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Oxfam scandal: ministers have 'serious questions to answer', say Labour - as it happened

An Oxfam logo in Darfur.
An Oxfam logo in Darfur. Photograph: Nasser Nasser/AP

Afternoon summary

  • The presence in Stormont of Theresa May and Leo Varadkar, who arrived apparently believing a power-sharing deal was close on Monday, was a “distraction”, the leader of the DUP has said. (See 2.06pm)
  • Ministers have “serious questions to answer” over the handling of concerns about Oxfam’s safeguarding reportedly sent to two government departments in 2015, according to Labour’s shadow international development secretary, Kate Osamor. (See 11.25am)
  • The international trade secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has insisted she will not be rushed into any decisions on how to deal with Oxfam amid the sexual abuse scandal engulfing the aid organisation. (See 11.36am)
  • The chairman of of Oxfam International has been arrested as part of a corruption probe in Guatemala. Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, a former finance minister in the country, was detained along with former president Alvaro Colom as part of an investigation into a public bus deal. Oxfam said Knight had told them “he did not knowingly transgress rules or procedures”.
  • The Haitian president issued a warning to aid agencies. In a statement released in response to the Oxfam revelations, Jovenel Moïse said his country would no longer accept help if it came alongside “abhorrent violations”.

There is nothing more shameful than a sexual predator using the veil of catastrophe as a means to exploit the vulnerable in their most defenceless moments. What transpired [in Haiti] is a violation of basic human decency.

  • A suspicious package sent to the Houses of Parliaments was found to contain a harmless white powder. The Met’s counter terrorism command were called in to investigate.

That’s it from us for today. We’ll be back tomorrow morning. Thanks for all of your comments.

An update from the Met on the suspicious package sent to parliament:

The Press Association reports that the chairman of Oxfam International has been arrested as part of a corruption probe in Guatemala.

Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, a former finance minister in the country, was detained along with former president Alvaro Colom as part of an investigation into a public bus deal.

The development comes as Oxfam Great Britain is embroiled in an aid worker sex scandal in relation to Haiti.

Oxfam International’s executive director Winnie Byanyima said:

“Oxfam does not yet know the nature of formal charges, if any, against Dr Fuentes Knight.

“However he has been entirely open with his Oxfam board and executive that he has been among former officials being investigated as part of a budgetary transaction made by the Guatemalan government while he was finance minister.

“He has assured us that he has co-operated fully with the investigation in the confidence he did not knowingly transgress rules or procedures.”

Updated

An update from North Ayrshire, where the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is campaigning.

He has highlighted the work of the local Labour-run council, which has stepped in to provide meals for children during the school holidays, saying: “Councils shouldn’t be forced to be the last line of defence against austerity.”

Scotland desperately needs a Labour government in Holyrood. The SNP has passed on Tory cuts to local communities.

Labour councils, like North Ayrshire, are stepping in and doing what they can but councils shouldn’t be forced to be the last line of defence against austerity. Labour in power in Holyrood would unlock the potential of devolution to deliver across Scotland.

Holiday hunger is unacceptable; we simply shouldn’t have hungry children in Scotland in 2018. The system is broken. It can’t be managed more humanely as the SNP claims to do. It must be overhauled in the interests of the many not the few.

Labour performed poorly in the last Holyrood elections in 2016, losing 13 seats and falling behind the Scottish Conservatives, who in turn trailed the SNP.

Updated

Scotland Yard said its counter-terrorism command was investigating the incident on the Parliamentary estate. A spokesman said:

At approximately 11.36am on Tuesday 13 February, police were informed of a suspicious package that had been delivered to an office within the Palace of Westminster. Police are at the scene and dealing [with it].

The letter contained a white powder, which is currently being assessed by specialists. The office remains closed at this time, but the rest of the Palace of Westminster is open.

While Scotland Yard declined to specify what the substance was until a thorough assessment had been carried out, a House of Commons spokeswoman said it was “non-harmful”.

The first female Black Rod has been presented with her ceremonial staff by the Queen, marking the historic appointment.

The monarch invested Sarah Clarke as Lady Usher of the Black Rod in the private audience room at Buckingham Palace, by presenting her with the ebony staff and the chain of office.

Clarke is the first woman to hold the post in the House of Lords in the 650-year history of the role. She has taken over from former Black Rod David Leakey, and met the Queen ahead of her formal introduction into the Lords next week.

