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

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

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.

At a time when wording of the constitutional amendment on children is being published, it is appropriate that we are speaking about a very solid proposal on vetting procedures that will protect children and vulnerable people. The Minister also said that it is about protecting those in positions of trust and ensuring that they have adequate training and knowledge of their obligations. Nor should they be compromised by allegation or not being aware of their obligations. Clearly, getting that balance right is a very important part of the legislation.

We need to ensure that we have not only children's rights but also the resources to ensure those rights are upheld, vindicated and protected. We often pass legislation purporting to do something but the mechanics and workings of it are critical. Resourcing should be made available to provide training and information to organisations and individuals working in the community on a voluntary basis, on boards of management in community centres, on community employment schemes and all the other normal activities that happen every day. Proper information campaigns need to be put in place outlining the obligations of the employer and employee in the vetting procedure. There also needs to be training in the area of child care and dealing with vulnerable people.

Clearly, the legislation is welcome. Obviously we have concerns that it is not sufficiently broad to deal with child minding, which we regard as a deficiency in the legislation. We all know that paedophilia is a predatory and devious activity. As the Minister has acknowledged, changes in technology have meant that predatory profiling has gone to Internet grooming and is using that as a mechanism to build up trust with a vulnerable person or a child. As child minding takes place in the home it is very hard to police in the first place. However, we feel this should be kept under observation because cutting off potential predatory avenues may result in people going elsewhere in order to inflict abuse on children or vulnerable people.

Overall the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 is welcome and sits alongside other legislative measures that have been introduced and others that are on the way, including the Children First legislation. We also need procedures ensuring a streamlining of vetting. While this is not the fault of An Garda Síochána, because there was not uniformity regarding vetting across the country for many years there were delays in vetting individuals to determine if they were suitable for paid positions of employment. We have all come across cases of people waiting extraordinary lengths of time to take up employment because the vetting procedure did not happen as quickly as one would anticipate. That will now be streamlined with a co-ordinated centre in Thurles and an information flow into that centre. The proper supports in technology, software and computers as well as personnel resourcing need to be maintained to ensure this legislation is effective as opposed to conferring another right on people which is not vindicated or protected.

Unfortunately, many hours in this House have been taken up in discussing the many reports of abuse inflicted on young people over many decades by various institutions, including the church, that were entrusted with their care. In many cases the State abdicated its responsibility for children, which had a very damaging impact on many people. These include not only the abused and their immediate families, but also us as a people. We failed to look after the most vulnerable in our society. The constitutional amendment on children's rights could form part of that healing process by putting the child first and at the centre of everything and then having legislation, such as this Bill, in place to ensure those rights are vindicated and upheld and children are protected by every effort of the State. For all those reasons it is important.

We also need to be conscious that many people volunteer for a school day or a community association fund-raising night. There needs to be clarity on the obligations organisations have. Without clarity on the obligations in order to comply with this and other legislation, people may just put up the barriers completely and not go ahead with everyday events such as garden fêtes and other fund-raising events for schools and community centres. Some years ago community associations cancelled various fund-raising and community events because they could not get public liability insurance or were unsure about the liability contingent on individuals or organisations if something happened.

I am concerned that if this is not properly explained and validated in a concise manner organisations will seek to comply with this legislation and other legislation and may not, because they believe it is too onerous, engage in what is considered normal every day community activity. It is important in terms of protecting children and vulnerable people and informing people and organisations of their obligations that we achieve a balance so as to ensure people do not believe onerous obligations are being placed upon them resulting in their not taking up work in communities and volunteering on a regular basis, as is currently a normal part of everyday life in Ireland.

The Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, is responsible for inspecting nursing homes in terms of fire exits, facilities, medication and quality of medical service provided to patients. We must be conscious that many people in nursing homes are vulnerable people. There is an obligation on all the statutory authorities who oversee these facilities to ensure that the inspection process not alone addresses patient safety in terms of fire, medication, food and so on but personal integrity. This area needs to be monitored. HIQA is at the front line in terms of ensuring standards are maintained in nursing homes. Given the increasing demographic profile of our people and the move towards private nursing home care, we may have to revisit this legislation in terms of the provision of further resources to HIQA and the putting in place of stronger links between it and the vetting bureau. There will be a need for continual observation to ensure this area is not forgotten about and there is proper centralised inspection of individuals, not alone in terms of vetting but of inspection. We may have to revisit this issue at a later stage if this particular legislation is found to be slightly impaired in terms of ensuring inspections are part and parcel of the process in the area of long term care.

