I hope this week will be remembered as a week in which the Government put the needs and safety of children at the heart of Government policy. I am conscious that at 11.30 a.m. my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, will publish the wording of the children's referendum, which will be held on 10 November, and the accompanying draft legislation on adoption. This Bill, the referendum and the adoption legislation represent good work on behalf of the children of this country, particularly those who may be vulnerable or at risk. Thankfully, children for the most part are loved and cherished by their families but it is not always thus for every child and, therefore, citizens will have an opportunity on 10 November to insert into our Constitution specific references to children. The legislation, if passed, will be introduced in a number of areas and it will improve and enhance the protection of children.
The Minister for Justice and Equality presented the legislation to the House. 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 way records of criminal convictions and information, including so-called soft information, can be stored and disclosed by the Garda and other agencies for the purposes of child protection. The Bill will provide the necessary 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 operate under the Children First national guidelines. The requirement to conduct vetting for the positions covered by the Bill is, therefore, not new.
Currently, approximately 300,000 vetting applications are processed each year by the Garda central vetting unit and, as those who have used the service will be aware, many people would like this service enhanced and vetting procedures dealt with on a more timely basis. My Department supports community employment, CE, and other social schemes. Many of the people working in community centres have access to children and vulnerable adults, and, therefore, positions they may take up require vetting and clearance by the Garda vetting unit. I am confident the proposals in the legislation will help to streamline and, hopefully, reduce the time it takes to complete the vetting process. It is a problem where somebody is appointed to a position and vetting takes a lengthy period.
The main purpose of the legislation is to put the procedures that have been developed to vet these applications into law. More important, it also makes it mandatory for people working with children or vulnerable adults to be vetted whereas, currently, 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. People in authority who are dealing with children have a position of trust and a duty of care to children availing of their services.
In addition, the Bill provides for the use of soft information, which is referred to as specified information. Specified information is information other than a court determined criminal record, which is the basis of the vetting process at the moment. 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. It 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 of Ireland and 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 inclusion of such information is important because we often have investigations where the Director of Public Prosecutions decides for various legal reasons not to prosecute but where serious concerns have been expressed by investigating gardaí who brought the case forward. Perhaps the case was not strong enough legally. It is, therefore, important that this information, which arises in specific context, should be available for vetting purposes.
As Minister for Social Protection, I am particularly pleased with the development of the legislation because it will have a positive impact on a number of schemes operated by the Department, including CE schemes and Tús, a new scheme that was developed over the past 18 months, and JobBridge.
However, I note that relatively few JobBridge internships are in this category, certainly at present, as the vast majority of them are in small and medium-sized businesses.
Child care 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. At present, there are 2,200 ring-fenced child care places in community employment schemes alone, while as I indicated, people working on Tús schemes and JobBridge also sometimes work with children and vulnerable people. The Department provides a structured approach to child care training and employment for more than 2,000 people, who obviously work specifically with children when engaged in practise as opposed to being in education. The Department of Social Protection provides training opportunities for people who work with children, particularly in child care, as well as for those who work in other contexts such as community centres, various public institutions and community institutions in which there may well be children and vulnerable adults. All such people must be vetted and at present, approximately 3,500 Garda vetting applications are processed by the Department of Social Protection for community employment and job initiative schemes per year. Moreover, a further 3,800 applications are processed per year for the rural social scheme and for Tús. Consequently, I am delighted to welcome the introduction of this Bill by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, both because it protects children and vulnerable adults and because it helps to raise standards in child care generally by ensuring that child care staff are properly trained and vetted and are capable of working well with children and vulnerable people.
