Last year, as the media spotlight shone once again on allegations of sexual misconduct in the large international aid charities, Alexia Pepper de Caires decided to contact the Charity Commission about the conduct she experienced during her time at Save the Children UK.
What she encountered, she says, was a regulator ill prepared to handle the type of misconduct she had witnessed while working at the charity between 2011 and 2015. Initially, she says, there was limited communication between her and the commission’s investigations team, despite the fact that it had opened a statutory enquiry into the charity in April 2018, largely because of the evidence she gave to the media. "I knew I had something to contribute, but they didn’t seem to think so," she tells Third Sector.
When the regulator agreed to meet her for a formal talk some months later, what followed was an intense three-hour recorded interview. "I hadn’t realised
how formal and overwhelming it was going to be," she recalls. "The disconnect left me reeling afterwards. I was suddenly back out on the street in the middle of Victoria, having just relived an episode of my life that had been really complicated and difficult."
Then, she says, there was nothing. "You give your information into the void, and that’s it."
The whole episode, says Pepper de Caires, took a toll on her mental health. She is not the only person to voice concerns about the commission’s handling of complaints by whistleblowers. At the height of media coverage of Oxfam GB last year, Helen Evans, the charity’s global head of safeguarding between 2012 and 2015, also accused the Charity Commission of not wanting to meet or talk with her when she raised concerns about Oxfam’s safeguarding practices with it in 2015. The regulator, she told Channel 4 News at the time, "stopped replying" to her emails.
Her case led Kate Osamor, then shadow international development secretary, to ask how many other whistleblowers had brought safeguarding concerns to the Charity Commission "only to be ignored". Sir Stephen Bubb, founder of the think tank Charity Futures, also took aim, arguing that he had warned its chair at the time, William Shawcross, that the commission had spent a disproportionate amount of time in recent years investigating Muslim charities, rather than addressing the potential safeguarding "time bomb".
More than a year on, some in the sector continue to have concerns about whether the Charity Commission is well placed to address whistleblowers’ concerns, with Pepper de Caires describing it as a "tick-box entity", rather than an engaged and robust regulator.
It’s a view shared by the journalist and former international aid worker Shaista Aziz, who, along with Pepper de Caires, co-founded the whistleblower advocacy group NGO Safe Space. Aziz says that the commission’s handling of the Oxfam GB report, which was initially expected to be published in late 2018 but eventually appeared in June 2019, brings into question its effectiveness as a regulator.
"The commission has not been able to respond in a robust and timely manner to events at Oxfam, and the reality is that this is not a body seen by many organisations as being an independent or fair arbitrator for the sector," says Aziz, who questions why the information given to the regulator by Oxfam whistleblowers in 2015 was not acted on until several years later. "It raises serious question marks, not just about its inability to hold the likes of Oxfam to account and support whistleblowers, but also about its reputation and relationship with the sector."
Recently, the commission has repeatedly criticised the self-serving attitude of some charitable organisations and has called on the sector to reform its ways to regain public trust. But Bubb fears the commission has not learned from its mistakes and believes it needs to spend more time addressing its own shortcomings.
"What particularly annoys people is that the commission continues to lecture charities on a lack of trust and imply that all 168,000 of them are in the same boat as Oxfam, but ignores its own role, which is to build trust in charities," he says. "By its constant sermonising, it does itself a disservice, particularly given that it doesn’t seem to be addressing the problems it has in running as an efficient regulator."
However, as far as the whistleblower at the heart of the Oxfam case is concerned, the commission is less at fault than some believe. Evans reached out a second time to the regulator in 2017 after reports in The Times suggested the commission would be investigating her former employer, and found it significantly more responsive.
"After contacting the commission in 2015, I wasn’t invited for an interview or asked follow-up questions, but my experience in 2017 was very different," she tells Third Sector.
"The interviewers had clearly read through the documentation I’d given them in depth and given it considerable thought."
It’s a twist for someone who previously expressed public disappointment with the regulator to stand up for it, but Evans is convinced the commission is working in good faith to redress challenges with safeguarding and whistleblowing.
"Cynically, you could say its improved approach [in 2017] was because of interest from the press," she says. "But I do believe the chief executive [Helen Stephenson] has acknowledged its resources are not keeping pace with increased reporting, and it has invested more in risk-based analysis. I expressed disappointment in the way I was treated in 2015 and feel it sought to learn from that."
There is widespread acknowledgement that the commission has had to contend with financial cuts. Between 2010 and 2014 the government slashed its budget by almost a third, from almost £31m to £21m (rising to £25.5m in the last financial year), and the number of staff fell from 444 to 290 in 2017, rising again to 360 in 2019.
