision, I was utterly horrified by what I heard was happening in Haiti. At the time, I said:
“I completely share the horror and revulsion about the revelations…I feel let down. I know that many current Oxfam staff members feel completely let down, too, both by the actions of those who carried out these terrible incidents and by the failure to deal with them”.—[Official Report, 20 February 2018; Vol. 636, c. 53.]
That is absolutely crucial.
Some years later, I was horrified to hear of another example. I will not read out the name of the individual at the heart of the allegations in Haiti, not least because I cannot pronounce it, but also because he does not need his name repeated. I spoke to a former civil servant for the Department for International Development, who said that that man was well known throughout the sector and had moved from agency to agency before ending up in that situation with Oxfam.
That is a tragedy, because organisations mentioned today such as World Vision have led work internationally on these matters. One of the first issues I worked with them on was tackling the loophole that allowed paedophiles to travel to south-east Asia to abuse children. World Vision did incredible work on that, so it is a great tragedy for me that some of the organisations that have led in the fight to protect vulnerable people find these problems in their own organisations.
We have heard many excellent contributions and recommendations today, which I wholeheartedly endorse on behalf of the official Opposition. I hope the Minister will explain what progress has been made on working globally with others to implement the recommendations that the Committee has made in its several reports, not least in the light of new allegations in relation to the DRC.
I want to highlight a particular recommendation that the IDC made in its report. We cannot have platitudes, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said. It is simply not good enough. The Committee said:
“Whilst we recognise the value of developing best practice guidance and ensuring that it is widely available, we learned from our initial SEA inquiry that the existence of good guidance is only valuable to the extent that it is followed in practice.”
The Committee also warned:
“Voluntary self-regulation of safeguarding standards allows failures on sexual exploitation and abuse to slip through the cracks: in our view the case for an independent ombudsman remains strong.”
I want to highlight another area from the IDC report, which said:
“Protection for whistle-blowers should form part of all frameworks for reporting sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment of both beneficiaries and staff.”
Insufficient attention is being given to these issues. The protection of whistleblowers and the freedom of people to come forward and speak out on these issues is crucial. I wonder how the Minister will respond to those key points.
The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation recently exposed shocking reports regarding the DRC. They have horrified hon. Members across the House. The investigation was released in September and refers to 51 women who have accused aid workers of sexual exploitation and abuse during the Ebola response in the DRC. Organisations involved, allegedly, include the World Health Organisation, World Vision, UNICEF, the Alliance for International Medical Action, Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières and the International Organization for Migration.
Many of those accounts were backed up by aid agency drivers and local NGO workers, exposing multiple incidents of alleged abuse. Given the number and similarity of the accounts from the women in the eastern city of Beni—one of the epicentres of Ebola—it is likely that the abuse was widespread, but the investigation only focused on Beni. We have to accept that in these situations we are not getting the full picture of what has been going on.
I do not need to further detail the stories, which have already been mentioned, of women being plied with drinks, ambushed in offices and hospitals, some being locked in rooms by men who promised jobs or threatened to fire them if they did not comply, and, of course, forced pregnancies as a result of abuse. It is absolutely extraordinary. Men from countries including Belgium, Burkina Faso, Canada, Côte d’Ivoire, France and Guinea were named as abusers. Many women were afraid to come forward and speak out about their experiences.
With the shadow International Development Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), I wrote to the agencies implicated in that response. I am sorry to say that we have not heard back from many of them, but I commend Oxfam and World Vision for responding very robustly and rapidly. Oxfam pointed out in particular that it has now joined the inter-agency misconduct disclosure scheme, which aims to highlight perpetrators. But again I have to ask: is that working? We see these platitudes in these letters; we see these warm words. What is the reality on the ground? These examples keep happening again and again. We asked some extremely tough questions and we will continue to do so.
Oxfam also pointed out research that it was doing that had uncovered a range of aspects that prevent people from coming forward. It pointed out the issues of people not being willing to speak in certain country contexts, preferences about the way to report incidents and so on. I am not sure that that needs research. A lot of it is absolute common sense and blatantly obvious to anybody who has looked at these examples. We need to see less dilly-dallying and dithering by agencies. We need to see action on the ground, and the Government need to be supporting that.