There has been a clear commitment by the Government to improve the provision of child care and at present, three national child care schemes are in operation. The free preschool year and early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme provides that all children can access a free preschool year before starting primary school. The community child care subvention scheme is restricted to community not-for-profit child care services and provides support for parents in low-paid employment and training and education, including community employment, CE. This scheme allows eligible parents to access child care at a reduced cost at participating community child care centres. The child care employment and training support, CETS, schemes provide free child care to participants in FÁS and vocational education committee, VEC, training programmes. It is important that children attending these services are safe and their parents or guardians can have confidence in the calibre of the people providing child care services. I am, therefore, pleased 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 people, 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 the right to defend their name protected in the Bill, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, seeks to ensure that information such as vague rumours, innuendo or false allegations cannot form any part of the vetting process. He also seeks to provide for the constitutional rights of all citizens to protect their good names as provided in Article 40.3.2° of the Constitution. The Schedule to the Bill lists in detail the types of worker activities that require vetting. These include child care services, schools, hospital 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 the 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 also is exemption from vetting for people assisting at sports or community events on an occasional basis. This exemption is necessary to focus the vetting requirements on people working with children or vulnerable adults on an ongoing basis where such people have time to be with the children, perhaps over a prolonged period and on a number of occasions. In any case, people who help out at an occasional or annual community or sports event typically do so in full public view. I agree with the Minister, Deputy Shatter, that it is neither feasible nor desirable to vet every parent assisting at every school, sports or community activity nationwide. Instead, one must be practical and the Bill therefore focuses on requiring vetting for persons such as sports coaches, trainers, youth workers, teachers or any other persons, paid or unpaid, who work with children or vulnerable persons on an ongoing basis.
The scheme of 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 its recommendations in November 2011. Members of this House have already been highly supportive of this Bill when contributing to the consideration of the draft scheme of the Bill at the hearings undertaken by the Oireachtas joint committee. The Bill before Members today has been drafted to include provisions to take account of the issues raised by the joint committee. I agree with the Minister, Deputy Shatter, that Members of this House will be only too aware of the underlying need to have this legislation in place. We now are all highly conscious of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults that has taken place in a variety of institutional and other settings. Moreover, in respect of all the sad stories of abuse to merge from all the investigations that have been carried out, the key issue very often pertains to someone having continual access on a private basis alone to children, perhaps identifying children whom he or she wishes to groom or approach, and then being in a position to so do because of the holding of a position of trust. This of course is a recipe for disaster if someone previously had an inappropriate interaction with children because it is known, on foot of many of the inquiries, people like priests who had a difficulty often simply were moved from one parish to another or from one residential institution or school to another where they started off afresh and again were able to put children at risk or commit criminal actions in respect of children. Arising from the various inquiries, we are a sadder and more knowledgeable society about what constitutes risk, what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. The putting in place of this legislation will take us one further step along the road of seeking to provide a more secure environment in respect of our children. Consequently, the Bill is essential to ensure that employers can make informed decisions in cases where people seek employment that involves access to children or vulnerable adults.
I wish to mention the Garda central vetting unit with which my Department, the Department of Social Protection, works and which is led by Superintendent Pat Burke. At present, the unit processes approximately 300,000 vetting applications per year. I have had an opportunity to meet Superintendent Burke and I commend the superintendent and his team on their work in reducing the processing time for vetting applications. The improvement has been 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 the Bill, will have a substantially extended role under new legislation. Hopefully, that will mean we can deal with the very large volume of requests - in excess of 300,000 a year - for vetting of people working with children and vulnerable adults. We will now have the focus and capacity to deal with what the tabloids call soft information but the Bill refers to as specified information, and this will give rise to additional demands.
The aim of the legislation is to provide a safer and more protected environment for children. Of course it will not be able to guard against all dangers for children but hopefully it will significantly improve the threshold of safety the children enjoy. Because these procedures need to be carried out and employers and board members and managers of community, voluntary and educational organisations need to address these issues, those people will become informed and educated about the risks to children. It is critical to develop a culture in which adults in positions of authority and trust have a realistic understanding of the requirements for the practical protection of children. Systems are required and reporting of events is absolutely essential. We need to build that infrastructure.
At about this time the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, is publishing the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment on children. When the referendum is held on 10 November, it will be an opportunity for all our citizens to consider carefully the proposals as people always do in referendums. I hope they will vote "Yes" because it will be an opportunity to enhance further the status and provisions relating to children, particularly children in long-term foster care. Many of these are children of married parents but with no opportunity to be adopted particularly by the foster parents even though those foster parents may have been caring for them for some time. I know of many cases where children have been cared for by foster parents for most of their childhood and teenage years but are unable to form a link through adoption with their foster family even though their foster parents have become their parents because the natural birth parents have not for various reasons been available to care for them.