You 'let down' supporters, MP tells Save the Children chief

At the International Development Select Committee, Tory Pauline Latham criticises Kevin Watkins for spending £114,000 on lawyers to defend the charity's reputation

Kevin Watkins at the committee hearing
Kevin Watkins at the committee hearing

An MP has accused Save the Children UK of "letting down" supporters by spending £114,000 on lawyers to protect its reputation.

Pauline Latham, the Conservative MP for Mid Derbyshire, also claimed that Kevin Watkins, the charity’s chief executive, was part of a "cosy boys' club" that got "in the way of doing the right thing". Watkins denied the claims.

Latham spoke during yesterday's oral evidence session of the International Development Select Committee, which was part of its continuing investigation into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

The charity confirmed the amount it had spent on lawyers after Sir Alan Parker, its former chairman, told the committee in May he could "not verify" the sum when Latham had suggested it was £100,000.

Allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards female staff by Justin Forsyth, who led Save the Children from 2010 to 2016, were not flagged up when he joined Unicef because they were deemed to be part of an "informal process of mediation" rather than a formal complaint process, Parker, told the earlier hearing.

Forsyth stepped down as deputy director of Unicef in February after admitting he had sent inappropriate messages to junior female members of staff while at Save.

Latham told Watkins that money spent on "expensive lawyers" to defend the charity in the wake of reporting on the allegations had been raised by ordinary people taking part in fundraising events such as coffee mornings and garden plant sales that generated a few hundred pounds each.

"Don't you feel you have let down those people who believe in Save the Children, as I did?" she asked. "I used to be a fundraiser for Save the Children. It's hard work for relatively little reward, and then you get the money and you spend it on expensive lawyers."

Watkins said the use of lawyers had protected the anonymity and privacy of the victims, prevented defamatory comments from being printed or broadcast and prevented factually misleading or damaging material being broadcast.

He said it was up to the Charity Commission, which this year opened an inquiry into Save the Children UK's handling, reporting of and response to claims of misconduct and harassment by senior staff, to decide whether it had succeeded in getting the balance right on legal fees.

Latham questioned Watkins' move from Save the Children UK's board to chief executive in 2016.

"I get the feeling that what you preside over is a really nice cosy boys’ network, lots of good friends among each other," she said.

"For instance, you were on the board but then you suddenly became a CEO, and Justin Forsyth was a great pal and nothing really happened to him. He was able to leave before the actual investigation finished.

"It's very unusual for a director or board member of an organisation to become a CEO. I wondered why that happened and why those friendships seemed to get in the way of doing the right thing."

Watkins said he did not regard himself as part of a network, adding that it was "unusual but not unprecedented" in the NGO sector or corporate sector to go from the board to chief executive.

"I resigned from the board in order to apply for the CEO position through a competitive process," he said. "If I felt at any time that the process hadn't been competitive, I would have withdrawn."

Watkins also revealed that the charity now asked recruits to sign a clause stipulating that if they left after being the subject of disciplinary procedures this would be reported in their references.

This never happened when Forsyth left Save the Children UK to take charge at Unicef.

"One of the things we have learned from this is that the referencing protocols we have been applying were not appropriate," said Watkins.

"I profoundly regret we have arrived at this juncture. It's absolutely clear that mistakes were made in this process and it's why the Charity Commission inquiry is so important. We need to learn from that inquiry and ensure these things never happen again."

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