The answer to Oxfam’s safeguarding problems is not enhanced DBS checks

Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, has written a blog for the Huffington Post questioning the use of enhanced DBS checks as the answer to Oxfam’s safeguarding problems. The blog is particularly important for organisations that use volunteers in their work, and is copied below. The original blog is available here


Of all the things in the press recently about Oxfam, comments by the charity’s former head of safeguarding stood out. Helen Evans, who was head of safeguarding from 2012 to 2015, said that “children were being left alone with adults who hadn’t been criminal record checked”. This has led to questions being asked of Oxfam and other charity shops as to whether they do criminal record checks on their volunteers.

Oxfam have said that “all 900 shop and deputy shop managers are now required to have enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks.” However, the CEO of Oxfam, Mark Goldring, said that they “have 23,000 volunteers, many of them themselves minors. We do references but we don’t do criminal record checks on every volunteer. But we do on every volunteer who is left in charge in a supervisory position”.

The Daily Mail reported that “it emerged that Oxfam had not carried out criminal record checks on the 23,000 volunteers who staff its 650 shops. The Mail has seen figures showing that 123 alleged incidents of sexual harassment have been investigated in its stores in just nine years.”

The risk of framing the problem in this way is that the proposed solution – to do blanket criminal record checks on all volunteers – won’t actually solve the problems that have been highlighted.

Blanket criminal record checks on volunteers comes with problems

There can often be pressure to do blanket criminal record checks on all volunteers. However, not all volunteer roles can involve an enhanced check, and unnecessary and inappropriate checks can come with problems and be a barrier to volunteering.

They create unnecessary bureaucracy. It can take a number of weeks to get a DBS check. For organisations needing volunteers quickly or for a one-off activity, this can be a real barrier.

Criminal record checks cost money. Not all volunteer roles would be eligible for an enhanced check, and otherwise they’d be eligible for a basic check, which costs a minimum of £25 per check. The fact that there’s a cost to basic checks runs the risk that charities default to doing enhanced checks because ‘they’re free’, and this is an issue that Unlock has raised with the DBS and the Home Office.

Too much faith is often placed on a ‘clean’ check. Organisations can often over-rely on them as a safeguarding ‘silver bullet’ instead of having a more comprehensive set of measures including good recruitment techniques, effective training, monitoring, supervision and management.

There’s a perception that a criminal record makes someone unsuitable. Yet, with over 11 million people in the UK with a criminal record, the vast majority of people’s criminal record will be irrelevant.

They can put people off from applying. Around 250,000 enhanced checks every year reveal some kind of criminal record, but recent research showed that over three-quarters of the convictions or cautions disclosed on enhanced checks were over a decade old. We know that people with old and minor records are put off from applying if they need to talk about something that they’re embarrassed about from many years ago.

It can be a criminal offence. Although any role can be subject to basic check, only certain roles are eligible for standard or enhanced checks, and it can be a criminal offence for the organisation to carry out checks for roles that are not entitled to that level.

Can charity shops do enhanced DBS checks?

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, is right when she says that “anyone who regularly supervises children should have a DBS check…this does not mean everyone who works in a charity shop needs to be DBS checked.”Each role should be assessed on its own merits.

Working in a charity shop is not a role defined in legislation that is eligible for an enhanced check. Any application by charity shops for enhanced checks on managers, staff and volunteers would need to demonstrate how the role is eligible. NCVO has some excellent simple guidance that shows that, for most charity shop staff and volunteers, their roles would not be entitled to involve enhanced DBS checks. It’s possible that certain shop managers could have enhanced checks if they are regularly providing (on an unsupervised basis) training or supervision to children (i.e. under 16’s).

Unlock has dealt with a number of cases involving Oxfam in the last couple of years. One case, where they were recruiting a fulfilment coordinator (working in a warehouse), involved an enhanced DBS check on the basis that they had unsupervised access to children. After we queried this, it became clear that they do not have children volunteering in their warehouses, so an enhanced check was inappropriate.

Focusing on safeguarding

It has not yet been shown how the 123 allegations of sexual assaults in Oxfam’s shops would have been prevented had they done criminal record checks. Because of this, focusing on criminal record checks is a distraction from the real safeguarding issues highlighted in the Oxfam case. Criminal record checks can sometimes play an important part – but they shouldn’t be seen as a panacea. They should be used cautiously, at the appropriate level, and within the context of a fair recruitment approach towards people with criminal records.

Right now, the focus should be on safeguarding. A strong safeguarding culture is one where people feel confident in raising concerns and that the organisation has the resources and procedures in place to make sure that these are fully investigated. This is where questions need to be asked of Oxfam, not why they didn’t do a criminal record check on their volunteers.


Useful links

We have guidance on doing the correct level of check as well as principles of fair chance recruitment.

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