National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I want to begin by congratulating Deputy Collins on his appointment as justice spokesperson for Fianna Fáil.

I thank the Minister.

I wish him well in his brief. I am sure there will be all kinds of issues he will pursue me on but I hope that in the national interest there will be issues on which we can co-operate. I am sure we will have some interesting exchanges in the House.

I am pleased to be here today to present the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 to the House. I would like to commence by highlighting the purpose of this legislation. In September 2008, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children published an interim report which recommended that legislation be introduced to regulate and control the manner in which records of criminal convictions and information including what is termed "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 persons 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 primary 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 persons 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 persons 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 persons.

"Specified information" also includes similar conclusions arising from fitness to practise inquiries by statutory bodies such as those conducted by the Medical Council, the Nursing Council or the 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. 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, I am seeking to ensure that information such as vague rumours, innuendo or false allegations cannot form any part of the vetting process. I am 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 child care services; schools; 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; and promotion of religious beliefs.

The Bill provides exemptions from vetting for certain arrangements. Private baby-sitting arrangements, private tuition and other private arrangements are exempt from the vetting requirements under the Bill. It is my view that it is not appropriate or feasible for the State to require vetting in regard to citizens' private family arrangements. Private baby-sitting arrangements are already exempt from vetting in child care regulations under the Child Care Act of 1991.

There is also exemption from vetting for persons assisting at sports or community events on an occasional basis. This exemption is necessary to focus the vetting requirement on persons working with children or vulnerable adults on an ongoing basis. It should be borne in mind that where persons help out on an occasional or annual community or sports event, they typically do so in full public view. 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 ongoing 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 recommendations in November 2011. Members of this House have already been very supportive of this Bill when contributing to the consideration of its draft scheme at the hearings by the joint Oireachtas committee. The Bill has been drafted to include provisions to take account of the issues raised by the joint committee.

The committee recommended that the legislation provide for vetting to be portable between different employer organisations in order to cut down on multiple applications for vetting of the same individual. This, however, may not be feasible. For example, a person who was vetted for a position with one employer last year might have had no convictions at the time of applying for that position but might have subsequent convictions in the current year, or might have come to the notice of child care services in the context of an allegation of child abuse. I look forward to hearing the further views of Deputies on this issue in the course of the Bill's legislative progress.

The joint Oireachtas committee also raised concerns about the lack of information from some other states about the criminal records of citizens of those states who are seeking work here. In that regard, I will be introducing a separate Bill, the criminal records information systems Bill, which will provide for enhanced co-operation in exchanging criminal records information with other states. The Scheme of that Bill was published earlier this year and I expect to publish the Bill in 2013. The Bill will implement an EU member states' agreement in regard to the exchange of criminal records data between EU states. It will also provide for exchange of criminal records information with states outside of the EU.

Members 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. It is clearly very important that we have clear mandatory standards for vetting of persons working with children and vulnerable adults in those positions. The Bill is essential to ensure that employers can make informed decisions in instances where persons are seeking employment which involves access to children or vulnerable persons.

The Bill will have no impact on Garda clearance procedures conducted under other legislation. This includes the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Acts, bearing in mind that section 15 of the 1956 Act requires the Minister to be satisfied that an applicant for citizenship is of good character; the Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Act 2004; the Taxi Regulation Acts; the Road Transport Acts; and the Private Security Services Act 2004. These Acts already require Garda clearance of persons based on a search of the Garda criminal records.

I will outline for the House the key provisions contained in the Bill. The national unit of the Garda Síochána known as the Garda Central Vetting Unit will, after the commencement of section 28, be known as the National Vetting Bureau.

Section 3 provides clarification in regard to activities that are exempt from the provisions of the Bill. As I have indicated, the exemptions will include family relationships, private arrangements and persons who assist occasionally and on a voluntary basis in school, sport or community-related events.

Section 6 provides for the establishment by the chief bureau officer of the various databases containing information relevant for the purpose of vetting of persons seeking positions working with children or vulnerable persons. The databases will include a register of relevant organisations, a register of specified information and a register of vetted persons as provided in sections 8, 10 and 11, respectively.

Section 7 sets out the functions of the bureau in regard to the maintenance of these databases, and provides that the bureau is responsible for vetting services in respect of relevant work or activities relating to children or vulnerable persons. Section 8 provides that the bureau will maintain a register of relevant organisations which can avail of vetting services. This section also includes a provision that organisations already registered with the bureau before commencement of the Act will be deemed to be registered following the commencement of the Act. There is also a provision that a relevant organisation shall not be required to comply with the requirement to register where another relevant organisation, which is registered with the bureau, submits, on behalf of the first organisation, applications for vetting disclosures. This provision is being included in order to enable organisations such as schools or crèches to submit applications through a representative body without requiring each and every school or crèche to register individually. There is also a provision that an organisation which fails to comply with the requirement to register under subsection (2) is guilty of an offence.

