in the back
Crossed wires
The Samaritans, Issue 1442
samaritans.jpg FOR 64 years the Samaritans' success has been down to the round-the-clock, non-judgmental and confidential listening and support offered by the charity's 17,000 volunteers. It receives a call every six seconds.

Now, however, some of the those volunteers are threatening to resign after the Samaritans board hastily introduced safeguarding changes which volunteers say undermine the core promise "to keep what you say between us". Far from safeguarding, they say the measures may deter people from making a crucial call for help.

As of this month volunteer listeners are meant to warn callers that information may be passed to police, social services or ambulance services if the listener decides the caller is under 13 or a "vulnerable" teenager or adult, unable to make a decision for themselves and at significant risk from themselves or someone else.

Worried tone
Volunteers argue that this will change the relationship and tone of conversations. Someone who is supposed to be a "listening friend" will instantly be putting callers - perhaps already feeling suicidal despair, hopelessness, grief, anger, paranoia or anxiety - on their guard. Volunteers will now have to assess who meets the criteria to be classed as vulnerable, and weigh up the immediate risk of significant harm. They argue that it puts extra responsibility and the potential for more guilt on the shoulders of volunteers, who are already engaged in often distressing and difficult counselling. Most concerning of all, they say it risks listeners being seen as another group of "authority figures", often perceived to have failed them in the past.

Self-harm internet support forums also voice concerns that confidentiality is at risk.

Case for the defence
The Samaritans has dismissed these worries, telling the Eye there were already occasional exceptions to "confidentiality": for risks to children, for example, when the caller has provided information such as a phone number or address; for people who appear unable to make decisions perhaps because they are passing into unconsciousness; in response to court orders; and if a caller gives information about a terrorist threat and indeed any "threat to lives".

In a statement it said: "The new policy formalises our work in protecting children and vulnerable adults from harm. With the new policy, all volunteers have been trained to respond to child protection issues or those concerning vulnerable adults and to support callers affected by these issues. Volunteers can continue to provide a confidential space for people to talk while making people aware of the limits to that confidentiality."

No debate
That, say volunteers who contacted the Eye, is misleading - assessing everyone for vulnerability and safeguarding and giving warnings to callers is, they maintain, a complete change of emphasis and direction introduced without adequate consultation or preparation. They say that while the issue of formalising "safeguarding" in the Samaritans was mentioned at last autumn's conference, branch directors were not given the chance to debate the issue. There was a flurry of recruitment of safeguarding staff in February, before the introduction of this month's changes.

Listeners say they know from years of experience the importance of keeping people safe and are calling on the Samaritans to go back to the safeguarding policy draft-board, to meet the charity's main aim that "fewer people die by suicide". So far the Samaritan board is itself not listening.

More top stories in the latest issue:

WILL SCHILLINGS COIN IT?
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FOSSIL FUELS
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ROYAL NAVY LARK
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BRASSED OFF
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TO RUSSIA WITH BROTHERLY LOVE
How the Candy brothers split their business into offshore and onshore arms in 2004, and how that might continue to interest the taxman.

BRIBE FUTURE AHEAD
An OECD report on the UK's efforts to tackle corruption confirms what the Eye has long said: the government has talked a good game but played a poor one.

To read all these stories in full, get the latest edition of Private Eye - you can subscribe here and have the magazine delivered to your home every fortnight.

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Private Eye Issue 1441