With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on my Department’s response to the sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated by charity workers in Haiti in 2011, and on the measures we are taking to improve safeguarding across the aid sector.
Let me start by paying tribute to Sean O’Neill of The Times and to the two sets of whistleblowers—those in 2011 and later—for bringing this case to light. On 9 February, The Times reported that when certain Oxfam staff were in Haiti in 2011, they had abused their positions of trust and paid for sex with local women. The incidents happened in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions more homeless and reliant on aid for basic needs such as food and shelter. That is shocking, but it is not by itself what has caused such concern about Oxfam’s safeguarding—it was what Oxfam then did.
In chaotic and desperate situations, the very best safeguarding procedures and practices must be put in to place to prevent harm, but when organisations fail to report and follow up incidents of wrongdoing that occur, it undermines trust and sends a message that sexual exploitation and abuse are tolerated. We cannot prevent sexual exploitation and abuse if we do not demonstrate zero tolerance. In such circumstances, we must be able to trust organisations not only to do all they can to prevent harm, but to report and follow up incidents of wrongdoing when they occur.
In that duty Oxfam failed, on the watch of Barbara Stocking and Penny Lawrence. They did not provide a full report to the Charity Commission. They did not provide a full report to their donors. They did not provide any report to prosecuting authorities. In my view, they misled, quite possibly deliberately, even as their report concluded that their investigation could not rule out the allegation that some of the women involved were actually children. They did not think it was necessary to report that to the police either in Haiti or in the country of origin of those accountable. I believe that their motivation appears to be the protection of the organisation’s reputation. They put that before those they were there to help and protect, which is a complete betrayal of trust, a betrayal of those who sent them there—the British people—and a betrayal of all those Oxfam staff and volunteers who put the people they serve first.
Last week, I met Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam, and Caroline Thomson, Oxfam’s chair of trustees. I made three demands of them: that they fully co-operate with the Haitian authorities, handing over all evidence they hold; that they report staff members involved in the incident to their respective national Governments; and that they make clear how they will handle any forthcoming allegations around safeguarding, historical or live. I stressed that, for me, holding to account those who made the decision not to report, and to let those potentially guilty of criminal activity slip away, was a necessity in winning back confidence in Oxfam.
As a result of those discussions, Oxfam has agreed to withdraw from bidding for any new UK Government funding until the Department for International Development is satisfied that it can meet the high safeguarding standards we expect of our partners. I will take a decision on current programming after 26 February —at that time, I will have further information that will help me to decide whether I need to adjust how that is currently delivered.
Given the concerns about the wider sector this case has raised, I have written to every UK charity working overseas that receives UK aid—192 organisations—insisting that they spell out the steps they are taking to ensure that their safeguarding policies are fully in place, and that they confirm that they have referred all concerns they have about specific cases and individuals to the relevant authorities, including prosecuting authorities. I have set the deadline of 26 February for replies. We are also conducting in parallel an exercise to make clear our standards to all non-UK charity partners— 393 organisations in total—and to all our suppliers, including those in the private sector, which number more than 500 organisations, and to remind them of their obligations. We are doing the same with all multilateral partners.
The UK Government reserve the right to take whatever decisions about present or future funding for Oxfam or any other organisation we deem necessary. We have been very clear that we will not work with any organisation that does not live up to the high standards on safeguarding and protection that we require. We will share this approach with other Governments Departments responsible for ODA spend. Although that work is not yet complete, it is clear from the Charity Commission reporting data, and lack of it from some organisations, that cultural change is needed to ensure that all that can be done to stop sexual exploitation in the aid sector is being done.
We need to take some practical steps and set up our own systems now—we should not wait for the United Nations to take action. My Department and the Charity Commission will hold a safeguarding summit on 5 March, where we will meet UK international development charities, regulators and experts to confront safeguarding failures and agree practical measures, such as an aid worker accreditation scheme that we in the UK can use. Later in the year, we will take this programme of work to a wide-ranging global safeguarding conference to drive action across the whole international aid sector. I am pleased to say that the US, Canada, Netherlands and others have already agreed to support our goals of improving safeguarding standards across the sector. The UK is not waiting for others to act and will take the lead.
