Labour MP puts forward bill to bring in stricter vetting of international aid workers

Stephen Twigg's ten-minute rule bill would extend existing legislation to bring in background checks similar to those faced by teachers and social workers

Aid in Haiti (Photograph: Shutterstock)
Aid in Haiti (Photograph: Shutterstock)

International aid workers should be vetted in a similar way to teachers and social workers, according to proposed legislation from Stephen Twigg, chair of the House of Commons International Development Committee.

The 10-minute rule bill, which is called the International Development (Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups) Bill, is designed to give greater protection to children and vulnerable adults during development assistance and disaster relief.

Ten-minute rule bills are commonly used by MPs to bring forward potential legislation on topics of personal interest, but rarely make the statute book.

Twigg, the Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby, said he had proposed the legislation after his committee’s inquiry into the recent claims of sexual misconduct in the aid sector highlighted the lack of a universal approach to safeguarding that covers aid and humanitarian workers.

The inquiry was launched in the wake claims earlier this year of inappropriate sexual behaviour by Oxfam staff towards local people in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake in the country. Other aid charities have since been accused of similar sexual misconduct involving beneficiaries.

Speaking in parliament about the bill this week, Twigg said that, although many UK-based aid organisations required their staff to pass basic background checks before working with vulnerable people in the UK, "those checks do not necessarily extend to people working overseas".

He said he would like to see "a system that enables organisations to vet prospective humanitarian workers to check their suitability to work with children and vulnerable adults", and ideally include people working for multilateral organisations such as the UN or World Bank and other governments.

Twigg told MPs his bill would therefore extend the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 to introduce background checks on aid workers that would be equal to those faced by teachers and social workers.

Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children UK, has been among those to have told the committee that there should be a global vetting system that applied to international aid sector workers.

Save the Children has faced criticism in recent months for how it handled allegations against some senior staff members of sexual misconduct involving junior employees.

In a statement today, Save the Children welcomed Twigg’s proposal and said it had previously put forward ideas including the "automatic designation of employment in a humanitarian agency as ‘regulated’ activity under UK law", which would allow the highest level of criminal records checks on all staff and create a legal obligation to report any dismissals.

Watkins said in the statement: "As an organisation, and as a sector, we have a moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable children and adults we come into contact with.

"Organisations in the UK such as ours are staffed overwhelmingly by committed people trying to make a difference. We owe it to them to ensure that our organisation reflects the values and promotes the behaviours they bring to work every day."

Twigg also told MPs that a system of funding for safeguarding functions in international development charities should be considered by the government.

"At the moment, the onus is on organisations to fund safeguarding checks, but that could put smaller organisations at a disadvantage," he said.

"We heard last week that US Agency for International Development delivery contracts often include funding for these kinds of background check. If we are to establish a successful vetting and referencing system, DfID should consider how it might help to shoulder the cost for these checks."

Earlier this week, Peter Taylor, head of the safeguarding unit at the Department for International Development, told the committee that smaller organisations struggling to afford stronger safeguarding measures should "be up front" with DfID and "make clear what they need".

The International Development (Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups) Bill is scheduled to receive a second reading in the House of Commons on 26 October.

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