Dáil debates

Thursday, 20 September 2012

National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

12:50 pm

Photo of Seán KennySeán Kenny (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Yesterday I referred to the UK case of Ian Huntley as an example of how a child abuser could remain under the radar for almost a decade. His case is relevant to this legislation. On the day of Huntley's conviction the then UK Home Secretary, David Blunkett, announced an inquiry into a vetting system which allowed Huntley to get a caretaker job at a school despite four separate complaints against him being brought to social services.

One of the pertinent issues surfaced almost immediately when the Humberside Police Force, in whose area the alleged offences had taken place, stated that they believed it was unlawful under UK data protection legislation to hold data regarding allegations that did not lead to a conviction. This was contradicted by other UK police forces, which thought it was too strict an interpretation of the legislation. There was also considerable concern about the police investigation into the murder by the Humberside Police Force. It took two weeks before the police became aware of previous sexual allegations against Huntley. Although he was the last person to see either of the two children, the story was not effectively checked out early in the investigation.

Another sad set of circumstances showing the need for robust procedures for vetting those working with children and vulnerable people surrounds the scandal in Irish swimming circles which came to light over a decade ago. I mention this because the litany of abuse that occurred was horrific and involved more than one individual. It included Mr. Derry O'Rourke, the coach for the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1992. He was convicted on 27 sexual abuse charges against minors and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in 1998. He received a further sentence of ten years in 2005 for repeated rape and indecent assault of a female swimmer between the ages of 14 and 18.

All of this shows the need for a robust system of vetting, with accurate records that will ensure that police and social services can provide information if required and employers can verify that would be employees have no questionable histories that might jeopardise the wellbeing of children. In this regard, employers should seek references from more than one previous employer. A reference from one employer is not sufficient. With vetting in place, people like Huntley and O'Rourke could never work again in positions where they might have access to children and vulnerable people.

In September 2008, the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children recommended that the existing vetting procedures be put on a statutory basis. The joint committee also recommended that legislation be introduced to regulate and control the manner in which records of criminal convictions and information can be stored and disclosed by the Garda Síochána and other agencies for the purpose of child protection. In that regard, I refer to some of the Fianna Fáil criticisms of the Bill. Despite the fact that it was recommended in 2008 that the amendment be made and the necessary legislation be published no later than December 2008, the Government did nothing about the matter for many years. Their criticisms fall far short, when one considers what they did when they were in office. The Bill provides that statutory footing.

The Bill also seeks to provide an appropriate balance between the need to disclose such information in the public interest and in the interest of protecting children and vulnerable adults and providing appropriate safeguards of the rights of persons who are the subject of such disclosures.

There will be criminal penalties for any employer who fails to screen potential employees to ensure the protection of children and vulnerable adults. Where a person has been convicted by the courts or found to be a danger to children or vulnerable persons, a clear legal basis to ensure that potential employers will be made aware of the facts must be provided.

The Government is committed to ensuring the safety of children and vulnerable persons and that they are protected to the fullest extent possible. I look forward to playing my part as a legislator in protecting those members of society who ought to be protected.

1:00 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I am delighted to speak on the Bill. I sincerely and warmly welcome its publication. It is extremely important legislation and, as the previous speaker said, it is long overdue.

In the report given to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in February of this year and published during the summer, the author cited this legislation as being of critical importance. The Bill will provide a legislative basis for the vetting of persons who seek positions in employment relating to children and vulnerable persons. When we consider the publication of the wording of the constitutional amendment on children's rights it is appropriate that we welcome the debate on Second Stage.

The Bill draws on recommendations from the Attorney General and the 2008 report of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children. The Bill will make vetting compulsory for all employees or volunteers who work with children or vulnerable adults. These will include registered social workers and people working for accredited adoption bodies and in care and welfare of residences, designated centres for older people, child care and pre-school services, special care, mental health and private security. Later, I will deal with the area of child minders, which I feel should have been included but is not.

The Bill will introduce criminal sanctions for those not properly using the vetting system. In the interest of children's welfare, it is important that the Bill be implemented fully and that people who choose not to implement it face the full rigour of the law.

Fianna Fáil, and myself as party spokesperson on children, commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs for building on the work done over the past 12 years on the welfare of children. Some would have us think no work was done in this area in the last decade. In 1999, the Children First guidelines were launched and a revised version of the guidelines was published in 2009. The Child Care Acts 2001 and 2009 and the Adoption Act 2009 implemented key protection legislation. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children was established. Information and accountability systems within the HSE were improved and 256 more social workers were provided as part of the Ryan report implementation plan. That recruitment was exempt from the moratorium in place at the time.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs continues the good work of her predecessors. We have had many long debates on child protection and welfare in the Joint Committee on Health and Children in the past 12 months. The heads of the Children First Bill have been published and I look forward to it being debated in the Oireachtas. A new agency, the child and family agency, is to be set up and will I hope commence in 2013. I welcomed the agency when the blueprint for it was announced. I have some reservations about its management structure and I will highlight them to the Minister as we come closer to its establishment, but overall I welcome the agency.

The wording of the referendum on children's rights announced yesterday builds on the wording proposed by the former Minister of State, Mr. Barry Andrews, 18 months ago.

Reservations have been expressed about the information to be covered in the vetting process. There is reference to soft information, which is information that did not lead to a criminal prosecution, and it covers a range of organisations, from the Garda to the Teaching Council of Ireland, where this information can be collected. This broadens the range of information used in assessing an individual to create a more accurate profile of the person. However, the Irish Human Rights Commission has expressed concern about the balance between the privacy rights of the individual as well as the overriding legal imperative that one is innocent until proven guilty. When the Minister for Justice and Equality replies to the debate he may outline his views on this issue.

I also highlight the use of PPS numbers. I asked a parliamentary question if the use of PPS numbers had been considered in the vetting process and the Minister for Justice and Law Reform responded that in accordance with the provision of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, a PPS number cannot be used as an identifier in the Garda vetting process. This could be contradicted in the current Bill, where section 13(5)(g) states a personal identification number, if available, should be submitted in an application. I would appreciate if the Minister of State would comment on that in his reply.

In 2007, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, a solicitor and child law expert, who now acts as the children's rapporteur to the Government, stated the type of information that is passed from the vetting unit to perspective service providers must be addressed. He argued that soft information could add another important layer to the vetting process, giving the example of someone dismissed from work due to misconduct or inappropriate behaviour towards a child. He suggested there was a need to clarify whether the Garda unit could process soft information and he would welcome a constitutional and legislative amendment to allow for that. This child care expert stated that it is right to include soft information in the legislation as long ago as 2007, although the Irish Human Rights Commission has expressed concern.

It is notable that childminders are not included among the people covered by this legislation. The introduction of the Children First Bill and this Bill presented the perfect opportunity to introduce a form of regulation for the child minding sector. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, however, has decided not to include childminders in the list of organisations and designated professionals in the heads of the Children First Bill or in this Bill. The Government must commit to the inclusion of childminders in the legislation and in the upcoming Children First Bill. We acknowledge and recognise this will require the introduction of regulation for the childminding sector, which will include the compulsory registration of all child minders with the HSE. Only those who register and are vetted should be allowed to operate. We will be tabling amendments to both these Bills on Committee Stage to ensure childminders are included. Approximately 75,000 in Ireland are minded by childminders so there are many children who are being minded on a daily basis by people - I do not cast aspersions - who have not gone through the vetting process. I have no doubt 99% would pass any vetting process with flying colours but we cannot be too careful. This should be taken on board.

The legislation that has been introduced in recent years and the constitutional amendment we now seek to make will not on their own provide a robust child protection service It is imperative that adequate funding be put in place to match these legislative changes and made available to the new family and child care agency that will be set up. In the absence of adequate funding, all the legislative changes and changes to the Constitution are window dressing. We must ensure the legislative changes are reinforced and matched with the adequate resources to ensure we have robust child protection services.

1:10 pm

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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With the announcement yesterday of the wording of and a date for the children's referendum and the introduction of this Bill at the same time, this week will go down as the time when children became visible, listened to, protected, cherished and valued in this State. I welcome the progress made by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Justice and Law Reform on these two fronts.