We have been speaking to colleagues across Government and beyond about what more we can do to stop exploitation and abuse in the UN and the broader multilateral system. The message from us to all parts of the UN is clear: they can either get their house in order, or they can prepare to carry out their good work without our money.
We welcome the UN’s announcement on 14 February that it does not and will not claim immunity for sexual abuse cases. That sends a clear signal that the UN is not a soft target, but we must hold it to account for that. Further actions we have taken in the past week include the creation of a new safeguarding unit. We have also promoted our whistleblowing and reporting phone line to encourage anyone with information on safeguarding issues to contact us. We have appointed Sheila Drew Smith, a recent member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who has agreed to bring her expertise and her challenge to support my Department’s ambition on safeguarding. She will report to me directly. We have asked to meet leaders of the audit profession to discuss what more they can do to provide independent assurance over safeguarding to the organisations that DFID partners with globally.
I have held my own Department to the same scrutiny that I am demanding of others. I have asked the Department to go through our centrally held human resources systems and our fraud and whistleblowing records as far back as they exist. I am assured that there are no centrally recorded cases that were dealt with incorrectly. Separately we are reviewing any locally reported allegations of sexual misconduct involving DFID staff and delivery partners. To date, our review of staff cases has looked at 75% of our teams across DFID and will complete within a fortnight. Our investigations are still ongoing. If, during this process, we discover any historical or current cases that have not been dealt with appropriately, I will report on our handling of them to Parliament.
DFID, other Government Departments and the National Crime Agency work closely together when serious allegations of potentially criminal activity in partner organisations are brought to our attention. We are strengthening this work, as the new strategy director at the NCA will take on a lead role for the aid sector. I am calling on anyone who has any concerns about abuse or exploitation in the sector to come forward and report them to our counter-fraud and whistleblowing team. Details are on the DFID website and all communications will be treated in complete confidence. Later today, I have further meetings with the Defence Secretary regarding peacekeeping troops, and the Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport regarding the charity sector.[Official Report, 21 February 2018, Vol. 636, c. 3MC.]
My absolute priority is to keep the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people safe from harm. It is utterly despicable that sexual exploitation and abuse continue to exist in the aid sector. The recent reports should be a wake-up call to us all. Now is the time for us to act. But as we do, we should note the good people working across the world in the sector—saving lives, often by endangering their own—and all those, from fundraisers to trustees, who make that work possible. Since news of this scandal broke just a week ago, UK aid and aid workers have helped to vaccinate 850,000 children against polio. We should recognise that that good work can only be done with the support of the British people. I commend this statement to the House.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and thank her for advance sight of it. I join her in utter disgust at the stories that have emerged in recent days of incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation, and of the appalling culture of silence.
Let me say very clearly that, for the Haitian women and girls fighting to survive an earthquake who were exploited and abused, it is just not good enough; for the British public and loyal Oxfam supporters who donate time, money, taxes and support, it is just not good enough; and for those of us in this House who support charities such as Oxfam to save lives in crisis and to tackle the root causes of injustice, it is just not good enough. We need reform.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has written to taxpayer-funded charities to ask for written assurance that they have safeguards in place, but I am not convinced that that will do the job. We need each charity to tell us how many cases they are aware of, how they have been resolved and whether there could be others. We need a full, sector-wide picture to be reported back to Parliament. The inquiry must target not only UK charities funded by DFID, but private suppliers, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations in developing countries and charities funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK embassies and other Government Departments. The Secretary of State says that she has asked those agencies for assurance. Will she tell us the timeframe for that?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s swift commitment to a safeguarding summit on 5 March. Out of that summit must now come a real commitment to reform: tightening international criminal regulations; establishing a global passport or register for humanitarian workers; and setting up an independent regulator or a centre of excellence. Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly when later on this year that will happen, so that the House will know when to expect to see real reforms? Reform must not just improve tools and procedures. Our aid agencies are supposed to set an example and challenge the abuse of power—always, everywhere. Reform must also involve aid agencies themselves looking at their culture, redistributing power, challenging its abuses, and putting people before their reputation. This is what aid agencies must now do, and a Labour Government will help them to do it.
