Activists call for Save the Children UK chief to stand down in light of sexual harassment report

The Charity Commission says there were 'serious failings' in how the charity handled allegations against two senior staff no longer with the organisation

Anti-sexual harassment activists have called for the chief executive of Save the Children UK to stand down after the Charity Commission found “serious failings” in how the charity had handled allegations against senior staff.

The commission published its investigation report on the charity today, condemning “serious weaknesses in the charity’s workplace culture” and concluding that the charity’s handling of sexual harassment complaints against the former chief executive and the former policy director amounted to mismanagement.

In an opinion piece for Third Sector responding to the report’s publication, Alexia Pepper de Caires and Shaista Aziz, former Save the Children employees and founders of the #AidToo campaign, said Kevin Watkins, who was a Save trustee at the time concerns were raised and is now the chief executive of the charity, should resign in light of report's conclusions.

But Watkins said he planned to continue in his role.

The commission opened its inquiry in April 2018 after allegations emerged in the press about the behaviour of Justin Forsyth, who led the charity from 2010 to 2016, and Brendan Cox, who had been the charity’s policy director between 2011 and 2015.

Cox was being investigated by the charity over his behaviour towards female colleagues when he resigned in 2015, while Forsyth had issued apologies to three women in 2012 and 2015 after sending them inappropriate text messages,and continuing to harass them if they did not respond.

The commission says that, although the complaints about the two men “were not brushed under the carpet”, there was a failure to implement the charity’s processes to deal with such allegations “properly and consistently”.

It also says that trustees were not made fully aware of the allegations against Forsyth and were not given a full copy of the report commissioned by Save the Children in 2015, which it said was mismanagement by staff.

There was also mismanagement in the way the charity reported the fact that allegations had been made to the commission in 2015, the regulator concludes. The charity's serious incident report said there had been an allegation of harassment by a senior staff member, but not that the staff member was the chief executive, something the commission report said was “material and significant”.

And according to the commission, when the news stories broke in 2018, the comments Save the Children provided to the media were “unduly defensive” and “not wholly correct”.

The regulator warns the charity about “the accuracy and integrity” of its public statements.

The charity also upset complainants by appearing to “diminish the seriousness of some of the allegations made” by repeatedly emphasising to the media that the complaints had been “informal”, the report says.

According to the report, the regulator recognises that “significant progress has been made since 2015”, but “any future evidence that the required improvements have not been made will be regarded as evidence of misconduct and/or mismanagement”.

The report concludes: “The issues we found at Save the Children UK are unlikely to be isolated to this charity.”

In a statement, the charity said it had appointed a full-time team and senior director to lead changes to the charity’s culture, strengthened whistleblowing and committed itself to independently investigating any future allegations, brought in new HR leadership and safeguarding expertise, and improved board diversity.

Watkins said in a statement: “I unreservedly apologise to the women affected by the behaviour of these two senior executives.

“The harm they suffered was compounded by a failure to respond appropriately to complaints and then by our defensive handling of media inquiries about the cases."

He said he was determined to work with staff “to build an organisational culture that reflects our values”.

Charles Steel, interim chair of Save the Children UK, said trustees and leadership fully accepted the findings, were “profoundly sorry that we let the women and our organisation down” and acknowledged the charity had “more work to do”.

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