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Safeguarding, vulnerable clients and DBS

Safeguarding is the preventive and precautionary approach to planning and procedures needed to protect individuals from any potential harm. 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 common law, legislative bodies and are outlined in Charity Commission England and Wales guidance. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 was passed to help avoid harm, or 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. 

The act places legal obligations to:

  • safeguard children and vulnerable adults
  • promote their welfare
  • communicate any concerns about them to relevant local agencies.

Every child and adult at risk has the right to protection from abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Duties to safeguard and promote the well-being of children and adults at risk include ensuring all adults who work with, or on behalf of them, are competent, confident and safe to do so.

Voluntary sector organisations that are commissioned by local authorities or other statutory and public services have a duty on them to ensure they have in place and regularly review their safeguarding policies, measures and practices.

Working with vulnerable clients

Organisations who work with vulnerable clients have an ‘enhanced’ duty of care. They should take into account a broader range of potential harm (eg sexual, emotional and financial abuse), and that by definition vulnerable people may not be able to protect themselves.

An organisation that provides a service for a local authority would have to follow section 11 of the Children Act 2004. They should have a safeguarding policy that explains their way of working, which also applies to volunteers’ work. An organisation might include:

  • taking up references
  • training and inductions
  • doing risk assessments and designing activities that think about clients' needs
  • supervising activities
  • having ways for service users, volunteers and staff to raise concerns
  • getting feedback from service users.

Organisations regulated by bodies such as Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission that work with children or vulnerable adults must complete Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks (ie criminal record checks or ‘disclosures’) for certain roles. While most other organisations do not have to do criminal record checks, taking the duty of care seriously could include getting disclosures for volunteers working with vulnerable clients. 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 an organisation with staff or volunteers in regulated activities:

  • dismisses an individual (which could include a volunteer) because they harm someone
  • dismisses them or changes their role because they might have harmed someone, or if the individual resigns before a dismissal takes place

the organisation must report them for inclusion on lists of people barred from working with children or vulnerable adults.

Although criminal record checks are an important way to protect vulnerable clients, they should not be seen as the only or the best safeguard, as they only provide information on people who have an existing criminal record.


Safeguarding is about protecting everyone from harm, abuse or neglect. This includes the beneficiaries and clients you work with, staff 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 of care to make sure that the volunteer is suitable for that role, which means it must ‘act reasonably’ when making that decision.

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, eg if the organisation isn’t incorporated (seen as a legal entity in its own right).

How can organisations show that they are acting reasonably?

  • Do not rely on ‘gut instinct’.
  • Make sure you have followed the organisation’s policies and procedures and that you have written evidence of this.
  • Ask for advice from other organisations in your field or advisory bodies such as NSPCC and the crime reduction charity Nacro. Your local authority may also be able to provide advice and guidance.
  • See our page on writing a safeguarding policy with links to good sources of guidance and templates

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 for 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.
Page last edited Feb 14, 2018

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