Section 9 provides for the registration of liaison persons. These are the persons in each organisation responsible for submitting the vetting application to the vetting bureau. Section 10 establishes the register of specified information, or soft information. This is information which gives rise to a bona fide concern that the vetting subject may harm, attempt to harm or put at risk of harm a child or vulnerable person. Section 11 provides for the establishment of a register of vetted persons and sets out the information relating to a vetted person which is to be included in the register.

Section 12 prohibits the engagement of persons to do relevant work or activities relating to children or other vulnerable persons, unless that person has been subject to the vetting procedures under the Bill. It includes a provision for a defence if a person can show that he or she did not know, nor could be reasonably expected to know, that the work for which a person was engaged constituted relevant work or activity.

Section 13 sets out the procedures to be followed in making applications for vetting disclosures. It confirms that an application from a relevant organisation for a vetting disclosure may be on its own behalf or on behalf of another relevant organisation that it represents for the purpose of the vetting procedures under the Act. This section also specifies the information relating to the vetting subject which must be included in the application.

Section 14 sets out the procedures to be followed by the bureau in considering an application for a vetting disclosure. The section provides that following the receipt of an application for a vetting disclosure, the bureau will undertake an examination of its own database and the Garda Síochána criminal records for the purpose of establishing whether there are any criminal records or any specified information relates to the applicant. The section also provides that, where a member of the bureau staff considers that there is specified information in regard to the applicant, it will be referred to the chief bureau officer for assessment as to whether the information should be disclosed.

Section 15 sets out the procedures to be followed by the chief bureau officer in assessing specified information for the purpose of its inclusion in a vetting disclosure. This includes a provision that the vetting subject must be provided with a summary of the information and must be informed of his or her right to make a written submission in relation to the information. A subsequent decision to disclose the specified information requires the chief bureau officer to believe that the information in question is of such a nature as to give rise to a bona fide concern that the vetting subject may harm, attempt to harm or put at risk of harm a child or vulnerable person. The chief bureau officer must also be satisfied that the disclosure is necessary, proportionate and reasonable in the circumstances, and relevant to the particular position that the person is applying for.

Section 16 provides that where a vetting disclosure contains details of criminal records or specified information the relevant organisation must provide a copy of the disclosure to the vetting applicant. The section also provides that the organisation may consider and take into account the information disclosed in assessing the suitability of the person for the position for which they have applied.

Section 18 sets out the manner of an appeal against a disclosure of specified information, which shall be in writing, be accompanied by grounds for appeal and indicate whether an oral hearing is sought. Having considered the appeal, the appeals officer may affirm, in whole or in part, the decision of the chief bureau officer or may set aside that decision, in whole or part. An appeal to the High Court on a point of law is also provided for and this determination is final and conclusive.

Section 19 requires the scheduled organisations listed in Schedule 2 to notify the bureau of specified information in respect of a person. For example, if, as a result of a statutory inquiry by the HSE, or a fitness-to-practise process by a statutory body, the organisation has a bona fide concern that the vetting subject may harm, attempt to harm or put at risk of harm a child or vulnerable person, that organisation is required to inform the bureau of the information giving rise to that concern. The organisation is also required to notify the person in respect of whom there is such a concern that it is notifying the bureau of that concern. This section also contains a provision stating that the obligation to report under this section is in addition to any other obligation to disclose that information to the Garda Síochána or to any other person. This is important in order to ensure that the reporting requirement under this Bill is distinct from and in addition to the obligation to report concerns to the HSE under the Children First Bill, which my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, is preparing. There is a separate obligation to report where there are allegations of, for example, child abuse to the Garda Síochána in the context of the withholding of information Act, which came into force only a few weeks ago.

Section 20 provides for the periodic re-vetting of persons previously vetted for their current positions. Section 21 provides for the retrospective vetting of persons who are currently in positions that would be subject to vetting under the Bill but who have not previously been vetted because they took up their positions prior to the availability of vetting in the State. There are approximately 100,000 persons in the health and education sectors who were recruited before the current vetting procedures were introduced and who have therefore not been vetted. It is important that this should be remedied.

Section 22 provides that the chief bureau officer be appointed by the Garda Commissioner. This section also allows the chief bureau officer to delegate his or her functions under the Act to specified members of staff of the bureau.

Section 23 provides that the chief bureau officer may assign one or more members of staff as compliance officers for the purposes of the Act. The purpose of the compliance officers is to investigate any complaint that a registered organisation is failing to operate adequate or proper vetting procedures.

Section 24 provides for a minor amendment to the Garda Síochána Act 2005 to make it explicit that the functions of the Garda Síochána include the provision of vetting services. Section 25 makes it an offence to falsify a vetting disclosure, to make a false statement for the purpose of obtaining or enabling another person to obtain a vetting disclosure or to allow a vetting disclosure to be falsely used by another person.

Section 26 sets out the penalties in respect of offences under the Bill. These include offences of failing to make a vetting application for a position requiring vetting and falsifying records in regard to vetting applications or disclosures. This section provides that the penalty on summary conviction is a class A fine or imprisonment for a term of up to 12 months or both and on conviction on indictment to a fine of up to €10,000 or imprisonment for up to five years or both.