I referred earlier, as did the Minister, to the issue of social workers and employees of the Health Service Executive. I believe we are hugely under-resourced in this area. That is an observation rather than a political point. There is now much emphasis on the assessment of families under stress and duress for many reasons and at risk owing to addiction, dysfunction and mental capacity. We need to revisit the issue of social workers and supports for families and individuals within those families who are at risk. All too often, we hear of cases involving children whose lives have been taken or of a parent who has taken his or her life and that of his or her children. I wonder if in this regard the link between schools, social workers and the HSE is strong enough in terms of the provision of a mechanism that is proactive in dealing with this issue. I am aware that this matter will be central to the debate on the forthcoming children's rights referendum. However, at the heart of this issue are resources and rights. We can confer rights on people by way of legislation or through changes to the Constitution but the key issue is the provision of resources for those on whom we confer those rights. There remain substantial difficulties in terms of social workers' interaction with families and individuals within those families who are vulnerable and at risk. This is not an issue in respect of children only. There have been many cases involving a person with an intellectual, physical or mental disability who has been abused or neglected by a family member in the home. This is a key issue with which we must deal, one which will require extensive resourcing.

The Garda Síochána may receive information which is then passed on to social workers in the HSE, many of whom are working under huge pressure. We need a 24/7 care system in place. A social worker once told me that she goes home on a Friday evening hoping that when she returns to work on Monday there will have been no change in circumstances over the weekend. It is hoped that the deficiencies in this area, not alone in respect of rights and legislation but of resourcing, will be highlighted during the debate on the forthcoming referendum. We must assist those who need support. In this regard, I am speaking not only of a particular individual who may need support but of whole families who require intervention. Intervention can take make forms. The saddest intervention is when the hearse arrives at the house to take away a family member because of the failure not necessarily of individuals, but of the system to provide assistance and supports.

I hope that in future there will be assistance available 24/7 so that when the Garda or HSE receive reports or teachers perceive, in school or through local contact, a potential threat to an individual the system can move immediately to address it rather than having to wait until the following Monday or Tuesday when a social worker is available. Such a service will be expensive and social workers, who are a professional group of people, are in short supply. Nevertheless, we need to roll out this support service to vulnerable families in our communities. The number of people at risk and under huge pressure because of changed circumstances in the economy and society has increased, resulting in alcohol abuse, drug addiction and so on which can have a devastating impact on individuals and society.

In speaking about vetting, children's rights and the protection of vulnerable people the emphasis must always be on ensuring that what we say in here, in terms of our aspirations to confer rights and protections, is backed up with resources. On the issue of childminders, I am concerned that this Bill does not adequately address this area. Many children are cared for by childminders in the home. This legislation is deficient in terms of addressing this issue. There is a need for ongoing monitoring in this area. The Bill should include a reference to the vetting of childminders and in this regard the Minister should revisit it immediately.

It is often too late when we realise key areas of legislation were not enacted or resources were not put in place to develop a particular area. While this legislation is being rolled out and resources are being rolled out behind it, we should be mindful of the issue of childminders. If one were to add up all the people who are solely dependent on an individual in a trusting way on a daily basis, the area of childminding would be a key one where there are no other observations in place. In most other cases, in nursing home settings, even in community centres, schools and hospitals, there are more people in the vicinity and in the work environment but in the home setting the childminder is at the centre of it, as entrusted by a parent or parents to mind children for a period of time when nobody else is present. That is something we need to observe and keep a very close eye on. Given the predatory nature of paedophilia, when one avenue is closed off, other avenues are explored by those people. There is considerable evidence internationally that shows this to be the case. Very often, as we have found to our cost here, the offender may not be a childminder from outside the family environment but one from within it, a relative or a person closer to the family than the traditional mindset people would have of a person who would work as a childminder.

