Charities have been urged to adopt a “zero-tolerance approach” to misconduct in their high street shops, as a worsening sexual abuse scandal now threatens to engulf Oxfam in Britain.
The Charity Retail Association, which counts the global poverty charity among its members, has told HuffPost UK it is re-issuing “safeguarding” guidance to bosses amid revelations of alleged impropriety by shop floor staff.
Its chief executive, Robin Osterley, said: “With the current environment in mind we are today re-issuing the guidance to all of our members.”
It comes after Oxfam’s former global head of safeguarding, Helen Evans, told Channel 4 News on Monday that she was worried the charity could be exposing children who help out in its 650 UK shops to harm.
She revealed several cases of inappropriate conduct with children between 2014 and 2015. One concerned a shop manager who is alleged to have attempted to force a young volunteer to drop charges against an adult male volunteer who was said to have assaulted the youngster.
Evans said: “The point I made repeatedly are parents are trusting these organisations to keep their children safe when they volunteer, these are 14-year-old children and if parents knew that those adults were not checked they would not be sending those children into those shops.”
The Daily Mail reported figures suggesting there were 123 claims of alleged sexual harassment at Oxfam shops over nine years - with none of its 23,000 volunteers undergoing criminal records checks.
Evans’ intervention came after the Charity Commission watchdog said it had received “around 1,000” reports of alleged failures within British-based organisations.
The British Red Cross admitted there had been a “small number of cases of harassment reported in the UK”, believed to be up to five.
In its safeguarding guidance, obtained by HuffPost, the Charity Retail Association advises bosses to have “robust, additional means of ensuring the suitability of job applicants” including those applying for voluntary, unpaid positions.
Osterley, who has led association since 2015, added: “As the trade association supporting charity retail, we would of course take a zero tolerance approach on any breach of trust occurring within our members’ shops, indeed in any of the 11,000 charity shops across the UK.
“Following [our] guidance will help ensure that staff and volunteers can go about the business of raising vital funds for their charity in a risk- and fear-free climate.”
The guidance note goes on to advise: “Hold face-to-face interviews with pre-planned and clear questions, including [a] question on previous criminal convictions.”
Under the heading “monitoring and supervision”, the guidance note states: “Ensure there is effective and frequent monitoring and supervision of all staff and ensure such meetings are open to enable any concerns to be raised.”
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The note, prepared by specialist charity lawyers at legal firm Wright Hassall, states that in the event of an allegation organisations must “ensure there is a clear policy regarding what happens... and that such matters are handled by appropriately trained staff.”
In response to Evans’ claims, an Oxfam spokesperson said: “We regret that we did not act on Helen’s concerns much quicker and with more resources.”
They said the charity had “introduced a whole range of measures to improve how we deal with safeguarding issues”.
“We ensure all staff are trained in working with young people and vulnerable adults, have appropriate background checks and know how to respond to any issues raised,” the spokesperson added.
The British Red Cross said this weekend: “Last year, there were a small number of reported cases of sexual harassment by staff in the UK, involving inappropriate use of language or behaviour.
“All those cases have been investigated and appropriate action taken.”
The Times newspaper reported allegations last week that Oxfam workers had used prostitutes in Haiti after the devastating earthquake there in 2010, some of whom, the paper claimed, may have been underage.
The scandal worsened as it was revealed allegations of similar behaviour had been made in other countries where Oxfam provided aid.
Penny Lawrence, Oxfam’s deputy chief executive stood down over the scandal on Monday, saying: “I am ashamed that this happened on my watch and I take full responsibility.”
Lawrence was international programmes director at the time of the alleged incidents.