Contribution to the National Vetting Bureau Bill 2012

September 20th, 2012 - Pat Breen

National Vetting Bureau Bill 2012

Thursday 20th September 2012.

Deputy Pat Breen T.D.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The introduction of this Bill is a clear statement by the Government of the importance we place on safeguarding our children and vulnerable persons. I commend the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, and his colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on the work they are doing in strengthening our child protection laws and procedures.
A number of significant reforms in the programme for change for children have already been introduced by the Government. The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 has been introduced and the Children First Bill has been published. More reforms in this area are planned. Yesterday, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs published the wording for the 31st amendment of the Constitution which, if accepted by the people, will ensure the rights of children are copperfastened in our Constitution. The draft adoption (amendment) Bill was also published yesterday. These actions are in stark contrast to the Fianna Fail Party’s record over the past ten years. I note the absence from the Chamber this afternoon of Fianna Fáil Members. The Fianna Fáil Party failed during its time in office to introduce promised legislation on vetting. This failure continued even after the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children recommended in September 2008 that such legislation be published no later than December 2008.

This Government is delivering on its commitment to put children first. This Bill is an important element of its reforming agenda. While vetting has been in place for the past number of years, it was not been done on a statutory basis. This Bill changes that. In making it mandatory for persons working with children or vulnerable persons to be vetted by the Garda, our child protection procedures are being further enhanced. This Bill clearly defines the categories of people for whom vetting will be mandatory, details the categories of people excluded from the process, provides a system of offences for abuse of the system and introduces an appeals mechanism.

Currently, vetting in respect of 19,000 organisations in the country is carried out by the Garda vetting unit in Thurles. I welcome that this unit will continue to be run and staffed by the Garda. This is important. I also welcome that it will now be clear as to the categories of people to whom mandatory vetting will apply. Previous legislation did not set out clear guidelines and while vetting was, in essence, mandatory for employees working in certain sectors, much of this vetting was discretionary. In practice, the majority of people working with children and vulnerable persons were vetted on the basis of a voluntary code. This Bill now makes vetting mandatory, ensuring consistency across the board.

The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill and the Children First Bill outline the role of the Garda Síochána and the HSE with regard to the protection of children and vulnerable persons. This legislation does not give the Garda Síochána any additional responsibilities.
It is up to an employer to determine whether a person is suitable for employment or volunteer work. The Garda simply provide the information according to its records. Employers then make a decision on receipt of the disclosed vetting as to whether a person poses a threat to the children or vulnerable persons under their care. It is right and proper that any potential threat which a person may pose to a child is made known in advance of that person taking up employment working with children given that our overriding responsibility is the safety of our children and vulnerable persons. For too long in this country, a wall of silence protected people who were a risk to children and vulnerable persons. The Murphy and Ryan reports exposed the extent to which this veil of silence had contributed to further incidents of abuse of other children. It is important that lessons are learned from the past and that we have in place a legislative framework to protect our children.

I am happy that the Bill provides for an appeals process. This is important in cases where a conviction recorded on a vetting is not a conviction for an offence which poses a threat to a child or vulnerable person. For example, a constituent of mine was convicted of drink driving a number of years ago and had his licence endorsed. While he has had a clean licence for four years or more, he is consistently refused a job as a bus driver because this conviction is disclosed on his vetting form. He feels strongly that he has been stigmatised for life for one mistake in his past. For insurance purposes, a person is not penalised if he or she has had a clean licence for five years or more. This man makes the point that given that he has had a clean licence for a number of years and poses no direct threat to children, he should be given a second chance. I thank the Minister for including an appeals mechanism in this Bill. It is an issue I have previously brought to his attention. I also suggested to him that an independent adjudicator should be appointed, to whom persons like my constituent could put their case.
Section 18 outlines the appeal process. I understand the Minister can appoint independent appeals officers and that the qualifying criteria for appointment is that the person be a solicitor or barrister with a minimum of seven years’ professional experience. Any decision made by the chief bureau officer can then be appealed within 14 days of the person being notified of the decision. Provision is also made for an extension of this period where reasonable grounds exist. As I have said earlier, it is up to the employer to determine whether the information received on a person’s vetting form prohibits him or her from employing that person. However, many people experience the same problem as my constituent in that once a conviction is made known on their form – I speaking in this regard of a conviction in respect of which no threat is posed to a child – they find it very difficult to get work.

In its submission to the Minister following publication of the Bill, the Children’s Rights Alliance stated that the Bill must balance the State’s duty to protect children, through the operation of a comprehensive vetting system, with the personal rights of individuals. In particular, it must respect the individual’s constitutionally protected rights, including the right to a good name and the right to fair procedures.
The inclusion of the appeals process will facilitate people who feel that they have a genuine case to appeal to an independent arbitrator. It will then be up to the arbitrator to determine whether the information provided by the central bureau is relevant.

The passage of this Bill will place a further burden on the resources of the Garda Síochána’s Thurles office. The office is already under pressure and it can take a number of weeks to process a vetting application.
These delays put a lot of pressure on all concerned, particularly jobseekers. I have been trying to assist a young man who was recently offered a job with a private health care company. His prospective employer has applied for vetting and has been advised that it will be a number of weeks before this application will be processed. This young man is very anxious. While there will be no problem with his vetting, the delay is causing him a lot of stress. He is concerned that as a result of the delay he could lose this job, which he was due to start a number of weeks ago. I received another letter yesterday from the mother of a young man who is experiencing the same problem. It is an issue.
I welcome that the Minister has moved to address the staff demands of the Galway vetting unit in an innovative and cost-effective way. I understand that 15 clerical officers who were previously employed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in Ennis in my county of Clare have now been redeployed to a sub-office of the Garda vetting unit which has been set up in Ennis. That is good news for all concerned, including the staff. They have completed a training course and when the sub-office is fully functional, they will play an important role in assisting the Garda unit to reduce the processing time of applications. I wish the staff, many of whom I know, well in their new role in this unit. In addition to the redeployment of these staff, I also understand the Minister is in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure the Thurles office has been resourced to meet demand.
The legislation compares favourably with best international practice, which is important. It has taken some time to put into place but it is important. We need to get it right and the Minister has got it right on this occasion. The introduction of mandatory vetting for all those who work with children and vulnerable persons is a welcome step in strengthening our child protection systems. I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House.