Wednesday, 22 June 2016
Garda Vetting Applications
I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming the Minister of State to the House for this first appearance. I also congratulate to him on his appointment.
I thank him for coming to the House to discuss what is becoming an increasingly frustrating issue for many voluntary schools, groups and commercial entities. This frustration is accentuated as this is a busy time of year for those who work with children with the school holidays generating increased activity. Vetting is a cornerstone of any child welfare strategy and is essential to best practice when recruiting people who work with children or vulnerable persons. The protection and safeguarding of our nation's children is rightly at the forefront of the vetting process. However, the current delays are having a major impact on those on whom we rely to safely work with children. It is almost two months since the new e-vetting system went live with much fanfare but the feedback my office has received from child care facilities, kids' sports camps, schools and clubs, unfortunately, is that inordinate delays remain.
The previous statistic that turnaround only took four weeks was grossly misleading and I wonder if the new target time of just five working days is another red herring. Under the previous system, while it may have taken less than four weeks for gardaí to log and enter the vetting application, delays of up to three months were still being encountered at the formal vetting stage undertaken by an outside body. One constituent who contacted me explained that in ten years of working with children, the quickest he had ever had an application completed was ten weeks.
While the delays, both previous and current, were bad enough, these were further compounded by the wall of silence and bureaucracy the applicants and service providers have been met with when trying to establish the status of their applications, with indefinite periods of delay constantly chipping away at the viability of their operations. This lengthy timeframe is simply unsustainable, especially for commercial entities working in this sector, many of which rely on part-time or seasonal staff.For these companies, replacing staff is an absolute nightmare, as they know that after hiring someone it can be months before he or she can actually start working. This, in turn, costs contracts, leads to disappointment and completely undermines the sector. The delays stop companies from getting off the ground, prevent people from starting work and limit the options open to parents and others in terms of the services available to children.
Will the Minister of State provide a comprehensive report on how the new vetting system is working? What are realistic and the actual waiting times? Have the delays really been eradicated? I am not convinced that they have and want to know what is causing them. Is it the due diligence process and, if so, can it be improved? Is it the number of applications which previously stood at 30,000 a month and, if so, can more resources be allocated? Is it seasonal changes to the volume of applications and, if so, can they be addressed in the months in which additional resources are needed? As in the case of the passport system, is there scope to introduce a fast-track system for companies or voluntary bodies which, for a fee, are able to have an application fully processed within ten working days in response to exceptional need?
I thank the Senator for his welcome. As he stated, this is my first time to address the House and I wish all new Senators the best of luck for the future. My approach on all issues, particularly disabilities, will be to work closely with all Senators. If they need help or support, they should not hesitate to knock on my door and I will facilitate them to the best of my ability.
I am responding on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality who is grateful to the House for giving her the opportunity to clarify matters so far as this issue is concerned. The Senator will be pleased to note that there is no undue delay in the processing of applications for persons who require Garda vetting. The Tánaiste has been informed by the Garda authorities that the current average processing time for vetting applications is actually four weeks.
The Senator will be aware that the national vetting bureau provides employment vetting for organisations registered with the Garda for this purpose and which employ persons in a full-time, part-time, voluntary or training capacity in positions where they have substantial unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults. Garda vetting applications are processed as they are received in the national vetting bureau and all organisations registered for Garda vetting are aware of the processing timeframes and have been advised to factor this into their recruitment and selection process. To put the scale of the operation being conducted by the national vetting bureau into some perspective, in 2015 the bureau, or the Garda central vetting unit as it was then known, processed 335,427 applications for vetting. This year, up to 31 May, it has processed 129,651 applications, of which 80% were processed within the four week timeframe alluded to.
Approximately 18,000 organisations are in receipt of vetting services from the national vetting bureau, covering a wide range of health, educational, sports and recreational sectors. The bureau provides ongoing support and advice for the organisations concerned in managing their vetting requirements. There will, of course, always be some individual cases where additional inquiries may be necessary and this may result in processing times in excess of the average. That is one of the points raised by the Senator. The primary consideration of the bureau is to seek to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults. That is the key issue. Accordingly, the vetting process demands rigorous procedures to safeguard its integrity and maintain the highest level of confidence by the public and organisations availing of the service.
Any vetting process will take a certain minimum amount of time to complete and, taking into account the importance of measures to protect children and vulnerable adults, while providing an effective and efficient service, the current processing period is not considered unreasonable. An Garda Síochána is also committed to ensuring the service provided is delivered in as modern and efficient a manner as possible, which takes advantage of developments in technology. In this context, An Garda Síochána launched an e-vetting system on 29 April which will facilitate the processing of applications in an online format, thus removing the current time consuming process of manual applications. E-vetting will further streamline the vetting process and contribute to sustaining reduced processing times for vetting applications. The e-vetting system has been designed to be compatible with the requirements of the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Acts 2012 to 2016 and, in this regard, was launched in tandem with the commencement of the Acts.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply which is slightly disappointing for obvious reasons. Part of the point I raised has been missed. I queried the all-in timeframe of the process, not just the amount of time an application rests with the Garda or the body to which the vetting process has been outsourced. It concerns the period from the time a body submits an application for vetting and to when there is the final clarification. All of the evidence presented to my office by Montessori schools and children's sports camps shows that it is not a four-week process, that the timeframe involved has not been reduced and that there is still an inordinate delay. From an employment point of view, when one loses a number of staff members who give two or three weeks' notice, knowing that it will take at least four weeks to have a replacement vetted is one thing, but when the delay extends from four to six, eight or ten weeks, it makes many organisations completely unviable and thus completely restricts what is open to parents and guardians in terms of services they can provide for their children.
Of course, I take the issues raised on board and will report back to the Minister. I agree with the Senator on child services. As far as I am concerned, a delay of three months is unacceptable. The Senator mentioned delays of up to ten weeks. He also queried the all-in timeframe, which is unacceptable. We need to deal with it. The point made in the answer I gave on behalf of the Minister is that approximately 80% of applications are processed within a reasonable timeframe, but in the 20% of cases about which the Senator speaking we must ensure we make the process more efficient. We must act on this issue. The Senator mentioned commercial activities, sensitivities and the viability of operations. Of course, we must take these issues on board. I will relay all of the Senator's serious concerns back to the Minister to see whether we can make the process more efficient and progressive to help those who urgently need to get on with their jobs and employ new staff.