The National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill is welcome and overdue legislation and having called for it on many occasions I now very much welcome the opportunity to make a contribution. This Bill will provide a legal footing to those people working with children and vulnerable persons in our society and it will ensure that our young people are given the type of protection that sadly and regrettably has not always been the case in our society heretofore.

This Bill gives the House the opportunity and responsibility to get the balance right on a statutory basis between the protection of children and vulnerable persons on the one hand and the right of all citizens to protect their good name on the other. I welcome that all records of criminal convictions and soft information can be stored and disclosed by the Garda and other agencies for the purpose of child protection. Equally, it is vital all citizens have the right to protect their good name and that information such as rumour, innuendo or false allegations will not form any part of the vetting process. By and large, having studied the Bill, I believe the correct balance has been struck on these issues.

There is a need for some exemptions from vetting, such as for private family arrangements for baby sitting and those who assist in a small way at sports or community events. It is vital we are practical because otherwise the supervision, coaching and minding of children would be in so much of straitjacket that it would be unworkable and people would be put off training and coaching young athletes or teams. That would ultimately work to the disadvantage of children. As someone who has been involved in many community and sporting organisations over the years, it is important not to frighten off the volunteer who might be there to offer some assistance. We need such people and so do our children. That is what I mean when I say we must get the balance right, and this Bill does that.

Another issue that the Minister referred to when introducing the Bill this week is the recommendation, which I would strongly support, although I was concerned when he said it might not be possible, that vetting should be transferable between different employer organisations to cut down on the multiple applications for vetting of the same individual. At present, the organisation offering employment arranges vetting and if after a week the new employee leaves to do exactly similar work with another organisation, the whole process must start again. I have seen in the past how this has led to huge delays and the clogging up of the system. I hope a way could be found for vetting to be transferable between posts and organisations without in any way compromising the protection we all want to offer to our children and vulnerable adults.

Concern has also been expressed about the inability to get information from other states about the criminal records of citizens who wish to seek work in this country. I commend the Minister for Justice and Equality for his commitment to introduce a separate Bill to deal with this important matter.

Garda vetting for people involved in working with young people has been a mainstay of the voluntary sector for a number of years. One of the problems, however, with the system in place is there is no statutory obligation for the declaration of information. This Bill will correct that and the result should create a safer and healthier environment for all our young people.

Over the past few years, I had occasion to highlight the significant pressure under which the Garda vetting bureau has to carry out its duties. In particular, I referred to delays in processing vetting applications and the domino effect that had on people taking up positions in voluntary bodies and organisations. I know of people who were unable to accept positions as a result of these delays. With the establishment of a bureau dedicated specifically to the role, such delays will, hopefully, be a thing of the past. At no time in highlighting these delays did I question the validity or the necessity of the vetting system. I pointed out at all times that no right thinking person could oppose such a measure. My only concern was the time it took to process applications.

The Bill is important because it aims to protect those who are not in a position to protect themselves. At a time the collective effort, energy and focus of the Government has been spent meeting the challenges of the economic crisis in our country, I am confident that in years to come future generations will reflect that we did not forget, neglect or take our eye off the ball with regard to the protection of children and young people. Some things in life are more important than money and finance.

1:20 pm

Photo of Seán ConlanSeán Conlan (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I am proud to be a member of this Government, which is addressing the protection of children in a real and meaningful way, by introducing a suite of legislation, culminating in a referendum on the rights of children, to give the protection of the most innocent and vulnerable among us proper standing in Irish law. This has been a long time coming and I thank God it is here at last, as the vulnerability of children and vulnerable persons has for too long been exploited not alone in this jurisdiction, but in jurisdictions all over the world.

It is a signal of our maturity as a nation that we display an awareness of the permanent damage that can be inflicted on the individual, having the capacity to adversely affect their entire life and relationships, by one incident of abuse, either sexual or physical, and that we seek to address it. Research has proven that these abuses are largely inflicted by someone known to the victim such as a family member, sports instructor, teacher, priest or health care provider. These professions and many others are callings towards the good of society but we are all human and predators can be found among the best of people, as they seek out situations or opportunities to abuse. The status quo can no longer prevail for this reason and we must face our responsibilities as legislators and bring the Bill into law.

This Bill will expand on the existing vetting service operated by the Garda, giving it a statutory basis, making it compulsory for all employees or volunteers working with children or vulnerable persons to be vetted and, additionally, provide for the consideration of "soft" or "specified information" in the vetting process. It will also serve to introduce procedural clarity and certainty into the process. It goes beyond what is currently allowed, whereby only convictions are considered and it addresses the scenario where the competing rights of the individual and the public come into conflict.

This is an area where we have the moral support of every right thinking member of society. We have had the various reports, both religious and secular, and the people felt helpless. They witnessed the harrowing stories and were ashamed at what had been allowed to occur in their midst. They are all too aware that this great demon of abuse lives among us and I have no doubt this particular suite of legislation enjoys the goodwill and support of everyone who wants to fetter the access of these predators to their innocent victims. No group of people on this island has an inclination to cause this legislation to fail. If reservations exist, they lie on the side of ensuring the legislation comprehensibly achieves its objectives.

I caution against the omission of those in employment from the vetting process for this reason. Does any sector, profession or socio-economic group have a monopoly on abuse? Just as none of us has a monopoly on the common cold, none of us has a monopoly on abuse. Why, therefore, would we exclude the entire working population employed prior to the implementation of this legislation from the vetting process? Does the fact that predators are in the system exclude them from the evil of perpetrating abuse? We certainly do not have a system free from potential abusers nor does anybody working in the area involved believe that. It is my fervent belief that everyone who has contact with the target group being afforded protection should be vetted. This will create logistical problems but needs to be tackled. Those in employment in the system, above all others, will be happy to ensure every avenue is explored to ensure the protection of the vulnerable for whom they care for in a good and wholesome way. The legislation will be implemented. Let us use it to provide a safer living and educational environment for the most innocent among us. Let no group opt out of the system. Those whom we seek to protect deserve a full and comprehensive vetting service - no buts, no exceptions.

Photo of Marcella Corcoran KennedyMarcella Corcoran Kennedy (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Sadly, as a society, we embraced wholeheartedly the adage, "Children should be seen and not heard". We now know the impact of this school of thought. It was detrimental to the well being of our children and vulnerable adults of all ages and abilities. Not only did they suffer, but our society suffered the consequences of this neglect.

Children become teenagers who become adults and negative experiences in our childhood and teenage years influence our emotional and physical development. Too often, we hear of the harrowing stories of men and women whose horror filled childhoods stunted their emotional development, leaving them filled with anger or numbed by their experiences. I will not go into the details the many reports produced, as they have been well documented, but I wish to acknowledge the work of the legal teams and, more important,the openness of the individuals who contributed, thereby holding up a mirror to us as a society. What was reflected back at us was not nice to behold. Anybody who cares about our society could not but act swiftly to ensure those experiences are minimised in the future. Eliminating them would be ideal but, as previous speakers said, it will be difficult to eliminate predatory behaviour. I would like our children, teenagers and vulnerable adults to have the opportunities they deserve to lead healthy and contented lives.

The Bill is most welcome, as it finally transposes into law the procedures required to ensure those in responsible positions undergo vetting by the national vetting bureau. I acknowledge the excellent work being carried out by the Garda vetting unit, which over the past year has significantly reduced the waiting time for clearance. Additional resources, where possible, will continue to improve the service. I agree that being allowed to carry a vetting certificate from one agency or place of work to another should be provided for but a realistic term of validation must be put in place to ensure the information available on the individual being vetted is up to date. I am a little concerned about the lack of a requirement for individual child care providers to be vetted. I acknowledge families must make their own choices about child care. Some may use neighbours or family members they know well while others may use child care workers from different parts of the country or the world. However, everyone who cares for a child should be vetted because, as we know to our cost, stranger danger is not as common a concept as we might think. The provision for the Garda to use soft information is welcome. People are living longer and they want to remain in the security and safety of their own homes, as do people with disabilities. By vetting those who are entrusted to care for the people we cherish, we can be sure when our turn comes, we will be in the hands of people we can trust.

The announcement of the long awaited date and wording of the children's rights referendum was most welcome. Perhaps now, as a society, we can move forward having learned the lessons of the past, to ensure our children, teenagers and vulnerable adults enjoy their lives, whatever their abilities, and be enabled to enrich the lives of their families and our society as a whole.