I have some questions for the Minister, not least about the response of the FCDO itself. People may think that the issue is just aid agencies, peacekeepers or others, but unfortunately Governments and international agencies are also involved. Therefore, although we welcome the change to the new FCDO terms and conditions and human resources policies to ensure that sexual relationships between staff and beneficiaries and partners are considered unacceptable and will be treated as potential gross misconduct by the FCDO, can the Minster explain who is included within that category of staff and whether the same treatment will be applied to all staff who are contracted to Departments that are spending UK official development assistance? Is the FCDO providing adequate funding to ensure that safeguarding is at the heart of our ODA programmes with agencies, contractors and multilateral agencies?
Then there is armed forces training. The Minister will know that we give a lot of support to, for example, peacekeepers. Will he explain what is happening on that and how we are ensuring adherence to the highest standards in those we are training? Given that there needs to be co-ordination, will he also explain how the Government are looking at monitoring individuals as they move between organisations? That is one of the crucial issues that have come to light.
In conclusion, we must accept that there is a systemic problem. We have to drive systemic and cultural change within organisations in the sector and ensure that there is prevention, not just reaction.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) not just for securing this debate, but for having been a passionate voice in this area for a considerable time, and long before this issue was in the broader public consciousness. I will go through some of the UK Government’s actions, but I think that one reason why we find ourselves in a leadership position on this is that there have been voices such as my hon. Friend’s, which have been making this case for far longer than others.
I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for her chairmanship of the Select Committee and to the members of that Committee, who have pursued with alacrity this incredibly important issue.
I thank all those hon. Members who have made contributions today. We all joke about how Westminster Hall is a much better debating place than the main Chamber of the House of Commons, but with this debate it has been shown once again that, sometimes, difficult and challenging questions can be asked in good faith, with a desire to bring about positive change, rather than just as a short-term political stick to beat each other with across the aisle. I will respond as much as I can to the points that have been made.
Sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment are completely unacceptable, especially in a sector whose purpose is to help the most vulnerable. My concern sometimes is that these stories are used by critics of ODA spending as an excuse for the UK to withdraw from its international commitments. I will say this clearly: no, it is a reason for us to work harder to address these issues rather than to step away from them.
In 2018, the aid sector’s failure to tackle sexual exploitation came into sharp relief, and it has been raised by a number of people today. We now realise—indeed, it is very clear—that it was far from an isolated incident. That has been reinforced today. The hon. Member for Rotherham highlighted the pernicious cocktail of attitudes that are, unfortunately, if not prevalent, then certainly not isolated in the aid sector, and that lead some people to believe that the people they are meant to be helping are somehow lesser than them.
The case is therefore clear: we must do more to drive up safeguarding standards, and we must act quickly. Inevitably, there will be a power and wealth imbalance in the sector that we are talking about, but we must never accept the inevitability that that should lead to sexual exploitation and abuse.
Since 2018, the UK has spearheaded work to tackle sexual misconduct in the aid sector. We launched a £10 million multi-year initiative with Interpol to identify and stop perpetrators from working in the sector and, with a UK commitment of £10 million, we developed tools to help organisations with their safeguarding. The misconduct disclosure scheme, backed by the UK, prevented at least 36 people with track records of sexual misconduct from being employed by NGOs in 2019. Following wide consultation, we have designed a new multi-million-pound programme of support to survivors and victims. We will provide further details in 2021.
Yet cases still occur far too frequently, as we have seen in the horrific reports from the DRC, and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is absolutely right that we have to assume that that is just the tip of the iceberg. Reporting has increased—which perversely, I suppose, is a positive sign. We know that there has been, as is often the case with sexual abuse, huge under-reporting, both domestically and internationally.
Tackling sexual misconduct is a priority for the UK Government. In September, we published our first aid sector safeguarding strategy. The UK is pushing for change in three areas. First is sector-wide change. The UK is providing global leadership to tackle the issue from the top. The Prime Minister is a member of the UN Secretary General’s Circle of Leadership to prevent and end sexual exploitation and abuse. The UK brings together donors, NGOs, the United Nations and others to ensure a coherent international approach. We adhere to global standards on sexual misconduct and require our partners to do the same. In 2019, we helped to write and signed the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s recommendations on the issue, with 29 other DAC members.
