Opinion: Hot issue - Are legal concerns affecting volunteer numbers?

Last week, the deputy chief executive of Volunteering England, Dr Justin Davis Smith, said he had heard of cases in which would-be helpers are being put off getting involved with charities out of a fear of being sued.

NO - GRACIA MCGRATH, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, CHANCE UK

At Chance UK, we are totally reliant on the adult volunteer mentors that donate their time to work with five to 11-year-olds with behavioural difficulties. We have never had mentors express concerns about being sued. If they did, we would ensure they understood that all organisations are required to be covered by public liability insurance.

I do think the sector often worries about why people don't come forward to volunteer and puts its own concerns into the imaginary volunteers' mouths. At Chance UK, we are often surprised at how little anxiety is expressed by volunteers before they take on the responsibility of becoming a mentor. So in our mentor training we cover a range of concerns that the mentors might have in relation to their mentoring role and encourage them to share other worries with us.

Of far more concern with regard to losing willing volunteers is the length of time Criminal Records Bureau checks are taking to come through. Some are taking as long as five months - that kind of delay is much more likely to put off those who are keen to get started on their volunteering.

YES - BRIGID SIMMONDS, CHAIR, CENTRAL COUNCIL OF PHYSICAL Recreation

The CCPR has campaigned on the need to address concerns about risk and insurance in the voluntary sport and recreation sector for a number of years. We are delighted that the Home Office has commissioned a survey to investigate this important issue.

Many members have reported concerns relating to the legal status of their volunteers - primarily the problem of obtaining adequate insurance cover for volunteers and their activities, but also regarding who is liable should an accident occur and what legislation applies to volunteers in a workplace environment.

Although the number of volunteers in the sport and recreation sector has remained steady in recent years, some organisations are finding it harder to attract new recruits. Concerns about litigation and the perception of a 'compensation culture' remain, despite the sector's excellent risk-management and child-protection programmes.

Some organisations are curtailing their more adventurous activities because of worries about what would happen should an accident occur.

We are assisting Volunteering England in this research and hope its findings will encourage the Government to protect volunteers through greater clarity over their legal status.

NO - CHRIS FOSTER, DISTRICT COMMISSIONER, SCOUT ASSOCIATION

We revised our training policy two years ago. Everything we do now is risk-assessed. All volunteers are given a training supervisor to assess the skills they already have and ensure they are given the training they need so that they are ready to deal with everything they are faced with as a scout leader.

We have the Scout Insurance Service. As long as volunteers follow the rules and what they are doing is a scouting activity, they know that they are covered and there is no problem. Children will always fall over - it is knowing what to do when they do that makes the difference. The training we provide ensures our leaders are prepared for that.

We have more than 100,000 volunteers across the scouting network and they do it because they love it. If they didn't, or if they had any concerns, they wouldn't do it.

The older and more experienced you get, the more confident you become in working with young people and the less you are concerned by potential legal issues. I'm very grateful for the training I have had, and legal concerns do not worry me at all.

YES - COLIN BONNER, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, MARINE SOCIETY AND SEA CADETS

Reports that would-be helpers are being put off becoming involved with charities because of a fear of being sued are certainly true. Anxiety over possible legal consequences is one of the many factors that are contributing to the shortfall of leaders in every youth body in the country.

However, an even greater disincentive to joining - or staying in - a youth group today is the burden of fulfilling the weight of bureaucracy required to meet legal obligations and to avoid, or at least minimise, the likelihood of legal action.

Youth leaders join organisations to contribute directly to the good of young people - they do not join to fill in paperwork. The amount of paperwork currently needed to conduct a simple and well-established activity or to enter an ordained member of the clergy as a youth leader keeps current adult volunteers away from their primary purposes and turns away potential new recruits.

Of course, we need to make sure our people and our activities are safe. But our children are likely to find themselves in much more dangerous situations if our current network of national youth movements is denied to them through a lack of adult volunteers.

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