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17 June 2019

The Oxfam Report – lessons for the charity sector

On 11 June 2019 the Charity Commission published its report of its statutory inquiry into safeguarding practices at Oxfam GB (the Report).

The Report follows the breaking of the story in 2018 in the Times of allegations regarding sexual misconduct of Oxfam staff in Haiti in 2011 and is the culmination of a complex and lengthy review by the Commission into the charity’s governance, including leadership and culture around safeguarding matters, and its management, policies and practices.

The revelations regarding Oxfam GB, which is part of a wider global confederated structure, opened the floodgate to stories of a whole raft of other safeguarding problems across the international aid network with implications for the sector. The Report is a salutary reminder of the importance of ensuring that actions meet words when it comes to keeping people safe, and that the Commission will want to investigate if it considers there may be shortcomings.

The Commission’s conclusions, as set out in the Commission’s press release, were, in essence, that the charity allowed a culture to develop in which these things could happen, and where whistle-blowers were not believed initially, failed to deal with problems properly at the time and then failed properly to get to grips with the problem in the years that followed, until the exposé in 2018.

Of course, the issues here are not confined to one charity (or to the charity sector). The Commission’s Chair Baroness Stowell notes in the foreword to the Report, that:

‘No charity is so large, nor is its mission so important that it can afford to put its own reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect. But the implications of this inquiry are not confined to the failings of a single, big charity, because no charity is too small to bear its own share of responsibility for upholding the wider good name of charity.’

This is not the area or the time for complacency. Whilst some may be concerned that if Oxfam cannot get it right, there is little hope for anyone else, there are lessons which other organisations can learn from this review. The sheer size of Oxfam brings with it a particular level of complexity but, regardless of size, the underlying message is that cultural change and commitment at all levels of an organisation are required to enable effective policing no matter how good the written policies.

It is to be noted that, prior to the 2018 exposé, Oxfam would have been held up as an exemplar in this area and others. Indeed, the independent safeguarding review commissioned by the charity itself says as much. This is not, therefore, an area where it is easy to get it right but one where organisations can, and must, always strive to do better.

All organisations, and particularly those operating internationally, should review the level of risk they face in this area and identify areas of concern. Following this exercise, safeguarding practices and procedures should then be updated in light of the Commission’s Report. Crucially, any decisions taken at the strategic level then need to be adequately resourced to match the level of risk faced. Any such review should take into account the Commission’s guidance on safeguarding, which signposts charities to other relevant guidance and tools, and fleshes out the basic expectation – that charities take reasonable steps to protect people who come into contact with their organisations from harm. This is not a one-off process, but should be a continuing exercise as part of the organisation’s risk assessment processes.

Report highlights and wider lessons

The Report runs to 143 pages (the summary of findings is 37 pages) and an Official Warning for past failings has been delivered to the charity, together with a direction to submit an action plan by the end of June (among other things). Whilst it is clear from the Report that Oxfam has made significant progress to improve weaknesses in its safeguarding since 2017 and throughout the Inquiry, the direction has been issued ostensibly ‘…to provide continued public assurance that the outstanding actions necessary will be implemented’.

Having considered the wider issues for the sector, the Report also provides some more universal lessons as part of this exercise:

  • trustees are ultimately responsible and, therefore accountable, for everything done by the charity and those representing the charity. Trustees, therefore need to ensure they have effective oversight, including mechanisms for holding the executive to account;
  • protecting people and safeguarding responsibilities should be a governance priority for all charities;
  • the Commission accepts that charities often operate in exceptionally difficult circumstances, including humanitarian crises, and that lives depend on the work of many of these operations. However, the challenging operational context cannot be used as an excuse not to take reasonable steps to protect people and failings in safeguarding cannot be justified by reference to the importance of the cause;
  • trustees should set the tone and lead by example – this includes setting and ‘owning’ the charity’s values;
  • there should be proper processes in place for whistle-blowers – both to facilitate the raising of concerns and to keep whistle-blowers informed of the consequences of their report i.e. what has been done as a result of those concerns being raised;
  • charities should ensure they deal properly with incidents of harm to people and report them. This includes reporting to the Commission, in line with their guidance on reporting serious incidents; and
  • the Commission has long emphasised the importance of charities protecting their reputation. However, seeking to avoid negative press at the expense of recognising, acknowledging and dealing with incidents when they happen will not achieve that. The Commission also takes the view that trustees have a ‘shared responsibility to uphold the reputation of charity as a whole’. The legal basis for such a responsibility is debatable but in practice protecting your own charity’s reputation properly will likely have that effect.

While there is much food for thought in these ‘wider lessons’, perhaps the key take away for trustees is the reminder of their overall responsibility and the implications of what the charity does (or does not do). The connection between decisions in the board room and front line delivery can be difficult, especially for volunteer trustees for whom this is not the ‘day job’. It is not an issue which can be solved overnight, but an ongoing process of scrutiny and endeavour where aspiration is key. This is not just a matter of safeguarding but of other risks facing the charity too. As such, there is an ever increasing pressure on resources to ensure effective processes and monitoring are in place, and a heavy burden on trustees. Notwithstanding these pressures, it is clear that trustees have to be prepared to challenge the information they receive (on safeguarding and on other areas) and to ask the difficult questions. If not them, then who?

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