In Depth

The biggest British scandals of the 21st century

From Windrush to Oxfam, the past 18 years has seen a series of controversies

Humanitarian groups have been aware of but failed to act on allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by their own staff for years, according to a damning report from MPs on the Oxfam scandal.

The International Development Committee warned that the cases made public so far are only the “tip of the iceberg”, with under-reporting of abuse making it impossible to define the true scale of the “endemic” abuse across organisations, countries and institutions. 

“The aid sector, collectively, has been aware of sexual exploitation and abuse by its own personnel for years, but the attention that it has given to the problem has not matched the challenge,” the MPs concluded.

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The Oxfam scandal is just the latest in a long line of outrageous behaviour by individuals and organisations in the 21st century.

Here are some of the other major British scandals over the past 18 years:

Dr David Kelly and the Hutton Inquiry

On 17 July 2003, Dr David Kelly, a civil servant from the Ministry of Defence, apparently committed suicide after being misquoted by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan as saying that Tony Blair’s Labour government had knowingly “sexed up” a report into Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.

Critics of Blair and his advisor Alastair Campbell argued that the government’s spinning machine had put Kelly under such pressure that he had killed himself. But in the subsequent Hutton Inquiry, the government was cleared of wrongdoing, while the BBC was strongly criticised, leading to the resignations of Gilligan and both the broadcaster’s chair and director-general.

Phone hacking

In 2005, the News of the World published a story about Prince William’s treatment for a knee injury, based on information that could only have come from hacking into the Prince’s voicemails.

The ensuing police investigation uncovered a series of other victims including murdered teenager Milly Dowling, whose voicemail was hacked after she was reported missing. The scandal led to the closure of the 168-year-old tabloid, in 2011, and “went to the heart of Downing Street”, says the BBC. The ensuing outcry resulted “in the conviction of David Cameron’s official spokesman Andy Coulson” and in “moves to change the way newspapers are regulated”, adds the broadcaster.

Payment Protection Insurance (PPI)

PPI policies had been sold alongside mortgages, loans and credit cards since the 1990s. The financial product was meant to repay people’s borrowings if their income fell in the event that they became ill or lost their jobs.

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But a chorus of complaints began when the banking industry “began aggressively selling PPI to customers after realising that the policies were highly profitable”, says The Guardian. The product was dubbed a “protection racket” by Citizens Advice in 2005. 

In 2011, several high-profile companies were fined by the Financial Conduct Authority and ordered to repay the costs of the product, and consumers are still reclaiming missold PPI today.

MPs’ expenses

Politicians faced outrage in 2009 when The Daily Telegraph revealed widespread misuse of the allowances and expenses permitted to ministers.

MPs “made claims for duck houses, massage chairs and moat-cleaning; they’ve been had for claiming interest payments on mortgages they’ve already paid off; and they’ve enjoyed tax advice at the taxpayer’s expense”, said The Spectator at the time. Among the many eye-catching disclosures were expenses claims by then home secretary Jacqui Smith for porn films bought by her husband, along with home fittings down to an 88p bath plug.

The scandal saw Michael Martin become the first Commons speaker to be forced from office for more than 300 years. 

Sex abuse scandals

In late 2012, almost a year after his death, reports surfaced indicating that Jimmy Savile had committed sexual abuse throughout his 50-year career in the entertainment industry.

A police investigation, Operation Yewtree, was set up by the Metropolitan Police to look into historic allegations of child sexual abuse by the late TV presenter and other high-profile individuals. A total of 589 alleged victims came forward, of whom 450 claimed to have been abused by Savile.

The case proved to be just one of a number of sexual abuse scandals in the worlds of entertainment, religion, politics and charity organisations.

The #MeToo movement - sparked by claims against US film producer Harvey Weinstein, who has consistently denied “any non-consensual sex” - spread to the UK, giving a voice to victims alleging abuse.

Even the nation’s beloved game has been sullied. In 2016, The Guardian ran a series of interviews with former footballers, revealing the extent of abuse by former football coaches and scouts in the UK during the latter half of the 20th century. So far 13 people have been charged. 

Windrush

Late last year an investigation by The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman found that the UK government’s “hostile environment” police on immigration had resulted in members of the Windrush generation being wrongly detained, deported, or threatened with deportation. 

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What “seemed like a politically savvy policy of creating ‘very hostile environments’ for illegal immigrants now looks like a tin-eared, uncaring threat to people with every right to be here”, said The Times’ Matt Chorley. 

The scandal eventually brought down home secretary Amber Rudd and prompted difficult questions for Prime Minister Theresa May.

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook

Earlier this year, it emerged that Cambridge Analytica had collected the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users. According to The New York Times, the data “was detailed enough for Cambridge Analytica to create psychographical profiles”, which the company then sold to Brexit campaign group Leave.EU ahead of the 2016 EU referendum.

The scandal prompted fresh discussion about ethical standards for social media companies, political consultants and politicians. The case also “served notice that the inherited institutions of 20th century democracy are horribly vulnerable to 21st century digital assault and that a new immune system must be constructed to protect the political and electoral process”, says Matthew D’Ancona in GQ

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