In regard to the passing on of soft information to people in the Garda vetting bureau, the purpose of the Garda Síochána is to maintain the peace, protect our citizens and all that flows from that. If there is evidence or suggestions that an individual may not be suitable to be placed in such a role, there is an obligation on people to pass on that information, even it is soft or anecdotal in nature, as it would give the Garda intelligence to assess a situation and deal with it.

We welcome the Bill. There are key settings in the area of child protection in particular, childminding and nursing homes that we might have to monitor and observe. On the day of the launch of the wording of the children's rights referendum, the key issue is not only that we confer rights, but we confer those rights and entitlements through ensuring proper resources are made available to protect children and vulnerable persons in our community.

The next speaker is Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, who I understand is sharing her time with Deputies Coffey and O'Donovan.

Step by step and piece by piece, the Government is addressing gaping holes in the protection of children and vulnerable adults. Yesterday the Taoiseach announced a referendum to protect children. Thankfully, 20 years after the retired former justice Catherine McGuinness advised this reform, the Government is now giving the people a choice to give children a voice in our Constitution, and at this moment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is publishing the wording of the referendum. Past Governments have procrastinated on the children's referendum for 20 years and many little voices went unheard as a result. Previous Governments have deferred and have not put in place the children's referendum as should have been done.

To return the Bill before us, it is further evidence that the Government values our young and vulnerable. It is an immense pity that it took the highlighting of terrible abuse of hundreds of Irish children to get us here. In terms of saying what goes on behind closed doors should stay there, we should all be active citizens. We should all actively care about those around us. That is what separates us from animals.

I would like to praise two aspects of the Bill. It allows for specified information to be taken into account. This goes beyond the current system. The Bill sets out procedures to allow soft information to be used. This will further protect our children. Organisations working with or providing services to children and vulnerable people have called for this to be done for many years. The Government is listening and, more importantly, acting on their concerns.

I am delighted the Bill will enforce criminal sanctions on those who do not properly use the new vetting system. Thousands of people are working with our young and vulnerable who have not been checked by the Garda. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection in July, I was shocked to learn that there are still 42,000 teachers registered with the Teaching Council who have not been vetted. I stress that this is not the fault of the teaching profession but rather because of the historical backlog of applicants seeking to be vetted. I ask the Minister that those in the teaching profession who have not been vetted be vetted as quickly as possible. This will ensure our children are safe. It will ensure the teachers' professionalism and their characters are not impugned due to delays in vetting which occur through no fault of their own.

Negative side-effects of improved vetting have been raised. As Deputy Finian McGrath said last night, abusers and paedophiles will not go away. Predators do not go away. Fears have been aired that with better vetting in our schools and sporting organisations, increased Internet grooming may occur as a result. Undoubtedly social policy and legislation have not kept pace with technological advances. Technology makes every day easier, but it also makes the lives of many scary, lonely, bullied and isolated. Parents and school authorities need to be more aware. They need to be vigilant and take precautions to ensure children are protected from cyber stalkers. We as legislators need to do our utmost to protect our youth from the harmful and negative impact of not only Internet grooming but also sites that promote violent sexual acts as desirable or that promote anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and cyber bullying. The world has advanced hugely in the last ten years. Children and teenagers today face different challenges and problems and we as adults, parents and legislators need to face up to this reality and start being more proactive about their welfare.

I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. There is no doubt it will strengthen the State's protection of children and vulnerable people. I commend the Minister for Justice, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Government on the proactive legislative steps they are taking to ensure children are protected and not exposed to any abuse such as that which occurred up to the recent past.

The Bill will give statutory effect to the current vetting system that has been in place. It would be remiss of me not to mention the significance of the children's referendum launch that is happening this morning, which will be a huge positive step. I hope it will ensure further debate and discourse on children's protection.

I compliment the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality on its work on this Bill, on its wide consultation with interested organisations and on taking on board their views. It has made a number of recommendations to which I will return later.

There is no doubt this legislation will tighten up the area of ensuring adequate protection for children and better vetting procedures for people who come into contact with children and vulnerable people. The current system has gone some way towards ensuring protection but it is not complete. I read recently that in County Cork, a convicted sex offender was found to be driving a public school bus. I understand that situation has since been corrected. This legislation will ensure such happenings will not occur again.