Earlier this year, Stephenson admitted at the commission’s annual meeting that it was on a "knife edge" as a result of financial concerns and increased demand for its services.
In the wake of the Oxfam GB and Save the Children UK scandals, the regulator saw a 60 per cent increase in reports about safeguarding incidents in 2018/2019 compared with the previous year, and opened 2,666 new compliance cases in 2018/19, of which well over a quarter (764) involved safeguarding.
Evans agrees that in order for the regulator to be effective it requires adequate funding. "We can’t rely on charities to self-regulate and be those drivers of change," she says. "If the government is really sincere about protecting and safeguarding people, it needs to put money behind those commitments."
However, Bubb believes that if the commission is to move forward it needs to be more open about its past failings. "We should see a joint review by the commission of its own handling of the Oxfam case, which it publishes and shares with us," he says.
"This should be an honest appraisal of whether it has sufficient resources to act well, followed by a joint approach from government and the charities minister to tackle safeguarding and build more resources into it."
Evans believes a review of the commission’s function should also address the fact that it was initially created to deal with financial mismanagement, rather than the greyer, more emotionally challenging areas of sexual harassment and misconduct. "We need to see the hiring of specialist investigators who have experience in supporting survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse, because that is very different from engaging on allegations of fraud," she explains.
"It’s a unique skillset to support someone through giving evidence and giving an interview; something that can be very retraumatising if not handled correctly."
The commission declined to comment on the points raised by Bubb and Evans, saying it had commented on them previously. But it said in a statement that it was sorry to hear that Pepper de Caires found her formal interview overwhelming. "We’re mindful that it can take a lot of courage to come forward with concerns and to give evidence in the relatively formal setting that is required in the context of a statutory inquiry," a spokesperson says, adding that it tries to make the experience as "human" as possible.
Sarah Atkinson, head of policy, planning and communication at the commission, told Third Sector in an additional statement that it reviewed its approach to whistleblowing last year, prompted by the Oxfam inquiry and Helen Evans’ experience, because it was clear it needed to make changes to "ensure people who bring concerns to us can do so easily and feel understood and valued".
Over the past year, she says, it has improved its processes. "The team dealing with incoming reports have had training in recognising disclosures and handling whistleblowers sensitively" she says.
"And we’re piloting an approach where we offer to talk with every whistleblower much sooner and at a time that suits them."
It has also invested in new information services and resources. "We’ve completely revised our guidance for trustees to make it much clearer and more accessible," Atkinson explains. "We’ve appointed staff with expertise in safeguarding, and we’re working on providing more information and tools to support charities in managing their responsibilities.
"We are also piloting the new dedicated whistleblowing helpline, staffed by the charity Protect, which provides specialist advice and support for those with a connection to a charity – staff, volunteers or former staff – from the beginning."
Atkinson stresses it is too soon to accurately assess the full impact of changes to the commission’s approach to safeguarding and whistleblowing, but says: "We know more people are reading our guidance on this than ever before, we are receiving more whistleblowing reports than in previous years and these reports are providing us with the information we need to act on.
"The more structured, supportive and personal approach we are taking to whistleblowers recognises the courage it takes to speak out, and we’re confident this will give others the confidence to come forward."
Do people with experience of the commission feel optimistic? Their feelings are a mixed bag. When told about the new advice line, one whistleblower, who
preferred to remain anonymous, said it could "f*** off", adding: "Why would we use that hotline if there’s no trust?"
Pepper de Caires reiterates that, without the boosted powers and "real clout" to hold large charities to account, the measures will not go far enough. "The Charity Commission doesn’t have as much power as the people it is taking on – how can we expect it to deliver blistering reports if it’s being sued to high hell by private individuals?" she says.
But while critics have warned the steps could be tokenistic without a more in-depth approach to changing culture, they acknowledge that responsibility for this goes beyond the commission.
"Changing culture traces back not just to the commission but to the government as well," says Aziz. "Is it really serious about investigating and removing abuses of power in the sector? If so, it needs to bolster and strengthen the work of the commission and help to develop a more clear-cut way of looking into these issues."
Cultural change is not something that can happen overnight – but as the commission faces increased reporting of safeguarding issues, ongoing cases around the muddy issues of sexual misconduct and wrongdoing, there has never been a more pressing time to take action. The commission has acknowledged an erosion of trust and committed to improving the experiences of whistleblowers: progress will lie in the next steps it is willing (and able) to take.
When the whistles are blowing, the sector must hope for a decisive and enduring response from the charity regulator.