Speech by Joan Burton TD, Minister for Social Protection on the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill
A Ceann Comhairle,
I hope this week will be remembered as a week in which this government put the needs and safety of children at the heart of government policy.
Minister Frances FitzGerald will bring the legislation required to hold the Children’s Referendum before the Oireachtas in the next number weeks. And the referendum will be held on November 10.
If passed, further legislation will be introduced in a number of areas to improve the legal standing of children.
But today, I am delighted to support the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 which my colleague Minister Shatter has presented to the House.
As the Minister has explained, in September 2008, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children published an interim report which recommended that legislation be introduced to regulate and control the way records of criminal convictions and information — including so-called “soft information” — can be stored and disclosed by the Garda Síochána and other agencies for the purpose of child protection.
This Bill will provide the necessary legislation. The Bill will provide a statutory basis for the existing procedures whereby the Garda criminal records database is used to vet people applying for employment working with children or vulnerable adults. These vetting procedures already operate under the Children First National Guidelines. The requirement to conduct vetting for the positions covered by the Bill is therefore not new. Currently about 300,000 vetting applications are processed each year by the Garda Central Vetting Unit.
The main purpose of the Bill is to put the procedures that have been developed to vet these applications into law. More importantly, the Bill also makes it mandatory for people working with children or vulnerable adults to be vetted, whereas at present this is done on the basis of a voluntary code. The Bill will also create offences and penalties for people who fail to comply with its provisions.
In addition, the Bill provides for the use of “soft” information, which is referred to as “specified information” in the Bill. “Specified information” is information other than a court determined criminal record. For example, “specified information” includes conclusions from investigations of child abuse or neglect that have been conducted by the HSE, where such investigations have concluded that a person poses a threat to children or vulnerable people. “Specified information” also includes similar conclusions arising from fitness to practice inquiries by statutory bodies such as those conducted by the Medical Council, the Nursing Council or Teaching Council. “Specified information” also includes information arising from Garda investigations of criminal offences where a prosecution has not been taken but where there is a bona fide concern that a person poses a threat to children or vulnerable adults.
As Minister for Social Protection, I am particularly pleased with this development which will have a very positive impact on a number of schemes operated by the Department including in particular Community Employment Schemes.
Childcare is a major government priority and one to which the Department of Social Protection has made a significant response through the development and provision of a range of quality training and qualification measures.
There are currently 2,200 ring fenced childcare places on Community Employment schemes alone, while people working on TUS schemes and on JobBridge are also sometimes working with children and vulnerable people.
The Department of Social Protection provides training opportunities for people working in childcare and they all have to be vetted.
Approximately 3,500 Garda Vetting applications are processed by the Department Social Protection for Community Employment and Job Initiative schemes per year. There are approximately 3,800 processed per year for the Rural Social Scheme and TÚS.
We are delighted to welcome Minister Shatter’s bill not just because it protects children and vulnerable adults, but also because it helps raise standards in childcare generally by ensuring the childcare staff are properly trained and vetted and are capable of working well with children and vulnerable people.
There has been a clear commitment by this government to improve the provision of childcare. There are three national childcare schemes.
1. The Free Pre-School Year in Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme (ECCE). This provides that all children can access a free pre-school year before they start primary school.
2. The Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) Scheme. This is restricted to community/not for profit childcare services and provides support for parents in low paid employment and training/education including CE. This scheme allows eligible parents to access childcare at a reduced cost at participating community childcare centres.
3. The Childcare Employment and Training Support (CETS Schemes). This provides free childcare to participants on FAS/VEC training programmes.
It is important that children attending these services are safe that the parents or guardians of those children can have confidence in the calibre of the people providing childcare services.
I am therefore pleased that the The Bill sets out procedures to allow the disclosure of specified information for vetting purposes. It is important to note that before such information can be disclosed, the person who is the subject of the information must be given a copy of that information and must be given the opportunity to challenge the proposed disclosure. The Bill also provides that a disclosure of such information will only occur where there is a bona fide concern that the person poses a threat to children or vulnerable persons, and the information has been assessed for its reliability and relevance, and the disclosure is in accordance with principles of natural justice. The Bill provides for the appointment of an independent Appeals Officer who will be responsible for assessing and deciding appeals against the proposed disclosure of specified information.
By confining the information that can be disclosed to information arising from criminal investigations or statutory inquiries, and by ensuring that individuals who are the subject of such information have their right to defend their name protected in the Bill, Minister Shatter is seeking to ensure that information such as vague rumours, or innuendo or false allegations cannot form any part of the vetting process. He is also seeking to provide for the constitutional right of all citizens to protect their good name, as provided in Article 40.3.2 of the constitution.
The schedule to the Bill lists in detail the types of work or activities that require vetting. These include:
Hospitals and health services.
Residential services or accommodation for children or vulnerable persons.
Treatment, therapy or counselling services for children or vulnerable persons.
Provision of leisure, sporting or physical activities to children or vulnerable persons.
Promotion of religious beliefs.
The Bill provides exemptions from vetting for certain arrangements. Private babysitting arrangements, private tuition and other private arrangements are exempt from the vetting requirements under the Bill.
There is also exemption from vetting for people assisting at sports or community events on an occasional basis. This exemption is necessary in order to focus the vetting requirement on people working with children or vulnerable adults on an on-going basis.
In any case, where people help out on an occasional or annual community or sports event, they typically do so in full public view. I agree with Minister Shatter that it is not feasible or desirable to vet every parent assisting at every school or sports or community activity in the country. Instead, we have to be practical and the Bill therefore focuses on requiring vetting for persons such as sports coaches or trainers or youth workers or teachers, or any other persons, paid or unpaid, who are working with children or vulnerable persons on an on-going basis.
The Scheme to this Bill was considered in detail by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. The Joint Committee obtained submissions from relevant organisations and published their recommendations in November 2011. Members of this House have already been very supportive of this Bill when contributing to the consideration of the draft scheme of the Bill at the hearings by the Joint Oireachtas Committee. The Bill before you today has been drafted to include provisions to take account of the issues raised by the Joint Committee.
I agree with Minister Shatter that the members of this House will be only too aware of the underlying need to have this legislation in place. We are all now very conscious of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults which has taken place in a variety of institutional and other settings. The Bill is essential to ensure that employers can make informed decisions in cases where people are seeking employment which involves access to children or vulnerable persons.
I would like to endorse the remarks made by Minister Shatter in relation to the work of the Garda Central Vetting Unit. The Department of Social Protection has also worked with the Unit, which is led by Superintendent Pat Burke and which currently processes some 300,000 vetting applications per year. I would like to commend Superintendent Burke and his team for their work in reducing the processing time for vetting applications. This improvement was of enormous benefit to individuals and organisations throughout the State. The Garda Central Vetting Unit, which will become the National Vetting Bureau under the provisions of this Bill, will have a substantially expanded role under new legislation.
I commend this Bill to the House.