Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Is this what the future of volunteerism holds for us?

Volunteers are the mainstay of children’s tennis, football and rugby teams. These are informal associations, rooted in their communities and run out of people’s front rooms.

I have been a tennis coach in England for 10 years, and over the past few years I have seen volunteers’ enthusiasm dampened by an ever-increasing child protection bureaucracy.

It is now established practice for volunteers to complete a burdensome and expensive Criminal Records Bureau check - and, as the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill looks set to pass into law today, this will now become a legal obligation. Failure to comply will be punishable by a £5,000 fine. There are also 100-page handbooks of directives from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), detailing exactly how adult volunteers should relate to their young charges.

These growing regulations mean that adults are reluctant to volunteer to help children. I have heard adults say they didn’t think they were ‘allowed’ to work with kids. Because they are uncomfortable with the requirements, or because they do not want to go through the rigmarole, they simply do not volunteer.

I have sympathy with them. If I had to produce two separate lists detailing the records the police held on me, and attend day-long first-aid courses and seminars on what is the best way to talk to and touch a child without being accused of being sexually interested in them, I too would be put off.

Recently, a volunteer who wished to work with me had to apply for three different Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks. One was for my company records, the second was for the school where he was going to work, and the third was for the Lawn Tennis Association. Each of these took more than six weeks to arrive - which meant he was unable to teach children during this time.

This incident was by no means unusual. I had some volunteers helping me out at a sports camp - young guys in their early twenties, wanting experience so they could take their coaching qualification. Shortly after we began, a council representative arrived and asked for a quick word. This ‘quick word’ actually involved quizzing me on my team’s credentials: ‘Who’s that over there? What qualifications do they have? Are their police checks available for parents to see?’

This put the guys on edge. You could see a difference in the way the volunteers were working with the children - they had a far more cautious approach and would refer to me far more than
previously, nervous that they may make the ‘wrong’ decision.

Volunteers are not meant to be professionals. The suspicion of non-professionals - the demand that everybody has their filing cabinet of signed and stamped CRB checks - is corroding the fabric of sport. The way things are going, all those decent people who have been the backbone of amateur and youth teams, clubs and societies for generations will stay away.

If left to itself, sport can be a tremendously positive thing in the lives of young people. Sport offers developing minds and bodies a safe and exhilarating place to test themselves and think strategically. Ordinary, often unqualified volunteers achieve this with just their commitment and a close personal interest in the sport itself.

In the face of increasing regulation, would-be volunteers don’t speak out but instead turn quietly away. People do not feel welcome where they are treated with criminal suspicion. How many opportunities have been lost because people are discouraged? Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing, until the social ties that created mass-participation in many sports are corroded.

It is time we took a stand against the blind expansion of vetting and the increasing suspicion of adults who work with children. That is why I have signed the Manifesto Club’s online petition against the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, and why you should too.

Dan Travis is a tennis coach and signatory of the Manifesto Club‘s petition against the expansion of vetting. Spiked

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