Concerns over 'heavy-handed' rule book issued to volunteer groups in South Tyneside

Concerns have been raised about a new ‘volunteer handbook’ introduced for voluntary groups across South Tyneside.

Friday, 10th December 2021, 7:03 pm

The document was originally established by South Tyneside Council in 2020 and aimed to “formalise arrangements” for existing groups but also to look at the process for new groups.

This included groups developing a constitution and becoming a “formal partner” to the council, extra training and ensuring volunteers operate safely and in line with council priorities.

More than 10 South Tyneside groups have completed the two-stage application process so far.

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South Shields Town Hall.

Groups completing a partnership agreement are able to access a £2,000 grant towards training and equipment, with the new system also including a community engagement officer as a point of contact.

A presentation on recent updates to the volunteer handbook was given to the council’s Riverside Community Area Forum (CAF) on Tuesday, December 7.

Recent amendments included groups being able to use council insurance for agreed activities, subject to conditions, and training being required for specific tasks.

Council officers stressed that groups operating in South Tyneside’s parks, cemeteries and open spaces were “highly valued.”

However some councillors raised concerns about the volunteers handbook and how it had been received by some established groups.

Councillor David Francis highlighted concerns from volunteers and said it was important for the council to communicate why training was needed for some activities.

Another concern from volunteers, Cllr Francis explained, included the language used in the partnership agreement and potential limitations placed on volunteers around the sharing of information linked to the council.

Councillor Angela Hamilton added some of the wording in the volunteer handbook was a “little heavy-handed” and the document had “extremely upset a lot of volunteers.”

While praising council officers for their work, Cllr Hamilton said the council’s approach needed to involve “listening to [groups] and taking things forward.”

She went on to say: “You have talked about how many groups have signed up to it, I would be interested to know how many have actually walked away.

“I’m aware of three myself who have refused point blank to sign the volunteers handbook, and one of them has stopped volunteering and that’s a real cause for concern for me.”

Neil Govett, Buildings and Compliance Manager on the council, said the comments from councillors would be taken on board and that the volunteers handbook was “ever-evolving.”

Speaking earlier in the CAF meeting, Mr Govett said: “The handbook and the ongoing work with the handbook is to provide us with that greater control in place to ensure the safety of group members and the public as a whole.

“That’s ultimately what we want to do, we don’t want to prevent people doing what they want to do in their local communities, what we want to do is make sure that it is being done correctly and safely.”

Existing voluntary groups in South Tyneside have been given a deadline of March 31 2022 to complete the application process.

Mr Govett added: “We’re working with and supporting all of those groups that haven’t done that yet to try and get them over the line – because we don’t want to lose any.”

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