1:30 pm

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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It is opportune, welcome and long overdue that children and their rights, health and well-being are central to legislation and that such legislation is now centre stage because for too long it was off the stage of anyone's attention. When I spoke on the Cloyne report some time ago, I made the point that many nations have their dark moments. For example, the Jewish nation has the Holocaust and Cambodia has its killing fields but in our case, it is the systematic abuse of young people. I refer to abuse that was physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional and spiritual, carried out by those in authority, in the Church, in the State and within families. It also was allowed to go on by those authorities who could have intervened and could have made a difference like the health authorities and the Garda. A number of Bills are or have been before the House on this particular topic. While the Bill under discussion at present is the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, I also refer to the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, the children's referendum Bill, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill and the mental capacity Bill. The question is first whether all these Bills will ensure not simply adequate but thorough protection for children and second, whether there will be sufficient staff to cover all these measures.

Members must take on board that most abuses occur within families or are perpetrated by someone close to the family. Survivors of child sexual abuse and violence report that nearly 80% of them were abused by someone known to them, such as an immediate family member, a relation or a family friend. A further 12% were abused by those in authority, such as a religious figure, a teacher or a coach, a further 3% by strangers and then 5% by others. This means 92% of survivors of child sexual abuse and violence were abused by someone known and trusted by the family. Consequently, the "stranger danger" approach being taught in schools does not reflect reality. Children are told not to accept sweets, gifts or lifts from strangers but this is not a true reflection of the reality of child abuse. In confirmation of this point, statistics from the Rape Crisis Centre indicate that in one particular year, 97% of those abused as a child and who sought help from the centre had been abused by a family member or friend of the family. It would be difficult to convey in a school setting it is not simply about the stranger danger but also is about the danger within the family and balance is needed in this regard.

The first point I wish to make is vetting is not the solution but simply is an additional tool for safeguarding children. It is ironic that while those who put themselves forward to adopt children must go through a highly rigorous, intensive and necessary check that sometimes can go on for years, children can be left in abusive situations within their natural families. I believe the forthcoming referendum will address this issue. It is vital to tackle what is wrong and not to undo or to undermine the good that goes on in society and I note Deputy O'Mahony mentioned the work of the voluntary organisations. It is important to emphasise the vast majority of teachers and those involved with voluntary youth work and in sports organisations, as well as the majority of families, have the welfare of young people at heart and would do absolutely nothing to jeopardise that. They are equally as appalled and disgusted at what has happened in some families, institutions and organisations.

Arising from the various reports, namely, the Ryan, Murphy, Cloyne and Ferns reports, the HIQA national standards for protection and welfare of children that came out in July and the independent review report on child deaths, Members have better knowledge of the extent of the vulnerability and mistreatment of children and vulnerable young people and it has been a litany of failures. It is good this Bill has been welcomed broadly by most organisations dealing with children but the point is all these forthcoming legislative items must complement one another. Moreover, it is all very well to state the national vetting bureau is being established but the question is whether the staffing and resources are available to ensure this will happen. I make the point that with mandatory reporting and other demands, social workers are under serious pressure in their work. Members do not seek to have these highly trained professionals spending all their time on bureaucratic work, administration and writing reports instead of being in direct contact with vulnerable people, who need so much more from those services. Members are aware of the backlogs, of more than six months in some cases, which led to the Department employing additional staff on a temporary basis, including some under the JobBridge scheme. As the legislation will place increased demands on the bureau, will it be able to cope? I note longer delays mean difficulties for those organisations in need of staff, especially those in need of staff quickly. The other danger, of course, is the quality of the work of the bureau could be jeopardised.

I note the Bill does not reflect the urgency for clearance in situations where a child is in need of emergency accommodation with family members. In the constituency I share with the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, in particular communities that have been devastated by drugs and suicide, extended families, many of them grandparents, took on the care and rearing of the grandchildren when the parents died because of their addiction or whose addiction meant they were unable to care for those children. Improvements have been made in the grandparents' ability to access the children's allowance and obviously, the response in this regard must be quicker because many such grandparents are living on State pensions solely. Consequently, the interim measures that could have been used would have been to use the local knowledge available from the local school, community welfare officer, local community garda or youth club to ascertain that particular family's suitability to look after the children, that is, their grandchildren. Moreover, it is important the children's voice would be heard, which is a highly welcome addition in the new Bill, and such a commonsense approach is required.

I wish to refer to a particular abuse situation for a couple of minutes and while it is in the past, abuse is never in the past for victims of abuse. One group that has been protesting outside Leinster House comprises two gentlemen who were involved in swimming circles for many years. I acknowledge the progress made by Swim Ireland in trying to ensure those horrific abuses at the hands of swimming coaches will never happen again. However, they have happened in the past and the pain, anguish and suffering of those victims continue. It is particularly difficult for those people who had great talent in swimming in the past and whose careers were cut short with the consequential lost potential, not to mention their lives and relationships. Perpetrators still are coming to trial, including one some months ago, but one highly significant perpetrator has not been brought to justice. A question must be asked, namely, who facilitated his entry into the United States. I am appalled that two sports organisations in receipt of State funding are pursuing one of his victims for costs in a case. Regardless of the settlement this person received, I find it appalling that these two organisations should so do, given it was their inactivity, laxness and disregard that led to the abuse in the past - they did not listen to those voices in swimming circles who tried to bring these abuses to the attention of the authorities at that time. Those voices were ignored. My sincere wish is this Bill will ensure that no child going to a sports club will ever be subjected to the abuse to which our swimmers were subjected in past years. While it is too late for some of the swimmers concerned, who are now adults, the pain continues for those who were badly affected.

The other group to which I wish to refer is the Magdalene survivors. Members are aware of the abuse that went on and of the lack of care, consideration and everything in their lives. It is very disappointing to learn that the report, which is in very good hands with Senator McAleese, will not be published for another few months. It also is disappointing that it will not make recommendations. Again, these women, who were severely abused by the State and by religious institutions, will not get the apology they seek. I use the word "compensation" very loosely because no one can compensate for what they went through, but I refer simply to their entitlements now as older people.

As for the concept of upholding the balance between the competing rights of the individual person to privacy and society, I welcome the argument made by the Minister. It confirms the ability of someone to rehabilitate, if previously convicted of minor crimes unrelated to children. Organisations should interpret vetting results on a case-by-case basis to allow people who have shown they are rehabilitated an opportunity to work in certain positions. I note the HSE has a blanket ban on recruitment of anyone with a previous conviction, regardless of his or her crime. The legal grounds for the employer must be clarified to protect both the right to rehabilitation and reform and the needs of society. The data transfer of criminal convictions between Departments, agencies and State institutions still is not unified. While the Constitution protects the right to privacy, the question is whether this can complicate the rights of the individual to reform and the rights of society to know. This is the reason vetting is not the sole solution but is simply a tool. I will turn to the soft information that also will be made available in vetting procedures, as the current legislation only provides the hard information in respect of courts and appeals. Soft information will now include allegations of harm, neglect or any other information that might suggest someone could harm or cause harm or put a child or a vulnerable person at risk of being harmed, that is, anything that has not led to a criminal case. I hope commonsense will prevail in this regard. The Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Irish Human Rights Commission have concerns about people with minor convictions, some of them from years previously.

I hope such convictions will not be an obstacle to their employment. The word "allegation" is used, and that must be handled very sensitively. I know of adults against whom accusations were made and, following a lengthy process, those allegations were proven to be unfounded, which caused devastation.

There is an appeals mechanism upholding the balance between the rights of the individual and public safety. The Bill references not just children but also vulnerable persons, including those with mental, physical and intellectual disabilities. The provisions on re-vetting are positive. However, the Minister has said this will only happen in the long term owing to lack of resources in the meantime. It is an important part of protecting children and vulnerable persons as it provides updated information on the status of those working with children.

While I accept improvements have been made in homes for the elderly, it was horrific to read what went on in those institutions. I know of people who were vetted for one organisation and that vetting did not carry over even a few months later, which puts unnecessary demands on vetting.

