“You want to know WHAT about me…?”

“…and what’ll happen to my information, that’s what I want to know!”

The prospective Police Support Volunteer looked aggrieved. “They ask all these questions about my family. Why should I share their personal information? It’s none of their business”.

Well, it’s a fair point: a vetting form is undeniably intrusive – questions about your family (and their families), your financial history (credit refusals, defaults, loan arrears), psychological health, criminal convictions/ cautions/ investigations that didn’t lead to a conviction, do you have any friends involved in criminal activity… by the end of it, you probably wouldn’t be too surprised if it asked for your maternal great-grandfather’s inside leg measurement.

This degree of vetting isn’t something that paid staff in most jobs would expect to go through – let alone volunteers. But police volunteers have access to sensitive material: even if they’re just passing through an office to get the keys to do weekly police car checks, they might see notices on the wall listing people that the police are keen to have a chat with. And if one of those names just happens to be their brother, or their best mate is a journalist, this could perhaps create a ‘conflict of interest’….

Recruiting any staff, volunteers or contractors to such a sensitive role requires people’s personal lives and backgrounds to come under some degree of scrutiny. Their vulnerability to blackmail or bribery, or the likelihood of their passing sensitive information to the aforementioned brother or best mate has to be assessed due to the potentially serious implications for individuals, for security, or the reputation of the police.

The prospective volunteer I was chatting to, back in the early stages of the project, fully understood all this: he had served in the military and had undergone security checks before. But he didn’t accept that volunteers should be subjected to the same vetting as staff: [pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“It’s a matter of principle. I’m not filling in that orange form!”[/pullquote]

Before the start of the project, a potential volunteer would be sent an application form (a counter terrorism questionnaire and in-depth health screening document follow later in the application cycle), with no explanation of the recruitment and vetting process. This was the basis of his objection: he didn’t disagree with the need for vetting, but he was not prepared to undergo it without any assurances about why he was being asked all these questions, what would happen to such intensely personal information and who would see it.

The points he raised prompted a series of discussions between the police, their vetting team and the Volunteer Centres about how to manage volunteers’ expectations. One of the aims of the project is to recruit more volunteers from under-represented areas of the community, some of whom may not have the requisite 3 years’ UK checkable history. Another aim, to build bridges with people who may have had a troubled history with the police, might require a degree of flexibility to avoid applicants being put off whole idea of volunteering – for any organisation – if they felt nationality was a barrier. People with poor English or literacy skills, or who have learning support needs, may struggle with some of the (very wordy) questions on the vetting forms. As we’re trying to recruit a more diverse range of people, these issues will undoubtedly crop up at some point and have to be resolved to avoid losing potential volunteers.

We started by producing a document explaining the rationale behind the checks, why family and friends also have to be checked, how confidentiality is maintained, when individuals’ files will be destroyed, and giving contact details for anyone wanting to ask questions. (To read the Lincolnshire Police document Your Role in the Vetting Process, please click here).

A follow-up process, as conducted in most Volunteer Centres already, was introduced: a couple of weeks after an application pack is sent out, a member of the police team will ring and check whether applicants are having any problems, have any questions, or need any support completing the paperwork. Although this won’t reach people who only look at the website, the vetting document is available online.

We also looked at providing alternative pathways for people who simply cannot meet the vetting requirements. The Deputy Chief Constable has said that he will look at otherwise suitable candidates for volunteering and risk assess them on a case-by-case basis, rather than automatically rejecting people (this is particularly relevant to specialist roles such as Bilingual Community Liaison volunteers who may fall foul of the residency requirements). But if it turns out that the individual cannot reasonably be accommodated by the police, Volunteer Centres can direct them to other organisations that support the police, but do not require such stringent vetting, such as Neighbourhood Watch, Crimestoppers, Families Working Together, Victim Support, or opportunities in another sector.

And the potential volunteer who kick-started this whole debate? We met later for another cuppa, he had a look at the vetting info sheet, and now he’s volunteering at Police HQ.

Jennie Eaton, Project Coordinator

This blog was originally written in 2013 as part of the Lincolnshire Police 1000 Volunteers Project.