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Safeguarding, vulnerable clients and DBS

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This resource is not intended to be a comprehensive insight into the law, statutory guidance or best practice around safeguarding. It is not our aim to list every piece of safeguarding-related legislation. Instead, this resource offers a summary of key areas relevant to involving volunteers for your consideration, with links to relevant resources and regulatory bodies.

Safeguarding is complex, and it is therefore appropriate that you seek advice for your organisation. Bear in mind that over time there may be additional obligations placed on voluntary organisations by their regulator(s) and that it is your responsibility to maintain awareness of these potential developments.

What is safeguarding?

Safeguarding is the preventive and precautionary approaches needed to protect vulnerable individuals from potential harm and deal with issues when they arise. All organisations owe a duty of care to employees, volunteers, service users and others they come into contact with.

Safeguarding duties apply to both statutory and voluntary organisations, and come from legislation, statutory and non-statutory guidance. Charities’ duties are outlined in the Charity Commission's strategy for dealing with safeguarding issues.

If your volunteers work with children, the key statutory guidance is: ‘Working together to safeguard children’. If they work with vulnerable adults, the key statutory guidance is: 'Care and support statutory guidance'.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 (SVGA 2006) was introduced to help avoid harm, or the risk of harm, by preventing people who are deemed unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable adults from gaining access to them through their work. 

Every child and vulnerable adult has the right to protection from abuse, neglect and exploitation. The SVGA 2006 places legal obligations on organisations to:

  • safeguard children and vulnerable adults
  • promote their welfare
  • conduct additional checks (criminal record checks – see below for further information) on employees and volunteers who are carrying out certain activities
  • communicate concerns to relevant local agencies.

All voluntary sector organisations, and particularly those that are commissioned by local authorities or other statutory and public services, should ensure they have in place and regularly review their safeguarding policies, measures and practices.

Working with children and vulnerable adults

Organisations who work with children and/or vulnerable adults have a duty of care in relation to them. They should take into account the increased risk of potential harm (for example sexual, emotional and financial abuse), and that by definition children and vulnerable adults may not be able to protect themselves.

Statutory guidance confirms that an organisation which delivers services to children under an agreement with a local authority should have in place the same arrangements as a local authority is expected to have in place under section 11 of the Children Act 2004. The organisation may also be required to have such arrangements in place by its contract with the local authority. These arrangements include having a safeguarding policy that explains their way of working, which also applies to volunteers. An organisation might include in its safeguarding policy:

  • a statement of the organisation’s commitment to safeguarding
  • safe recruitment practices including regarding obtaining references and guidance on when to obtain a criminal record check
  • stated arrangements regarding safeguarding training and induction on responsibilities and procedures in relation to child protection and vulnerable adults
  • a description of and indicators for recognising abuse
  • clear information on the lines of responsibility, and the system for ensuring all who work with children and/or vulnerable adults are monitored and supervised
  • having ways for service users, volunteers and staff to record and raise concerns and clear arrangements for how those concerns should be reported within and by the organisation
  • a code of conduct setting out expected standards of behaviour applicable to all who work in the organisation, including trustees and volunteers
  • arrangements for conducting risk assessments and designing activities that think about the child and/or vulnerable adult’s needs
  • a whistleblowing procedure
  • how the personal data of children and/or vulnerable adults will be treated including, if relevant, how to deal with any photographs which the organisation may choose getting feedback from service users
  • provision for regular reviews and updates to the policy.

If your organisation is regulated by a body such as Ofsted or the Care Quality Commission, or if you carry out regulated activities with children or vulnerable adults (nationally or internationally), you may need some volunteers to complete Disclosure and Barring Service checks (or equivalent in respect of non-UK based citizens) before they start their role.

Taking the duty of care seriously among other organisational safeguarding measures and safe recruitment practices, may include obtaining disclosures for volunteers working with vulnerable clients if they are eligible for one. Organisations should risk assess volunteer roles to determine whether the role is eligible for a DBS check. Insurance companies like to see that organisations are doing everything they can to protect their clients and may expect DBS checks to be carried out.

If your organisation is involved in regulated activity and you dismiss a volunteer because they've harmed someone, or you change a volunteer’s role because they’re suspected of harming someone, you should report them for inclusion on the lists of people barred from working with children or vulnerable adults. You should also do this if the individual resigns before a dismissal has taken place.

Although criminal record checks are an important way to protect vulnerable clients, they should not be seen as the only or the best safeguard. This is because they are only accurate up to the date that the check is processed, and therefore only provide information on people who have an existing criminal record.


Safeguarding is about taking steps to protect everyone from harm, abuse or neglect. This includes the beneficiaries and clients you work with, staff, contractors and volunteers. We are all responsible for the safety of children, young people and vulnerable adults and we must ensure that we are doing all we can to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. Organisations working with children or vulnerable adults need to think about how to protect beneficiaries, service users and volunteers. Volunteers should not feel unprepared or unsupported.

If volunteers are working with vulnerable service users, organisations have a legal duty to make sure that the volunteer is suitable for that role which means it should ‘act reasonably’ when making that decision and conduct appropriate recruitment and vetting procedures. Depending on what activities the volunteer will be doing, the organisation should also consider if it needs to carry out a criminal record check.

Usually a volunteer co-ordinator would be seen as acting on behalf of their organisation and the organisation would be liable for anything that goes wrong. However, in some extreme cases a volunteer co-ordinator could be liable, for example if the organisation is not incorporated (seen as a legal entity in its own right).

How can organisations show that they are acting reasonably?

  • Have child protection and/or safeguarding policies in place, which can be supported by other relevant policies such as a recruitment policy.
  • Work within, and keep up to date with, relevant statutory advice and guidance.
  • Do not rely on ‘gut instinct’ or make assumptions – carry out checks appropriately, provide training, and maintain volunteers’ awareness of your safeguarding policy and procedures.
  • Make sure you have followed the organisation’s policies and procedures and that you have written evidence of this.
  • Seek information, advice and guidance from other organisations in your field, or advisory bodies such as NCVO, NSPCC and the crime reduction charity Nacro.

Working on behalf of a local authority

Each local authority has a Local Safeguarding Children Board and a Safeguarding Adult Board that support and improve safeguarding in their area. Organisations working with children or vulnerable adults on behalf of their local authority should work with them to make sure they are following section 11 of the Children Act 2004.

  • If you are placing volunteers in an external organisation, agree who is taking responsibility for the volunteers’ actions. Tell the organisation what screening you have done (if any) and what screening it needs to complete.
  • Talk to the potential volunteer if you have concerns. Be clear about the confidentiality of your discussion and about what information needs to be shared with managers or trustees in the organisation.
  • If in doubt, look at the risk assessment for your activity again. If needed, change what you are doing so that potential risks can be reduced to levels which you, your colleagues and your insurers feel are acceptable.

Last reviewed: 19 May 2022

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 19 May 2022

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