An area of concern is children in direct provision centres. One third of residents in State accommodation for asylum seekers are children who are especially vulnerable because vetting is not part of the employment practice of direct provision providers. This means children, women and people with mental health difficulties are living side by side, sometimes sharing toilets, accommodation space and dining areas with strangers from around the world, some of whom have had traumatic experiences from different countries. There are obvious serious safety and overcrowding concerns in this respect. That is where I see a limitation of the potential of the vetting process. These vulnerable people in the system are dependent on good practice codes of direct provision providers. We need further legislation to protect children in those vulnerable situations.

1:40 pm

Photo of Tom BarryTom Barry (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill. I congratulate the Minister on the impressive body of legislative work he has introduced since the beginning of the 31st Dáil. The statutory basis for existing procedures whereby a Garda record database is used to vet persons applying for employment working with children is very important. At the moment 300,000 people per year are being vetted. However, there is a need to speed this up because there have been many cases of people under pressure to get the vetting completed. Perhaps this could be done through better training procedures but it is something that needs to be investigated. It is a testament to the Government's commitment to protecting our children that a great deal of the focus of this week's proceedings has been on that. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on publishing the wording of the constitutional amendment on children's rights. It will be an historically significant moment when this constitutional change is made and I will be delighted when that day arrives.

When I studied the Bill, I found myself considering that this level of vetting would probably not be required in tight-knit rural communities such as the one in which I grew up. However, I realised that was the wrong assumption because there have been many incidents in what we felt were very protected communities. This is about challenging ourselves and challenging the way we feel. Vetting is a reality and something that must be done. The establishment of the database is vital and we need interagency co-operation if we are to provide effective protection. I say effective because there is no point in having it there in name alone. There have been too many dreadful cases in Ireland and elsewhere where the agencies involved were not communicating properly with each other and the consequences of that lack of communication were in many cases tragic.

There are strong safeguards built into the legislation to ensure information will not be disclosed unnecessarily, thereby respecting the rights of the applicant. There is a sense that it is a sad indictment of the times that we need these procedures, but the reality is that they were probably always needed. We need to face up to the reality that there are people who harm children in our society, however dreadful that is. Routinely, parents, including me, put their children in the care of other adults and we are expected to trust those adults. It does not always start at the school gate. In many cases it starts at our own gates when children go to school in school transport. I have been unhappy about the situation for quite a long time. School transport is being tendered for under a new better value scheme. I feel that the primary care of children is not at its core. Drivers, some of whom have been on particular routes for up to 26 years, have been replaced by people who are unknown and may be from the other end of the country. The many years of good service and trust have been discarded for economic reasons, which is unacceptable because the most important thing in school transport is the children who are involved.

In recent times the courts have experienced some difficulty in securing reliable and comprehensive criminal records or certificates from police forces in other jurisdictions. We have had too many incidents of falsified driving licences, not to mention vetting. This is an area that will need particular attention. I am not trying to isolate any particular group but we need to be savvy and streetwise. We cannot ignore the fact that this is a problem that needs to be considered in a very cold fashion.

We are often asked to help out with children who might be in care and want to get a temporary work placement. We would always be willing to help out with organisations which do such fabulous work with these children and vulnerable adults. However, some employers may be reluctant to get involved in the vetting process and may choose not to co-operate. This may mean that some vulnerable children and adults may not get the opportunity to get good experience in the workplace.

I am glad this legislation has been welcomed by the Commission for Taxi Regulation as that industry has received some negative media reports in the past. Vetting benefits not only the users of the service but also the service providers. I know many people who employ young people under the age of 18, especially for summer work, and they will be subject to vetting. We need to highlight this to the public because many people are so busy in their daily lives, they do not see the ins and outs of this legislation. However, this is very practical and will affect them. I encourage the Department to publish an easy-to-read summary of the Bill's provisions. People want to abide by the law and do not want to fall foul of it.

The definition of vulnerable people refers to people suffering from intellectual disability and people who might have a disorder of the mind. In some cases these are minor and I am conscious that certain people who may be on a social scheme and getting help from the State might not regard themselves as being vulnerable persons, even though on paper they may be.

It is important that employers are aware of the need to vet employees who work with such people so as to ensure no one slips through the net and they do not find themselves on the wrong side of the law. It is also important that vetting apply across the board, including of those people currently in employment rather than only those seeking work. People should have nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide.

I favour the introduction of a card containing biometric data which would be continually updated thus ensuring people would not have to seek re-vetting. While I acknowledge that there are personal rights involved in this regard, such a card could protect employers and employees. However, that is a matter in respect of which we might find a solution in the future.

I welcome the Bill, which is practical legislation that should have been put in place a long time ago. It is testimony to the Minister and the Government who value children and want to protect them and put them at the heart of our Constitution, as will be done by way of the forthcoming children's rights referendum. The Bill is well structured and thought out, and I commend it to the House.

1:50 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The introduction of this Bill is a clear statement by the Government of the importance we place on safeguarding our children and vulnerable persons. I commend the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, and his colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on the work they are doing in strengthening our child protection laws and procedures.

A number of significant reforms in the programme for change for children have already been introduced by the Government. The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 has been introduced and the Children First Bill has been published. More reforms in this area are planned. Yesterday, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs published the wording for the 31st amendment of the Constitution which, if accepted by the people, will ensure the rights of children are copperfastened in our Constitution. The draft adoption (amendment) Bill was also published yesterday. These actions are in stark contrast to the Fianna Fail Party's record over the past ten years. I note the absence from the Chamber this afternoon of Fianna Fáil Members. The Fianna Fáil Party failed during its time in office to introduce promised legislation on vetting. This failure continued even after the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children recommended in September 2008 that such legislation be published no later than December 2008.

This Government is delivering on its commitment to put children first. This Bill is an important element of its reforming agenda. While vetting has been in place for the past number of years, it was not been done on a statutory basis. This Bill changes that. In making it mandatory for persons working with children or vulnerable persons to be vetted by the Garda, our child protection procedures are being further enhanced. This Bill clearly defines the categories of people for whom vetting will be mandatory, details the categories of people excluded from the process, provides a system of offences for abuse of the system and introduces an appeals mechanism.

Currently, vetting in respect of 19,000 organisations in the country is carried out by the Garda vetting unit in Thurles. I welcome that this unit will continue to be run and staffed by the Garda. This is important. I also welcome that it will now be clear as to the categories of people to whom mandatory vetting will apply. Previous legislation did not set out clear guidelines and while vetting was, in essence, mandatory for employees working in certain sectors, much of this vetting was discretionary. In practice, the majority of people working with children and vulnerable persons were vetted on the basis of a voluntary code. This Bill now makes vetting mandatory, ensuring consistency across the board.

The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill and the Children First Bill outline the role of the Garda Síochána and the HSE with regard to the protection of children and vulnerable persons. This legislation does not give the Garda Síochána any additional responsibilities. It is up to an employer to determine whether a person is suitable for employment or volunteer work. The Garda simply provide the information according to its records. Employers then make a decision on receipt of the disclosed vetting as to whether a person poses a threat to the children or vulnerable persons under their care. It is right and proper that any potential threat which a person may pose to a child is made known in advance of that person taking up employment working with children given that our overriding responsibility is the safety of our children and vulnerable persons. For too long in this country, a wall of silence protected people who were a risk to children and vulnerable persons. The Murphy and Ryan reports exposed the extent to which this veil of silence had contributed to further incidents of abuse of other children. It is important that lessons are learned from the past and that we have in place a legislative framework to protect our children.

I am happy that the Bill provides for an appeals process. This is important in cases where a conviction recorded on a vetting is not a conviction for an offence which poses a threat to a child or vulnerable person. For example, a constituent of mine was convicted of drink driving a number of years ago and had his licence endorsed. While he has had a clean licence for four years or more, he is consistently refused a job as a bus driver because this conviction is disclosed on his vetting form. He feels strongly that he has been stigmatised for life for one mistake in his past. For insurance purposes, a person is not penalised if he or she has had a clean licence for five years or more. This man makes the point that given that he has had a clean licence for a number of years and poses no direct threat to children, he should be given a second chance. I thank the Minister for including an appeals mechanism in this Bill. It is an issue I have previously brought to his attention. I also suggested to him that an independent adjudicator should be appointed, to whom persons like my constituent could put their case.