The Bill will focus essentially on those who work with children and those who have regular contact on a medium to long-term basis with children and vulnerable people.

I refer to the PPS number as an identifier. The Minister must clarify whether a PPS number can be used as an identifier in the vetting process. I encourage its use but there may be data sharing issues.

I note that the Fianna Fáil Party has concerns about childminders. I am the parent of young children who go to a childminder. Parents closely monitor individual childminders and they develop a strong relationship with the childminder. We must be careful not to be over the top in this legislation.

Some 87.9% of foster carers have already been vetted, with the remaining 12.1% being processed. The HIQA report on elderly homes revealed that only 43% of centres have been adequately vetted. That is a concern. I hope the new system will address these areas. Challenges remain for the Government because, with the new legislative system, I am concerned whether adequate resources will be put in place to ensure the national bureau for vetting will have the resources and facilities to deal with the increase in vetting applications. There are delays and issues with the current procedures and they have not been adequately addressed.

I was involved with many community groups, including the GAA and the boards of management of schools. A number of voluntary organisations look after the social needs of children with the best of intentions. Such agencies and organisations need to be properly advised and informed with regard to the implications of legislation. That can be done at relatively low cost through the establishment of a website with appropriate information, forms and advice. The observations of the Oireachtas joint committee are worth considering. They mention that those with access to confidential information on children and vulnerable people should also be vetted. That point is not dealt with in the Bill and should be considered.

I feel strongly about the portability of vetting certificates. Individuals may have a vetting certificate for one organisation but may be involved in a multitude of organisations. We should consider reducing administration by making the vetting certificate transferable within other organisations. That seems a practical and cost-effective solution and will make the process easier to administer. Mandatory re-vetting is recommended by the Oireachtas joint committee and is provided for in the Bill. Perhaps we should consider a renewal period for vetting certificates of three or five years, similar to a driving licence. This point should be examined.

Before speaking on the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, I refer to the referendum, given that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is present in the Chamber. I welcome the fact that the referendum is being held on Saturday. I commend the Government on doing so as it will allow younger people and those who work away from their place of residence to vote. I would like to see legislation to put that practice on a statutory footing so that it is always the case.

This referendum will throw up the debacle of the McKenna judgment. Given the universal political support we heard for the children's referendum this morning, the constitutional convention, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government or an Oireachtas committee should examine the fallout of the McKenna judgment. While 100% of the elected representatives of the people of the country may be supportive of an amendment to the Constitution, 50% of the air time must be allocated to a fringe group, which may be unrepresentative of the people and may be funded from outside the State. The Oireachtas has an obligation to examine that and ask ourselves whether it is a fair and true reflection of what those who elected Oireachtas Members expect. People who may not be citizens of the State, let alone resident in the State, may find themselves the cheerleaders for a fringe group that is against a measure in the public good, as is the referendum on children's rights. I have major concern about that and proportionality should be examined. Now is the opportunity, given the holding of the children's referendum and the fact that, according to the previous speakers, it seems the Opposition parties are supportive of the referendum in principle. That is a good thing.

The referendum, the Children First guidelines and the setting up of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs are part of a suite of initiatives taken by the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to address the greatest blot on the Irish psyche since Independence. I refer to the manner in which our State failed to protect and safeguard vulnerable people and children. It is a shame on the State. Deputy Kelleher referred to this being part of the healing process in which the State must be involved. We will never manage to delete what happened to vulnerable people and children in institutions, homes, schools and hospitals but we have an obligation to do everything we can, from a legislative and social point of view where possible, to ensure it does not happen again. The transcripts of proceedings and reports on the investigations of the Roscommon case, which really highlighted the inadequacy of the system and how it fell asunder refer to children being emaciated, with lice climbing down their faces. Several people raised concerns, yet there was an absolute failure to intervene. The failure applies not only to that case, but to a litany of cases. Recently, swimming coaches, taxi drivers, bus drivers and people in ordinary professions have been brought before the courts. We see a constant dripping of court cases, media reports and legislative reports showing that the State failed these people as citizens. A previous Taoiseach issued an apology for how the State failed to protect children and vulnerable people. It is the most shameful moment in our nation's history.

