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Abuse Scandal Forces Oxfam To Pursue Criminal Checks On All Shop Volunteers

Oxfam was tonight scrambling to ensure safety in its high street shops after being forced to admit thousands of volunteers work alongside children without criminal records checks.

The crisis-hit charity has told HuffPost UK it is reviewing the use of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks on the 23,000 volunteers, including those who help run stores where it allows 14-year-olds to work.

Oxfam also confirmed 52 safeguarding incidents occurred within its trading retail division last year, and a former Oxfam volunteer manager told HuffPost of her fears abuse could “absolutely” take place in shops.

“Whilst paid staff were vetted, thousands of volunteers were not and unfortunately the very nature of people who abuse or take advantage of others are predatory,” the volunteer manager, who worked at Oxfam for six years, said.

Other charities, including Barnardos, British Heart Foundation, and Age UK on Tuesday night confirmed to HuffPost they had also received multiple allegations relating to safeguarding in the past year.

It follows comments from Oxfam’s former global head of safeguarding, Helen Evans, who claimed on Monday there had been three incidents of child abuse in its shops within a single month in 2015.

Oxfam accepts applications from children aged 14 years or older.

The charity told HuffPost on Tuesday evening it was “exploring… the legal implications of carrying out DBS checks” on all of its 23,000 volunteers.

It said it currently only did these on volunteer roles “that have supervisory responsibilities” and seeks references for all the others.

Oxfam also confirmed to HuffPost that out of a previously reported 87 “incidents”, 52 were within “trading”, which is responsible for its 650 shops; 10 within Oxfam GB, which includes other divisions; and 25 in its international division.

It attributed a rise in reports of allegations to improved training and said it began conducting DBS checks on shop managers and deputy managers in 2010.

It raised these to “enhanced” DBS checks in 2014 and applied them retrospectively to all managers in 2015.

[Have you suffered abuse while working in a charity shop? Speak with a HuffPost journalist in full confidence. Email George.Bowden@huffpost.com or Jack.Sommers@huffpost.com or WhatsApp +44 7896 804043 or +44 7508 031138]

DBS checks are ordinarily used for those who will work with children and vulnerable adults.

One other charity cited the fact it does not accept applications from under 18s as a reason for not carrying out checks on those who volunteer in its shops.

The DBS process includes searches of police records and a database of offenders banned from carrying out such work. The government says the checks are free for volunteers.

The woman who used to manage Oxfam volunteers for Oxfam until 2016 added to HuffPost that she relied on “almost gut feeling” about some volunteers’ behaviour.

“Rightly or wrongly I moved three people on, not because I was aware they had specifically done anything but because I noticed things that made me feel uncomfortable about letting them work with other volunteers and I made damn sure I was about when they were in. Other managers had similar issues,” the woman, who did not wish to be named, said.

“I feel very sorry for all the managers and volunteers out there who are having to deal with the publicity because unfortunately we will all be tarred with the same brush.

“Could abuse happen in shops? Absolutely. Is it rife? Not in my experience and I sincerely hope not on my watch.”

One former teacher told HuffPost that she ended her secondary school’s work experience programme in charity shops after discovering criminal record checks were not standard procedure.

“Some charities were also using ex-offenders as volunteers – which is excellent practice in many ways – but had not informed the school or parents of this in advance of placements,” the woman, who declined to be named, said.

British Red Cross, which runs 340 shops in the UK, said it DBS checks all staff and volunteers who work with “with vulnerable people in roles defined as ‘regulated activities’ according to DBS guidelines”.

“Charity shop roles do not come under these criteria, so we are unable to DBS check,” a spokeswoman said.

She added the Red Cross seeks references for all shop volunteers and there must be at least two adults present when a volunteer who is under-18 is working.

It told HuffPost there seven allegations of staff or volunteer misconduct in its shops in 2017, six of which were upheld and none of which involved young volunteers.

Age UK, which runs just under 400 shops in Britain, told HuffPost it had received three complaints of abuse in its stores in the past year.

Barnardos, which has 720 shops, said it had received three allegations in 2017. 

The British Heart Foundation, which has 730 stores, said it had received eight complaints relating to safeguarding issues.

Earlier, the Charity Retail Association, which counts Oxfam and British Red Cross, as well as many others, among its members, re-issued its safeguarding guidance to shop bosses.

Oxfam faced a Charity Commission inquiry after a bombshell Times investigation first reported allegations of sexual impropriety by senior aid workers in earthquake-hit Haiti in 2010.

Its deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, resigned on Monday over the scandal, which grew to include allegations in other countries where Oxfam worked, including the UK.

[Have you suffered abuse while working in a charity shop? Speak with a HuffPost journalist in full confidence. Email George.Bowden@huffpost.com or Jack.Sommers@huffpost.com or WhatsApp +44 7896 804043 or +44 7508 031138]

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