Section 18 outlines the appeal process. I understand the Minister can appoint independent appeals officers and that the qualifying criteria for appointment is that the person be a solicitor or barrister with a minimum of seven years' professional experience. Any decision made by the chief bureau officer can then be appealed within 14 days of the person being notified of the decision. Provision is also made for an extension of this period where reasonable grounds exist. As I have said earlier, it is up to the employer to determine whether the information received on a person's vetting form prohibits him or her from employing that person. However, many people experience the same problem as my constituent in that once a conviction is made known on their form - I speaking in this regard of a conviction in respect of which no threat is posed to a child - they find it very difficult to get work.

In its submission to the Minister following publication of the Bill, the Children's Rights Alliance stated that the Bill must balance the State's duty to protect children, through the operation of a comprehensive vetting system, with the personal rights of individuals. In particular, it must respect the individual's constitutionally protected rights, including the right to a good name and the right to fair procedures. The inclusion of the appeals process will facilitate people who feel that they have a genuine case to appeal to an independent arbitrator. It will then be up to the arbitrator to determine whether the information provided by the central bureau is relevant.

The passage of this Bill will place a further burden on the resources of the Garda Síochána's Thurles office. The office is already under pressure and it can take a number of weeks to process a vetting application. These delays put a lot of pressure on all concerned, particularly jobseekers. I have been trying to assist a young man who was recently offered a job with a private health care company. His prospective employer has applied for vetting and has been advised that it will be a number of weeks before this application will be processed. This young man is very anxious. While there will be no problem with his vetting, the delay is causing him a lot of stress. He is concerned that as a result of the delay he could lose this job, which he was due to start a number of weeks ago. I received another letter yesterday from the mother of a young man who is experiencing the same problem. It is an issue.

I welcome that the Minister has moved to address the staff demands of the Galway vetting unit in an innovative and cost-effective way. I understand that 15 clerical officers who were previously employed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in Ennis in my county of Clare have now been redeployed to a sub-office of the Garda vetting unit which has been set up in Ennis. That is good news for all concerned, including the staff. They have completed a training course and when the sub-office is fully functional, they will play an important role in assisting the Garda unit to reduce the processing time of applications. I wish the staff, many of whom I know, well in their new role in this unit. In addition to the redeployment of these staff, I also understand the Minister is in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure the Thurles office has been resourced to meet demand.

The legislation compares favourably with best international practice, which is important. It has taken some time to put into place but it is important. We need to get it right and the Minister has got it right on this occasion. The introduction of mandatory vetting for all those who work with children and vulnerable persons is a welcome step in strengthening our child protection systems. I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House.

2:00 pm

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to share my time with Deputy Ó Snodaigh.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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That is agreed.

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. Sinn Féin welcomes the proposed introduction of this Bill. Unfortunately, as a State and society we are all too aware of our abysmal record in terms of the protection of children and vulnerable adults. Therefore, any measures, especially legislative measures, which aim to safeguard and protect the above groups are very significant and important.

The proposed legislation is an indication that, perhaps finally, the State is prepared to live up to its statutory, societal and legislative responsibility in this area. By providing a statutory basis for the existing procedures whereby the Garda criminal records database is used to vet people working with children or young adults, this Bill should act as a deterrent against those who would seek to exploit and abuse vulnerable groups.

As it stands, approximately 300,000 vetting applications are processed by the Garda vetting unit each year. The Bill will make it mandatory for persons working with children or vulnerable adults to be vetted, whereas currently this is done on a voluntary code.

In providing for the use of so-called soft information in such vetting, in other words, information other than a court determined criminal record, the Bill allows local knowledge to be marshalled in the interest of child safety. However, while Sinn Féin welcomes and supports this legislation, it does so with the understanding that certain important safeguards will be provided for in the Bill. Exceptionally in the interests of child protection, Sinn Féin will in this instance allow for the use of soft information. However, the party feels strongly that any such measures must also ensure full human rights and data protection compliance. Further to this, the rights to a good name and to a livelihood of the person being vetted must be balanced with the rights of the children to the highest standards of child protection. The right to one's good name is covered by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and also in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and as such is part of Sinn Féin policy. Moreover, this right contains within it the benefits of the presumption of innocence and protection of one's good name and livelihood.

I reiterate that Sinn Féin welcomes and supports this Bill. However, we do so under the assumption that how the Garda vetting unit gains, stores, reproduces and accesses soft information is subjected to clear safeguards, limits and controls, all of which must be monitored by an independent body.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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This is an important Bill and its introduction is welcome. It was promised by the previous Government but that did not come to pass. I welcome that it is now before us, that we will have a referendum which will enhance the rights of children in Ireland, and that as well as those rights being enhanced by this Bill, we will enhance the protection for children. Therefore, the introduction of the Bill is welcome. The concerns I have regarding parts of it would in no way cause me to oppose it because it is a welcome step forward. The only concern I have is to ensure it would work well, and we will, obviously, tease out the detail of the Bill on Committee and Report Stages, but when we return to this legislation, perhaps in a number of years time, we could also address some of the concerns I will raise now.

We have had a vetting scheme in place and it has worked well on occasion. In the past year it seemed to work quite well in that, to my knowledge, there were not significant undue delays until recently, when there were problems again. There have been significant delays before and people have lost jobs which were being held for them because they could not get their vetting procedure done in time. That is one of the key challenges facing the Garda vetting bureau. It deals with 300,000 applications a year, which is very large number, and they are not all applications in the area of child protection. It also deals with immigration, citizenship applications and, I presume, visa and other such applications, and its faces a challenge in dealing with all those. I urge the Minister not only to pass this legislation but to ensure this section within An Garda Síochána has the required resources to make certain there is no undue delay in the processing of applications. Voluntary groups and volunteers apply for Garda vetting to participate in summer projects, be it GAA clubs, soccer clubs or other projects. It is important to ensure first, that those people are not discouraged from doing so by an undue delay in the processing of their applications and, second, that they can take up the positions.

I know of instances where some of the delay was the fault of the applicants concerned in that they did not know the regime in place where Garda vetting was required for those participating in summer projects. Many of these people had worked on the same summer projects for many years but they could not take up their positions this year because in some cases they failed to apply on time and in other cases there was a delay in the processing of their applications.

Another case involved youth workers who were friends of mine who had applied for positions and were moving from one child care facility to take a similar position in another county. The facility had to hold the youth worker's job in the other county open for three months while awaiting the processing of the Garda vetting application, during which time there was no one in that position. That happened two years ago, matters have moved on since then and I have praised the unit for speeding up the processing of applications. If we are ensuring that many others will have to comply with Garda vetting, we need to ensure the current regime in place continues to operate and that there will be no delay in the processing of applications.

A major change to the vetting procedure is that soft information, of which there is a huge range, can be used. As soft information is not proven fact, there is a concern to ensure it is not used in the wrong way whereby people who are vexatious or who have had a clash with or are bullying someone would make a vexatious report and the person concerned would then suffer as a consequence. While an appeals process is provided for in the Bill, by the time a decision is reached, the position applied for may have been filled, and even if the person is successful in the appeal, his or her name will have been besmirched in some way, even though the information may not be public.

There will be a black mark against, or a question mark over, those people in the eyes of the person for whom they were going to work. There is a balancing act between the protection of children's rights and protection of the person. I will always err on the rights of the child but it is a balancing act. We have to protect people.

I know a person who applied to work with children and was refused permission. He had worked with children for many years and the decision was based on a conviction 30 years previously. The conviction was for exposing himself, which sounds terrible. However, the garda charged him with that because the man challenged the charge. He should have been convicted of urinating in a public street, which is not an offence that would block him from working with children. An appeals process is welcome so that someone in such a situation can explain the circumstances of something that happened 30 years ago. Hopefully, it will be dealt with in the new legislation, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill. Perhaps it will not obstruct someone who had worked enthusiastically with young people until the failure to get clearance.

Others will welcome the fact that these measures are being introduced. Anyone who has worked with constituents and in the social work field will welcome the development. At least soft information can now be fed in to the various systms so that we can know when there is a question over someone. If the person is looking for a position, he or she may be challenged in terms of what he or she has done in the past.

