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Save the Children: Leaked emails reveal sexual harassment complaint against charity ex-chief

Save the Children: Leaked emails reveal sexual harassment complaint against charity ex-chief

Leaked emails relating to alleged sexual harassment at Save the Children indicate a “formal grievance” procedure was launched against its ex-chief executive Justin Forsyth.

The messages passed to The Independent cast doubt on claims that no official complaint was ever made about him in the wake of a series of allegations dating back to 2012.

The emails show that a woman who says she was targeted by Mr Forsyth, demanded the start of the complaints process including a “specific investigation” into his alleged “repeated harassment” of female staff, and that officials acknowledged it had begun.

It raises serious questions about evidence given to MPs only last week, when the charity’s ex-chair Sir Alan Parker also said no formal complaint was ever made specifically about Mr Forsyth’s behaviour.

The Independent can also reveal that Sir Alan has now written to MPs informing them that a previously unmentioned formal grievance procedure was initiated at the charity, but was later dropped.

It is the latest development in the saga that has sparked a Charity Commission investigation, seen the aid agency accused of trying to suppress negative stories and seen both Mr Forsyth and Brendan Cox, another former executive, apologise for “mistakes” they made.

Sir Alan, a close friend of David Cameron and Gordon Brown, told MPs at the International Development Committee last Tuesday that no formal complaint had been made about Mr Forsyth, who once worked for the Labour prime minister, on the back of allegations of sexual harassment.

According to Sir Alan’s evidence, when allegations emerged in 2012 they were settled through an informal process of mediation.

He went on to explain that while a formal complaint was later made, it was “a complaint about the handling of Justin Forsyth” by Save the Children as opposed to a “complaint about new misbehaviours or workplace issues on Justin”.

But the series of emails passed to The Independent suggest the complainant believed “workplace issues” were at the centre of her grievance.

The woman involved first raised concerns about Mr Forsyth in 2012, which were not formally taken forward at the time, apparently because she believed Mr Forsyth had given a written commitment to learn “lessons”.

But she returned to the matter in 2015, attempting to take forward a formal grievance, after she says she learnt of further complaints made against Mr Forsyth.

In an email written to her from Sir Alan on 16 August 2015, he acknowledged that she had made “formal complaint”, and says that, as a result, an independent investigation into any “widespread cultural failings” and “endemic issues” would be launched.

Sir Alan also told the complainant: “The scope of this investigation will include concerns raised, relating to any individual executives.”

But three weeks later on 6 September, the complainant received confirmation from the lead lawyer from the firm tasked to undertake the review that his remit “does not include giving my opinion on the facts of your (or any other) case”.

As a result, the complainant then wrote to two other senior executives at Save the Children on 9 September saying the situation is “deeply concerning” and “at odds with Alan’s email”.

She pointed out that she had believed she had started “a formal grievance … of an extremely serious nature relating to Justin Forsyth” and will need to “seek resolution for my complaint of harassment outside of [the lawyer’s] current process”.

She said: “It is disappointing and inconceivable that a specific investigation into Justin’s behaviour has not yet been initiated alongside the current process.”

In a disturbing passage, the woman then explained the impact on her working life, saying she has “inevitably bumped into Justin in the office”.

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She wrote: “Whilst I have always acted professionally towards Justin including after his harassment of me, this makes for an incredibly stressful working environment and I am sure this is not the intention of the review.”

She said she expected a “formal specific investigation is urgently initiated into Justin’s repeated harassment of women”.

For the avoidance of doubt, please would you treat my email of 14 August, together with this email, as a formal grievance under the grievance policy and/or a formal complaint under the harassment policy

Female complainant from Save the Children

Making the situation absolutely clear, she then wrote: “For the avoidance of doubt, please would you treat my email of 14 August, together with this email, as a formal grievance under the grievance policy and/or a formal complaint under the harassment policy.”

An email then received on 24 September from a senior officer at Save the Children confirmed the charity would now “formally acknowledge your grievance”.

The Independent understands that the complainant later agreed to put her grievance on hold while the wider review was completed, and then withdrew it as she was informed that Mr Forsyth would be leaving the organisation.

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Meanwhile, insiders at Save the Children claim legal advice was that the law would not allow for the reopening of a disciplinary matter which had been concluded in 2012, regardless of whether the complainant felt aggrieved.

It was the absence of a standing formal complaint or a live investigation into Mr Forsyth that allowed the charity to give him a clean reference which, in turn, paved the way to him gaining a senior job at Unicef.

In his evidence to the committee, Sir Alan – who left the charity in April – admitted that there were things he wishes he and other senior executives at the charity had done better.

Save the Children declined to comment further on the case this weekend, while Mr Forsyth had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Pauline Latham MP, who sits on the International Development Committee, said the evidence brought forward by The Independent amounted to a “discrepancy” with the oral testimony given by Sir Alan, who also founded PR firm Brunswick.

Any suggestion that Sir Alan Parker misled the select committee is wrong.

As he made clear to the committee in his evidence, there was a formal complaint. This was received in August 2015 and referred to previous incidents relating to Justin Forsyth which had been informally addressed, but did not allege new incidents. It was acknowledged as formal, reviewed by the board and external legal advice sought.

The advice was that it should be taken seriously and treated as a complaint about the organisation’s handling of the historic allegations and about institutional culture, and because there was no new evidence or new alleged misbehaviour it was not appropriate to reopen previous investigations into Justin Forsyth’s behaviour that at the time had been resolved with the agreement of the complainants. As a result, two reviews were launched. External legal advisers were appointed to undertake the review of how past incidents had been handled and a second review into the culture of the organisation.

Some weeks later the complainant wrote that she wished her complaint to be treated as a formal grievance about Justin’s historic behaviour and a grievance panel was appointed. However, it was then agreed with her to suspend the grievance process whilst the review of the organisation’s handling of previous complaints continued.

The board considered the outcome of the review and in light of legal advice unanimously decided not to reopen the historic complaints and to implement the findings of the culture review when concluded. The grievance was subsequently withdrawn and as a result no grievance process was ultimately pursued.

She went on: “Sexual harassment is such a serious matter that we can’t afford to have any confusion about what happened in this case.

“Misleading parliament is also a serious matter and so I’m sure Sir Alan will want to leave no room for doubt, and will want to return and clarify his previous answers in the light of this new evidence.”

At previous hearings of the committee Sir Alan has been forced to deny wasting money trying to suppress negative media coverage, and has claimed he was instead trying to ensure untruthful stories did not damage the charity’s reputation.

It is still is being investigated by the Charity Commission over its handling of allegations and has stopped bidding for government funds while it continues.

After learning of the leaks to The Independent, international development secretary Penny Mordaunt said: “Following the launch of a statutory inquiry by the Charity Commission, Save the Children UK has decided to withdraw from bidding for new UK government funding.

“I am committed to driving up standards across the aid sector and I expect every organisation that we work with to have rigorous reporting and complaints mechanisms in place to protect beneficiaries and employees alike.”

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