Hot Issue: Should Samaritans have sacked its volunteer Ray Osborne?

Ray Osborne was dismissed by Samaritans for breaching caller confidentiality, after he reported a murderer to the police who confessed to him while he was working on the charity's helpline.

NO ... Ivan Wise, project manager, Worldwide Volunteering

... but with reservations. The chief aim of Samaritans is that fewer people die by suicide. The chief aim of the police is to prevent crime. Samaritans' key responsibility, therefore, is to offer full support to all those who are seriously depressed to enable them to use the available services.

If depressed people cease to have confidence in those services, they will stop using them, and Samaritans will have lost its reason to exist. However, the key responsibility of the police is to the whole of society, to solve current crime with the aim of preventing criminals from reoffending.

This difference in purpose is the whole cause of the current debate.

Samaritans has no inherent duty to solve murder and, as suicide is no longer illegal, the police have little inherent duty to prevent suicide.

It therefore makes sound business sense for the charity to have dismissed Ray Osborne for breaking the code of conduct, as he has potentially harmed the organisation's chief aim.

However, it makes no moral sense to prioritise the right to confidentiality of a confessed murderer over the right of justice for a dead woman and her family. We all - including priests, counsellors and psychologists - have a greater duty than upholding an organisation's objectives.

NO ... David Hall, director, Mentors UK

Rules are vital for good governance and protection of the body politic, as well as those we strive to help.

There are times, however, when greater public need is served by application of some uncommon sense and that's surely what happened when Ray Osborne breached Samaritans' rules in informing the authorities of a murderer's confession.

In the world of mentoring, the interests of the mentee are paramount.

This should be made clear to all at the start of any matching process, especially where it involves children, so that parallels are not obvious.

In the Osborne situation I am sure that he acted responsibly, and has, in the long run, served the best interests of the offender as well as Samaritans by acting according to his conscience and in the public interest.

We cannot know what was in the mind of the caller when the confession was made, but Mr Osborne was in the best position to make a judgement - what if it had been Harold Shipman on the phone? Samaritans should not have sacked him, but could have used other sanctions in order to secure its reputation and commitment to client confidentiality.

YES ... Dulcie Ireland, external affairs manager, Get Connected

... but it is not straightforward. As a user-led helpline for young people, confidentiality is a key issue for us. Our users are often in vulnerable situations, so child protection is an essential factor.

Confidentiality can be breached if a user is deemed to be in an immediately life-threatening situation, or if they identify themselves as an abuser but are not seeking help. Since calls and emails cannot be traced, the user has to supply the identifying details.

It is a massive responsibility to have to make this decision and procedures exist to protect volunteer helpline workers from being put in this position.

The support structure ensures the decision is always made by a trained employee.

Although Get Connected works closely with Samaritans, our services are very different and we have different policies in place. If one of our helpline workers independently supplied the police with details of a service user, the volunteer would face disciplinary action. We might have broken confidentiality in this case, depending on the content of the call. However, our support systems ensure that the decision is never the responsibility of the helpline worker.

YES ... Paul Farmer, director of public affairs, Rethink

Samaritans has long-established and well-known procedures designed to offer absolute confidentiality to callers. These have to be respected, however difficult the repercussions for the organisation or individual volunteers in a tiny minority of cases.

Absolute confidentiality is not suitable for all organisations in all circumstances. What is important is that staff, volunteers and, above all, users of the service know the rules that are being applied.

Rethink offers a range of information, advice and support services to around 7,000 people a day. Our confidentiality policy is publicly available on our website and its application is determined by the specific circumstances within each of the services we offer. In essence, confidentiality is assumed until either permission to pass on information is granted; there is a legal duty to pass on information; or there is a significant risk of harm to the individual or others if the information is not shared.

However, there are no easy answers. For instance, we are working to identify rules on sharing information about people using mental health services and informal carers. The rules do need to keep evolving.

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