Adjournment Debate. - Vetting of Job Applicants.

It has been reported in the media that the gardaí have been told to stop vetting applicants for jobs in schools and youth and sporting organisations as it breaches the spirit of the data protection legislation. It is further reported that the gardaí have received advice from the office of the Data Protection Com missioner that the practice of employers getting information where people apply for jobs, approaches being objectionable in principle; the exception is in health board appointments and appointments in the security area.

I am concerned for young people involved in youth and sports bodies, who may now be without one of the vital procedures which protect them from potential abusers. The Director of the National Youth Council of Ireland has expressed his serious concern about the latest development, as has the secretariat of secondary schools. The INTO is reported as saying it is disappointed that even this minimum protection has been withdrawn. I cannot understand the reasoning behind the Data Protection Commissioner's statement in his annual report that character references should be sufficient evidence for a potential employer. Having gone through the shock and trauma of the recent episodes in Irish swimming and with the knowledge that the abuse of children here is far more prevalent than we thought, I am concerned the important protection provided by the gardaí is now being removed.

When I was Minister for Sport I appointed a group chaired by Dr. Breda McLeavy to draft a code of ethics and good practice for children in sport in Ireland. That committee produced a comprehensive and effective report in June 1996 which was widely welcomed and has become the benchmark for similar codes throughout Europe. That code of practice, which was produced after a lengthy and broadly based consultative process, is being seriously undermined by the latest developments.

Sport and youth activities have a very special place in the lives of Irish people, and this would not be the case were it not for the extraordinary commitment and dedication of so many people, particularly those voluntary workers who have devoted themselves to sport, the community and young people down the years. Children, young people and their families should have every confidence that they will be treated with respect and understanding when they take part in sport and youth activities.

The code of practice provides administrators, coaches and players with guidelines and standards to be used in dealing with young people in sport; these are as much for the protection of adult volunteers as for the young people. I believe now the parents of young people will have less confidence in the systems that exist to protect them. I ask the Minister to carry out an immediate review of the position in order to strengthen the hands of those who are there to protect the well being of our children. I see nothing wrong with applicants for jobs in these sensitive areas being asked to provide references and any details that are required. The onus should be on them to provide the evidence that they are above board and are bona fide applicants. That would be a way around the difficulty in this area. I look forward to the Minister's response.

As I mentioned today in my reply to Question No. 814 from Deputy Currie, this is a very complex matter and one which is clearly of considerable importance as it relates to the security and safety of children while, at the same time, bearing on the privacy rights of individuals.

To set matters in context, I wish to emphasise there has been no change in the arrangements whereby the Garda Síochána carry out clearance checks in respect of full-time prospective employees in the health care area who would have substantial access to children or vulnerable individuals. These arrangements are implemented by the Garda Síochána in strict adherence to legal advices received in the matter from the Attorney General.

I am aware of a large number of other organisations with responsibility for child care who engage staff, ranging from full-time paid staff to voluntary staff, who are not covered by the arrangements I have described. To guard against undesirables participating in such activities and as, I mentioned in reply to Question No. 356 on 30 June 1998, my Department together with the Garda authorities are at an advanced stage of discussion with FÁS, the aim of which is to extend to employees having substantial contact with children in non-residential community employment schemes, the same arrangements as apply to prospective employees in the health care area.

In the interim, in the absence of any formal procedure, a practice developed whereby employers of prospective employees, not coming under the formal arrangement, requested the Garda – with the written consent of the employees – to provide copies of personal data relating to the individuals concerned under section 4 of the Data Protection Act, 1988. This data would have included any personal data held on the Garda criminal records database.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that they were recently advised by the Data Protection Commissioner that section 4 of the Data Protection Act, 1988, does not provide for the disclosure of personal data to third parties, irrespective of whether the individuals in question had consented to allow the Garda to respond to the prospective employer and, on the advice of the Data Protection Commissioner, the Garda authorities have ceased to do so.

The Data Protection Commissioner has also advised that section 4 of the Data Protection Act, 1988, does not provide for a situation where an employer may request that a prospective employee should make a request under section 4 of the Act and insist on receiving from the individual concerned a copy of material received on foot of such a request. The Data Protection Commissioner's view is that the essence of data protection law is that it enhances privacy by putting the individual in control of his or her information, and that access sought by an individual on foot of a request to that individual from a prospective employer may be regarded as an unanticipated use of what was intended by the Oireachtas to be a key aid for individuals in protecting their privacy.

The latest contacts between my Department and the Data Protection Commissioner have identified possible ways to resolve this difficulty. Urgent consultations are ongoing between my Department, the Garda authorities and the Data Protection Commissioner with a view to identifying an alternative solution under the legislation. On conclusion of these consultations I will make a further statement on this matter. I hope to do this very soon. I thank Deputy Allen for raising this important matter.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 28 January 1999.