The government is to investigate claims made by former international development secretary Priti Patel that officials ignored warnings over sex abuse by charity staff.
The former Cabinet minister said she flagged concerns about abuse in charities last year but they were brushed aside by officials within the Department for International Development
Reports emerged over the weekend that Oxfam mishandled allegations of sexual misconduct by its staff in Haiti, where they were working in the aftermath of the huge earthquake that devastated the country in 2010.
Patel, who left the Cabinet in November, has claimed that Whitehall officials knew about the abuse, and that she had shared details from UN reports with them.
Writing in the Telegraph, Patel said that during her time as secretary of state she had tried to ensure “accountability not just on aid effectiveness, but also the sexual abuse, not just of adults, but also the rape of children”.
She added: “I would like to say that I was supported and presented with facts from the department laying out the long history that UK governments, Labour and Conservative, had in tackling this global problem.
“Sadly, I can’t. When I raised this issue in DfID, appalling it was dismissed as only a problem with UN peacekeepers, which my subsequent investigations showed to be incorrect.”
Patel's successor as iinternational development secretary Penny Mordaunt has suggested that Oxfam’s £32m government funding could be withdrawn if it fails to tackle these issues adequately, and has privately said she will investigate Patel’s claims and take action if she finds any wrongdoing, the Telegraph reported.
She met with the chair and chief executive of Oxfam on Monday, and in a statement issued afterwards said she had “asked them to confirm to DfID by the end of the week precisely how they will handle any forthcoming allegations around safeguarding – historic or live – in a way in which the public can have confidence”.
Mordaunt confirmed that a new unit had been set up within the department to review safeguarding across all parts of the aid sector, including UK and international charities, suppliers, the UN and other multilateral organisations. The unit will consider the option of establishing a global register of development workers.
She met with the Charity Commission this week, which has been investigating allegations of sexual harassment by Oxfam staff but said it was not informed that any claims related to crimes involving minors. DfID and the Charity Commission are to co-host a safeguarding summit with the aid sector this month, where they will agree on a set of safeguarding mechanisms, including around staffing and recruitment.
Mordaunt is also to meet with the National Crime Agency, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence to discuss the how to tackle the scandal.
DfID has said that according to its written records, Oxfam did not report to it that the allegations referred to sex with under-age girls or prostitutes.
It said in a statement: “We often work with organisations in chaotic and difficult circumstances. If wrong doing, abuse, fraud, or criminal activity occur we need to know about it immediately, in full. The way this appalling abuse of vulnerable people was dealt with raises serious questions that Oxfam must answer.
“We acknowledge that hundreds of Oxfam staff have done no wrong and work tirelessly for the people they serve, but the handling by the senior team about this investigation and their openness with us and the Charity Commission showed a lack of judgement. We have a zero tolerance policy for the type of activity that took place in this instance, and we expect our partners to as well.”