Thursday, 8 February 2024
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
An Garda Síochána
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I thank him for taking this Commencement matter, which concerns the issue of Garda vetting. I am sure the Minister of State is quite familiar with the issue. We have a National Vetting Bureau and the legislation is in place. The Minister of State will understand the frustration of many individuals and organisations seeking Garda vetting. Let us use the example of a childcare worker who wants to work with their local GAA club. He or she again must get Garda vetting. If that person works with a group of children in, for example, a youth drama initiative, that person needs Garda vetting again.The same individual could end up having to go through several processes of Garda vetting in the one year.
Garda vetting is very important. However, all it indicates is whether an individual has a criminal record or is a threat to vulnerable persons. My frustration around this, as I am sure the Minister of State has experienced, is that people have to go through the process several times. Sometimes, depending on how busy Garda vetting is, the process can take a number of weeks. An anomaly exists with regard to certain organisations or types of employment.
I want to raise the question of school buses, with which the Minister of State will be very familiar. If somebody operates a school bus run on behalf of Bus Éireann, there is a requirement for the contractor's drivers to be Garda vetted. If, however, someone is working for a private bus company where an individual can drive a private bus which may also include the same group of schoolchildren there is no requirement for Garda vetting. It is even more complicated in cases where a bus driver is working for James Browne coaches which has a contract with Bus Éireann. I have to be Garda vetted to work for that company, and if I decide to then work for Niall Blaney coaches which has a contract with Bus Éireann I have to be Garda vetted all over again.
There is a lack of joined-up thinking in this process. I am aware that in April 2021, the Minister for Justice set up an interdepartmental Garda vetting review group. It examined a number of these areas, including the question of mandatory re-vetting and the system of cross-vetting so that if someone was vetted for one role that could carry all across to other roles. As yet, there has been no indication of when the report will be published. The Minister of State might be able to clarify that or provide some detail on the findings. It is important that we simplify this process and make it as easy as possible for employers and voluntary organisations.
Garda vetting is important in order to safeguard children and young people. The process should be as simple as possible and should also be one that organisations have faith in. They have a difficulty in that there do not seem to be the necessary checks. It seems to be overly cumbersome. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could provide us with an update.
On behalf of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, I thank the Senator for raising the Garda vetting process and improving the system. The primary purpose of the employment vetting carried out by the Garda National Vetting Bureau is to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults. I am sure we can all agree on the vital support for this task and the need for it to be carried out thoroughly and correctly.
The National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012-2016 provides that the vetting system is managed by the National Vetting Bureau. As such, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has no role in the processing of individual vetting applications - I know the Senator has not asked about this. The Minister has been informed that it is currently taking nine working days to process an average individual vetting application and has been assured that the bureau is working to return to its target of five working days for the majority of applications.
However, we accept that for certain applications it is necessary for the vetting bureau to carry out further inquiries, such as, for example, to confirm the information provided by an applicant with external bodies. The time required to receive such information may be outside of the control of the vetting bureau. In such instances, processing times may be longer than the average.
The programme for Government and the justice plan 2023 contain commitments to review the current vetting legislation. That led to the establishment in April 2021 of the Garda vetting review group by the Minister, Deputy McEntee. It has been in touch with proposals from gardaí for potential amendments to vetting legislation. This group includes members of the National Vetting Bureau in An Garda Síochána, officials from the Department of Justice and Tusla and other relevant stakeholders. The primary focus of the group is to deliberate on and formulate recommendations to strengthen vetting legislation in an effective manner. Issues being considered by the group include any changes which may be possible in the matter of vetting and re-vetting. The work of the group is close to being finalised. I understand it will report on its work in the coming months. I can assure the Senator that it is the aim of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, to ensure that the vetting system is fit for purpose, robust and future-proofed to the greatest extent possible in order to continue to protect our children and vulnerable adults.
Unfortunately, the interdepartmental vetting review group was established three years ago. We have heard previously that the report was imminent. I think the Minister of State knows as well as I do the frustration many of the voluntary groups have with their volunteers having to go through this process. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could indicate whether mandatory revetting and cross-vetting proposals that were being considered will be included so that when people apply once and qualify, they may need to renew it annually or whatever but there will be simple systems in place.
I also ask that those issues that I raised specifically with regard to bus transport, particularly when there is a shortage of school bus drivers, could also be considered as well.
I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. It can cause a lot of frustration for people throughout the country. Every TD and Senator is very much aware of the frustration that can arise as a result of multiple vetting applications. I assure the House that the Minister understands and appreciates the current system of vetting, as laid out in the National Vetting Bureau Acts may cause frustration for people, particular those genuinely wanting to provide valuable voluntary service to their communities. The need to hold separate vetting for multiple organisations is a commonly raised issue with the Minister and one which she has listened to. However, as outlined, the purpose of vetting is to act as an important component of safeguarding of our most vulnerable. Any changes to the system must be carefully considered to ensure there are no unintended issues that may reduce protections for those vulnerable persons and children.
Unfortunately, I cannot confirm what will be in the review but I will certainly convey the Senator’s concerns to the Minister and the emphasis on getting this review done as quickly as possible so that necessary changes can be made.