Oxfam crisis: 'We must not end up with a lynch-mob mentality'

Peter Kellner, chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, believes better systems are needed to deal with abuse

Peter Kellner
Peter Kellner

Peter Kellner didn’t pull any punches when the media came calling during the Oxfam crisis.

Instead of rushing to the defence of international aid charities, the chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations was quick to call for action. "We must make sure that bad behaviour, however rare, is never tolerated," he said at the height of the crisis.

Three weeks on, the media firestorm is dying down and Kellner is turning his attentions to the implications for the NCVO’s 13,000 members. "The majority of our members are small and medium-sized charities that have nothing to do with that world, and for whom the paramount need is that they don’t suffer collateral damage," he says.

He believes that Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, has done a good job at holding Oxfam and other aid organisations to account, but without "being ludicrously unreasonable". The NCVO has also been working with the Charity Commission and other sector bodies to ensure that there has been "a tough but fair collective approach".

It’s the first charity sector crisis Kellner has faced since becoming chair of the NCVO in August 2016. But as a former political journalist turned pollster, he is no stranger to a media scandal. So does he have any problems with the media’s coverage of this crisis?

"It is in the nature of journalism that what it reports is news, which tends to be the abnormal rather the normal," he says. He says he would have liked the media to have reported more of the positive side of the "amazing" work charities do internationally to help balance out the negative coverage. Overall, though, he has no complaints: "Broadly speaking, I think the coverage has been serious and responsible."

‘Proportionate measures’

In terms of how the charity sector should respond to allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, he says it’s important that any measures put in place are proportionate.

"Protection [for victims] is vital, but so is justice for people who have been accused," says Kellner. "We have to be careful that we don’t end up with a lynch-mob mentality. The core challenge is how we arrange things when people are the victims of bad behaviour and allow ordinary justice to prevail at the same time."

The NCVO is yet to finalise its thinking on what precise measures should be put in place. Kellner says there are a few ideas that should be considered: one is for international aid organisations to carry out background checks similar to those conducted by the intelligence service before appointing senior managers to overseas roles. "It’s not just a process of getting references, but going round and talking to people," he says. "You have to positively satisfy yourself that this person can do the job and will behave properly."

‘Viable strategy’

A regulator should also be tasked with carrying out no-notice inspections in
international territories, he believes. "As long as you have a system that prevents the wrong people from being appointed in the first place, and a system of no-notice, on-the-spot monitoring, then I think you have got the makings of a viable strategy," he says.

The crisis led to Justin Forsyth stepping down as deputy executive director of Unicef last month after allegations came to light that he had sent inappropriate text messages to female staff during his time as chief executive of Save the Children. Brendan Cox, the widow of the murdered MP Jo Cox, also stepped aside as a trustee of the charity he had founded in his wife’s memory after sexual misconduct allegations emerged dating back to his time at Save the Children.

Kellner won’t comment on individual cases, but says he believes that charities need to devise a system for dealing with those who have left for some form of wrongdoing but who have not committed a crime. We can’t, he says, have a situation in which charities are taken to employment tribunals constantly for taking a zero-tolerance stance on misdemeanours, or in which people are made "unemployable for the rest of their lives".

In an interview with The Sunday Times just before he stepped down as chair of the Charity Commission at the end of February, William Shawcross accused some charity sector umbrella bodies of acting like "trades unions". So did Kellner believe the remarks were aimed at the NCVO? "I have known ‘Willy’ since 1969 when we joined The Sunday Times," he says. "He has sent nothing to me to say that he regards the NCVO as acting like a trade union. He was also making a general criticism."

But he does take issue with Shawcross for using trade unions in a derogatory way to describe umbrella bodies. "I don’t regard trade unions as devils incarnate," says Kellner. "When they represent their members properly, they’re doing something that’s good for their members and good for society."

And what of criticism that large charities and umbrella bodies are more concerned with their own self-interest than tackling issues such as sexual exploitation? "I don’t think that’s fair of the sector of the whole and it’s certainly not true of the NCVO," says Kellner. He adds that, throughout this crisis and previous ones, the NCVO has consistently called on its members to take action.

Nor does he share the belief that most charities are poorly managed and make little difference. "From the encounters that I have had, I’m amazed at how well charities have been run," he says. "When I took on the role at the NCVO, I would not have predicted the degree of professionalism that I’ve found."

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