Oxfam: Deputy resigns over sex claims amid crisis talks

Penny LawrenceImage copyright PA
Image caption Penny Lawrence says she took “full responsibility” for the behaviour of staff in Chad and Haiti

Oxfam’s deputy chief executive has resigned over the handling of a sex scandal involving aid workers.

The British charity is accused of concealing the findings of an inquiry into claims staff used prostitutes while delivering aid in Haiti in 2011.

Penny Lawrence said she was “ashamed” and takes full responsibility.

Oxfam – which denies a cover-up – has met with the International Development Secretary in a bid to prevent its government funding from being cut.

Ms Lawrence joined Oxfam GB in 2006 as international programmes director, leading teams across 60 countries, according to the charity’s website.

“Concerns were raised about the behaviour of staff in Chad as well as Haiti that we failed to adequately act upon,” she said in a statement.

“It is now clear that these allegations – involving the use of prostitutes and which related to behaviour of both the country director and members of his team in Chad – were raised before he moved to Haiti.”

The allegations emerged in The Times on Friday, which said Oxfam’s country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, used prostitutes at a villa rented for him by Oxfam in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

According to the paper, Oxfam knew about concerns over the conduct of Mr van Hauwermeiren and another man when they worked in Chad before they were given senior roles in Haiti.

Oxfam said allegations that underage girls may have been involved were unproven.

Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam GB, thanked Ms Lawrence for her service and said he “deeply respected” her decision to accept personal responsibility.

He told the BBC that Oxfam’s efforts to improve since 2011 had not been sufficient, adding: “We’ve accepted we’ve got to go further”.

He said: “We’ve increased the training of our staff significantly and we have taken a range of steps to improve the selection and management of our staff.”

Funding risk

The European Commission has said it expects full clarity and maximum transparency from Oxfam, adding that it is ready to “cease funding any partner not living up to high ethical standards”.

The charity’s programme in Haiti received €1.7m in EU funds in 2011.

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt has said Oxfam must account for the way it handled the claims or it risks losing government funding, worth £32m in the last financial year.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Oxfam’s chief executive Mark Goldring and chair of trustees Caroline Thomson leave the Department for International Development

The Innocent drinks company – one of Oxfam’s corporate sponsors which donates around £100,000 per year- said it wants to see a clear plan “for how this could not ever happen again”.

The charity has since postponed a “Fashion Fighting Poverty” event, which had been due to take place as part of London Fashion Week on Thursday, saying it was not the “right time” at present.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Oxfam staff had been in Haiti as part of the relief effort following the 2010 earthquake

Oxfam’s own investigation in 2011 led to four people being sacked and three others resigning, including Mr van Hauwermeiren.

It produced a public report, which said “serious misconduct” had taken place in Haiti – but did not give details of the allegations.

Oxfam chief executive Mr Goldring told the BBC that describing exact details of the behaviour at the time could have drawn “extreme attention” to it, which he said would have been in no-one’s best interest.

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Media captionMichelle Russell, from Charity Commission, says the regulator is “very angry”

Michelle Russell, director of investigations at the Charity Commission – which will also be part of the talks – told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme officials had been “assured” Oxfam had investigated it “fully”.

However, she said the watchdog was not told the full story at the time of the investigation.

“Had the details of what has come out been told to us, we would have dealt with this very differently,” she added.

Oxfam has faced growing criticism of the way it handled the allegations of misconduct by its staff in Haiti, where they were working in the aftermath of the huge earthquake that devastated the country in 2010.

Haiti’s ambassador in London Bocchit Edmond called the revelations “shocking”, “shameful”, and “unacceptable”.

On Sunday, Ms Mordaunt told the BBC’s Andrew Marr the charity did “absolutely the wrong thing” by not reporting details of the allegations and that no organisation could be a government partner if it did not “have the moral leadership to do the right thing”.

Ahead of the government meeting, Oxfam announced new measures for handling of sexual abuse cases, saying it would introduce tougher vetting of staff and mandatory safeguarding training for new recruits.

Oxfam’s chairman of trustees, Caroline Thomson, said the charity’s board had appointed a consultant earlier this year to review its culture and working practices, which would now be extended.

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