Ireland has a bad history of protecting young people. Predators have gone into sporting and cultural organisations with the intention of abusing children. Now, Irish society is standing up and being honest about its history and putting in place protection for those unable to protect themselves. Members are all adults and can stand up for their rights but this is a case of taking a step to ensure future generations will not suffer the same scale of abuse. We have taken the steps to prevent those predators getting into swimming clubs, soccer clubs or Gaelic games clubs, where they have ready access to children.

I welcome the Bill and I hope it will be enhanced on Committee Stage to ensure the necessary protections are made so that soft information is used properly. This should be in place in time to have effect if the forthcoming referendum is successful. The Minister should ensure the vetting section of the Garda Síochána has the resources to carry out its job as quickly, effectively and efficiently as possible.

2:10 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I propose to share time with my colleague, Deputy Robert Dowds. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The Bill will work alongside legislation such as the Children First Bill and the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information) Bill. The Bill will be complimented by a new provision in the Constitution if the people decide to pass the children's rights referendum. We published the wording of the referendum yesterday and it was good to see it broadly welcomed by all sectors. It is a positive start to see such support and hopefully it will translate into a "Yes" vote on Saturday, 10 November.

I will lead a team of canvassers and campaigners in County Meath. I was asked to be the director of elections for the Labour Party campaign in Meath this morning. I aim to make sure we put the case for the referendum to the Irish people and the people of Meath in order to get a strong "Yes" vote. Such a vote will confirm the strong desire of the people to protect the most vulnerable in our society. It is not good enough that our vetting procedures are done on a non-statutory basis.

I noted some criticism in the newspapers by members of the Fianna Fáil Party. It is important to point out that Fianna Fáil did nothing about this matter through its time in government. Its members had over 14 years to act but they did nothing. Fianna Fáil promised to introduce legislation but nothing ever came of it. The promise remained broken even after the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children recommended, in September 2008, that such legislation should be published no later than December of that year. At the same time, there were countless reports outlining the State's abject failure to protect children. Each report chronicled a history of pain and neglect. No one on this side of the House wants such reports to be written in 40 years' time about a child's life in Ireland today. That is why we mean to see action.

The procedures we have today are not working. A HIQA investigation found that 43% of staff working in elderly homes have not been vetted. The Teaching Council stated that over 40,000 teachers registered with the council have not been vetted. Garda vetting for HSE staff has only been mandatory since 2007. We need to see improvements and the Bill will set up vetting procedures to be followed by all professions. As much as possible, it will ensure children are only in contact with adults who have been confirmed as not being a threat to their welfare. The Bill is another step in the right direction for child protection in Ireland and I wish the Minister well.

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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Níl morán le rá agam ach tá pointe tábhactach amháin agam. I welcome the legislation. Other speakers have referred to the reasons it is important. It is vitally important to do everything we can to safeguard children and vulnerable adults in their dealings with different organisations. As Deputy Hannigan alluded to, a national vetting system has been called for since 2004. The legislation is long overdue and I thank the Government for introducing it.

It should be possible for vetting reports to be transferred between organisations or stored in a central location and remain valid for a set period of time. This will reduce the need for repeated vetting of people found to have no marks against them. It will speed up the processing of vetting applications and allow people to take up jobs or start volunteering with organisations. I want to ensure the administrative burden on voluntary organisations and people who want to volunteer is as low as possible, while protecting children and vulnerable adults. The subject is close to the heart of the Acting Chairman, Deputy Catherine Byrne, and it is important people are welcome as volunteers. They should be able to start volunteering within a reasonable time while they are motivated and before their circumstances change. We all know how important volunteering organisations are in this country. The obvious example is the GAA. No country has an organisation like it and it is one example of many around the country.

The issue of making vetting portable in some form was raised at the justice committee, but it has not made its way into the legislation. This may be because the Minister is concerned that people could forge certificates, as he stated in response to a parliamentary question on 19 June 2012. Forgery could be avoided by having, for instance, a central database of vetting reports, each of which would be valid for a few years before one had to be re-vetted. During that period, an organisation could apply to check one's vetting record without vetting having to commence again from scratch. I make these remarks partly because I am aware that our neighbour across the water has a vetting system whose procedures are, in part, extremely cumbersome. Even when people move from one job to a similar one, the vetting procedure must start from scratch. The faster the procedure is, the better, but speed is less important than getting things right.

2:20 pm

Photo of Tony McLoughlinTony McLoughlin (Sligo-North Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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It is often remarked by people that if we had such a law 30 years ago, it would have saved a lot of people from misery and harm. How true that is when we consider the legislation before us. When I hear the Opposition, including Fianna Fáil, which was in power for 14 years, criticise this legislation, I recall that the Oireachtas joint committee responsible for the constitutional amendment on children recommended that legislation be published not later than September 2008. This never took place. Therefore, I welcome what the Minister, Deputy Shatter, is doing. If the structures proposed in this Bill had been in place since the foundation of the State more than 90 years ago, many whose lives were broken would have been saved from evil human predators. So many people in the top social classes were allowed gainful employment as teachers, minders, doctors, carers and sport instructors. Some of these very people engaged in horrible behaviour and wilfully abused vulnerable children and people with special needs.

As the House is well aware, vetting procedures are already a requirement under the Children First national guidelines. Approximately 300,000 vetting applications are processed by the Garda vetting unit each year. This is an enormous number. I have been aware of the many delays in processing these applications but believe the process has speeded up. I commend the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, who has responded to vetting concerns by increasing the staff at the Garda vetting unit. There are a total of 89 gardaí and civilian personnel assigned to the unit, which provides its service to more than 18,000 organisations. I encourage the Minister to ensure the new bureau will be sufficiently staffed to ensure there will be no undue delays in the processing of applications. I urge the Government to be aware that jobs could be lost if there is to be a prolonged waiting period for clearance from the new national bureau.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to put into law the procedures that have been developed to vet applications. More important, the Bill makes it mandatory for persons working with children or vulnerable adults to be vetted. At present, this is done on the basis of a voluntary code. I have no doubt the current number of applications will probably increase by 40% to 50%, which is all the more reason to ensure there are sufficient personnel to run the bureau. I welcome the fact this Bill will create offences and penalties for persons who fail to comply with the provisions, as set out, including employers.

The Bill provides for the use of certain other information in regard to vetting, which is referred to as "specified information" in the Bill. Specified information is information other than a court-determined criminal record. I welcome the fact that information emanating from investigations by the Garda or, in particular, the HSE, which may not have been followed by a criminal conviction, can be used in the determination of whether one is suitable as a worker with children or vulnerable adults. Similar conclusions arising from fitness-to-practice inquiries by statutory bodies, such as those conducted by the Irish Medical Council or Teaching Council, can also be considered by the bureau.

Over the years, gardaí investigated cases in which a victim made a case against a person but later withdrew it when he or she felt he or she could not countenance a court case. In such circumstances, there may be genuine concern that a person without a criminal record poses a threat to children or a vulnerable person. Some people may be concerned that disclosure in this regard is a step too far. However, the legislation provides that where a member of the bureau staff considers there is specified information in regard to the applicant, it will be referred to the chief bureau officer for assessment as to whether the information should be disclosed.

Section 15 sets out the procedures to be followed by the chief bureau officer in assessing specified information for the purpose of its inclusion in a vetting disclosure. This includes a provision that the vetting subject must be provided with a summary of the information and must be informed of his or her right to make a written submission in regard to the information. A subsequent decision to disclose the specified information requires the chief bureau officer to believe that the information in question is of such a nature as to give rise to a bona fide concern that the vetting subject may harm, attempt to harm or put at risk of harm a child or vulnerable person. The chief bureau officer must also be satisfied that the disclosure is necessary, proportionate and reasonable in the circumstances, and relevant to the position for which the person is applying.

The Bill, in section 18, sets out in detail the manner of an appeal. This is fair and one can appeal on a point of law to the High Court, whose determination is final and conclusive.

I welcome section 20, which provides for the periodic re-vetting of persons previously vetted for their current position. This will ensure we maintain the safety of our children and vulnerable adults and will not allow an accredited person to get away with what the authorities believe to be inappropriate behaviour in another part of the country. A person will not be allowed to continue in his position without being checked periodically.

The Schedule to the Bill lists in detail the types of jobs or activities that require vetting. These include quite obvious positions, such as those in child care services, schools, residential services or accommodation for children or vulnerable persons, and other positions not as obvious, such as those involving the provision of leisure, sports or physical activities for children and the promotion of religious beliefs.

