Oxfam’s deputy chief quits over claims of staff sexual misconduct

Penny Lawrence resigns amid scandal over claims workers hired prostitutes in Haiti

Britain's International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, responds to reports of sexual exploitation by members of British Charities working overseas. Video: BBC's Andrew Marr Show

 

Oxfam’s deputy chief executive in Britain has resigned over the charity’s handling of a sex scandal involving the hiring of prostitutes by aid workers. Penny Lawrence said she took “full responsibility” for Oxfam’s failure to deal properly with allegations about an employee who worked in Chad and Haiti.

“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. As programme director at the time, I am ashamed that this happened on my watch and I take full responsibility,” she said.

“I am desperately sorry for the harm and distress that this has caused to Oxfam’s supporters, the wider development sector and most of all the vulnerable people who trusted us.”

Britain’s international development secretary Penny Mordaunt on Monday called in senior figures from Oxfam, who deny claims of a cover-up, amid warnings that the government could withdraw public funding from the group.

The Times reported last week that Oxfam’s country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, was alleged to have used prostitutes after the 2010 earthquake. Oxfam investigated the allegations at the time and dismissed four staff members but three others, including Mr van Hauwermeiren, resigned before the end of the investigation.  Mr van Hauwermeiren went on to work for other charities, which were unaware of the allegations about his behaviour in Haiti.

Haiti’s ambassador to the Britain, Bocchit Edmond, said he was “shocked and appalled” by the way Oxfam allowed its former workers to leave the country without reporting them to the Haitian authorities.

“For the executive to know these crimes were committed and to allow those people to leave without informing the authorities is wrong,” he told the Guardian.

“We might be dealing with a paedophile ring. Prostitution is illegal and we believe they may have been underage kids.”

Aware of concerns

Oxfam acknowledged on Monday that the charity had been aware of concerns about the behaviour in Chad of Mr van Hauwermeiren and of the men facing allegations before they moved to Haiti.

Former international development secretary Priti Patel claimed on Sunday that she had raised concerns about the behaviour of aid workers with officials in her department, suggesting that they had been slow to take action.

Penny Lawrence, who has resigned as deputy chief executive of Oxfam, saying she took “full responsibility” for the behaviour of staff “that we failed to adequately act upon”. Photograph: Charlotte Ball/Oxfam/PA Wire
Penny Lawrence, who has resigned as deputy chief executive of Oxfam, saying she took “full responsibility” for the behaviour of staff “that we failed to adequately act upon”. Photograph: Charlotte Ball/Oxfam/PA Wire

“Well, put it this way: My former department did not raise this issue with me. I raised it with them through my own investigations and my own research,” she said.

The Charity Commission’s director of investigations, Michelle Russell, said it had not been told the full story when Oxfam first investigated the Haiti allegations in 2011.

“We’ve made very clear that had the details of what has come out over the last few days been told to us, we would have dealt with this very differently. We were categorically told there was no abuse of beneficiaries involved in the allegations. Nor were we told that there were issues or possible issues around possible crimes, including those involving minors,” she told the BBC.