An ombudsman should be set up to investigate sexual abuse in the international aid sector, Oxfam's former head of safeguarding has told MPs.
Speaking at a session held by the International Development Committee at the House of Commons yesterday, Helen Evans said that "self-regulation does not work" in regards to tackling sexual abuse committed by charity employees, and an ombudsman would offer "external security" that allegations would be properly dealt with.
Evans, who worked for Oxfam between 2012 and 2015, came forward in February with claims that her concerns about abuse by Oxfam employees overseas and in the UK were ignored by the charity’s leadership and safeguarding was underfunded by the charity.
An ombudsman, Evans told the committee yesterday, would have the power to examine charities’ investigations of sexual abuse allegations and would help to drive up the quality of internal safeguarding functions at charities.
Evans said the Charity Commission did not have enough resources to tackle the problems in the aid sector and faced the difficulty of having to work across multiple legal jurisdictions when investigating reports of sexual abuse at aid charities.
This meant the international aid sector needed a dedicated regulator, Evans said.
Employees working in charity shops should also be required to undertake Disclosure and Barring Service checks because they could work with young people who volunteered, Evans told the committee. She said a "loophole in the law" that excluded charities from these requirements should be closed.
Evans told MPs that the response of many charities to allegations of abuse in the sector was "lacklustre". She said more resources should be dedicated to safeguarding in charities.
Aid agencies should "at a minimum" have a safeguarding function, Evans said, but many charities did not have those departments in place.
She said her experience of working in the sector was that Oxfam was one of the few that had a dedicated safeguarding team. Many other charities expected staff to work on this issue alongside their other work, she added.
Evans said that charity leaders did not think that sexual abuse was a "big problem" in the sector, even though staff working on the issue believed that the reports they received were the "tip of the iceberg" and there was a correlation between the level of investment and the number of reports of abuse charities received.
Evans said that most reports of abuse she saw during her time at Oxfam were genuine and she would like to see charities move from a "reactive" approach to a proactive one that could help more people come forward.
She told the committee that the Department for International Development could do a lot to change attitudes to abuse and safeguarding in the charity sector, including encouraging greater transparency of the issue and ensuring investigators were in place that had experience of dealing with offences such as rape and abuse.
DfID could also require charities to invest in their safeguarding departments to get government funding, Evans said.
Gender imbalances in the charity sector should be addressed, Evans added, and would help to address a male-dominated culture in the aid sector that enabled sexual exploitation of beneficiaries to occur.
Asmita Naik, an independent consultant who appeared before the committee alongside Evans, proposed that accountability for sexual abuse in the sector should be more focused on organisations than on individuals, which is similar to the approach charities took to dealing with issues such as fraud.
This meant charities reporting staff to the police if they were believed to have committed sexual abuse, she said, and taking steps to prevent abuse in the organisation.