Section 31 permits the introduction of fees for the purpose of the provision of vetting services. However, this is simply an enabling provision to allow fees to be charged for certain categories of vetting application, if appropriate.

Schedule 1 sets out the relevant work or activities relating to children or vulnerable adults that will be subject to the vetting requirements of this Bill. Schedule 2 sets out the organisations that will be required to disclose specified information to the bureau in accordance with section 19.

Regarding spent convictions, nothing in the Spent Convictions Bill 2012 affects the disclosure of a conviction under the provisions of this Bill, as a conviction may give rise to important considerations with regard to whether an individual's previous conduct, which resulted in a conviction, raises an alarm bell with regard to his or her capacity to work with children or vulnerable adults. This is a difficult issue, as some of those convicted of offences in the past and who have substantial insight into their past conduct, can make a contribution of great value, for example, when working with troubled children who are out of control or who themselves have become embroiled in the juvenile justice system. I will value and am greatly interested in the views of Deputies as to how this particular issue might be best dealt with in order to reconcile the two Bills and to ensure that the correct balance is achieved. This is a particularly important issue.

I wish to make particular reference to the work undertaken by the Garda central vetting unit in recent years, particularly during my term as Minister. As I mentioned earlier, the unit, which is led by Superintendent Pat Burke, currently processes some 300,000 vetting applications per year. I would like to commend Superintendent Burke and his team on their work in reducing the processing time for vetting applications from 12 to 14 weeks when I was appointed as Minister in March 2011 to between two and three weeks by May 2012. This improvement was of enormous benefit to individuals and organisations throughout the State and tackling the backlog of citizenship applications would not have been possible without the help of the Garda central vetting unit.

I am aware that the number of staff in the unit decreased by 20 between March and May this year as temporary staff contracts came to an end. This reduction in staff numbers has been partly offset by the redeployment of 15 clerical officers from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to a sub-office of the Garda central vetting unit in Ennis in May. I understand that the new staff have recently completed their training period. In the interim, however, processing times have again increased. 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 this new legislation and I am engaged in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure adequate staffing to meet these new demands.

I would like to thank the Members of this House who have already provided support for this Bill when contributing to the hearings by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. I am sure that the debate in this House on the Bill will be very informed and constructive. I will follow intently what Members say with a view to seeing whether there are improvements we can make to the Bill on Committee Stage.

I have already congratulated Deputy Niall Collins on his new position as justice spokesperson. I also wish to congratulate Deputy Mac Lochlainn in taking up his position. I apologise to both Deputies, as I have another commitment that I must keep. I assure them that, although I will be unable to be present in the House for their contributions, I will carefully read the transcript of this evening's speeches and follow what is stated in the House during the course of what is an important Second Stage debate on a Bill of substantial significance. This Bill forms part of the set of legislation that is designed to ensure that we provide improved and better protection for children in this State. We have the commitment of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, who is preparing legislation to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing. We have already brought into force legislation on the furnishing of information to An Garda Síochána to ensure that those who have information with regard to child abuse furnish it.

This Bill is the third in the trilogy of legislation to be enacted. It is particularly important in the context of heading into a children's referendum to provide for the express constitutional recognition of the rights of children that we do everything necessary to ensure that we have the most effective statutory backup to ensure that previous failures in the protection of children are not repeated in future.

I thank the Minister for his opening remarks on this important legislation. The Bill is topical, given today's announcement on the forthcoming referendum, which I will discuss later.

Fianna Fáil broadly supports this Bill, as it is a necessary measure towards clarifying and consolidating the vetting process. However, steps to secure children's safety must be backed up by sufficient resources and encompass a wider range of front line involvement with children than has been initially covered by the Bill. Childminders, including nannies in the home, are not covered by the legislation despite the critical role they play in children's lives. This is a missed opportunity in terms of child protection and should be addressed by the Government. We will seek to ensure that it is addressed through amendments. I will discuss this matter in a few moments.

It is right that the vetting system be placed on a statutory basis. This follows on from the work of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children in 2008 and the working group on Garda vetting in 2004 as well as the broader public concerns that have been articulated in the context of the many horrific reports that have been put into the public domain, for example, the Ryan and Murphy reports among others. The Bill makes vetting mandatory for the employees and volunteers of organisations covered by the legislation that work with children and vulnerable adults. However, this provision is not applied to organisations that are not mentioned in the Bill. That is also an issue that must be revisited as the Bill passes through the Oireachtas.

There is the point of extending the remit of relevant information to be covered in the vetting process, encompassing "soft" or specified information. This is a new departure and we will have to tease out the elements. It essentially covers information that does not lead to a criminal prosecution, and a range of organisations, from the Garda to the Teaching Council, are involved in collating the information. The action would broaden the range of information used in assessing an individual to create a more accurate profile of the person.

The primary difficulties in the Bill include a failure to encompass childminders or people who mind children either in their own home or the home of an employer as a mandatory vetting area. It is estimated that this leaves up to 75,000 children across the country in an unregulated area. This is a glaring gap that must be addressed in this Bill and the forthcoming Children First legislation. As I have already mentioned, providing sufficient resources for the provision of child protection and training, as well as the vetting bureau, must be a priority for the Government if the changes introduced are to have a meaningful and positive impact on child safety.