Black Rod is the senior official responsible for maintaining order at the House of Lords, and is thrust into the spotlight each year at the State Opening of Parliament, when sent to bang on the door of the House of Commons to summon MPs to hear the Queen’s Speech.

Updated

May and Varadkar's Stormont visits 'a distraction' - DUP leader

Some interesting comments from the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, who says the presence of the prime minister, Theresa May, and the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, proved “bit of a distraction” at Stormont yesterday.

While they were welcome, Foster says the arrivals of Varadkar and May, whose Westminster government the DUP props up, interrupted negotiations.

The decision for them both to travel to Northern Ireland was seen as an indication the two leaders believed that, after more than year, a deal to set up a power-sharing government was close.

But Foster says both governments were told in advance that “the deal wasn’t done”. Speaking to the Press Association, Foster says:

I am hopeful that we will move toward devolution again.

Whether it’s this week, whether it’s in a couple of weeks or whether it’s in a couple of months what I must ensure is that we have an accommodation that everybody feels content with.

Her comments will cause some embarrassment for May, who had urged “one final push” and apparently believed she would be able to announce a deal yesterday.

Foster also rubbished speculation about the shape of Irish language laws that might emerge from the Stormont negotiations. She said some rumours had not been “grounded in any sort of reality”.

There won’t be a stand-alone Irish Language Act - we have always made that very clear, people aren’t going to be forced to learn Irish, there isn’t going to be Irish compulsory in schools, there’s not going to be bilingual signs or quotas in the civil service.

Some of the speculation has actually caused a lot of concern right across the community in Northern Ireland and it’s important that we say that that is not based in reality.

What we are trying to find is an accommodation and a way forward that values those people who are Irish speakers but doesn’t impinge on the lives of those who aren’t Irish speakers and I think that’s important.

And she made it clear that, if devolution is restored, she expects to be first minister.

I am the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party so therefore I will be the person that’s put forward by the party to be first minister.

Updated

An unnamed police officer in Speaker’s Court said a suspicious package has been found, according to Press Association. The officer is quoted as saying: “We haven’t been told much but a package has been left. Specialist officers have just arrived to examine it. It won’t be anything to worry about.”

Updated

While the police investigation is still underway, the Palace of Westminster is not in lockdown, there are no security alerts displayed on the annunciators in the building and there are no extra police officers visible at the main entrance at Carriage Gates, Press Association reports.

A House of Commons spokesperson says police are investigating an incident on the parliamentary estate, according to the Reuters news agency.

There is no indication at the moment of its nature and Scotland Yard has not immediately been able to provide any clarity on what the operation entails.

Updated

Jovenel Moise
Jovenel Moise Photograph: QUIRINAL PALACE PRESS OFFICE - FRANCESCO AMMENDOLA / HANDOUT/EPA

The president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, has warned aid agencies his country will not accept their support when it comes with “abhorent violations”.

In a statement, he said:

There is nothing more shameful than a sexual predator using the veil of catastrophe as a means to exploit the vulnerable in their most defenceless moments. What transpired is a violation of basic human decency.

This case also is disheartening because the funds enabling these crimes were given in the name of the British people and with altruistic intent. The people of Haiti were and are immensely thankful for the support the international community brought to us in the wake of our terrible tragedy in 2010, but that gratitude ought not to be mistaken for docility in the face of abhorrent violations such as these.

Disasters may strike, but a people’s dignity and rights persist. In Haiti, we have had wonderful experiences with international organisations, and we have had some very troubling ones, too. So let this be well-understood by all agencies: if your staff exploits or harms our communities while “aiding” them, we will not tolerate your particular brand of support.

The international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has said she will not move “hastily” in deciding whether to withdraw government funding of Oxfam after her meeting with the charity’s bosses yesterday.

I know people will be worried about the charity, they’ll be worried about the money, but we need to be guided by what the Charity Commission are doing and also I have made it very clear to Oxfam what we expect to see from them.

But these decisions shouldn’t be taken hastily, but I am considering them.

Ministers have “questions to answer” over Evans’ claim that they failed to take enough action in response to the concerns she reported in 2015, according to a senior Labour figure.

The shadow international development secretary, Kate Osamor says:

The Charity Commission and government departments have serious questions to answer: why did they take no action in response to concerns raised by Helen Evans in June 2015 and August 2015? Are there other whistleblowers that have brought safeguarding concerns to the Charity Commission only to be ignored?

