Former Save the Children chair denies sexual harassment cover up

Photo by: Katy Wrathall / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The former chair of Save the Children has denied trying to “cover up” allegations of sexual misconduct brought against two senior executives who worked for the charity under his watch.

Sir Alan Parker was chair of Save the Children UK when its former chief executive, Justin Forsyth, and head of policy, Brendan Cox, were alleged to have sexually harassed a number of female colleagues. The cases have received much media attention in recent weeks.

Appearing before members of parliament on Tuesday, Parker apologized “unreservedly” and admitted that women who worked for the organization “were failed.”

He also acknowledged that the charity had not warned future employers about the behavior of Forsyth, who went on to work for UNICEF, because the complaints had been resolved through “mediation.” 

In addition, one politician suggested the charity had spent vast sums of money on legal fees in an attempt to “shut the story down” as it emerged in the media. However, Parker said the aim was to protect the organization’s reputation from misreporting, and denied trying to bury the scandal.

“We have fallen short in a number of cases,” he said. “I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize again personally unreservedly, and on the part of the organization. I’m not sure an apology is enough.”

Answering questions from the United Kingdom’s International Development Committee in the House of Commons, Parker, who stepped down as chair last month, said he wished he had “done things differently” but denied any actual wrongdoing. His decision to step down after 10 years with the charity was to make way for a “fresh face” and was also “about maintaining trust” within the organization, he said.

His resignation came after pressure from campaigners, including former Save the Children staffer Alexia Pepper de Caires, who was a witness during the internal investigation into Cox’s alleged misconduct. De Caires had publicly accused Parker of failing to protect women in the organization and called for him to step down.

Parker, who also runs international public relations firm Brunswick, was grilled by politicians for an hour about his handling of the allegations made against Forsyth and Cox between 2011 and 2015. The allegations came to light earlier this year in the wake of revelations of sexual misconduct at other aid organizations, including Oxfam.

Under current chief executive Kevin Watkins, the charity has voluntarily withdrawn from applying for new funding from the Department for International Development while it is under investigation by the Charity Commission over how trustees handled the allegations, and whether they were “disclosed fully, frankly and accurately” to the regulator. It also says it has made “significant progress” on improving safeguarding procedures since the incidents took place, and has initiated its own internal investigation.

In a letter to the U.K.’s secretary of state for international development last month, Watkins wrote: “I want to underscore how seriously we take the sexual harassment cases reported at our headquarters in 2012 and 2015. We are cooperating fully with the Charity Commission’s inquiry to ensure that a complete and truthful account of these cases emerges.”

A spokesperson for Save the Children UK told Devex the organization’s internal inquiry “hopes to report by the end of the summer” and that it will have discussions with DFID about resuming bidding once the Charity Commission’s report has been finalized.

Justice not delivered

Criticisms of the charity’s handling of the allegations have included references to the fact that Cox resigned before an internal investigation into his behavior could be concluded. However, asked whether Cox had been asked to leave instead of facing disciplinary measures, Parker said “absolutely not.” Cox had “just left” and was still denying the accusations at the time of his resignation, he said, although he has since admitted he “made mistakes,” for which he has apologized. The board was “frustrated” by his decision to resign, which led to “dissatisfaction” among staff, Parker said.

“It is very saddening that we couldn’t reach a conclusion in this case, because it was a very open subject within the organization at this stage, a lot of people knew about it … and I think it meant we as a board could not be seen to deliver justice appropriately,” he said.

Parker said the board had taken the allegations against Cox “extremely seriously” and acted “immediately” by suspending him and bringing in a third party law firm to investigate the allegations, as well as to carry out a “wider cultural review” of Save the Children’s workplace.  Cox never returned to the London office during the whole process, he said: “From the moment we received the complaint … he never returned to the building once.”

The committee also grilled the chairman about his handling of the Forsyth case. At least three female staff members accused him of sexual harassment during his time as CEO, between 2010 and 2016. However, Forsyth was never formally investigated and moved on to work as deputy executive director for UNICEF in New York. He resigned in April, when the allegations surfaced in the media, saying he had made “some personal mistakes” during his time at the charity, for which he also apologized.

Parker admitted Save the Children did not tell UNICEF about the complaints against Forsyth, which were investigated by an independent law firm, because he had not been subject to a “formal disciplinary process.” Instead, there had been an “informal process of mediation” which had ended satisfactorily “at the time,” although the process was later re-examined by lawyers on Save the Children’s instruction.

“I think it is the policy of the organization not to mention things if they have not been the subject of formal disciplinary process,” he said. He told politicians that Save the Children had given a reference about Forsyth to a headhunter, but failed to mention the allegations. The former chairman said Cox neither sought nor was given a reference by Save the Children.

In light of recent sexual misconduct scandals in the sector more widely, some have pointed out that disclosing concerns about individuals to future employers can sometimes come with legal risks.

Parker also admitted Forsyth was offered a £20,000 bonus ($26,731) while he was being investigated, but said there was an explicit understanding that he would not accept the money. The offer was made because the remuneration committee at the charity had not been made aware of the investigation, at the request of the victims, Parker said, emphasizing the importance of maintaining confidentiality and “protection and support for the individuals affected.”

“We were trying to keep it confidential according to the wishes of the individuals involved … As long as the result was he didn’t get the bonus, we felt that was the appropriate action,” he said.

Asked whether the allegations about Forsyth should have been brought to UNICEF’s attention,  Parker said: “When I look back, there are a number of things we would have done differently … We would have done it in a way that would have settled it each time more appropriately, and I think it was very clear that there were quite specific HR failings in this, which I have to take on board as I was chairman at the time.”

However, he said the actions taken at the time were “very well motivated by the protection and support of the individuals … but the fact is that we didn’t follow the proper procedures.”

Conservative member of parliament Pauline Latham, a member of the IDC, asked Parker if his close relationship with Forsyth had influenced his handling of the allegations. Parker denied this and said the pair only met once prior to his being appointed as chief executive in 2011. However, he said he did distance himself from the investigations, appointing “senior trustees” to head up the inquiries.

Damage control

MPs also quizzed the PR mogul about the amount of money the charity has spent on legal fees since the sexual misconduct stories hit the headlines earlier this year. Media outlets including the BBC and the Daily Mail said they have received letters from lawyers acting on Save the Children’s behalf, threatening legal action.

“You’ve possibly spent £100,000 to shut the story down,” Latham said, adding that this money was likely to have come from public donations.

Parker denied this and said: “It was not an attempt to close anything down, it was just trying to make sure the organization was properly protected.”

Parker said he did not know the exact figure spent on legal fees, but felt it was his “duty to protect” the reputation of Save the Children and make sure “the facts are properly and fairly reported,” adding there has been a “lot of misinformation” in the media.

“If it is misreported … this can be terribly damaging … and ultimately it can take away… money from the children who need it most,” he said, adding that the spending must be “sparing and careful.”

Parker said Save the Children International has put a “huge amount of effort into child protection” over the last 10 years. Since 2016 it has also made a “quantum change” in its policies on “workplace conduct” and “created a whole new system of safeguarding” for both beneficiaries and staff, he said.

“If we can really implement what we’re trying to do at STC International it will lead the industry to a whole new standard,” he said.

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About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.