Charities warned over protection of vulnerable people after scandals

Charities are being warned they may be targeted by “people who abuse their position and privileges” to gain access to vulnerable people “for inappropriate or illegal purposes”, in the aftermath of scandals involving Oxfam and the Old Vic theatre.

The Charity Commission is publishing new guidance on safeguarding “any children or adults at risk” after concerns were raised about the management of several charities.

Last month trustees at the Old Vic theatre were accused of turning a blind eye to inappropriate sexual behaviour by Kevin Spacey during the 11 years that the Hollywood star was its artistic director. In October it emerged that Oxfam had dismissed 22 members of staff over allegations of sexual abuse in the last year.

The Charity Commission said public trust in the wider charity sector could be undermined by continued concerns. Michelle Russell, the regulator’s director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement, said all charities needed to focus on the issue.

“People trust charities, and when there are people coming to you in circumstances where you are the trusted and safe place, it is all the more important that you don’t let them down,” Russell said.

“I think what’s happened in the last couple of months has been a bit of a wake-up call perhaps to some charities that they do need to be dealing with this responsibly and if they are worried that they haven’t been dealing with it well in the past, they can take a look at that now.”

She said recent work by the regulator had flagged up issues with veterans’ charities, because some people weren’t being identified as vulnerable, despite mental health issues.

“The charities must realise that it’s not just about children and young people, it’s also about vulnerable adults,” Russell said. “This is a reminder that the risks are hidden or might be hidden.”

The new guidance recommends that charities “take reasonable steps to ensure that their beneficiaries or others who come into contact with their charity do not, as a result, come to harm.” It says: “Everybody has the right to be safe no matter who they are or what their circumstances.”

The commission emphasises that where a charity supports or works closely with overseas partners, “we will hold the registered charity to account over the suitability and management of that relationship, including its supervision of safeguarding risks.”

The watchdog demands charities that fund third parties overseas or work with overseas partners whose activities involve contact with children or adults at risk must carry out “appropriate due diligence on the recipient body”.

In the Oxfam case, questions were raised about the Oxford-based charity’s management of allegations of abuse. Lesley Agams, the charity’s former country director in Nigeria, spoke out about an assault by a colleague in 2010. Agams said that a few months after reporting the attack, which took place after a visit to the charity’s headquarters, her contract was terminated.

Oxfam said it dealt with 87 claims of sexual exploitation and abuse involving its workers in the year ending April 2017, which was a 36% increase on the previous year. Several humanitarian aid workers working for other charities have also reported attacks and assaults while working overseas.

The charities watchdog can investigate allegations, but it reminded trustees that it would refer serious concerns to the police or local authorities.

Source: The Guardian

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