Organisational change within the UK Government is our second priority; that means a comprehensive look at our own cultures and practices. We have sent a clear message out to all staff that safeguarding is a responsibility for everybody, and we hope that will alleviate the challenge of where victims have to report to their abusers. At the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, that includes a clear statement in our staff code of conduct that sexual exploitation and abuse based on power imbalances, including paying for sex—my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire is absolutely right; I will not describe that as prostitution, because that is not what it is: it is abuse—is gross misconduct. All ODA-spending Departments have signed up to that language.
Thirdly, we want to raise standards among those who deliver UK programmes overseas. We have strengthened our due diligence assessments and aligned the safeguarding language in our multilateral funding agreements with other donors, clearly setting out our collective expectations. Reaching our standards can be a challenge for some small grass-roots organisations, so the UK has created the resource and support hub to help build up their safeguarding capabilities. Some might argue that we are not tough enough and should cut funding to all organisations where any allegations occur. Our concern is that that would introduce a perverse incentive to cover up the very issues that we need to see more of.
Does that apply to all staff in all Departments spending ODA and all those contracted to those Departments? That is important.
On the language that I used about gross misconduct, the t’s and c’s of the FCDO can apply only to the FCDO, but all ODA-spending Government Departments have agreed with the wording underpinning that. All Departments signed up to the language in the UK strategy. It is about trying to ensure that we do not introduce perverse incentives that would drive the issue back underground, as we have seen before.
Regrettably, safeguarding cases will still occur from time to time. However, we collectively work to reduce the risk, and we will not tolerate a lack of effort or action. That is why we require our partners to do all they reasonably can to prevent sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment and to respond sensitively to the victims and robustly within organisations. We will not fund partners who do not reach those standards.
Let me end by saying that more needs to be done. Sadly, we have heard that this issue will be an enduring challenge, and the UK will remain at the forefront. We will place the rights, needs and wishes of victims and survivors and the centre of our response. The UK strategy sets out four commitments for all Departments delivering UK aid: we will continue to provide global leadership; we will hold ourselves to the same high standards that we expect of others; we will transform the aid sector so that everybody is treated with dignity and respect; and we will hold ourselves to account through transparent reporting and external scrutiny. Safeguarding against sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment is everybody’s responsibility, and the Government will continue to lead the way on this issue.
First, I do not wish to condemn all aid workers, because there are some amazing aid workers out there. However, far too many are abusive to women and need to be stopped, so I am pleased to hear some of the things that the Minister has said.
I believe that whistleblowers need much more support. They need support to be able to come forward, and they do not need condemning, which has sometimes been the case. They also need to be guaranteed a job afterwards, because many of them come forward and never work again. It is a shocking state of affairs.
I thank all hon. Members present for their support. What I find most interesting is that two current members of the International Development Committee, and some past members, have spoken powerfully of the IDC. The other Back Benchers who have spoken have made excellent contributions. It is interesting that the Back Benchers we have heard from include four women and two men, whereas the Front Bench spokespersons are all men. That is not to decry their abilities or anything else, but one of the problems that we have in this debate is that there are not enough women at the top. There are not enough women leaders in charities and in peacekeeping areas—the men tend to rise to the top. It is important to accept that we need to ensure that more women are involved.
I would like to see no abuse happening. That is unlikely, but we need to make it much easier for people to come forward. I believe that victims will feel much more comfortable coming to talk to women than to men—that is just a fact of life.
I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure he will appreciate that we must continue to scrutinise the aid budget not just through FCDO, but through the other Departments, because who will look at that funding if there is no follow-on Committee from the IDC? It will be in nobody’s remit to do that, and it is important that somebody is watching out for sexual exploitation. We need to continue the IDC’s work not just on this issue, but on many others. Spending a large amount of taxpayers’ money needs scrutiny. In this case, it is vital that somebody is looking at it through the different Departments.
I thank the Minister very much for his assurance that things are happening in FCDO, but he has no influence, of course, over what happens in other Departments. It is vital to move on and move forward with the changes that have happened in his Department—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the sitting for two minutes.