Over the past 10 days, some have tried to use this scandal and weaponise it to call for the UK to end its commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid. That is absolutely shameful. Our aid budget does not just save millions of lives: it is also our best chance to stop sexual abuse and exploitation. Taking Syria alone, in the first half of 2017, UK aid supported 4,687 survivors of sexual violence. Last year, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone, the UK got to help up to 1,979 survivors of sexual violence within the first 72 hours. We owe it to those women and girls to keep some perspective. When an abuse scandal hits Westminster, the Church or the Army, nobody seriously suggests shutting the whole thing down. So let us root out the bad apples, focus on fixing the system, and have the conviction to stand up proudly for the good that UK aid can still do, which, even at this darkest moment, far exceeds the evil.
The Secretary of State has said that she believes in aid, but I have not heard her call out those shameful opportunists, including her own predecessor and many in her own party, who have jumped on this scandal and attacked aid. Well, if she will not, then I will, because it is wrong. It does an injustice to our country and it will distract us from what really needs to happen—reforms that are badly, badly needed.
I thank the hon. Lady for the support that she has given to the sector, for her recognition of the good work that does actually go on and for her support—ongoing, I hope—for the practical measures that we are taking forward. There are many things that we can do to influence others, but we need to take some practical action. We need, at the very least, to get the UK aid sector in order, with a catalyst effect on others in also raising their game. In addition to the accreditation system, this may include, for example, co-ordinating our requirements in our funding agreements with third parties. That is what will help to drive change.
I do not recognise the caricature that the hon. Lady paints of my predecessor. In fact, I should pay tribute to my predecessor for what she did to try to raise this with the UN. That is important, but it is also important that we work with the component parts of the UN. Ultimately, as I said in my statement, if we cannot be assured of the practices within these organisations, we should not fund them. That is the sanction that we have. I pay tribute to the other Secretaries of State in the Department who set up the systems that I am now able to interrogate to provide confidence to this House and to the public.
Let me turn to the other points that the hon. Lady raised. The activities that I have outlined and that I am undertaking are only part of what is going on. The Charity Commission is the body that is taking a lead, as it has been since we beefed up its responsibilities in 2016 to take a greater role in these issues, with charities having to report to it the numbers of cases involved. I am not going to duplicate that work. However, I want to see that work improving and to see that, where the commission has concerns, they are properly reported to the National Crime Agency. That needs to work better. The Charity Commission is obviously doing its own investigation, and it is right that it takes the lead on that.
For organisations based in the UK, I have set the deadline of 26 February. For other organisations that are not based in the UK, it will be in a fortnight. We need to move swiftly on this. Although I am asking for written confirmation about organisations’ policies and any historical or live cases, that is an important step in allowing people to come forward now if they have any outstanding issues.
The safeguarding summit on 5 March will have a UK focus, with our own charities and organisations, but international partners have also asked if they can attend. We have not finalised a date for the follow-up conference, but we want to do it swiftly. We will be working with other nations to find a suitable time to get the right people in the room. It is important that we do not just talk about this but make some agreements and put some things into action.
I have not heard people attack the aid budget over this. I actually think people have shown maturity in recognising the seriousness of this issue. This is not an event that should cause us not to give money to charity, not to carry out aid work and not to vote some of our budget towards that. That is the approach I have heard, and I hope it will continue as we carry out this important work.
It is clear that my right hon. Friend has handled these shattering circumstances extremely well and correctly. Can she confirm that none of the trustees or senior management at Oxfam at the time of those dreadful events is still in post today? Will she join me in thanking the overwhelming majority of wonderful people of deep integrity who work in the development sector, often at some considerable risk to themselves, for the remarkable work they do in very difficult places, which reflects so well on Britain and our international development efforts?
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he says. We should be proud of those people and what they do. I have made it clear to Oxfam that we cannot have confidence in an organisation that still has sitting on its board or among its employees people whose judgment was so fundamentally flawed. I note that following that discussion, Penny Lawrence left the organisation. The Charity Commission is conducting its own investigation, and I know it will be particularly concerned about the role of trustees. I am not going to call for resignations. We need to investigate and look at the facts, and we need to hold the individuals responsible for this accountable.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. The Scottish National party is horrified at these revelations. Any form of sexual misconduct is completely and utterly unacceptable. Today’s appearance by Oxfam and others before the International Development Committee has left many questions unanswered. There needs therefore to be a fuller inquiry into the reported sickening events in Haiti and others emerging by the day. Allegations have now been made against Médecins sans Frontières, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee. We hear a lot of apologies, but we need deeds to match those words.