The introduction of Children First legislation and the national vetting bureau Bill was a perfect opportunity to bring about some form of regulation in the childminding sector. However, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has decided not to include childminders in the list of organisations or on a list of designated professionals in the heads of the Children First Bill or this national vetting bureau Bill. The Government must commit to including childminders in this legislation and the upcoming Children First legislation. We recognise that this will require the introduction of regulation to the childminding sector and would include compulsory registration of all childminders to the HSE. However, only those who register and are vetted should be allowed to operate, and we intend to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage of both Bills to ensure the inclusion of these provisions.

We recognise that regulation of the childminding sector should be introduced on a phased basis, and it should be accompanied by a public information campaign. It is critical in trying to introduce regulation for the childminding sector that we do not push people further into the black economy. This is an area in which the black economy tends to thrive from time to time, and there should be a focus on the issue. The Government's policy must always be to ensure that children are fully protected, whether they are cared for by somebody employed in the home or in attending crèches, playschools or childminders.

We commend the work in prioritising protection and bringing about extensive debate on child protection issues at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children over the past year. In the absence of proper funding, such discussions may be only window dressing. For example, we know there is still a glaring need for the recruitment of social care workers, and there is a deficit in meeting the commitment for such badly required personnel. We also know there is currently no funding for child protection training for the early education and child care sector. Early Childhood Ireland's annual member survey encompassed the frustrations of services in trying to access Children First training for staff, and according to that survey, less than half of facilities, or 48% of them, have a staff member with current Children First training. This highlights an urgent need for more accessible training in the area.

The expansion of the information envisaged by this Bill will inevitably place a strain on the resources of the vetting bureau. If the remit of the bureau is expanded to encompass critical areas like childminders, the position will be compounded. It is vital that sufficient resources are committed to the vetting process to ensure it is undertaken rigorously, adhering to strict privacy laws and completed within reasonable waiting times. Likewise, adequate access to training procedures for staff must be provided by the Department if the changes are to have a positive impact on child protection rather than acting as window dressing.

The legislation is broadly welcome as anything that enhances child safety and protection of vulnerable people should be. Nevertheless, there are a number of issues that should be placed on record as being of public concern. There is a lack of a unified and universal vetting process. No matter how the Bill concludes, there must be a resulting unified system around the country. The system has been operating to different standards and norms in different sectors and parts of the country. This can be broken down into three categories: sectors where not all staff are required to be vetted; those who should have been vetted but have not; and the sectors with people already in employment when vetting procedures started and where the people are not vetted as a result.

The Minister alluded to the fact that there may be up to 100,000 people in positions in various organisations who have never been vetted. Unfortunately, such people would have to be vetted in order to achieve child safety, and that will be a major undertaking. There is also the issue of foster carers. The HSE has publicly indicated that up to 12.5% of foster carers are still in the process of being vetted, which is extremely serious. HIQA has indicated that vetting is a major concern in up to 43% of centres involved in investigations of vetting. We must delve further into what HIQA has reported in this regard. There must be clarity on whether the Bill can apply retrospectively, particularly as it would apply to people in public service roles or jobs within the civil and public service.

There is also an issue regarding section 3, which deals with exemptions under the Bill. The Bill provides for exemptions from vetting for relevant worker activities undertaken in the course of a family relationship. The relevant phrase is "giving assistance on an occasional basis and for no commercial consideration at school, sports or community events or activities, other than where such assistance includes coaching, training, mentoring, teaching and counselling of children and vulnerable persons". We must tease out the term "giving assistance" a little more. If a person is giving assistance to an organisation giving a service or providing an activity for young and vulnerable people, what would it entail? Would it include a person giving voluntary assistance to an organisation by working as a janitor? That person might work in a swimming pool with communal changing areas and be present in showers or service areas. Such a person is not included and neither are those working on a pro bono basis such as maintenance staff. It is difficult to get it right and to achieve a definition that will be all-encompassing. The general term "giving assistance" needs to be fleshed out a little more.

With regard to vetting for child protection it is also important to remember that while one is primarily protecting children and vulnerable people one is also providing protection for the person coming into contact and dealing with them on a day-to-day or irregular basis. Unfortunately, we have had official reports of abuse and neglect of children, and situations occur - rare as they are - whereby people find themselves the subject of malicious reports. More and more people will be subject to the screening process and this vetting will provide protection for them should such a case arise.

I agree with the comments on the Garda vetting unit in Thurles. I have contacted it on many occasions and it was very amenable and helpful to me as a public representative, as I am sure it is to others. Establishing the unit on a statutory basis is a compliment to the staff and will give them more structure and status which is right. It must be funded better.

We will table a number of amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage.

Sinn Féin welcomes the Bill as an important step in improving the child protection structures in the State. In 2011 a report by the special rapporteur on child protection, Geoffrey Shannon, exposed the alarming inadequacy of laws, procedures and resources to protect children from abuse. The lack of regulated access to soft information on potential abusers of children was one of the main issues that needed to be addressed so it is heartening to see the Minister has brought this forward as one of the first pieces of legislation to be dealt with during this Dáil term.

