HE: I think it was about a year into the role. We were putting in place new reporting procedures [and] training, and the allegations started to come in. And at that point we realised there’ had been quite systemic under-reporting and I became concerned about whether we had resources in place to tackle the number of allegations we were getting in. By 2013/14 it was 39, and it increased significantly after that.
CN: You went off for maternity leave, and when you came back in 2014 the number of allegations concerning Oxfam staff overseas really escalated didn’t they. So tell us about the sense of scale.
HE: So when I came back from maternity leave, my maternity cover had been out to a number of countries, including South Sudan, and we’d been doing confidential surveys of about 120 staff. And the results were very very concerning. We were getting people reporting that they’d either witnessed or experienced rape, or attempted rape, by Oxfam representatives and in one country [South Sudan] that was 7% of staff saying that. And across the programmes – there were 3 in total – we had about 1 in 10 saying they’d experienced unwanted sexual touching, sexual assault. This was staff on staff. We haven’t even gone out to beneficiaries who were receiving aid from us. I was extremely, extremely concerned by those survey results, and I asked to take that to the leadership team and was offered the opportunity to present that report to the leadership team. And about an hour before I was due to present, I was told I was no longer needed. I was extremely concerned about that and I wrote to the Chief Executive [Mark Goldring] to ask why I hadn’t had the opportunity to present those findings and the opportunity to discuss those concerns that I had. And the response I had back was that they felt that everything that needed to be said had been said in my report…
CN: And the individual incidents are truly shocking. I’m thinking of the email you wrote to your line manager in February 2015 where you talked about 3 new allegations in a single day. Do you remember those allegations?
HE: Yes, very much so. There was one of a woman being coerced to have sex in humanitarian response by another aid worker.
CN: This was a woman who was receiving Oxfam aid?
HE: Yeah. Another case where a woman had been coerced to have sex in exchange for aid, and another one where it had come to our attention that a member of staff had been struck off for sexual abuse and hadn’t disclosed that. We were then concerned about what he might be doing. And that was 3 allegations in one day…
CN: In your emails, you repeatedly made the case that you on your own couldn’t deal with the scale of the allegations. You needed more resources. How did Oxfam respond to that?
HE: So, it was me initially working on this 4 days a week, and then I had 3 days a week of admin support. And I asked repeatedly ‘We need more resources, we need more resources for this’, and it wasn’t forthcoming. And it was just a continual fight to try and get more resources, and I just found that so frustrating because I felt that our failure to adequately resource was putting people at risk.
CN: But it sounds like they didn’t take those allegations seriously. That women getting harassed, assaulted, raped, didn’t really register with the senior team.
HE: I struggled to understand why they didn’t respond immediately to that call for additional resources. I really struggle and I still struggle with that…
CN: You’re also disclosing today that young volunteers in Oxfam shops in the UK – you’re alleging – have been abused. Can you tell us the case that most troubled you? The allegation that most troubled you?
HE: Yes. So there was one case of an adult volunteer assaulting a child volunteer. That went to court. and that troubled me because I knew that Oxfam was not conducting the criminal record checks that it needed to conduct. That children were being left alone with adults who hadn’t been criminal record checked. And that is something that afterwards I took to the Charity Commission, I took to the Children’s Commissioner, I took to the Home Office, and at that time the Home Office and the Charity Commissioner were saying that because it was retail, it was OK not to have those checks.
CN: That’s an extraordinary loophole.
HE: Extraordinary. Oxfam and all the charity shops, people trust. They trust them because they’re charities. And the point I made repeatedly are parents are trusting these organisations to keep their children safe when they volunteer. These are 14 year old children, and if parents knew that those adults were not checked, they would not be sending those children into those shops.
CN: In your documents, you suggest that the shop manager put pressure on the young volunteer not to go to the police. What happened to that shop manager?
HE: They were ultimately dismissed. My concern though was how did that happen? It shouldn’t have been the case that the shop manager did that. There was a lot of learning from that case.
CE: How swiftly were they dismissed? Did the senior team take on the seriousness of this particular case?
HE: I think at the time I felt frustrated, and whilst they were dismissed ultimately, I felt it was challenging to get the right outcome.
CN: Let’s talk about the Charity Commission. You reported to them in 2015. What was their response?
HE: When I went to them, I assumed they’d want to make contact with me. They didn’t ask to meet with me, they didn’t ask to speak with me. I had limited email exchanges. And I pushed and pushed and pushed, and they stopped replying to me. And to say I felt disappointed – these are meant to be the people that you go to in these circumstances. And I trusted them. And I just didn’t understand why they didn’t take action.
CN: The Charity Commission did carry out an enquiry after some allegations appeared in the press in December last year. And that enquiry said ‘Many of the allegations were not substantiated’. So they did do a thorough check at that point, and found that a lot of it didn’t stack up in their view. How do you respond to that?
HE: Yeah. So that is a matter for public record that with any allegations, there will be some that are proven and some that are not proven. And that wasn’t the point that I took to them. My concern was the extent to which we were not adequately resourcing the safeguarding function, and doing everything we could do to safeguard our beneficiaries and child volunteers. I think on that, the point is in the press there’s been a lot of coverage about Oxfam and how shocking and surprising this is. It isn’t. I went in 2015 to the Charity Commission. I went back again in 2017. Everything I’m saying today, the Charity Commission knew. So why is the government saying this is a surprise?
CN: Do you think Oxfam can survive this?
HE: I do. There are, behind Oxfam, thousands of committed, dedicated, incredible staff, absolutely. The things they do, put their lives at risk every day. They are amazing people. In terms of the senior leadership team, I think there are some people who need to look back at what’s happened in the last few years and think ‘Did they do everything they needed to do to keep beneficiaries safe?’