The Charity Commission gave Oxfam a clean bill of health as recently as 2017. Yet underfunding is at least partly to blame.
By Asheem Singh
Asheem Singh is the former interim chief executive of Acevo, the network for charity and social enterprise leaders. He is a journalist, campaigner, broadcaster and author.
The Oxfam scandal, which has now seen the resignation of the UK charity’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, has raised huge questions – both for the public and for those who work in the charity sector.
How could such a beloved British institution cover up even isolated cases of vile sex abuse? How many more charities harbour similar skeletons?
But while the focus of the growing crisis should rightly be on those who abused their positions – and our donations – at least part of our anger should be directed at the Charity Commission. This is the body whose job it is to investigate charities and take them to task when the need arises.
The failure here is stark. The commission has said it received information in August 2011 about an ongoing investigation into allegations of misconduct by Oxfam staff in Haiti. Oxfam dealt with the matter as an internal issue and the commission did not ask for further information. It took Oxfam’s representations about that incident on face value, though we know that it also had queries about safety procedures and worked with Oxfam on those. Nevertheless, to all intents and purposes, as recently as December 2017 the regulator gave Oxfam what amounted to an all-clear.
The commission has now acted: over the weekend, it demanded urgent clarification from Oxfam about the use of sex workers in Haiti. But six years on, after the story has broken, is too late. And the green light given by the commission apparently did not take into account stories of abuse and safeguarding failures in Oxfam’s charity shops.
In recent years, the Charity Commission has had a habit of following rather than leading, being reactive rather than proactive. The commission says it receives more than a thousand claims every year about the safeguarding of vulnerable individuals – a number the organisation’s head of investigations, Michelle Russell, describes as “a lot”. But given that the commission regulates 168,000 UK charities, is that really so unexpected? And is it too much to expect, in a civilised society, that the safeguarding of our most vulnerable people should be properly funded?
Of course, the commission has been underfunded for years. Its 2016 budget of £21.2m was roughly half its budget in 2008. Repeated calls from the sector to put more into regulation have for the most part been ignored.
Lack of funding has been exacerbated by the way the commission has been run. The appointments procedure has been abused by successive governments. This important watchdog has become a sort of trophy partner, a badge to be tossed about to “our kind of people” at whim. Its last chair, William Shawcross, was a journalist and historian who had previously only briefly, if ever, worked in an office. The incoming chair is Conservative peer Tina Stowell, who has, to her credit, agreed to renounce her peerage to get up to speed. But it enhances the perception that the commission is not treated by the government as a serious regulatory body, but as a plaything or personal fiefdom. If the government won’t take the Charity Commission seriously, why should the public?
The commission’s own solution to dealing with its funding crisis has been to suggest that large charities fund it [pdf]. This notion must now be dead in the water. How, after all, could the public be sure that larger charities would not be able to buy silence, formally or informally, when this already stretched organisation has proven itself incapable, even in the absence of such influence, of effectively holding these international charity megabrands to account?
The Charity Commission has been gutted and generally treated by those at the top as a way of pursuing their own agendas.
This is a sorry tale that has now crippled trust in the sector as a whole and may do so for years. My own proposal to begin to repair the damage is to place in the crucial position of commission chair someone with years of experience of safeguarding and working with children, surely the most critical of the charity commission’s responsibilities. That is the very least the victims of this tragedy deserve.
Source: Guardian Voluntary Sector Online