OPINION: Hot Issue - Should we fingerprint people working with the vulnerable?

The Home Office is consulting voluntary groups about the possibility of taking fingerprints of all those that apply to work or volunteer with children and vulnerable adults. Third Sector canvassed the views of large and small charities that work with client groups such as these to gauge their views on the proposal

Sarah Archer, head of human resources, Volunteer Reading Help - NO

We take child protection very seriously and ensure that all the potential loopholes are closed to people wanting to work with children for the wrong reasons. I am not sure that fingerprinting would extend the information we already receive from the Criminal Records Bureau.

Our volunteers work with primary school children experiencing difficulties with reading in supervised roles, and are already stringently checked at every stage of the application process through to an enhanced check from the CRB.

Fingerprinting would be a huge burden for us as our volunteer services managers work part-time. In addition, it would probably deter potential volunteers, particularly if the system for processing the fingerprints is as problematic as the initial introduction of the CRB was.

However, for certain jobs, such as foster carers, I can see the benefit in an additional level of checks.

Matthew Thompson, director of development, TimeBank - NO

There are two related issues here - trust and risk.

Trust is, along with time, the key commodity in volunteering. Implicit in the proposal is the suspicion that people are not trustworthy, which runs counter to the expectations of both volunteers and of agencies who depend on them to deliver services. The National Centre of Volunteering and NCVO are right to say that fingerprinting would deter volunteers, and in a sector where human capital is the prime asset, this would be a new barrier we could ill afford.

Risk is an inescapable feature of modern life. Once assessed, risk can be managed, but can never be completely contained. Public awareness of risk, in the widest sense, is regularly distorted by the media in the interest of selling newspapers and gripping viewers and listeners.

However, the cost of building this 'stranger-danger' paranoia into public sentiment is the erosion of people's ability to assess risk rationally. The most successful volunteering organisations have developed a wide range of techniques to manage risk and these should be developed further.

Lee Smith, director of network support, Mind - NO

Mind works with thousands of people with mental health problems through 210 local groups staffed by a mixture of professional staff and volunteers.

There are already considerable safeguards in place to ensure the safety of vulnerable people through CRB checks. We believe the considerable teething troubles encountered by the CRB need to be ironed out before considering any further checking process.

There is no precedent for fingerprinting being used in any area other than arresting individuals suspected of a crime. We don't see why volunteers and people in the caring professions should be put at the same level as criminals.

Besides having civil liberties implications, fingerprinting panders to an all-too-dominant obsession with risk. Our priority should be making the system we have work properly.

Sarah Willis, chief executive, Reading Matters for Life - NO

Our overriding concern is the safety of the children with whom our volunteers work. However, we would need to be convinced that fingerprinting would elicit more accurate information about prospective volunteers than the current enhanced CRB checks.

We foresee a number of drawbacks to such a proposal. Firstly, volunteers would be reluctant to come forward because of the implication of state intrusion into their lives, and a straw poll among our 300 volunteers has confirmed this.

Secondly, as the only other context in which people are asked to give fingerprints is where a crime has been committed, this has the direct implication of the volunteer being put on a par with a criminal.

Thirdly, an organisation such as ours certainly wouldn't have the resources for a fingerprint scanning machine and the practicalities of carrying out accurate fingerprinting with an ink-pad seem, quite frankly, to be laughable.

We feel that the question raises a hornet's nest of issues around civil liberties and the state's access to such personal information. Furthermore, it places the voluntary sector firmly in the position of having to justify the collection and holding of such information.

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