The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, of which my colleague Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin was a member in the previous Dáil, recommended in September 2008 that legislation to regulate soft information be introduced. It is long overdue. The right to one's good name is covered by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and as such it should be a cornerstone of any truly human rights-based justice policy. This right contains within it the benefits of the presumption of innocence and protection of good name and livelihood. However, we recognise that the children of Ireland have a right to - and are entitled to - the highest standards of protection. For too long, the history of the State has been blighted by a litany of horror stories in which this protection was denied to them. It is frightening to think there is a very real possibility that we have only scratched the surface of these stories.

As legislators working to develop a justice system that maintains the accused's right to a good name while simultaneously protecting children, there is an onus on us to ensure any legislative amendment regarding the exchange of soft information has a sound constitutional footing and is insulated from challenge. There are parts of the Bill about which I have concerns in this regard and I am hopeful they will be dealt with appropriately and adequately on Committee Stage.

Further to this, the rights of a person being vetted to a good name and to a livelihood must be balanced with the rights of children to the highest standards of child protection. As Garda and police vetting deals only with hard information such as on convictions relating to prospective employees, problems arise regarding individuals who may have been reported for an offence but never charged due to insufficient evidence, or prosecuted for an offence but never convicted as a consequence of a flawed investigation or other technicality, but who nevertheless may continue to pose a risk to children. There is a clear argument in favour of sharing information where needed when an allegation did not result in conviction but a real concern still exists.

As an exceptional case, and we must emphasise this is an exception, in the interests of the protection of children as a paramount public policy consideration, Sinn Féin is in favour of the dissemination of soft information. However, we believe it must be very carefully managed, with independent oversight, and subject to robust safeguards. We are carefully examining the provisions of the Bill to ensure this is managed correctly, as well as ensuring full human rights and data protection compliance. It is our view that those provisions concerning soft information should only deal with information that has been brought to the attention of the Garda or the HSE.

We welcome the fact that individuals should be informed if they are placed on a soft information list and be given appropriate opportunity to appeal the limits set upon them by being placed on such a list, prior to any request for vetting being placed upon them by a third party. We are examining the legislation to ensure it requires that one central vetting unit stores all information in compliance with data protection legislation. There must be no confusion as to the types of information applicable to this legislation. We will submit amendments to require that a person being entered on any soft information list be informed of the action and be given adequate notice to appeal. I am not convinced that 14 days will be enough in all cases. Notice must be given of the types of employment likely to be affected by this, and furthermore, notice must be given of the length of time a person's name will remain on any list. Only after a person is informed of his or her name being placed on a list, and given adequate time to appeal, should any third party request for information be processed. The legislation must be reviewed periodically and those eligible for removal from the list on the basis of inaccurate information being held must be removed promptly.

Appeal processes must be adequate and not subject to undue delay, which brings me to my next point. The new national vetting bureau must be resourced accordingly. We are all aware that the cutbacks to Garda budgets are having a major impact on the ability of gardaí to do their work. We are dealing with a society where mandatory reporting will be the norm. The Children First guidelines will soon be placed on a statutory footing and an increase in awareness of child abuse and its effects, coupled with the introduction of a legal facility for the sharing of soft information, will mean an added strain on the newly established vetting bureau. We will propose further amendments to ensure robust safeguards for soft information including clear safeguards, limits and controls monitored by an independent body on how the vetting bureau gains, stores, reproduces and accesses soft information.

While we cannot underestimate the importance in using this legislation to firm up child protection measures, we also cannot underestimate the need to keep such information confidential and made available on a strict need to know basis. There must be a statutory obligation on a receiving agency or employer not to store or disseminate vetting results disclosed to them by the vetting bureau beyond the strictly necessary, and severe penalties for a breach. In the interest of fairness, we must also ensure limited restrictions to contesting discrimination where a person feels an employer acted above and beyond that which was required by the vetting soft information list and we strongly urge the Government to examine the option of introducing an independent body to investigate the appeals.

Furthermore, the legislation should clearly outline how international vetting is to be conducted and the standards in other jurisdictions we deem necessary for us to facilitate the exchange of information requests. The Government must acknowledge that measures such as sex offender registers and vetting in isolation will not stop abhorrent crimes of sexual abuse from occurring. Vetting of people who work with children is still problematic and slow despite improvements made in recent years. The partition of the island also poses a considerable challenge for the Garda and the PSNI in the management of those who pose a risk to children and young people or who are sex offenders.

In the past, the NSPCC has highlighted various arrangements throughout the EU for holding and disclosing criminal record information, managing and tracking sex offenders, and vetting and barring arrangements. It highlighted one case where a French national convicted of murder and sexual assaults was able to gain employment in a Belgian school where he continued to offend. It has called for common EU standards in regard to the sharing of information and vetting and it is something worth examining but in saying that, it is important not to forget that there is no minimum standard of human rights adherence across the EU.