It is crucial that we now understand how far this appalling scandal reaches, and whether the Charity Commission is operating effectively as an independent regulator.

The former international development secretary, Justine Greening, has been responding to the claims from Oxfam’s former head of safeguarding, Helen Evans.

The whistleblower told Channel 4 News on Monday that her concerns about abuse within the charity were raised with DfID and the Home Office in 2015, but insufficient was done.

Greening has told Sky News:

I don’t recall being aware of those allegations but I certainly know that, whenever I had any instances raised with me, they would always have been followed up. I am not, obviously, the kind of person who would’ve ignored anything like that; why would anyone?

And, in the first half of 2016, I had kicked off some work in the department to look at safeguarding in the context of how we could make sure when people were identified in the NGO sector who were not behaving appropriately that there possibly could have been put together a register to track those people and make sure that they were never allowed to circulate around the system.

That’s something I think the NGO sector themselves should have been taking a lead on. They weren’t. But it’s certainly a question I raised with them.

Updated

After the departure of Theresa May and her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, from Northern Ireland last night, the talking resumes today at Stormont aimed at securing a power sharing restoration deal that the two premiers thought might be achievable on Monday.

But sources from inside the Democratic Unionist Party indicate that there are now serious difficulties ahead for its leadership to sell any package that could be perceived as containing a stand-alone Irish Language Act.

One DUP source said there was “internal uproar” overnight regarding the outline of a deal. Some of the party’s councillors took to social media on Tuesday to express their disquiet over the proposed compromise regarding languages and culture.

Given that Kells is not from what could be described as the party’s traditionalist wing, his tweets appear to reflect the growing unease across the DUP base over a stand-alone Irish Language Act.

And, given this level of nervousness and doubt within the DUP, it has to be asked to why, exactly Downing Street, the Northern Ireland Office and Dublin’s Department of Foreign Affairs thought a deal was so close that they advised two prime minister to fly into Belfast on Monday – who then had to leave empty handed.

Updated

The government must order a full inquiry into illegal sexual behaviour, not just within Oxfam, but across the aid sector, the Liberal Democrats have said. The party’s international development spokesperson, Baroness Sheehan, said:

The government must now accept that nothing short of a full and far-reaching inquiry into illegal sexual behaviour within Oxfam and across the wider aid sector, will do.

The public have a right to know what the extent of the problem is and whether what has been exposed to date is only the tip of the iceberg.

This information is vital if those of us who are proud of Britain’s record of delivering aid to the poorest people on our planet are to successfully defend it.

The saddest outcome of this whole sorry saga would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater and desert the 0.7% of GNI devoted to alleviate extreme poverty.

Updated

The first woman to hold the title of Black Rod in the House of Lords in its 650-year history is due to be formally introduced to the Queen today.

Sarah Clarke has previously held roles at four Olympic Games, the London Marathon and most recently worked as championships director at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club.

She will meet the monarch at Buckingham Palace ahead of her formal introduction into the Lords next Tuesday.

Black Rod’s best-known duty is the banging on the door of the House of Commons to summon MPs to hear the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament. Speaking at the time of her appointment last November, she said

The House of Lords is a place where the smallest detail is as important as the big picture and the depth of heritage and tradition is second to none. I am truly looking forward to starting work.

She will formally be known as Lady Usher of the Black Rod and will be the senior official responsible for maintaining order at the House of Lords. Clarke succeeds David Leakey in the role.

Police have been called in after a series of prominent Brexit supporters were sent death threats signed “the real 48%” - an apparent reference to the proportion of people who voted to remain in the European Union in 2016.

Four letters were reported to police on Monday. Six leave donors received correspondence last week.

Some more on the fates of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh: they should be brought to trial in the UK, according to Peter Ricketts, a former national security adviser.

The crossbench peer appears to back the view put forward by the US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, and is at odds with the UK government’s position. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Ricketts said Britain “had responsibility” for the trials of the two men.

I can absolutely understand that people don’t want these guys back, they sound despicable. On the other hand we do believe in the rule of law and in accountability.

At the current time, they’re in a sort of stateless position; they’re not under anyone’s jurisdiction, they’re being held by an insurgency group. I think, in the end, the UK does have responsibility to take these people back in order to put them on trial.

In terms of showing people that you cannot commit these horrible crimes and be completely unaccountable for them later, I think – despite all the reluctance – I think that probably, if they were British people, we have some responsibility to take them back.

