4 November 2020
James Cleverly responds to a debate on sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector

James Cleverly responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the International Development Committee’s report into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) not just for securing this debate, but for having been a passionate voice in this area for a considerable time, and long before this issue was in the broader public consciousness. I will go through some of the UK Government’s actions, but I think that one reason why we find ourselves in a leadership position on this is that there have been voices such as my hon. Friend’s, which have been making this case for far longer than others.

I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for her chairmanship of the Select Committee and to the members of that Committee, who have pursued with alacrity this incredibly important issue.

I thank all those hon. Members who have made contributions today. We all joke about how Westminster Hall is a much better debating place than the main Chamber of the House of Commons, but with this debate it has been shown once again that, sometimes, difficult and challenging questions can be asked in good faith, with a desire to bring about positive change, rather than just as a short-term political stick to beat each other with across the aisle. I will respond as much as I can to the points that have been made.

Sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment are completely unacceptable, especially in a sector whose purpose is to help the most vulnerable. My concern sometimes is that these stories are used by critics of ODA spending as an excuse for the UK to withdraw from its international commitments. I will say this clearly: no, it is a reason for us to work harder to address these issues rather than to step away from them.

In 2018, the aid sector’s failure to tackle sexual exploitation came into sharp relief, and it has been raised by a number of people today. We now realise—indeed, it is very clear—that it was far from an isolated incident. That has been reinforced today. The hon. Member for Rotherham highlighted the pernicious cocktail of attitudes that are, unfortunately, if not prevalent, then certainly not isolated in the aid sector, and that lead some people to believe that the people they are meant to be helping are somehow lesser than them.

The case is therefore clear: we must do more to drive up safeguarding standards, and we must act quickly. Inevitably, there will be a power and wealth imbalance in the sector that we are talking about, but we must never accept the inevitability that that should lead to sexual exploitation and abuse.

Since 2018, the UK has spearheaded work to tackle sexual misconduct in the aid sector. We launched a £10 million multi-year initiative with Interpol to identify and stop perpetrators from working in the sector and, with a UK commitment of £10 million, we developed tools to help organisations with their safeguarding. The misconduct disclosure scheme, backed by the UK, prevented at least 36 people with track records of sexual misconduct from being employed by NGOs in 2019. Following wide consultation, we have designed a new multi-million-pound programme of support to survivors and victims. We will provide further details in 2021.

Yet cases still occur far too frequently, as we have seen in the horrific reports from the DRC, and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is absolutely right that we have to assume that that is just the tip of the iceberg. Reporting has increased—which perversely, I suppose, is a positive sign. We know that there has been, as is often the case with sexual abuse, huge under-reporting, both domestically and internationally.

Tackling sexual misconduct is a priority for the UK Government. In September, we published our first aid sector safeguarding strategy. The UK is pushing for change in three areas. First is sector-wide change. The UK is providing global leadership to tackle the issue from the top. The Prime Minister is a member of the UN Secretary General’s Circle of Leadership to prevent and end sexual exploitation and abuse. The UK brings together donors, NGOs, the United Nations and others to ensure a coherent international approach. We adhere to global standards on sexual misconduct and require our partners to do the same. In 2019, we helped to write and signed the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s recommendations on the issue, with 29 other DAC members.

Organisational change within the UK Government is our second priority; that means a comprehensive look at our own cultures and practices. We have sent a clear message out to all staff that safeguarding is a responsibility for everybody, and we hope that will alleviate the challenge of where victims have to report to their abusers. At the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, that includes a clear statement in our staff code of conduct that sexual exploitation and abuse based on power imbalances, including paying for sex—my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire is absolutely right; I will not describe that as prostitution, because that is not what it is: it is abuse—is gross misconduct. All ODA-spending Departments have signed up to that language.

Thirdly, we want to raise standards among those who deliver UK programmes overseas. We have strengthened our due diligence assessments and aligned the safeguarding language in our multilateral funding agreements with other donors, clearly setting out our collective expectations. Reaching our standards can be a challenge for some small grass-roots organisations, so the UK has created the resource and support hub to help build up their safeguarding capabilities. Some might argue that we are not tough enough and should cut funding to all organisations where any allegations occur. Our concern is that that would introduce a perverse incentive to cover up the very issues that we need to see more of.

Stephen Doughty

Does that apply to all staff in all Departments spending ODA and all those contracted to those Departments? That is important.

James Cleverly

On the language that I used about gross misconduct, the t’s and c’s of the FCDO can apply only to the FCDO, but all ODA-spending Government Departments have agreed with the wording underpinning that. All Departments signed up to the language in the UK strategy. It is about trying to ensure that we do not introduce perverse incentives that would drive the issue back underground, as we have seen before.

Regrettably, safeguarding cases will still occur from time to time. However, we collectively work to reduce the risk, and we will not tolerate a lack of effort or action. That is why we require our partners to do all they reasonably can to prevent sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment and to respond sensitively to the victims and robustly within organisations. We will not fund partners who do not reach those standards.

Let me end by saying that more needs to be done. Sadly, we have heard that this issue will be an enduring challenge, and the UK will remain at the forefront. We will place the rights, needs and wishes of victims and survivors and the centre of our response. The UK strategy sets out four commitments for all Departments delivering UK aid: we will continue to provide global leadership; we will hold ourselves to the same high standards that we expect of others; we will transform the aid sector so that everybody is treated with dignity and respect; and we will hold ourselves to account through transparent reporting and external scrutiny. Safeguarding against sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment is everybody’s responsibility, and the Government will continue to lead the way on this issue.