Sadly, a picture has now emerged of a culture of bullying, harassment, sexual abuse and racism among agencies around the world. All the good and essential work of this vital sector has been deeply damaged by not just what has happened but the way it has been dealt with. We heard today that many individuals responsible for these appalling activities were not dealt with and instead were often just passed on to other agencies and charities. There clearly has to be accountability and safeguards put in place to rebuild that trust. Wherever we see this type of behaviour, whether in the aid sector, Hollywood or politics, it must not be tolerated.
It is deeply concerning that some members of this Government have not shied away from their desire to see the aid budget cut. This scandal must not be used by the Secretary of State as a tool for cutting aid funding. I therefore call on her to confirm today in this House unequivocally that organisations will not have funds unduly stripped from them as they go about their vital work in some of the most vulnerable communities on this earth.
The international aid sector does fantastic work, and we cannot let this scandal overshadow the overwhelmingly positive actions done and support given around the world by many. However, we need to get to the root of these events and make sure, with robust safeguards, that they never happen again, or if they do, that action is taken immediately.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he says. We should note that the Charity Commission, as well as doing other work, is liaising with its counterparts in the devolved nations, which will be part of any such work.
It was this Government who brought in the 0.7% target. We think that is right and has helped, and that other nations around the world look to us as a development superpower. If we want to meet the sustainable development goals, we need to ensure that we spend that money really well. I want to get the money to work harder: there are always improvements we can drive. We are committed to the 0.7% target.
On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, I will wait until I have information back, not just about Oxfam, but about all other delivery partners to which I may transfer work. Until I have back that information, I will not make decisions about current programming, because the welfare of beneficiaries and the safety of staff in the field are my prime concerns.
I thank the Secretary of State for the truly amazing work she is doing. That is quite often said in this House, but having sat through three and a half hours in the Select Committee listening to Oxfam, I came away realising how appalling the situation really is. May I, however, urge her not to leap into action too quickly, given, horrifically, that we have no understanding at the moment of the size of the problem? It is quite possible that predatory individuals, including predatory paedophiles, actually go into international situations, as they go into domestic situations, to abuse others. While I do not want to taint the people who go into such professions either in the UK or internationally, we may very well be on the precipice of a much bigger problem than simply Oxfam and a few others.
I note my hon. Friend’s concerns, but I think we do need to act now. This has obviously been triggered by a specific case, but we have known for a long time that this is a problem. It is a difficult problem to crack, but we have to start making moves to crack it. Having spoken to my opposite numbers in other nations, I can tell him that they are of the same mind. By getting to grips with this—putting in measures that will not by themselves solve the problem, but will help—we will also send a message to predatory individuals that the aid sector is not a safe haven for them.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, and I commend her for her swift action over the past 10 days. This morning, the Select Committee decided that we will hold a full inquiry into this issue. Does she agree with me that as well as Oxfam having to get its house in order and the action that DFID needs to take, international action will be crucial if we are to prevent another such crisis ever happening again in the future?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I thank him for the hearing this morning and for the inquiry that he is going to undertake, which will help the situation dramatically. He is right: we can get our own house in order and take a lead on this, but, ultimately, the component parts of the UN and other organisations in the international community must also follow suit. We also have to tackle the other enormous issues on the fringe of what we are discussing—in particular, UN peacekeeping troops. These are not easy things to crack, but we have to crack them.
Many thousands of incredible people work in the aid sector, helping some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, and it is the betrayal of trust in organisations such as Oxfam that I think has caused the current outcry. Not only has Oxfam tried to cover up sex crimes by its workers, but in doing so it has shown a flagrant disregard for the criminal justice system in Haiti. Should the UK Government ever be working with an organisation that thinks it is above the law in one of the poorest countries in the world, such as Haiti?
