GARDA VETTING & CHILD PROTECTION

Yesterday I raised with the Minister for Justice the need to re examine the Garda Vetting process in context TV, Film and Theatre production.

The present system is poorly tailored for shows which by nature have a short duration (less than five days) and may involve last minute substitution of performers.

Below is the transcript of the debate

Topical Issue Debate

Child Protection

Deputy Joan Burton:   I am bringing this matter to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, because a number of people in the film and theatre sector have raised with me the ongoing issue of the Garda vetting system’s interaction with short-term arts projects. When efforts are being made to protect children who are involved in film and television productions, which often involve four-day or five-day projects, it is almost impossible to secure a vetting record at short notice. The managers and producers of shows in which children are involved as participants and as audience members have an obligation to ensure those children are protected. As the Minister of State will be aware, the nature of the culture, arts and entertainment business means that participants can drop out of a show and be substituted at short notice.

I would like to put a question that has been raised with me to the Minister of State. How do directors and producers discharge their duties under the Children First Act 2015? I know he has said that the Garda National Vetting Bureau has a turnaround of approximately five days. I think we are all aware of the discussion that has taken place about this industry in the context of the revelations that have emerged in the Weinstein case and in other cases. Issues can arise when children are part of these productions. In some cases, this activity is extremely well organised and regulated. In other cases, particularly smaller productions featuring people at the start of their careers, there is no real structure that makes information and support available to those who are seeking to comply with child safety and protection requirements.

I would like to hear from the Minister of State about the supports that are available to people in the arts, film and culture sector generally so that their organisations can know in advance what they need to do to ensure children working with them on various artistic projects – in film and theatre, for example – are safe. I have been informed that in a number of instances, producers have discovered after a short show, performance or project lasting less than a week that a performer or participant may have been known to the Garda. It is obvious that such a person would not be suitable to work with children. This is a very serious problem, although I am not aware of any serious incidents to date.

I know there has been a tradition of guardians or chaperones working with children, particularly on bigger productions. Very often, one or both parents or a close relative is on site while a child participates in a particular performance, film or project. That is very good. People doing smaller productions or short projects do not seem to have an easy pathway to the Garda National Vetting Bureau. That is why I am asking the Minister of State to take this significant issue on board. Many people who work in this sector are very anxious to ensure children who are involved in it are properly protected.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality (Deputy David Stanton):   I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan. I thank Deputy Burton for raising this important and interesting issue. As we all know, vetting in respect of certain employment is carried out by An Garda Síochána, primarily in accordance with the provisions of the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. As the Deputy will appreciate, the primary purpose of these vetting arrangements is to seek to enhance the safety of children and vulnerable adults. In the previous Dáil, I was the Chairman of the committee that did pre-legislative scrutiny of this legislation. It was very interesting to see how it was supposed to operate.

Vetting is vital work that must be carried out rigorously. In accordance with the 2012 Act, registered organisations must obtain vetting for people seeking employment and volunteers, where the relevant work or activities of the position sought involves regular access to children or vulnerable adults. It is important to highlight that the meaning of “relevant work” in the context of the Act covers “any work or activity which is carried out by a person, a necessary and regular part of which consists mainly of the person having access to, or contact with, children”. The protection of children and vulnerable people is of the utmost importance. The Deputy has mentioned recent issues that have been highlighted in the press and elsewhere. Strict and sector-specific vetting requirements are set out in the 2012 Act, which details the various facilities, establishments and situations in which an individual carrying out relevant work, as defined in the Act, would require Garda vetting.

The Deputy has asked specifically about the need to screen all staff who may come into contact with children in the arts and culture sector. The 2012 Act provides for a general obligation in the case of staff members for whom a necessary and regular part of their work consists mainly of their having access to children. I ask the Deputy to note that the Act includes as “relevant work” the provision of cultural activities to children, unless that “is merely incidental to the provision of” those activities to adults. For example, a person organising a one-off family arts event would not require Garda vetting, but a person employed to run a series of art workshops for children would need to be vetted.

A question frequently arises about the duplication of vetting. This is of interest in the arts and culture sector, in which an individual may provide a service to several organisations. The Act provides for a degree of flexibility, which helps to decrease the administrative burden for relevant organisations. The 2012 Act provides for certain limited circumstances in which organisations can share a single vetting disclosure if this is agreed to by the vetting applicant. It also makes specific provision in respect of people who may be employed on a recurring but non-continuous basis. Having said that, we must always be careful to ensure vetting disclosures are up to date to take account of the most recently available information. The Garda authorities continue to engage with registered organisations to maintain standards and promote best practice in vetting.

Deputy Joan Burton:   I thank the Minister of State for his reply.

Is the Minister of State satisfied? In a certain sense, responsibility for this area really lies with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and my original question was, in fact, to that Department although the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is answering it. I do not have a problem with that.

Say a young person has just recently started his or her professional work having graduated from college and is now a film maker, is putting on shows or whatever. Inevitably, as arts workers that person is highly likely to be self employed over a lengthy period. I am not aware that there is any general strong system of information that would seek to make him or her aware of responsibilities under the vetting legislation, for example in any curriculum of any third level college. People might start out, for instance, doing small productions, small films and so on. I think it really is necessary to have a system of strong communication.

I know the Arts Council seeks to have general information for arts organisations in respect of their obligations over a range of things including, for instance, bullying and harassment. We have unfortunately heard of those kinds of cases in recent times in the Irish theatre.

Would the Minister consider putting a broader campaign in place to advise parents whose children may become involved in this area? It is a very exciting thing for a child or maybe for the parent to do, to be involved in film and the arts. Particularly in the context of the Government spending a lot of money on strategic communications there ought to be plenty of budget available to do this.

Deputy David Stanton:   I will certainly pass on that particular comment to my colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I am sure she will be interested in taking it on board. Obviously it is important that any information we can get out there should be put out there.

In general terms, the processing system as we know it is working well. The vetting system is working well and the Garda authorities have said that the vast majority of vetting applications – in excess of 80% – are processed by the National Vetting Bureau in five working days, as the Deputy has said, or even fewer. This represents a very significant improvement in turnaround times in recent years. In mid-2013, an application for Garda vetting took an average of 14 weeks, as we can all recall. This improvement has come about because of the huge investment by Government and the Garda authorities in providing this service, including an increase of over 80% in staffing levels and the roll-out in 2016 of the eVetting system. The online processing of applications has streamlined the vetting process enormously and the eVetting system is available to all registered organisations.

In certain circumstances, processing times for a given application can be longer, for example when additional inquiries may be needed or where there are errors in the application and so on. Delays can also occur in other aspects of the application process which are outside the control of the Garda authorities. I emphasise that the vetting process demands rigorous procedures to safeguard its integrity and to maintain the highest level of confidence by the public and organisations availing of the service. It is a very important service, as I am sure we all agree.

The Deputy’s main point is that more people need to be aware of their obligations under that service. I will certainly convey that request and the Deputy’s message back to my colleagues.