This Bill is to be balanced and I am sure it will be widely supported across the House considering many of the recommendations were from the 2008 Oireachtas joint committee's interim report, which recommended that legislation be introduced to further share and control information and further protect our people.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Like other speakers, I welcome the introduction of this Bill. It is very important and was long sought by many Members. I claim credit for raising this issue on the Order of Business for at least five years. It is well known that the need for this legislation was heralded in 2008. At that time, the then Government was advised to introduce it. I acknowledge it was otherwise engaged but the legislation was of considerable importance. Despite the current Government's being otherwise engaged at present, I congratulate it, including the Minister for Justice and Equality, on introducing the legislation now. It is needed, and has been for some considerable time.

It will prove to be of major significance in the protection of children and vulnerable adults.

In the past 24 hours, the main Opposition party generated a debate in the House wherein it claimed that the state of the health service was solely due to the alleged tardiness of the Government and Minister for Health. What that party's Deputies forgot during the debate was the degree to which they had contributed for many years to the demise of the service. They had considerable opportunity to address the issues in question, yet failed to do so. Not one of them had the guts to admit this in the House.

This important legislation was flagged as long as ten years ago after a number of high-profile cases brought into the public arena information to the effect that certain people had been allowed to work unsupervised with children and vulnerable adults. This led to questions about the degree of protection children and vulnerable adults could expect. That sexual and other abuses were committed for a long time without legislative intervention is something of which we should be ashamed. The abuses could not have been perpetrated without someone knowing about them. People were moved from position to position, sometimes over long periods, and committed numerous offences, but an attempt was never made to address the issue fundamentally.

From the information made public at the time, we know that there was a recurring pattern. The perpetrator sought a position in close proximity to vulnerable people, who comprise a broad class. For example, some impressionable young and old people were easily led into unfamiliar situations over which they had no control. How often have we read the evidence of victims in these cases? They explained how, through the gradual process known as grooming, they were led into situations in which they suddenly found themselves compromised and abused and had their futures destroyed thanks to the State's failure to recognise the necessity of protective legislation.

It is important to recognise that the Bill is not an attempt in any way to damage the character of genuine persons working in what is a vital service, namely, caring for others. As with all legislation, this Bill is only as good as its interpretation and enforcement. Everyone applying for a position cannot be held suspect. Instead, the applicant must be of good character and have the right intentions. The applicant cannot intend to defile the people for whom care will be provided.

The reality was far from this model. It became important for perpetrators to work themselves into positions whereby they could gain the trust of organisations and individuals. They would then use that trust to abuse unfortunate, innocent and vulnerable people. It was an appalling situation that should never have happened. People who were fully aware of it and did nothing were equally culpable. Neither I nor the Acting Chairman know how their consciences let them sleep at night. No Deputy can surmise what their thinking was.

Some cases involved children and young adults with special needs. It is appalling that they fell victim to people with long track records of abusing young people. The Bill has been introduced to address that problem and it is important that it be handled directly. People's records should be carefully vetted, authenticated and truthful. Any attempt to pervert the course of justice or to tamper with a file will be dealt with strictly, which is as it should be.

Let us review past events. By virtue of a series of unfortunate events, perpetrators gained positions of trust and responsibility and were able to carry out heinous deeds against innocent victims. The number of times this was allowed to happen is appalling. We proclaim to be a caring society, yet there was little uproar. Why was that the case? We tend to disassociate ourselves from actions that are done in our name. We must address this issue. If a wrong is brought to our attention, that it went unchallenged previously is insufficient reason to allow it to continue.

The major lesson to take from this is the degree to which we are prepared to respond in future when similar abuses are brought to the attention of public authorities and public representatives, including Deputies. Some Members of the House raised this matter previously and I hope they will continue to do so. No reason exists for postponing action in such circumstances.

Someone always has responsibility. The State, its agencies and private agencies that take unto themselves responsibility for caring for others have a duty of care. Their responsibility does not end after the person appointed to the job goes home in the evening. Their duty of care has consequences. The State is liable in the event of no action being taken to address issues, as is only right. Following the passage of the Bill victims will have a right to seek recompense from the State if there is a failure in the system.

The vetting of the individuals must be carried out, taking in those people working with children, young adults and vulnerable people. The State will become liable by this process, which was lacking in the past. That is as it should be, as who will protect the vulnerable if the State does not? Who else has the responsibility?

In the past, we seemed to shuffle our feet with these kinds of issues, as we did with many matters. We have suddenly looked back over recent years and realised we should have acted in a particular fashion before. That may be true but why did we not act? I can never understand such behaviour, and I do not know if anyone else in the House understands it. There were some atrocious and appalling acts committed against unfortunate young people and adults, when it was well known that the perpetrators had a long history of similar activity. In whatever aspect of our society that occurs, there is no excuse for it. If there was no track history and it was a one-off incident, one could argue that the excuse could be that we did not know about the problem. There is no excuse whatever for an issue that may arise when a child or vulnerable adult has been sexually or otherwise abused by unscrupulous people in a position of power and authority and who exercised that power in such a heinous manner.

I hope in future we will not have to revisit matters like this or the kind of incidents we read about and saw unfolding before us over the past ten years or more. Ten years is a long time and much abuse took place in that period. Much abuse took place even in one year. We can have regard for some of the court cases of which we read over a number of years, detailing how some of these incidents took place over ten, 15 or 20 years. It is an appalling reflection on our society that this could happen. The Opposition may have had a reason for delaying the introduction of this legislation. I believe it came down to competing demands, and although I am sure the reasons were genuine, there is no acceptable excuse.

I hope the legislation, when put in place, will address the issues that have caused concern for many people who have expressed a worry about the well-being of children and vulnerable adults in schools, churches and State or voluntary institutions. I hope the legislation will be adequate to protect those people and that the vetting system put in place will be sufficiently strong to ensure no one can use the system to follow through on a desire to abuse people. These people may have psychological problems that need to be attended to. In the case of persons being refused authentication by the authorities, I hope there is an assurance that if these people go elsewhere and make an application for a similar post, there is no means to circumnavigate the system for their own objectives.

I welcome the legislation, which is much needed and long sought. As someone who has promoted its introduction to the House over recent years, like many others in the House, including the Acting Chairman, I hope it will have the desired effect of once and for all setting into history the unfortunate series of events that have damned this country with regard to child abuse and a lack of adequate protection over a long number of years. That culminated in the kinds of atrocities that we have heard or read about, and up to now we have not had the opportunity to act on this.

2:40 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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I am also delighted to be able to make a contribution on this very important legislation. I commend the Government on introducing the Bill and the officials for drafting it. The process will not be easy but I hope there will be a good and fair discussion of the issues, as it behoves us all to ensure that none of those heinous crimes are ever perpetrated again. It is difficult to say "never" for anything but it is reasonable to introduce a vetting system that is transparent, in-depth and thorough. There will be no slipping through the net or similar failures to what have led to some of the most appalling cases, some of which have been referred to during the debate. We will never know about some of these cases because of the clandestine way in which the issues may have been dealt with over the years.

We have matured as a society over the past 20 years but there was a slowness in facing up to the problem and dealing with it adequately. Vulnerable children may have been in care because of a disability or an inability of a family to take care of them. Everyone believed these people were placed in trust but they found the trust placed in institutions was breached, with well-being violated. There have been cases in the sporting area down to the people's private homes, and some awful cases have been highlighted. I suppose it is easy to be wise in hindsight but I hope this new system will be rigorous and resistant to the serious and ingenious efforts of people with a certain failing that leads them to want to abuse or misuse another human being.

History has taught us that many of these people use subtle means, moving in on people's space to befriend them. These people can get into a position of trust to achieve easy prey, although that is probably a horrible term. Even worse, they seem to cajole or otherwise wiggle their way into the trust of boards and employment agencies in institutions.

This is more serious and it will take much legislation to deal with it. However, legislation can only do so much. It is about enactment and enforcement and those in trust and in governance of these places who must be ever vigilant 24-7 to ensure those entrusted into their care by the State are safe and able to live out their lives as best as possible in safety above all else. This is where I believe the legislation will help but what is important is its implementation and enactment. Vetting was introduced in recent years but it is not foolproof. To look at it simply and coldly, a local garda in a community knew everybody in the parish. Now, vetting is done by a national bureau. I am not criticising anybody working there but I question whether they are able to obtain accurate information. If you want to know me come and live with me, so if we do not know the person or the family how can we know the background?

