Editorial: Accreditation is the way forward for charity helplines

The National Bullying Helpline fiasco has knocked public confidence, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector
Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector

Never mind the accusations of bullying and the consequent political knockabout: is anyone really surprised if Gordon Brown stabs the back of the car seat with his pen?

Never mind the fortunes of Christine Pratt, whose misjudgements are likely to consign her particular enterprise to history. What really concerns the sector is the potential damage to charity helplines caused in the mind of the public by her actions.

Helplines come in many shapes and forms. Sometimes they're run by manufacturers to support their products, and sometimes by public authorities for purposes such as providing housing information. In such cases, people know what they're getting - or not getting - and things are likely to continue as before.

The real concern is about helplines that deal with subjects of a sensitive or confidential nature, mostly run by health bodies and charities. ChildLine and Samaritans are the obvious examples, but there are about 1,000 in all, ranging from debt advice to student counselling to information about HIV/Aids.

Many factors inhibit people from lifting the phone to talk to a stranger about something that's tormenting them. One of the strongest is the fear that others will find out, and confidentiality is possibly the most vital attribute of helplines. Is the publicity over Pratt's breach of confidence going to flash into people's minds as they hesitate over making the call that could put their mind at rest or help them with their problem?

In the longer term, the best way to restore lost trust is to build up awareness of, and confidence in, the accreditation system run by The Helplines Association, which says at least 500 helplines are not yet members. The Charity Commission says it would not be able to make accreditation a condition of charitable status, but surely it can use its good offices to promote it and work with umbrella bodies in various sectors on guidance, good practice and publicity.

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