Mystery shrouds the cases of two captured men who are suspected of having been jailers for the Islamic State terrorist group, after the home secretary, Amber Rudd, refused to confirm whether or not they retained British citizenship.

Reports last week (paywall) suggested Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, suspected of being part of the execution group nicknamed “The Beatles”, had been rendered stateless. But Rudd declined to discuss that during an interview with Sky News on Tuesday.

Speaking to Sky, she said the government would make sure “that we keep everybody safe”. She said:

The important thing is that these two people face justice. We will always make sure that it’s properly co-ordinated and that they face justice.

The issue is at the centre of a potential dispute between the UK and the US. Washington wants militants to face justice in their home countries and intends to raise the issue with allies, including the UK, at a summit in Rome on Tuesday.

But the British defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said he does not think Elsheikh and Kotey “should ever set foot in this country again” and the junior defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, has suggested they should be tried at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

According to the Press Association, a Whitehall source has said:

The day these barbaric terrorists turned their back on this country in pursuit of an evil agenda of bloodshed and slaughter, they forfeited forever their right to return. They are not British subjects and should pay the price for their crimes in Syria.

Updated

Hopes were raised on Monday that, after more than a year, a deal could finally be reached to restore the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. But, on Monday evening, Theresa May left with no such agreement in place.

Paul Oakden, the chair of Ukip, is to step down. The move is a major blow to the party just days before its leader, Henry Bolton, faces a confidence vote. While Oakden insisted his decision was not connected to Saturday’s extraordinary general meeting, he did outline a series of frustrations in his role.

Updated

Charity watchdog begins statutory inquiry into Oxfam allegations

The Oxfam scandal continues to dominate the news agenda as the charities watchdog begins its statutory inquiry. There are allegations the aid organisation may not have “fully and frankly disclosed” all details about the Haiti allegations to the authorities. It also faces the prospect of losing £29m in European funding over its handling of them.

Yesterday, the spotlight was fixed firmly on Oxfam as its senior bosses were hauled before the international development secretary and its deputy chief executive resigned in disgrace. Today, it may be shared by Whitehall, after the charity’s former head of safeguarding told Channel 4 News her concerns were reported to the government and to the Charity Commission in 2015.

The former Conservative leader, William Hague, has also been speaking about the scandal, saying that cutting the foreign aid budget in response to it would be a “blunder”.

Once again, the issue dominates many of the morning’s front pages:

US and UK defence secretaries at odds

There is a burgeoning diplomatic row between the UK and the US over the fates of two British men suspected of being members of an Islamic State execution group nicknamed “The Beatles”. The British defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, disagrees with his US counterpart, Jim Mattis, who believes Isis fighters should be tried in their countries of origin. They two men are attending a meeting of international ministers in Rome today.

Johnson lays out liberal vision for Brexit

A major speech on Brexit by the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is trailed this morning. Johnson plans to say the common market was part of a political project when he delivers his speech on Wednesday.

Corbyn continues Scotland tour

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has said “we shouldn’t have hungry children in Scotland in 2018” ahead of a visit to a council-run scheme to provide meals for children during school holidays. His tour makes the front page of the Scotsman:

Rudd seeks to tackle online extremism

An artificial intelligence program that can detect Islamic State propaganda online with a 94% success rate has been developed, the Home Office announced on Monday. Today, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, is in the US, where she will address a Digital Forum event focused on tackling terrorism online.

Government urged to tackle energy prices

Energy price cap plans must be introduced urgently to stop millions of loyal and vulnerable customers being ripped off, a powerful committee has told the government. The story is carried on the front of City AM:

Homelessness policy problems return for Tories

The approach to tackling homelessness within the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has already caused one headache for the government when the Tory leader of the council called for rough sleepers to be cleared ahead of the royal wedding.

It may be about to cause another as it emerges that the council plans to fine rough sleepers up to £100 for begging or leaving their bedding in public places.

Commonwealth succession under discussion, says report

And a “high level group” of Commonwealth officials is set to meet in London to consider who might succeed the Queen as its head, according to the BBC. The agenda for the all-day summit says there will be a discussion of “wider governance considerations”; seen as code for the succession.

Updated

This article titled "Oxfam scandal: ministers have 'serious questions to answer', say Labour - as it happened" was written by Haroon Siddique and Kevin Rawlinson, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 13 February 2018 05.47pm

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