Unnecessary DBS checks: a barrier to volunteering

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been in the news following his declaration of war against short-term loan outfit, Wonga. But something else he said in the same interview, and which has received more limited coverage, struck me as important. According to its head honcho, the Church of England is taking a tough stance on volunteers who refuse to undergo a DBS (formerly CRB) check.

If you believe the Telegraph’s interpretation of his words, the Church is forcing every bell ringer in every parish to undergo a check. Further reading of the original interview reveals the Church’s stance is less draconian than this, and indeed the Church’s own safeguarding policy reflects a far more balanced approach. Nevertheless, it does raise a familiar and thorny issue worthy of contemplation.

Being asked to blanket check volunteers regardless of necessity and indeed eligibility is a problem long-encountered by charities. Despite what some funders, local authorities or regulatory bodies seem to believe, simply having contact with children or vulnerable adults does not in itself create a need for a check. Rather, each role should be assessed on its own merits, with factors such as the nature, location and frequency of the interaction considered, and whether the volunteer is supervised or working alongside others. In fact, if a volunteering role does not satisfy the Home Office’s eligibility guidance for checks, an organisation could even be operating outside the law by requiring one.

An “utterly ruthless” approach to DBS checks is fine for roles where the checks are necessary – and caution is certainly understandable in the Church’s position – but it is not sensible, or perhaps even lawful, as a blanket approach to volunteers.

Unnecessary and inappropriate DBS checks can be a barrier to volunteering.

  • Firstly, they create unnecessary bureaucracy. It takes 4-6 weeks to get a DBS check. For those organisations wanting to recruit volunteers quickly or for an informal or one-off activity, this can prove a real problem. It also creates administrative work for the charity that is recruiting.
  • Secondly, they can represent an unnecessary invasion of a volunteer’s privacy. Although a recent judgment by the Court of Appeal  ruled that certain old and minor convictions and cautions must be filtered from a criminal record disclosure, many offences remain unaffected by the new rules.
  • And let’s not forget that criminal record checks cost money. Although they are free for volunteers (a valuable benefit but one that could tend to encourage unnecessary checking if we’re not careful), the taxpayer ultimately picks up the bill.  A criminal record check costs up to £44; with approximately 1,000,000 volunteer checks carried out each year, this represents a substantial cost to the public purse.

Now don’t get me wrong, DBS checks are an important part of the safeguarding arsenal, but they should only be used when the volunteering role demands it.

More importantly, far too much faith is often placed in the power of a criminal record check. Firstly, they only disclose what people have been convicted of and relevant local investigations. Secondly, over-reliance on DBS checks as a safeguarding ‘silver bullet’ can come at the expense of other powerful measures such as effective recruitment techniques, good management, training, monitoring and supervision. When used together these measures make for a more holistic approach to safeguarding.

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Paul joined NCVO over seven years ago after working for a leading public affairs agency. Since then he’s led our policy work on a variety of issues, including welfare-to-work reforms, volunteering, the Compact, public service commissioning and procurement regulations. He now leads our work on funding and finance with a particular focus on charity tax relief and safeguarding EU funding post-Brexit.