Over the past number of days, the emphasis has been on children but the legislation also applies to vulnerable adults and people of reduced mental capacity, those living alone in receipt of home help, those who have carers coming into their home and people who are blind and in need of personal assistants. A huge level of trust is required and, unfortunately, I know about it. A level of trust is built up between the carer and the person receiving care, yet we do not have the proper legislative standards for the protection of old people and those with reduced mental capacity in their homes. I raised this point in the Dáil, and a "Prime Time Investigates" programme investigated the matter recently. Every year, the State spends several hundred million euro on home care packages and we expect people to be cared for in their own homes. It is the best place to maintain people and they should remain there where possible. At the same time, we do not have standards, an inspection regime or legislation. We have commercial contracts between the HSE, which pays, and commercial entities and companies that provide the service.

Were it not for the interest of the public health nurses who liaise with those in receipt of home care, we would probably be in a very difficult set of circumstances in which we would have no clue whatsoever as to what is occurring in people's homes. This needs to be taken on board urgently by the Minister for Health and his Department. The Minister of State with responsibility for the disabled and elderly has flagged this as a matter that needs to be addressed by way of legislation. It is very badly needed. This State has placed a huge amount of trust in home carers caring for old people. In many cases, the elderly have no one to speak for them.

Many of the people working in home care are excellent – do not get me wrong – but if there is no set standard, inspection regime, requirement to produce certification and documentation on an ongoing basis and unannounced visits and interviews, there is potential for slippage. We saw this very clearly in regard to private nursing homes. In this regard, the inspection regime and adherence to minimum standards fell asunder absolutely. It took a "Prime Time Investigates" programme to reveal this. It was followed up by Deputy O'Dowd, who is now a Minister of State. He brought forward proposals that led to the establishment of HIQA. Many Members, including me, have many gripes about HIQA and what it expects, yet the provision of private, commercial home care packages needs to come under its auspices. The sooner, the better. People living on their own who have nobody, and to whose doors the postman may be the only visitor, are in dire need of having the State row in behind them.

Let me refer to my background and to what the previous speaker said on vetting certification. I have considerable concerns in this regard, for very good reason. In the information provided to us by the research facility, it is stated that one town council down the country suggested bringing forward a three-year certification clause. I would have a major problem with that. The reason is that, depending on circumstances, there should be fluidity. Once there is Garda vetting, this should not be the end of the line. Every two, five or ten years, for example, the employer should receive an update from the Garda Síochána. A person could be cleared today and appointed as a primary teacher tomorrow, with no further vetting. There is no follow-up. The Garda vetting bureau does not provide any further information to the employer, which is a huge anomaly.

It is not enough to say one has been involved in ten different organisations. I have been involved in many youth work organisations and have received five or six Garda vetting certificates. I have no problem with this. People just have to wait because it is preferable to having something slip through the cracks. I urge caution on the part of those who say that once one is vetted once, that should be the end of it. There should be fluidity and vetting should continue. Once one is in the system, one should be automatically re-vetted after a certain period. This cannot be too difficult. If, using an Oireachtas database, we can revert to a constituent on a given matter, we can surely have a system whereby an employer can be updated on vetting.

In general, I welcome the legislation. It is long overdue. So, too, is the children's rights referendum and the putting on a statutory footing of the Children First guidelines. I know the Minister for Justice and Equality will read the transcript of this debate because he said so yesterday. I urge him to do something for vulnerable adults, including the blind, deaf, incapacitated and those with reduced mental capacity, and all those who are currently in receipt of private home care. With the announcement of the referendum on children, there is, quite rightly, a temptation to focus on children, but this is a much broader issue.

This State has had a poor record of protecting children. We are all too familiar with the harrowing tales from industrial schools, general schools and clubs where children were left open to abuse by predators. The State did little or nothing to protect them. We are also acutely aware of the occasions on which children were abused in their own homes, where they were entitled to protection and love. No one stepped in to stop their pain, including, on occasion, the health authorities dealing with the families. Child safety and the safety of vulnerable people are of paramount importance. They probably comprise the most important provision for which we, as Members, can legislate. We must ensure the highest standards are in place to protect the young and vulnerable.

