Charity’s handling of sexual harassment claims ‘let down complainants, employees and public’

Charity Save the Children UK “let down” complainants, employees and the public through “serious failures” in its handling of sexual harassment allegations against senior staff, according to a watchdog’s damning report.

The Charity Commission found “serious weaknesses” in the charity’s workplace culture following a probe into concerns around its handling of allegations of misconduct and harassment against staff between 2012 and 2015.

The investigation considered the response to claims such as those made against the charity’s former chief executive Justin Forsyth (pictured), who faced three complaints of misconduct by female members of staff, and Brendan Cox, husband of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox.

Save the Children UK said it has “accepted in full” the findings, and apologised to the women affected.

The report identifies a wide range of failings, including the charity not identifying its chief executive as the subject of harassment complaints when it made a serious incident report to the regulator in 2015.

The commission says this amounted to the omission of “material facts”, and to “mismanagement in the administration of the charity”.

It also said one of the charity’s public statements in February 2018 was “not wholly accurate”, and described its overall approach to reports in the media as “unduly defensive”.

These allegations, and the way in which the charity responded, had a “corrosive impact on its internal culture”, the report said.

Trustees were “poorly served” by not being made aware of allegations against the charity’s CEO until 2015, and not receiving a copy of the full findings of an external report on corporate culture later that year, the report found.

The report said there were 13 complaints of general bullying and five complaints categorised as sexual harassment between 2016 and June 2018.

Since October 2018, the charity has “made significant progress in implementing changes”, the commission added.

Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the commission, said charities should be led by those who model the highest standards and who are held to account when they fall short.

She said: “This responsibility is especially pronounced in large, household name charities: their leaders are powerful, and highly respected. The impact of failures in leadership in such charities can also have implications for public trust and confidence beyond the charity itself.

“So they must use that power responsibly, and in a way that reflects legitimate expectations of charity.

“Save the Children UK let complainants and the public down. It must work hard now to rebuild its reputation.”

The allegations against Mr Forsyth were made between 2012 and 2015, and came to public attention in 2018.

Allegations against Mr Cox were first reported in November 2015.

In May 2018 it also emerged the charity had failed to inform Unicef that its former chief executive had been investigated over alleged sexual misconduct before moving to the UN agency.

The charity temporarily suspended bids for future cash from taxpayers in light of the scandal, as did Oxfam which was accused of covering up claims that staff used prostitutes while delivering aid to disaster-stricken Haiti in 2011.

In 2015, Mr Forsyth apologised unreservedly to the three women and he quit his role as deputy executive director of Unicef when the allegations resurfaced in February 2018.

Meanwhile, Mr Cox, who was Save the Children’s chief strategist in 2015, admitted that he made “mistakes” and behaved in a way that caused some women “hurt and offence” when he was working at Save the Children UK.

Mr Cox resigned from the charity in September 2015, amid the allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women, but at the time denied that was the reason he quit.

The Commission said the charity recognised the seriousness of the complaints and it had found no evidence of deliberate attempts to brush these under the carpet.

The charity instigated two reviews into culture and morale, and has since taken steps to respond to the external reviews’ findings.

Kevin Watkins, who became CEO of Save the Children UK in 2016, having previously served on the board, said: “I unreservedly apologise to the women affected by the behaviour of these two senior executives.

“The harm they suffered was compounded by a failure to respond appropriately to complaints and then by our defensive handling of media inquiries about the cases.

“Our staff are passionate about our work for children. They have a right to expect the highest standards of support and protection. I’m determined to work with them to build an organisational culture that reflects our values.”

Baroness Stowell of Beeston, chairwoman of the commission, added: “This is not only about treating complainants with the seriousness and respect they deserve, it is also about demonstrating that no one gets a pass because they are doing important work or are motivated by the desire to help some of the most vulnerable people around the world.”

How events unfolded at Save the Children UK

The Charity Commission has identified “serious failures” in Save the Children UK’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against senior staff.

Here are the key events between the first complaint and the publication of the regulator’s report.

  • 2012:

A staff member raises a complaint with human resources (HR) about the behaviour of then-chief executive Justin Forsyth towards her.

In agreement with the complainant, the charity deals with the matter informally – counter to its own disciplinary procedures. No investigation into the complaint takes place.

She receives a handwritten apology from Mr Forsyth and is told the matter is recorded on his HR file.

  • March 2015:

Two staff members make complaints about the conduct of Mr Forsyth in past years.

The complaints are dealt with informally, and the former chief executive apologises about any distress his behaviour has caused.

No further action is taken with regard to the then-CEO.

  • August 2015:

The 2012 complainant becomes aware of the 2015 complaints and is upset that similar behaviour is alleged to have been repeated.

She raises a grievance about the way her complaint had been dealt with.

The charity trustees commission an external review to examine how it handled the complaints in 2012 and 2015, which later finds various faults.

Around this time, the full board of trustees is informed that the complaints were against the then-CEO.

Serious concerns are raised about a separate senior leader at the charity, the director of policy and advocacy Brendan Cox.

The charity recognises the alleged behaviour as a disciplinary matter and instigates a formal investigation.

  • September 2015:

A disciplinary hearing for Mr Cox is scheduled for September, however he resigns before a hearing can take place.

The charity makes a serious incident report to the commission, and later follows that up with a further update, however the report does not note that the individual referred to in the update is the charity’s CEO.

  • October 2015:

Mr Forsyth resigns and leaves the charity the following April.

  • November 2015:

Media reports about allegations against Mr Cox emerge.

  • December 2015:

Save the Children UK’s then-chairman receives a request for a reference from an organisation where Mr Forsyth has accepted a new role. He provides a personal verbal reference over the phone, but it is not clear when.

  • Early 2018:

Concerns are published in the media around the former CEO’s conduct at Save the Children UK.

The charity faces significant media interest and considers it needs to address what it sees as inaccuracies to protect complainants and the charity’s reputation.

The commission’s inquiry later finds that aspects of a statement issued on February 20 2018 were not wholly correct.

Mr Forsyth quits his role as deputy executive director of Unicef.

  • April 2018:

The commission’s inquiry opens and reports back in March 2020, almost two years later.

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