Leaders query extra checks on volunteers

By Robyn Rosen, September 24, 2009

Rabbis have criticised new government requirements for additional background checks on people working with children and the elderly.

Synagogues and charities fear the Independent Safeguarding Authority regulations, which come into effect in October, will deter volunteers and infringe on privacy.

The requirements extend to parents who regularly bring other children to cheder or youth club activities at the request of the organisations, or volunteers giving lifts to the elderly.

Maidenhead Reform minister Rabbi Jonathan Romain will be writing to Schools Secretary Ed Balls urging him to limit the scope of the regulations to professionals and those who work regularly with the young and the elderly.

You don’t want it to lead to a breakdown in voluntary work

“I fully accept that checks on previous convictions must be made on teachers, youth leaders, caretakers, even rabbis,” he said. “But I am concerned that the net is being spread too wide and will have the unintended consequence of discouraging the spirit of volunteerism that is so vital to communal activities.”

Rabbi Charles Middleburgh of Cardiff Reform Synagogue understood the ISA’s intention. “But when you are operating a voluntary organisation and rely on the goodwill of people, anything which impinges on their time and makes demands on them is very damaging.

“My worry is that this is only the starting point and it will become more and more draconian. People will also see it as an invasion of their privacy.”

Over 20 volunteers help out at children’s services at Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue and chairman Anthony Arnold is “very concerned about the impact this will have on them. Getting people to volunteer is not easy and we’re worried people will say that they can’t be bothered to put in the extra work this requires.”

Yocheved Eiger, head of development at the Bikur Cholim D’Satmar Trust, which supports the Charedi community in Hackney, said some volunteers would take offence at being vetted.

“We don’t want it to stop people from volunteering. When you start asking people for checks, you look suspicious. You don’t want it to lead to a breakdown in voluntary work, especially if every single activity is subject to a check.”

One volunteer at Maidenhead, who has been giving lifts to other members on an occasional basis, “was really taken aback when this paperwork landed on my doorstep. I feel it changes the basis on which I volunteer. I am beginning to question whether I still want to do this.”

However, Leonie Lewis, director of the Jewish Volunteering Network, which has 145 charities on its site, claimed the extra checks were not deterring volunteers. Its website was receiving more hits than ever.

“It’s a change we believe will improve the service and standards of volunteers and make it more professional,” she said. “If you prevent one case of abuse, it’s worth it. The volunteers will respect that.”

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We believe this is a common sense approach and what parents would rightly expect.”

    Last updated: 5:27pm, September 24 2009