Both Ireland and Britain have enacted legislation to ensure convicted sex offenders notify authorities of their whereabouts and progress has been made on information sharing in regard to sex offenders. However, while agencies in the North risk manage all sex offenders in a structured way, risk management approaches are only now being advanced in the Twenty-six Counties. Common legislation and policy development on a North-South basis is essential to prevent certain individuals from exploiting the Border.

The 2006 report from the joint Oireachtas committee on child protection and the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children in its first interim report of September 2008 recommended that the vetting system be put on a statutory footing and that organisations be legally required to vet all staff, both paid workers and volunteers, working with children. The committees also recommended the introduction of legislation to regulate the collection and exchange of records of criminal convictions and information, including soft information, which would bring the State closer in line with the situation in the Six Counties following the Ian Huntley inquiry. It is a shame that it has taken so long to look at this area but I commend the Minister for bringing forward this Bill now.

The need for a comprehensive vetting system and good protocols in information exchange cannot be underestimated. Barnardos has systematically campaigned for a comprehensive vetting system to be put in place in Ireland for all those who have access to children and young people, whether in a professional or voluntary capacity, which should include all those who are at a policy, managerial and face to face level. It is well known that sex offenders are using open borders as a means of evading detection and prosecution.

There are broader questions to be asked about how we address this. Information exchange protocols and corresponding structures in other countries are theoretically a wonderful idea but they need to be resourced with proper levels of financial, technological and staff capacity in Ireland to ensure that information is used in a meaningful way and not abused and that children are protected. Given the cutbacks in resourcing to gardaí that hamper them in doing even the most basic of policing tasks, such as responding to burglaries in rural areas, we have genuine concerns as to how this would operate.

I am sharing time with Deputies Pringle and Finian McGrath.

Is that agreed? Agreed. They have ten minutes each.

The Bill marks a significant process and progress in the direction of Ireland's commitment to improving child protection and welfare. The process of vetting places a very worthwhile burden on bureaucracy, businesses, community groups, volunteers and prospective adoptive parents. Ireland has been long overdue in meeting the recommendations set out by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2006 and it is vital that anyone working with children or young people is properly vetted.

The original idea of vetting was to supplement good recruitment practice but when inherent flaws in the system make people wait up to a minimum of 16 weeks for vetting to be completed and create a major barrier for many community and voluntary groups doing front line work, then something is not right. If this legislation is not backed up by adequate services which support children's welfare, then it is not worth the paper it is written on. The fact that the national vetting bureau will replace the existing Garda central vetting office does not inspire confidence in me since the office with all its workload and procedures and systems will continue as it is.

The most recent figures available from the Teaching Council of Ireland suggest that thousands of teachers are waiting to be vetted. The Garda vetting unit is doing what it can with very limited resources but the massive backlog is having a significant impact on a range of schemes at a time when voluntary and sporting organisations have never been more dependent on volunteers.

The impact analysis by the Minister's Department predicts that the Bill will not create additional costs to the Exchequer based on the premise that there will not be any significant increases in demand for vetting applications. I do not know where that comes from. However, a significant number of sporting and arts organisations which I have consulted in my constituency believe this legislation will necessitate a massive extension of the current system of Garda vetting. If this occurs, there will have to be significant investment in resources to ensure this new legislation operates in the manner it is intended, and I know it is well intended.

A number of arts organisations, in particular, have expressed concern in regard to the lack of access to vetting for sole practitioners and difficulties for smaller organisations in becoming registered. Can the Minister give assurances as to how these matters might be addressed in the legislation because from reading it, I did not see any significant aspects in it to deal with the vetting of sole practitioners and so on? Freelance arts practitioners do not have vetting available to them and I am aware some are losing out on work due to lack of access to vetting. When the Minister responds, it will be interesting to hear how he intends to deal with that aspect. I am sure other Deputies and public representatives have also been contacted by these groups.

Should this legislation make the intended impact, the Garda vetting system itself needs to be made more efficient and user-friendly. A sharing of data between organisations - of course, with applicants' consent - would remove a large amount of the demand on the system and a duplication of many requests and would be a far more intelligent way of dealing with the vetting process. In particular, an online system would greatly assist re-vetting by allowing for the identification numbers to be given which would help the portability of the records. We should examine such a procedure. Can the Minister clarify when exactly the proposed online application process will be operational? What funds have been set aside for this to be set up? If we do not move into the 21st century and do it online, we will not go anywhere and we will be back to square one with people waiting 16 weeks or even longer to be vetted which will not help the system. Although the Bill makes provision for the revetting of employees and retrospective vetting of current employers who have not yet been vetted, a lack of resources is likely to prohibit this from becoming a reality any time soon. The Minister needs to step up to the plate and give us time schedules when he responds. The introduction of online processes similar to the access Northern Ireland programme would contribute significantly to the staffing resources.

