12/02/2018 18:21 GMT | Updated 13/02/2018 10:10 GMT

Oxfam Faces Inquiry Over Haiti Claims As Whistleblower Alleges Abuse In UK Shops

Former head of safeguarding claimed charity received three allegations of child abuse in shops.

The Charity Commission has launched a statutory inquiry into Oxfam over revelations its staff used prostitutes while working in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake at the same time as the charity faced allegations of abuse taking place in its UK shops.

On a day of mounting pressure on the under-fire charity, the charity regulator announced Oxfam might not have “fully and frankly disclosed” all details about the allegations in Haiti in 2011 that have triggered the recent controversy and led to accusations of a cover-up.

Meanwhile, whistleblower Helen Evans, Oxfam’s former global head of safeguarding, claimed teenage volunteers at its UK shops had been abused, and overseas staff had traded ‘aid for sex’.

Outlining some of the most damaging allegations yet levelled against the charity, she told Channel 4 News she begged senior staff, ministers and the regulator to act about the sexual abuse allegations.

Earlier on Monday, the charity’s deputy chief executive resigned, and ministers announced they had set up a new unit to review safety across all parts of the aid sector in response to the scandal.

Evans accused her bosses of ignoring her claims and pleas for more resources, forcing her to quit in despair.

She said her complaints were also dismissed by the Charity Commission and the Home Office, and she said she was concerned “for those in senior leadership positions who knew the scale of what we were dealing with and in my view did not adequately respond to that”.

Evans detailed cases of inappropriate conduct with children between 2014 and 2015, including one involving 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 them both.

She said she made it clear that Oxfam was doing too little to protect children from harm: “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.”

In a statement on Twitter, Evans claimed the charity received three allegations of child abuse in its shops.

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.

A spokesperson for the Charity Commission said: “We took the concerns Ms Evans raised very seriously and engaged with Oxfam on a formal regulatory basis to address them.

“This included meeting with the charity and requesting detailed information about its safeguarding procedures.

“Indeed Ms Evans acknowledged our initial response at the time; stating that she appreciated ‘the time taken by the Charity Commission to look into safeguarding concerns’.”

Evans also outlined the results of a confidential survey, carried out in 2014, which found more than one-in-ten staff from three country programmes were reporting, witnessing or experiencing sexual assault, with 7 per cent of staff in one country reporting, witnessing or experiencing rape or attempted rape.

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Earlier in the day, Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, resigned over the scandal.

Lawrence’s resignation came after claims on Monday that the charity was aware of concerns about the conduct of two of the men at the centre of the allegations in Haiti when they worked previously in Chad.

Four members of Oxfam staff were dismissed and three, including the country director, Roland van Hauwermeiren, resigned before the end of a 2011 investigation.

According to The Times, Oxfam knew about concerns over the conduct of Mr van Hauwermeiren and another man when they worked in Chad before they were given senior roles in Haiti.

Van Hauwermeiren’s attitudes and behaviour towards women were documented, it said.

He also reportedly allowed the other man, a Kenyan, to stay in his job despite handling at least four complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct against him.

HECTOR RETAMAL via Getty Images
Haitians clean up the debris in a house that was destroyed in the last earthquake of 2010.

Earlier, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt announced an audit of the charity sector after a Whitehall summit with Oxfam in the aftermath of revelations.

In a strongly-worded statement, Mordaunt said the NGO had made a “full and unqualified apology – to me, and to the people of Britain and Haiti - for the appalling behaviour of some of their staff”.

The minister outlined a series of measures to ensure “the whole sector steps up and demonstrates the leadership that the public expects”, including setting up “a new unit to urgently review safeguarding across all parts of the aid sector to ensure everything is being done to protect people from harm, including sexual exploitation and abuse”.

She added: “This unit will be wide-ranging and comprehensive in its remit, looking at safeguarding across UK and international charities, suppliers, and the UN and multilateral organisations so that together we can make progress.

“This will look at how to guard against criminal and predatory individuals being re-employed by charities and abusing again, including the option of establishing a global register of development workers.” 

The charity received £31.7 million in Government funding in 2016/17 but the support has been put at risk by the scandal.

Oxfam had been previously warned it would have its funding withdrawn if it failed to comply with authorities over safeguarding issues.

Mordaunt, who heads the Department for International Development (DFID), also said she has written to all UK charities working overseas to “demand that they step up and do more” and ensure “moral leadership”.