This is a double-edged sword because we must endeavour to have the knowledge and proper references but we must also safeguard this knowledge and not allow it in any way to be misused or abused. The records of individuals, which I hope are accurate, cannot be used to damage anybody. They cannot be used to undermine the good name or character of the person. It is a very delicate issue both ways.

It is interesting that we are discussing the Bill as I have come from a briefing with the officials of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, on the proposed wording for the referendum on children's rights. We have moved on and I compliment the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on this. I also compliment those who worked on it previously. It has been difficult to get to this stage and I hope we will get the wording right and that it will be satisfactorily adopted by the people whom we represent. I have not attended too many briefings but I thank all the officials in all Departments because I have found the briefings very helpful and much tedious work goes into them. To do or not to do, that is the question. How far do we go and what words and syllables should we use? Our Constitution is a delicate matter and changes to it are serious.

The Bill is long overdue and will receive support from all sides of the House. We can criticise previous Governments if we wish but none of us was quick enough to recognise what was going on. None of us can throw stones because we will have heard stories and anecdotes in our constituencies and we should have had a more listening ear. We should have had our antennae up much sooner and we should have ensured these things did not happen.

I have a concern about the Bill and I heard other Deputies referring to this also. What do we do with the sizeable cohort of people who are already in situ without vetting? They were never vetted because vetting did not take place. I am not casting aspersions on any of them but how can we be sure some undesirable people have not got through the net and are in positions of trust and, if they are that way inclined, might abuse children or adults? I suppose it is speaking about legislating retrospectively, but how can we ensure this deals with every person charged with the part-time or full-time safekeeping of vulnerable children and adults? We must also consider this matter. We cannot just close the door now; we must ensure safeguards exist for these people also. I do not know how we can deal with it. Yesterday, we spoke about penalty points on licenses. It is a simple matter to understand and better train ourselves as motorists not to receive penalty points. How can we out people in situations of trust who are not fit to be in such positions?

I welcome the efforts being made and add my support to them. However, I would like to tease out the issues further to find out how we can deal with people who are in the system who should not be. There are many good people in the system including foster and adoptive parents, social workers, the Garda Síochána, and hard-working people in front-line services trying to deal with many delicate issues. The Bill deals with ensuring new people coming into the system are vetted but how do we legislate for those already in the system?

2:50 pm

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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Ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt do na Teachtaí go léir a labhair ar an mBille seo ó thosnaíomar á phlé anseo. I thank the Deputies for their contributions to the debate and their support for this important legislation. The Minister and I have noted the points that have been raised and the Minister looks forward to discussing and teasing out the various issues raised with the Deputies on Committee Stage. I would, however, like to take this opportunity to make some preliminary responses in regard to a number of issues.

Deputy Niall Collins raised the issue of babysitters and childminders being exempt from vetting. In the discussions on Committee Stage this will need to be teased out. We need to consider the fact that many private child minding arrangements exist whereby people employ neighbours' children, family members, in-laws or nannies in the child's own home. There are also many formal and informal arrangements whereby people leave a child with a neighbour or a relative for child minding. At present, under the statutory Child Care (Pre-School Services) Regulations 2006, "A person carrying on a pre-school service shall ensure appropriate vetting of all staff, students and volunteers who have access to a child." The Bill will also create the requirement that childminders or nannies employed with an agency must be vetted by that agency, as this would fall within the definition of "employment" covered by the Bill. Any parent who wants to hire a childminder or nanny who is vetted can therefore do so through an agency. However, I pose the question whether it is appropriate or feasible for the State to extend this requirement and effectively to prevent parents from making their own arrangements for the care of their children. In preparing the Bill it was considered that this would be neither appropriate nor feasible.

I also want to refer to the issue of making vetting disclosures portable between jobs so that, as in the example given by Deputy Pringle, a person vetted to be a GAA volunteer would not have to submit a separate vetting application to apply to be a nurse. Similar points were made by a number of other Deputies. As Deputy O'Donovan pointed out, once there is any time lapse between two applications for two different jobs, any convictions incurred after the first application would not be contained in the vetting disclosure. There is therefore a very real danger posed to children or vulnerable persons by such an approach. Separately, I would like to add that this issue is much broader than is encompassed by the Bill. Portability of disclosures in the manner suggested would be contrary to the provisions of a broad range of existing Acts which require vetting at the time a person is being considered for appointment. The Bill does, however, make provision for each vetting applicant to be given a unique ID number.

This will then be used where duplicate vetting applications are received over time in respect of individuals. Instead of each application being treated as a new application, the previous vetting record will be used and any additional information that has arisen since the last application will be added to the disclosure. This is expected to significantly speed up the processing of repeat applications concerning the same individual.

In regard to the issue of solo practitioners in the arts, an issue raised by Deputy Halligan, the Bill provides that these solo practitioners can submit vetting applications through the organisation engaging their services - for example, a school or community organisation - or through an umbrella organisation which represents them for the purpose of vetting. CREATE Ireland represents persons in the arts for vetting purposes, but many vetting applications also come through schools, community organisations or colleges. It should also be borne in mind that under the provisions of the Bill, persons in the arts providing once-off or occasional services to schools or community organisations will not require vetting.

Deputy Murphy made the comment that we should not consider it valid to have a vetting system based on self-disclosure. This is a very important point. It is the reason the Bill does not provide for self-employed persons to be responsible for their own vetting. It is also the reason the Bill does not provide for persons to provide their own copy of a previous disclosure record to employers. Under the system we have at present, disclosures are issued by the Garda direct to the organisation seeking vetting.

The discussion this week has suggested that organisations might exchange vetting disclosures. The Bill does not make such a provision. It is considered that organisations would not, in many cases, be willing to do this. However, more importantly, under the provisions of the Data Protection Acts, personal data cannot be used for purposes that were not disclosed at the time that the data was obtained.

The Data Protection Acts already apply to the collation of criminal records data by the vetting unit. The Acts also apply to the collation of soft information in accordance the provisions of this Bill. The Data Protection Commissioner, therefore, has an inspection and oversight role in regard to the use of both the criminal records database and the soft information database which will be established under this Bill.

I should add that the reason there is no provision for the use of PPS numbers in regard to vetting is also because of data protection considerations. The use of PPS numbers in this way would be outside the scope of current legislation. In any case, because the Bill provides for the use of passport numbers and mother's maiden names, in addition to the usual information regarding identity, the vetting unit is satisfied that the use of PPS numbers would not be necessary.

The Minister is in full agreement regarding the suggestion of online vetting. Plans to introduce online vetting are in train with the national vetting unit. The Bill has been drafted to facilitate this development.

The Minister is very aware of the need to continue to ensure the bureau is satisfactorily resourced and the need for it to provide an efficient service. As the Minister acknowledged in his opening speech, the number of staff in the unit decreased by 20 between March and May this year as temporary staff contracts came to an end. This reduction in staff numbers has been partly offset by the redeployment of 15 clerical officers from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in May. The Minister is engaged in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure adequate staffing to meet the new demands in the Bill and he will continue to ensure that this issue is prioritised.

In response to Deputy Healy's comments on re-vetting, I wish to advise the House that the intention is that re-vetting will commence once the retrospective vetting of teachers and health workers has been completed. It is sensible not to prioritise re-vetting of persons already vetted until everybody who requires vetting has been vetted at least once.

The Minister and I look forward to having further detailed discussion of these and other aspects of the Bill with the Deputies on Committee stage. As the Deputies will be aware, this Bill is an important part of a suite of legislation the Government is bringing forward in order to ensure that the rights of children and vulnerable persons are protected. The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 has already been passed by the Oireachtas. It makes it an offence for any person to fail to notify the Garda where a child or vulnerable person has been the victim of a serious offence. The Children First Bill 2012 will further enhance the protection of children by ensuring the HSE is informed about children at risk.

The wording of the proposed children's rights amendment was published this week. This will seek to enshrine in the Constitution key principles to protect children which will guide our legislation into the future. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.