The underlying theme of the Bill is highly commendable bringing in measures to enhance the safeguarding of children and vulnerable persons. The test will be whether the Government will put its money where its mouth is and ensure that the resources are there to allow an efficient, user-friendly, 21st century model for vetting.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, which is very important. The need to vet people who have access to children or vulnerable persons is vitally important as is the need to ensure there is an adequate and timely vetting service available to people. The Minister said approximately 300,000 vettings take place every year. I wonder how many of those 300,000 are duplications. In 2003, around the time of the Special Olympics, I was vetted because I was chairperson of a host committee in Killybegs. To date, I still have not heard whether I passed. I presume the fact I have not heard means I was probably an acceptable person. That is an important issue, although I know it is nine years down the line.

Over the last year or so I have been contacted by a number of people about a number of different cases which I would like to outline. One case involved a trainee nurse who was being vetted by the HSE prior to taking up work experience as part of her training. She had already been vetted by her local GAA club one month previously but as that was not acceptable to the HSE she had to undergo a further vetting procedure. One can envisage a situation in which somebody who gets a job which requires vetting, decides to volunteer in a local GAA club and then finds part-time employment in a local crèche would be required to undergo vetting three times in a short period when once would be more than adequate. The Bill should provide for this and amendments should be brought on Committee Stage or else the Minister should at least take account of the issue when he is finalising the legislation.

The Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality has recommended that vetting should be portable. That is vitally important and would overcome the scenarios I have outlined. If a period is defined for the time a vetting will last and re-vetting is also provided for, vetting should be portable. I imagine the Minister envisages a period of something like two years. If an individual has been vetted and happens to change jobs within the two year period, the vetting should accompany him or her. That would significantly reduce the administrative burden on the 300,000 vettings that take place every year.

Section 11 of the Bill provides for a register of vetted people to be compiled and held by the bureau. It might be useful for organisations to designate a person who can access the register to find out details about an individual who is about to volunteer or take up employment with the organisation. The designated person could, for example, enter the individual's PPS number in the register and confirm whether he or she has been vetted within a relevant period. That would short circuit the need to go through the vetting process again.

Section 19 provides that the vetting bureau shall be informed of concerns. I presume that if concerns are raised about people with valid vetting they will rescind or have an impact on valid vetting. In respect of the organisations listed in Schedule 2 as being required to provide this information to the bureau, the Courts Service should also be listed. The Garda will be involved in pursuing convictions but the courts should be required to notify the bureau when somebody has been convicted of an offence. That should form part of the reporting procedures.

Deputy Halligan referred to the provision for re-vetting under section 20. This is not envisaged to come into effect for the foreseeable future due to staffing constraints. That is not acceptable. Re-vetting should form an integral part of the Bill. It should not be subject to employment embargoes or resource constraints. Earlier today the Taoiseach announced that wording for a children's rights referendum is to be published and we are putting Children First on a legislative basis. Surely a re-vetting procedure should be implemented as part of that overall package. The Minister should ensure that resources are made available to the vetting bureau so it can carry out its work as soon as this legislation is passed.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important Bill, which deals specifically with children and vulnerable persons. It is important that we remind ourselves about the purpose of this legislation.

I also welcome the broader debate that is taking place on the protection of children. There has been a lot of talk about protecting the rights of children but we need to make this a reality by ending the suffering and nightmares for the children who are being damaged as I speak tonight. I hope the upcoming referendum will also deal with these issues. I welcome that the referendum will be held on a Saturday. From what I am hearing, there is considerable potential to safeguard the rights of children and I hope I will be able strongly to support the campaign.

Our goal is to rescue children from crisis situations, crisis families and institutions that have provided clear examples of bad professional practice. When we speak about crisis families, we refer to young children living in dysfunctional and often violent environments involving drugs, alcohol or issues that cause nightmares for them. In this debate on the proposed vetting bureau we are speaking about the institutions, voluntary organisations and sports groups in which these people often operate. As part of the provision of a safe environment, we should not kid ourselves that paedophiles and sex abusers will go away. They will come up with new ways to abuse and work their ways into families, homes, voluntary organisations, sports clubs, swimming clubs and youth clubs. That is the sad reality of the matter. This Bill will be even better at dealing with that reality with a couple of strong amendments. These people have worked their way around obstacles in the past and they will do so again in the future. This is why the vetting process is urgent.

We must also train our children to react to bad situations. It is not easy because often those who are abused are vulnerable children who come from weak, crisis ridden or dysfunctional environments. They are unable to react in the same way as a child who is raised in a nice, warm family environment. If one speaks to survivors and victims, one will discover that when they were abused as young children they were a little different from the other children in their group or classroom. They were targeted by child sex abusers. Our primary schools provide excellent programmes on these issues but we have to be vigilant from an early stage. Any group or organisation that opposes this kind of training for young children should not be taken seriously when it claims to speak for the rights of children. I urge that more training and education be provided on this issue.

We must also focus on the most vulnerable. I refer to children with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities. They are often the ones we never hear about. They were often abused 40 years ago and their stories were never told because their intellectual disabilities were so severe that they were not able to articulate what happened to them. These are the hidden voices and properly vetted staff could play a positive role in ensuring their safety.

