Thursday, 27 June 2013
Topical Issue Debate
Garda Vetting Applications
I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for affording me the opportunity to raise this matter and the Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, for taking it. Delays in the processing of Garda vetting applications are causing great concern in my county of Carlow. It is, of course, very important that we have a thorough vetting process for all candidates seeking to work with children and vulnerable adults. However, the organisations being affected by the processing delays are care organisations which depend on Tús and community employment schemes to make up for the funding they received from the Health Service Executive in the past.
Several months ago, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, made the very welcome announcement that an additional 2,500 positions would be created on community employment schemes. The difficulty, however, is that these schemes are being hindered because staff have not yet been vetted by the Garda. As I said, such vetting is vital in situations in which staff are working with people who are very vulnerable. However, suitable and qualified candidates who have applied for the positions cannot take them up in the absence of Garda clearance. Vetting applications are supposed to take no longer than eight to 12 weeks to process but that does not seem to be happening in practice. I have spoken to an individual who, having submitted her application to the vetting unit on 11 March, has received no communication in regard to it. The person in question is hoping to take up a position in a disability centre in Carlow town, a centre which depends on community employment, FÁS and Tús schemes for its survival. Without that support, it will not be able to keep going.
It is vital that the vetting process is speeded up as much as possible. In response to a query I submitted in this regard earlier in the year, I received a letter from the Garda Commissioner's office on 8 March indicating that 25 staff were to be redeployed from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the vetting unit in order to alleviate the backlog of applications. The letter further indicated that these staff would undergo training for three months before assuming their roles. Will the Minister indicate what progress has been made in that regard? Is it now standard practice for people to have to wait between 15 and 16 weeks to be vetted in order to take up positions they are offered? These lengthy delays are having a detrimental effect on organisations that look after vulnerable members of our society.
I thank my colleague for raising this important matter. The Garda Commissioner is responsible for the detailed allocation of resources, including personnel, throughout the organisation. The Garda central vetting unit, GCVU, provides employment vetting for approximately 20,000 organisations that are registered with the unit for this purpose and that employ personnel to work in a full-time, part-time, voluntary or student capacity with children or vulnerable adults. Garda vetting is conducted only on behalf of registered organisations and not for individual persons on a personal basis. Organisations registered with the unit are entitled to receive Garda vetting services in respect of their employees.
A Garda vetting disclosure is made in response to a written request and with the permission of the person who is the subject of that request. Disclosures are issued to specified organisations registered with the GCVU for that purpose in respect of a particular post or employment. The unit processed approximately 328,000 vetting applications on behalf of these organisations in 2012. New and forthcoming legislation will result in a significant increase in the workload of the GCVU.
The current average processing time for applications is approximately 12 to 14 weeks from the date of receipt. However, seasonal fluctuations and the necessity to seek additional information in respect of particular applications can result in this average being exceeded on occasion. All organisations registered for Garda vetting are aware of the processing timeframes for the receipt of disclosures and have been advised to factor this into their recruitment and selection process. In order to observe equity and fairness in respect of all applicants for Garda vetting, standard procedure is such that applications are processed in chronological order from date of receipt at the vetting unit. Each time a new vetting application is received, a full vetting check is conducted to ensure the most recent available data are taken into account. The non-transferability and contemporaneous nature of the certificate protects against the risk of fraud or forgery and is a guarantee of the integrity of the vetting service. It also affords the registered organisation the facility to assess suitability based on the most up-to-date information available on the applicant.
I remain in ongoing contact with the Garda Commissioner as to how best the service can continue to be delivered and improved upon while at all times protecting the integrity of the process. Clearly, the protection of children and vulnerable adults is the primary objective of the GCVU and this must remain the case. An e-vetting system is currently being developed and will be completed as quickly as possible.
The Commissioner has informed me that one superintendent, three sergeants and approximately 136 civilian personnel are assigned to the vetting unit at this time. The civilian complement includes 23 staff recently transferred from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In addition, a further 31 have been assigned to the vetting service from various other locations in the public service. These staff members are currently undergoing training, with the first cohort due to complete that process by 15 July and the last by mid-September. I expect there will be a positive effect on vetting times once they have been fully trained. The employment of temporary staff in the vetting unit previously resulted in a reduction in the time taken to complete most vetting applications to between three and four weeks. It is my hope that we can return to that type of timeframe very soon. My Department is also examining the scope for redeployment of additional personnel from within the public service to the unit and is engaged in ongoing discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in this regard. This is a very good example of the value of redeployment within the public service and the contribution it can make to the more effective use of resources. I am further informed by the Garda Commissioner that sufficient accommodation and equipment have been provided to facilitate all of these additional personnel in carrying out their work when they complete their training.
I thank the Minister for his detailed reply and acknowledge the positive developments he outlined. The e-vetting proposal is a particularly welcome and progressive initiative. The main difficulty with the vetting process, as I have outlined, is the impact the delays are having on organisations that look after very vulnerable people and are reliant on the support of Tús and community employment schemes. They are under severe manpower pressure as a consequence of the time it is taking to have candidates vetted. The redeployment of additional staff to the vetting service, as indicated by the Minister, is a very positive development, which I hope will help to speed up the process. I am raising this issue from the perspective of the situation in Carlow, but I know from speaking to colleagues that it is an issue throughout the country. I welcome the information the Minister has given and encourage him, in whatever communication he may have with the Commissioner, to make progress on the matter as quickly as possible.
I am conscious of the need to have as efficient a system as possible. I appreciate, moreover, that the vetting process may be seen by some as a hindrance. However, I cannot stress enough that our primary concern must at all times be the protection of children and vulnerable adults. That is the essential focus of what we are doing. I hope the additional personnel who are currently being trained, together with the further additional staff we intend to redeploy, will bring about a reduction in waiting times. We got those times down to between three and four weeks by employing temporary staff up to May 2012. Unfortunately, those staff could not be retained. I am optimistic that we can substantially reduce the waiting period via the provision of additional staff. In addition, the e-vetting system, when it comes on stream, will have a dramatic impact.
It is anticipated that the main portion of the system will be in operation in approximately 12 months' time. Together with the additional personnel that will bring about a very important change and ensure that we have in place an updated modern system that guarantees the integrity of the process but which is fit to respond more quickly when vetting applications are received and fit to process them more quickly. This is an innovation that has been considered for some time and I am happy that we are now proceeding with it and I look forward to it getting up and running.