The Duke started Key to Freedom in May 2012, soon after he was pictured walking with Jeffrey Epstein in Central Park, New York, following the paedophile billionaire’s release from prison.
He claimed it would financially “empower” vulnerable young women in India by selling their handmade fashion items in the UK through retailers including Topshop and the Buckingham Palace website.
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However, the initiative soon fell into financial decline, and is now largely inactive, despite being highlighted by the Duke and his family as a success story throughout the scandal of his association with Epstein.
While the Duke’s team was setting up the project, its partner charity in India, the Women’s Interlink Foundation (WIF), which manages care homes for vulnerable children and young women, was being investigated by the Indian authorities.
Ten girls aged between 12 and 15 had run away from one of its two “Nijoloy” homes for trafficked and orphaned girls alleging that they were beaten by staff and generally mistreated.
WIF admits it did not tell the Duke about the investigation, which it says exonerated the care home.
But it refused to provide The Daily Telegraph with a copy of the official police report or its own internal report.
Asked to explain the incident, Aloka Mitra, WIF’s founder, said: “Some of them said we did not get the correct kind of chapatis.”
The revelation that WIF was being investigated suggests the Duke may have failed to conduct due diligence on his partner charity.
Key to Freedom also faces criticism that it gave false hope of financial security to the women making the hand-printed silk scarves, which were also sold online at the Royal Collection shop.
The Duke boasted that his key role was to provide “a route to market” for the fashion products and that his business connections led to the arrangement with Topshop, the retail chain owned by Sir Philip Green.
The Duke’s website also claims the initiative has “changed the fate of more than 100 vulnerable young women” and is still active.
But WIF confirms no scarves have been available to buy through retailers for more than 18 months and orders for tote bags, given to Princess Eugenie’s wedding guests last year and provided for the Duke’s Pitch@Palace projects, are “tiny”.
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Sarajit Mitra, WIF’s chief operating officer and son of the founder, told The Telegraph that orders from Topshop declined after 2013 and stopped abruptly in June 2018 without any explanation from the Duke or his team, which he described as “rude”. He also claimed the Duke never suggested a replacement retailer.
“We are totally dependent on orders that are placed on us,” Mr Mitra said. “So if there’s no order placed on us, we have nothing to do … Over quite some time the quantity of orders tapered down quite significantly. The first tier was the big push and then kind of over time has dropped down to small quantities.”
Despite this, in late August a royal source close to the Duke told The Sun he was “particularly dismayed” that his efforts to help victims of sex trafficking were being overlooked while his connections with Epstein once again hit headlines.
The Duke last week stepped down from his public roles over his friendship with the 66-year-old financier, who was found dead in prison in the US in August while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
Following the Duke’s trip to West Bengal in 2012, vulnerable young women of mixed ages became involved in producing accessories for Key to Freedom. Mr Mitra said they earned on average up to £150 per year – equivalent to 41p a day.
WIF confirms it took 40 per cent of sales of the scarves to cover the costs of running the project, such as materials and staff to train the girls. Mr Mitra said over three years the Duke ordered 1,500 tote bags at a cost of £2.50 each, of which the girls receive £1.50. The money is put into accounts for the workers, which cannot be accessed without permission from Mrs Mitra, a friend of the Yorks who attended Princess Eugenie’s wedding.
The women cannot leave the barbed wire compound without guards who accompany them on shopping trips to buy luxuries that are not covered by the money the state provides WIF for their general upkeep. WIF stresses that these security measures are to “provide protection to the vulnerable residents”.
A video promoting Key to Freedom shows girls dancing and looking happy in the Kolkata home. But a source from charity Action Aid said this is a “rosy picture” because the barbed wire on perimeter walls is excluded.
The Telegraph investigation also found some staff members had raised concerns about how WIF was treating some of the girls in its care, even before the collaboration with the Duke. In 2010, it is understood, managers were told about the alleged “mistreatment”. Concerns included insufficient and poor quality food, sometimes containing insects. Following the complaint, it is understood Mrs Mitra was given copies of letters written by girls who had lived in the home where they expressed their unhappiness. One letter alleges girls in the home are badly treated and “when the children want to complain, then they are told off and are asked to be quiet about it”.
The British High Commission in India was responsible for introducing the Duke to WIF. Mrs Mitra said Palace aides were in touch to discuss the initiative “less than an hour” after the Duke’s May 2012 visit and Amanda Thirsk, his private secretary, was “at the centre” of the Key to Freedom project. Mrs Thirsk was recently effectively sacked for advising the Duke to take part in his disastrous BBC Newsnight interview.
Sarah, Duchess of York, thought up the initiative’s name and within a month, the Duke’s charitable trust had donated £10,000 seed capital. The initiative launched formally in 2013, with an order from Topshop.
The Duchess was appointed a “visiting professor of Philanthreneurship” by Huddersfield University in recognition for her work with Key to Freedom.
The Duke’s spokesman declined to comment yesterday, as did Topshop, which was involved with the Key to Freedom project when Sir Phillip was facing down allegations of sexual and racial harassment of staff.
Last night, Mrs Mitra said the homes were monitored every month by officials and independent visitors through announced and unannounced visits.
She said the “allegations of ‘mistreatment’ of children are untrue” and at “no point were the girls maltreated and left without medical attention or food”.
Meanwhile, a Panorama programme featuring Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who claims she had three sexual encounters with the Duke when she was 17, will now be an hour long, the BBC has said. The Prince and the Epstein Scandal will be screened on Monday at 9pm. The BBC declined to comment on the extension of the programme, originally scheduled to last 30 minutes.
Additional reporting in India by Joe Wallen and Shaikh Azizur Rahman