The families of Alice Barnett and Summer Robertson, who died while volunteering in South Africa, have repeated their calls for regulation of the volunteering sector following a report published today on the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme
Alice, 19, and Summer, 21, took part in a volunteering trip to South Africa in 2014 with volunteering organisation Lattitude Global Volunteering, who delivered volunteering programmes for ICS.
Three days before they were to return home they and other volunteers were taken to a remote beach location for a debriefing session by the project's in-country manager. Alice and Summer, two other volunteers and the Lattitude manager waded into the water and all five were caught by a rip current and pulled into the water. The Lattitude manager was able to get to the shore after 30 minutes of struggling and two of the volunteers were saved from the waters by rescuers from the National Sea Rescue Institute after 50 minutes. Tragically Alice and Summer were overcome by the rip current and drowned.
The deaths of Summer and Alice are mentioned in the report by the National Audit Office (NAO) which says that the Department for International Development and VSO have taken action on safeguarding issues including two external safeguarding, security and safety audits.
The report states that in 2015 “VSO served notice under the provisions of its contract with one consortium member following issues connected with security and safeguarding arrangements for volunteers”.
Since their deaths Alice and Summer’s parents - Suzie and Peter Barnett and John and Sarah Robertson - have fought tirelessly to hold Lattitude to account and to push for greater regulation of the volunteering sector to ensure that no other volunteers are vulnerable to such malpractice.
The parents are currently taking legal action against Lattitude for negligence, for failing to ensure the safety of Summer and Alice. Their claims include that Lattitude provided no safety advice to volunteers regarding rip currents and did not take precautionary measures to assess the risk of going into the water in spite of specifically stating to do so in their promotional material.
ICS is an overseas volunteering programme for young adults which is led by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and funded by the government through the Department for International Development. Lattitude were part of the ICS programme, delivering volunteering trips for young people, until their contract was ended in 2015.
The parents have met on numerous occasions with ICS and believe that, as a result of various investigations and a complete overhaul of health and safety practices and crisis management procedures the organisation is now much better that it was. They feel that given the present lack of regulation in the volunteering sector, having a government-backed organisation like ICS is the best option for trying to ensure that companies that deliver volunteer schemes, like Lattitude, have robust health and safety procedures in place.
Alice and Summer’s parents have also been involved in working with ICS and VSO on a ‘kite mark’ scheme for the volunteering sector to ensure organisations with high standards are easily recognisable to those wishing to volunteer.
Following the publication of the report the families said:
“Since the tragic deaths of Summer and Alice we have worked closely with ICS on their improvement of safety for volunteers. We now feel that their policies and procedures are much improved, although there is still work to be done and we believe a ‘kite mark’ for high standards that is currently in development will help with this. We cannot say the same for Lattitude, who we feel have been disingenuous, obstructive, and heartless throughout, closing ranks rather than assisting with an honest inquiry of the tragedy. We believe they remain unsafe as an organisation for volunteers to work with.
“We were surprised to read in the report that the Department for International Development regards the ICS programme as “high-risk”. This certainly wasn't the case when Alice and Summer chose to take part, or at least it was definitely not promoted as such. We believe this should be made clear to potential volunteers before they sign-up to the programme.”
“It is encouraging to see in the report that action has been taken on improving safety and safeguarding on the programmes delivered by ICS, however, this comes far too late for Alice and Summer’s families. As we have stated in our legal case on behalf of the families we believe that Lattitude were negligent in failing to ensure the safety of Summer and Alice.”