This case is truly shocking and it may be that prosecutions result from what has gone on. We need to take stock of the sector, which is why I commissioned the review of what our partners are doing. It is also absolutely vital that we are very clear with any organisation we work with about what we expect from them. We often say “zero tolerance”, but we have to live that and mean that, and there have to be consequences when people breach the requirements we have of them. I said last week in Stockholm at the End Violence against Children conference that there is no organisation too big, or our work with them too complex, that we will not withhold funding from them if they do not meet those standards.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. She will know that this morning’s Select Committee meeting highlighted not only the really grotesque actions of a number of Oxfam staff in Haiti in 2011, but the fact that the whole sector has been far too slow to address the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation. Does she agree that at this stage three things are important: first, there has to be full accountability; secondly, action needs to be taken internationally, and an international register of humanitarian workers would help with that; and, thirdly, recognising the vital work the vast majority of aid workers do, nothing must be done to jeopardise UK aid to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world?
I commend the Secretary of State for her statement and gently say to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) that this is not an issue on which anybody should be seeking to make any form of political capital. This is not the subject of party politics; this is an appalling situation. About a year ago, I went to the Zaatari refugee camp as a guest of Oxfam. I saw the great work that so many of its workers do. Those workers represent the majority of people who work for our great British charities. Can the Secretary of State assure us all that the action she has to take—nobody disputes that—will not affect the beneficiaries of that work and that their interests will be absolutely paramount?
I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. That is why, although Oxfam has said it will not bid for any new funding, I have paused what I am going to do with current programming until I have assurances about every other partner operating in the same theatres. I will then take a decision on whether I can have confidence in what Oxfam is currently doing in those locations, or whether I need to adjust how we are doing that aid delivery.
I completely share the horror and revulsion about the revelations. I praise the Secretary of State for the very robust and comprehensive way in which she has handled the situation over the past 10 days. As a former Oxfam staff member, 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 robustly at the time. The Secretary of State mentioned the situation regarding UN peacekeeping. That area has long been on public record as one where there has been serious sexual abuse and exploitation, with the use of prostitutes and all sorts of terrible things. Will she say a little more about the conversation she is going to have with the Defence Secretary and others about how we can ensure very high standards, in particular when UK funding is being used to support that important work, where there have been serious abuses?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. It is good that the message has gone out from this House that we recognise the good work that is done by many people working and volunteering for Oxfam. We can all go into our local Oxfam shop and give them our support at the weekend, and we should do that. We should recognise that our armed forces have already done a lot to raise the standards of peacekeeping troops. We do a huge amount of capacity building. We do a huge amount of work to address gender-based violence and exploitation and to enable people to recover in the aftermath of conflict and war. We have huge expertise and I am very interested in how we can use that expertise. I have spoken to other nations with similar programmes, such as Canada, to see what we can do to help to raise standards. I am open to ideas, but that is the nature of the conversation I will be having with the Defence Secretary.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on taking a firm and robust stance from day one. Some charities may feel that there is a disincentive in the system to being open and transparent because of the need to bid for Government money and to appeal to the generous British public. Does she agree that the reputation of the big charities, as well as their outcomes, depends on being open and transparent, and not having obfuscation and cover-up?
I agree with my hon. Friend. If any charity thinks that it is a good idea to put their reputation before their beneficiaries, they need to look at what is happening to Oxfam now. It is also important to set a culture in which people are not afraid to report. Ironically, Oxfam is one of the better organisations for reporting numbers to the Charity Commission. I am also looking at where there are gaps, with organisations not reporting incidents and concerns. Reporting and numbers are not necessarily a bad thing, but it is about the practices surrounding that and what organisations do when they know that something has gone wrong.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, her actions on the horrific events and her assurance that the Government’s commitment to helping the world’s poorest is undimmed. This is not only a charity sector problem, a parliamentary problem, or a Hollywood problem; it is a pervasive, persistent problem across sectors, society and the world. Vulnerable people—mostly women and children—are sexually objectified, exploited and abused by people with power, who are mostly men. Given the cross-cutting nature of this gendered violence, what discussions is the Secretary of State having across Government to take action to change the culture on sexual harassment and abuse across the board and to ensure that systems are in place to hold perpetrators to account?
