Keoghs Insight

Author

Lauranne Nolan

Statutory supervision comes to an end for Oxfam but is it really the end?

Blogs10/05/2021

The Charity Commission has recently lifted its statutory supervision of Oxfam GB after concluding that the charity has significantly strengthened its approach to keeping people safe.

Background

In November 2017 the Charity Commission formally engaged with Oxfam as a result of concerns regarding safeguarding allegations involving senior staff. Oxfam GB agreed to an action plan that was due to be completed by March 2018 to address weaknesses identified by the Commission in its safeguarding.

However, events were overtaken in February 2018 when concerns surfaced publicly about events in Haiti in 2010. The allegations claimed that Oxfam staff had sex with prostitutes, some of whom may have been underage. Subsequently, additional allegations arose about the conduct of Oxfam staff in the Philippines in 2013. These also alleged sexual misconduct. As a result, on 12 February 2018 the Commission opened an inquiry. The inquiry was tasked with examining Oxfam GB’s governance, including leadership and culture of safeguarding matters, and their management, policies and practices.

On 7 June 2019, when the inquiry ended, the Commission exercised its legal powers and issued an official warning under section 75A of the Charities Act 2011. The action was taken in order to give assurances to the public that the charity was being held to account for past failings and to provide confidence that there had been sanctions for previous failings where the charity had fallen short on its safeguarding responsibilities.

The warning was issued on the following grounds;

  • Failure to take appropriate decisions during 2015 to 2017 in relation to safeguarding to ensure there was adequate resourcing and capability to match the level of risk faced by the charity.
  • Failure to ensure, prior to improvements made in 2018, that adequate systems and processes were put in place which would have enabled regular monitoring and reporting of safeguarding risks.
  • Failure in the handling of events involving staff misconduct in Haiti, including a failure to apply disciplinary processes, policies and procedures consistently. This subsequently exposed the charity to scrutiny and adverse criticism about its handling of events, damaging the level of trust the public had in the organisation.
  • Upon receipt in July 2011 of concerns that two girls under 14 years of age in Haiti might be at risk of sexual exploitation, there was a failure to manage the risks and to report to both local law enforcement and the Commission.

Conclusions

The inquiry found that the charity’s governance and culture with regard to safeguarding had repeatedly fallen below standards expected and failed to meet promises made. In addition, between 2012 and 2017 their resourcing and capabilities did not adequately match the risks being faced by the charity. This in turn led to a workforce that was not supported or confident enough to challenge poor behaviours, nor did the workforce have the necessary confidence in management and systems for reporting concerns.

The inquiry did however recognise that the charity had made significant progress to improve weaknesses in its safeguarding since 2017 and during the period of the inquiry, although significant further cultural and systemic change was still required to fully address the failings and weaknesses identified.

Overall Progress

The charity has since been subject to a period of statutory supervision. In total, Oxfam GB committed to implementing and addressing 100 actions and recommendations arising from the inquiry.

The independent regulator who was responsible for overseeing the Oxfam GB’s progress and providing an independent assessment concluded that the charity: “has satisfactorily attained the overwhelming majority of the 100 recommendations and commitments in the Review and the Action Plan, with only four areas of exceptions to be addressed and some strengthening still required in areas not fully met. Nevertheless, these should be put into perspective and into context the enormous collective efforts that have resulted in substantial changes to the way Oxfam approaches safeguarding…”

The charity has implemented wide-ranging changes to its organisational culture, and strengthened its approach, resources and processes meaning that people connected to the charity are now better protected against abuse, exploitation, and other forms of harm, in line with the high standards required of UK aid partners. The Commission stressed that although effective safeguarding is never complete, it was satisfied that its period of statutory supervision could end and the charity has reverted to the Commission’s standard regulatory oversight as of 25 February 2021.

However, around the same time Oxfam received a ten page letter signed by more than 20 current and former staff containing allegations against 11 people. The allegations related to abuses of power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and range from sexual harassment to intimidation and corruption. Oxfam confirmed they suspended two aid workers as part of the resulting investigation and that the allegations have been reported to the Charity Commission. We await updates as to what next steps will be taken.

For more information, please contact Lauranne Nolan, Solicitor.