Prevention has to be at the core of the strategy, and this is why the legislation is important. The child is often lost once the damage is done and as an adult ends up in crazy situations involving alcohol and mental health issues. This legislation is about prevention because if the right people work with children in schools and youth clubs, they will do a lot of work. We have many of those talented people. Many former colleagues of mine in the teaching profession have intervened in such situations when they discovered these issues and prevented abuse. Of course, there are many cases where children slipped through the net.

At the core of the strategy we must focus on prevention. I do not want to bore Deputies to death on the question of disability. There are many children with an intellectual disability who need our protection. This must be given priority in the vetting procedures. I continue to be concerned about these children, despite all the education, publicity, reports and legislation. We must ensure that we focus on these children. Many of the stories have not yet been told, but we need to act as a matter of urgency.

The Bill will provide a statutory basis for existing procedures whereby the Garda criminal records database is used to vet persons applying for employment working with children or young adults. The Bill also provides for the use of soft information with regard to such vetting and the disclosure of such information to prospective employers. Soft information is information other than a court determined criminal record. That is important. We need to have good background information on people who are about to become involved in a service. The Bill also provides that before such soft information can be used in vetting procedures, the person who is the subject of the information must be given a copy of the information to be disclosed and must be given the opportunity to challenge the proposed disclosure if he or she does not consider the information to be accurate. In my previous day job, I often came across people who had been involved in petty crime and had got their lives together and gone on to work in a local school, perhaps as a care assistant. Such people should not be blocked from employment. At the same time, the principal and board of management have a duty to know such a person's background and other staff members should be supportive of them.

A friend of mine once said to me that keeping an eye on people can prevent much abuse. Good supervision and common sense by a properly-trained manager, class teacher or youth club leader will prevent many situations arising. We have thousands of such people working for the Special Olympics and Paralympics or with people with disabilities. We have many quality people and we often do not give sufficient recognition to the amazing work they do.

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 soft information. I welcome this part of the legislation. We must always be respectful of people and of human rights and civil liberties. We must, however, maintain a balance. Priority must be given to the safety of the young person or child.

The types of work activities that require vetting are set out in the legislation. These include positions working in schools, health services, child care, residential care services and foster care. The Bill also requires persons providing services to children in sports clubs or community organisations to be vetted. Private babysitting, tuition and care arrangements are exempt from the vetting requirements. That is common sense. However, one needs to be careful in these situations. I came across a case in my clinic where a person told me he had been abused by someone who was giving him private tuition in his own home. We must be vigilant because a person who has an agenda will find ways to get around the vetting system. We must be careful if our children are being given private grinds, for example.

There is also an exemption for persons assisting at sports or community events on an occasional basis. It is for the organisers of such an event to make sure that abuse is not possible. Supervision by reliable people is the major part of prevention. The purpose of this exemption is to avoid having to vet every short-term volunteer with a community or voluntary organisation and to focus instead on vetting persons working with children on an ongoing basis.

We do not want to become too bureaucratic, but we must be vigilant. I have already mentioned children with an intellectual disability and younger children. There are people who will come up with various ways to gain access to children in order to abuse them.

The Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, of which I am a member, heard submissions on this matter in 2011. I welcome the fact that many of the committee's recommendations have played a large part in the legislation. That is the way to be inclusive and democratic when we are dealing with legislation in the Oireachtas.

Deputy Halligan referred to delays in vetting. That is not acceptable because many organisations and groups require vetting. This is a resources issue. We cannot legislate for vetting and protection services if we fail to provide the resources to implement them. That is not an option. There are thousands of people out there who are not being vetted. We must face up to reality. If we cut back on services how are we to protect children in the long term? Referendums will be of no use if we fail to provide back-up services.

The focus of the 2011 Children First guidelines was the protection of individual children about whom a report was made and of other children who might be at risk from an alleged perpetrator of abuse. The national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children was a voluntary code published by the Department of Health and Children in 1999 and updated in 2011. At the time, I welcomed that update. It was very positive. Under Children First, an organisation is required to appoint a designated officer. This has been done in many areas, organisations and groups and is very important. This designated officer makes sure staff and volunteers are vetted, recruited properly and trained in the safety and protection of children and in recognising the signs of abuse and neglect. It is important that staff and volunteers can recognise the signs of abuse and neglect. The designated officer also makes information available to parents about child protection in the organisation and ensures that a system is in place to check and report on compliance with the legislation. The designated officer must update himself or herself on situations and ensure that guidelines and supports are being implemented in a strong way. The Children First guidelines also deal with the role of the HSE which is to assess children at risk and the HSE must be provided with the information necessary to monitor and provide support to a child who may have been abused.

Section 11 of the Bill refers to the register of vetted persons. Vetting will be required for registered social workers, those working for accredited adoption bodies and in care and welfare residences and designated centres for older people, licensed driving instructors and those working in child care, special care, mental health care and private security. The Bill will not change current legislation.

We must have a system that is professional and respects civil liberties but puts children at the top of the agenda. I urge all Deputies to look carefully at the legislation and put children and their protection at the top of their political agenda. All of us, regardless of party politics, have a duty to ensure that children are protected from abuse, now and in the future.

Debate adjourned.