As the hon. Lady will appreciate, in the immediate case I am concerned with a small slice of that, but I have been asking questions about how we hold Government Departments to account for our safeguarding work. I have also strengthened our whistleblowing practices with external oversight and, as I mentioned in my statement, we have written to other Government Departments that administer official development assistance spend.
This is a cultural change, and the Nolan principles of public life can help with the work that the Government do. Since 2013, we have had the UN’s code of conduct enshrined in our staff behaviour rules, and now that this incident has come to light, we are strengthening those rules by making explicit what we expect from all our staff. It does not matter whether prostitution is legal in a country or not; if someone is working for us, they cannot take part in those activities.
Will the Secretary of State stress that her Department makes no distinction about where a charity gets its money from—whether it is from Government or the charitable giving of British citizens—and that we will judge a charity by its deeds? When bad happens, as in the Oxfam case, the real victims are not Oxfam, which has now lost 7,000 subscribers, but the people on the ground, such as those in Haiti. They are the ones who really suffer.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The beneficiaries of aid are the victims in the Oxfam scandal, not anyone else. I absolutely recognise that individuals and members of the public will judge charities on how they respond, how they operate and their practices and responsibilities towards their beneficiaries. My Department has a particular responsibility to investigate those who are in receipt of UK aid, and the Charity Commission will look at the whole sector.
Following the International Development Committee’s hearing this morning, a number of areas for immediate action were raised. One was about charities’ ability to do a Disclosure and Barring Service check—formerly a Criminal Records Bureau check—for all their workers. Will the Secretary of State take immediate action to ensure that they can do that by including them as a regulated class of profession?
Secondly, we were told today that Interpol is ready to open up a register but lacks the finances to do so. Will the Secretary of State ensure that we put all resources into Interpol to make sure that that register is open, to stop paedophiles working in this sector?
The summit on 5 March will consider what we think needs to happen in the UK aid sector, so it might look at such checks or accreditation schemes and what form they should take. When I was in Stockholm I also touched base with the National Crime Agency’s liaison officer to Interpol and discussed the issue briefly. Funding an Interpol system might not be the answer, but this is an important issue and we cannot deliver our work unless we can ensure that the vulnerable are protected, so we need to resource that.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State mentioned Oxfam shops because, as she will know, they can operate only because an army of volunteers selflessly and kindly give up their time. Does she agree that the Government should do all they can to ensure that those people are in no way undermined by the wicked actions of a few people?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. We can show our support for those individuals, who are good people and will be dismayed by what the leadership of their organisation has done. I think that they and the public have this issue in balance, because we know that this is not representative of the UK charity sector. We have a unique charity sector in this country—it is a jewel—and this is a stain on it. This is about a minority of individuals, but unless we really tackle these issues, the whole sector will be tarnished. I think that we can all show our support for those individuals who give up their time to do good work.
As I have said, I am reviewing all the partners we work with. If during the course of the investigation further things come to light that raise concerns about our ability to deliver aid in a particular location, I want to be sure that we have alternatives available, assessed and in place. We will have those answers after 26 February. I again assure the House that, whatever I do, no recipient of aid will suffer as a consequence.
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is referring to the Oxfam case. That case is obviously an issue for Haiti, but I have also made it a requirement that Oxfam reports those individuals to their own national Governments, and that has taken place. When these incidents arise, or if organisations receive serious allegations, they should report them to their donors and to their equivalent of the Charity Commission, but it is very clear that they must also report them to their prosecuting authorities.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the personal grip that she has taken on the issue. She is the named individual in Her Majesty’s Government who has taken responsibility for tackling this. If it is not the Secretary-General, who is the named individual in the United Nations who should be gripping this issue in the way that she has done in this country?
The Secretary-General is the leader. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East spoke to him last week, and I spoke to his deputy in person. In the wake of this, they have clarified—if I may put it that way—their line on the issue. But we must also be concerned about the practical realities of them delivering that. We can talk to them and get assurances, press statements and letters, but it is the component parts of the UN that actually have to comply with those requirements. I am afraid that the only way we will do that is by dealing with them directly and, if we are not satisfied, withholding funding from those organisations.
Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the fact that other Ministers, and the Charity Commission, were made aware of worries over safeguarding back in 2015, but no action was taken at that stage? Does it also concern her that the loophole relating to charity shops, as retail venues, remains? That does not apply to Oxfam, which changed its procedures once the activity was discovered to have occurred, but it may persist in the case of other charities. The Secretary of State does not seem to be concerned about that. Will she let us know why?
Finally, does the Secretary of State appreciate that, notwithstanding her assurances, many of my constituents —a number of whom have been employed by Oxfam as international development workers—are desperately concerned about the weaponising of these revelations by people wishing to argue against international aid, and that their concerns should not be dismissed out of hand?
First, I can assure the hon. Lady that, in respect of the Oxfam case, the Charity Commission was not informed. In fact—I think that this is important—the commission has described the circumstances of which I have informed the House today as “inappropriate sexual behaviour”, “harassment”, and the bullying of employees. That is not in any way an accurate reflection of the events that took place.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), the Civil Society Minister, is looking into all these issues, including the extension of checks to all retail outlets. I think that there are probably smarter ways of doing this, and if we find that if there is more to be done, we will need to do it.
I am sorry, but I cannot remember the hon. Lady’s last point. [Hon. Members: “You have done it.”] Okay—thanks.
I know that this involves the constituency of the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), but unfortunately—forgive me—if a question is too long, it is quite easy for a Minister to forget some of it. There is a lesson there. The hon. Lady is an extremely dexterous contributor, and we all learn from these situations.
Given the heroism of many aid workers in difficult circumstances, it is literally tragic to hear of a handful who decided to exploit such a situation to fulfil their own sexual proclivities. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me by telling me what work her Department’s new safeguarding review unit will do to ensure that people are protected throughout the aid sector?
We need to do several things, but, in a nutshell, we need to ensure that every organisation is doing all in its power to prevent such actions from taking place. But if and when they do take place—we must recognise that people are working with a huge number of organisations, including local organisations, in what is, quite frankly, chaos—we must ensure that they are reported and dealt with appropriately, that those who have done things wrong are held to account, and that the whole process is transparent.
Yes. Since this story broke, we have received a number of suggestions from a number of organisations. We need to decide what we in the UK think is the best course of action, and that is what we will do on 5 March, with experts and representatives of the UK sector. We will then share that work with our fellow nations and do something together. That is the plan of action.
We have good practices and procedures in place, and I have confidence in what my Department does. However, we work not only with the Oxfams and the Save the Childrens of this world, but with a raft of other organisations further down the supply chain. We must ensure that we can have confidence in the whole of that process. There are individuals whom we can accredit and register, but that will not be possible in the case of other partners on the ground, so we must also ensure that we have the right oversight wherever in the world we are working.
Extremely serious though they are, we should not allow these ongoing revelations to be used as a pretext to undermine the UK’s financial commitment to overseas development aid. A significant number of influential people who are now being vocal on the issue seem to be trying to exploit them for that, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s reassurances in that regard. Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the ulterior motives of certain people of influence, who are conveniently jumping on this issue, despite being silent on other forms of abuse and sexual exploitation when they occur in other sectors and other parts of our society?
I do not think that is how people are responding to this situation; I think the bulk of people in this House and in the country want us to get a grip on this particular issue. As I said, we are committed to 0.7%—we introduced it; it has been in our manifesto; we are committed to it. We are also committed to spending it really well and ensuring that, in spending it, we are working with organisations that we can trust and that put their beneficiaries first.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, her determination and her strength of character. A whistleblower hotline has been set up; can the Secretary of State assure this House that those who use it will not be disadvantaged in employment as a result, and can she confirm whether there has been any usage of the hotline so far?
The hotline itself is not new. It has been in place for some years, and it is a discrete unit, so people are dealt with in complete confidence; neither I, the permanent secretary nor any other part of the organisation are aware of calls that come in, and they are investigated separately and discreetly, but once investigations are concluded, we obviously know the result of them. So, yes, it has been used, and it has been very effective. As I said in my statement, through our interrogation of that system on historical cases, we can say that all those cases have been dealt with appropriately.