Exclusive: Privacy fears as Samaritans volunteers to answer emails from home

·4-min read
Green Samaritans charity sponsored phone boxes - Mike Kemp
Green Samaritans charity sponsored phone boxes - Mike Kemp

Vulnerable people contacting the Samaritans will have their emails answered from volunteers' homes for the first time, The Telegraph can reveal, as MPs called for the Charity Commission to investigate.

The revelation comes after The Telegraph published an investigation revealing that Samaritans volunteers had abused their position of trust by having sex with vulnerable callers, prompting the charity to announce the unprecedented intervention of "listening in" to conversations.

The Samaritans, which provides a helpline service for people in emotional distress or at risk of suicide, has strict rules concerning volunteer contact with callers and, until the abuse scandal emerged, had operated a policy of confidentiality in almost all cases.

Highly sensitive emails have previously been answered in branches via its secure system. However, it can now be reported that it plans to relocate this service so volunteers can answer the emails from their own homes.

The move has raised fears that the personal information of vulnerable people could be susceptible to hackers or rogue volunteers.

The new policy comes as pressure mounts on the charities watchdog to investigate claims of "shocking" incidents surrounding a "specific demographic" of some "middle-aged men" who were abusing female callers by meeting and having sex with them.

Volunteers preying on the vulnerable

Julian Knight, the Conservative MP for Solihull and chairman of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, said: "These are incredibly serious allegations against a charity which is charged with helping people at their most vulnerable.

"I can't begin to contemplate what gets into the minds of some individuals. I think that we must have a full, transparent investigation into these allegations from the Charity Commission."

Alex Davies-Jones, also a member of the committee, said: "I am absolutely horrified by reports that a small number of volunteers with the Samaritans have been abusing and preying on vulnerable callers. These predatory individuals give a bad name to the vast majority of dedicated volunteers who do wonderful work supporting people in incredibly difficult circumstances.

"I am glad to see the charity taking steps to make sure that these incidents are properly investigated, and it is absolutely vital that protections are put in place to make sure they cannot happen in the future."

The intervention comes as increasing numbers of volunteers have come forward to criticise the Samaritans' handling of the incidents.

Concerns over anonymity

One, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "On most calls, the caller will say 'is this completely confidential?' and I personally now don’t feel comfortable saying yes, because it isn't. It just fundamentally changes the nature of what we do."

Instructions for volunteers say callers who ask questions about anonymity should be told that "a small number of calls are listened to for quality and training purposes" but that information remains within the charity unless there is a concern about risk of abuse or neglect.

An internal charity document, marked confidential and seen by The Telegraph, announced changes to the "out of date" email service due to its "poor user experience" and "frustration for volunteers trying to use it".

The new email model aims to enable volunteers to enjoy "safe and secure working from home", according to the document, with a team of "quality monitoring volunteers who spot check emails for quality, safety and consistency".

Julie Bentley, chief executive of the Samaritans, told The Telegraph that it had identified a "very small number" of safeguarding incidents.

"Our robust investigation procedures meant these incidents were handled swiftly and appropriate action taken," she said. "Any safeguarding matter is one too many and as such we review our practices on an ongoing basis and have introduced further measures as part of our commitment to delivering a consistently high-quality experience for our callers."

On Monday, the Samaritans told The Telegraph: "We have comprehensive privacy and safeguarding information publicly available on our website."

A spokesman for the Charity Commission said: "In line with our guidance on reporting serious incidents, Samaritans has reported this matter to the commission. We are assessing the information provided and are in contact with the charity.

"All charities should be safe and trusted environments, and all those who work or come into contact with charities have a right to expect that they will be treated with respect and protected from harm."

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