Former Unicef UK chief accuses board of issuing inaccurate statements about his resignation

In an explosive letter, Sacha Deshmukh says he is “profoundly concerned” by the board’s actions after he made claims of bullying against former chair Douglas Alexander, who denies the allegations

Sacha Deshmukh
Sacha Deshmukh

The former executive director of Unicef UK has called on the charity’s board to correct what he calls inaccurate statements that allegations about bullying behaviour by its former chair were a surprise. 

In an explosive letter to Shatish Dasani, who was appointed this week as interim chair of Unicef UK following the resignation of Douglas Alexander, Sacha Deshmukh says he is “profoundly concerned about the probity of the board’s actions, and accuracy of the board’s statements, in public and to staff”. 

Deshmukh, whose resignation after six months in the role was accepted at a closed board meeting on Tuesday last week, is understood to be one of about 10 staff who alleged they had experienced aggressive and bullying behaviour from Alexander. 

Alexander issued a statement denying any allegations of bullying behaviour and saying the claims were a surprise to him. 

But he said he had decided to step down because it would be inappropriate for him to remain as chair while an inquiry into the events took place.  

The Unicef UK board also said the bullying allegations were a surprise and no formal complaints had been received regarding any of these issues.

But Deshmukh’s letter to Dasani and the rest of the charity’s board, which has also been sent to Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, says he first raised concerns about Alexander’s behaviour in a conversation with Kirsty Gill, a Unicef UK board member and chair of its people committee, on 12 August. 

The letter claims Gill said she recognised the description of those behaviours from her conversations with Deshmukh’s predecessor Mike Penrose before his departure – including in Penrose’s exit interview, which she had conducted.

It also says Penrose is understood to have raised concerns about Alexander’s behaviour with several trustees before stepping down last autumn. 

The letter says Deshmukh sent an email to Gill on 8 September describing a meeting he had with Alexander on 4 September, in which he said he had been subject to a hostile and aggressive tone of language from Alexander. 

The letter says Alexander criticised him for more than half an hour about the management of the announcement of the actor Olivia Colman as Unicef UK president. 

Deshmukh told Gill the conversation left him feeling “bullied and humiliated”, according to the letter. 

It says this had also been the case in previous conversations with Alexander, Deshmukh had told Gill. 

The letter says Deshmukh spoke to Gill on 13 September to follow up the email. 

It says that during this conversation, Gill told Deshmukh that when she had spoken with Alexander, he had told her he spent the weekend of 5 and 6 September putting together a dossier of evidence of the media coverage of the Colman announcement to prove Deshmukh’s incompetence in managing it. 

The letter says Deshmukh’s concerns about Alexander’s behaviour culminated in a three-way conversation involving Gill to discuss the issues. 

But it says Deshmukh was unhappy with Alexander’s response, meaning Deshmukh no longer had confidence in the former government minister and felt that his own position as executive director of Unicef UK had become untenable. 

The letter says Deshmukh is concerned that during the board meeting at which they considered his resignation, the board members were not shown a copy of his resignation letter, despite him being happy for this to be shared. Neither was Deshmukh invited to the meeting to explain his reasons for stepping down, it adds. 

At an all-staff meeting last week, it was asked whether the board might consider rescinding Deshmukh’s resignation, which was refused, the letter says.

It calls on the board to take steps that include making a public statement to correct inaccurate statements, including that it was unaware of any concerns about Alexander’s behaviour. 

The charity said this week that it had commissioned an external adviser from the law firm Bates Wells to lead the inquiry into the events, supported by two Unicef board members. 

Deshmukh’s letter says that, given the board’s actions, it would be inappropriate for two existing trustees to take part in the review as well as solicitors who have previously advised Unicef UK and have an existing commercial relationship with the charity. 

He calls for an independent expert with no commercial or existing relationship with the charity or any of the trustees to be commissioned to conduct a review. 

The letter says the review's findings should be published, save for providing anonymity for those who wish to provide evidence but do not want their identity to be revealed. 

It says it is sad that the board had failed to take the opportunity to commit to an independent inquiry into the allegations against Alexander, and could have asked him to step aside while the probe took place. 

“Instead the board’s actions and statements this week are creating a profound risk for the charity, but one that I believe can still be mitigated if the board makes the clear and unequivocal public statement today that I have proposed,” the letter says. 

It is understood that Deshmukh is taking legal advice on whether any of the claims made since his resignation are defamatory. 

A Unicef UK spokesperson said the charity was unable to comment while a review of the events was ongoing. 

Third Sector was unable to contact Alexander for comment.

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