The purpose of this Bill is to regulate and control the manner in which records of criminal convictions and information, including so-called soft information, can be stored and disclosed by the Garda Síochána and other agencies for the purpose of child protection. Soft information may include, but is not limited to, circumstances in which an allegation of child abuse is made against a person although it does not result in a conviction. It 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.

Vetting procedures are already a requirement under the Children First national guidelines. Approximately 300,000 vetting applications are processed by the Garda vetting unit each year. The primary purpose of the Bill is to put the procedures that have been developed to vet the applicants into law. More important, the Bill 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 the provisions of the Bill.

As matters stand, only hard information, such as a conviction, can be used in the vetting process. This leaves a gaping hole in relation to the dangers that children or vulnerable people could be exposed to. A problem may arise in that a person who is reported to the Garda but is never convicted, perhaps due to lack of sufficient evidence or a technicality, could still pose a significant risk to children. There is a clear argument for sharing soft information as it could prove vital in preventing further cases of abuse of children or vulnerable people.

In exceptional circumstances, and only in such circumstances, and in the interest 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, in addition to ensuring full human rights and data protection compliance. Those provisions concerning soft information should only deal with information that has been brought to the attention of the Garda or HSE.

It is important that a person who is to be placed on a soft information list will be notified of this fact and will be given the chance to appeal the limits set upon them by being placed on this list, prior to any request for vetting by a third party. It is also essential that the one central vetting unit store all information in compliance with data protection legislation. There must be no confusion as to the types of information applicable to this legislation. Notice must be given of the types of employment likely to be affected and, furthermore, notice must be given of the period for which 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 permanently and promptly.

While we cannot underestimate the importance of using this legislation to firm up child protection measures, we also cannot underestimate the need to keep such information confidential and to make it available on a strictly 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 it by the vetting bureau beyond what is strictly necessary. Severe penalties must be applied in respect of any breach of this obligation.

In the interest of fairness, we must also ensure limited restrictions to contesting discrimination where a person believes that an employer has acted above and beyond that which is required by the vetting soft information list. We urge the Government strongly to examine the option of introducing an independent body to investigate appeals.

The protection of children and vulnerable people is paramount. The Government has an opportunity to right some of the wrongs that have been committed against children. Sinn Féin will support this legislation. However, legislation without a means of implementation is worthless and we will seek to ensure that the necessary resources are in place to achieve the Bill's objectives.

I disagree with Deputy O'Donovan's suggestion that the voices of small groups in opposition to the children's referendum should be silenced on the basis of the broad all-party agreement. As legislators, we should never assume that we are all-knowing and all-wise. The people are entitled to hear every opinion from all sides of the debate, even if an opinion is from a small, unrepresentative group. People have the intelligence and maturity to cut through the points made by such groups and to reach the proper conclusion. In this light, it would be wrong of us to try to silence the voice of dissent. Parliaments often make the mistake of legislating on the assumption that they know better than everyone else.

I understand that Deputy Buttimer is sharing time with Deputies Áine Collins and Dara Murphy. Deputy Buttimer has ten minutes.

This is an historic day in our Republic. For the first time, a Government has published a Bill to go before the people in a referendum on enshrining in the Constitution the protection and rights of children. Of equal importance, it will support families and treat all children equally. I commend the Government, particularly the Ministers, Deputies Shatter and Fitzgerald, on taking such a referendum to the people, who will be asked to vote in the interests of families and children. I hope the people will engage.

I agree with Deputy O'Donovan regarding the way in which we engage in referendums. It seems that there is a disproportionality in media coverage. The McKenna judgment requires a ratio of 50:50 irrespective of the quantum of pro versus anti. That was Deputy O'Donovan's point. I agree with Deputy Colreavy that we can never silence people, but we need a balanced approach in the coverage of a proposition.

This Bill is one of a suite of legislative proposals from the Government that have at their core an increase in the protection afforded to children and vulnerable adults. It has been 20 years since Mrs. Justice McGuinness called for such a referendum and we have had 17 reports since the Kilkenny case. The impact on children caused by inaction and an abdication of responsibility has been evident.

I welcome the cross-party and Independent support. We need a robust system of protection. The Government has put one in place through the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, the heads of the Children First Bill, this Bill and the children's rights referendum.

It is important that we consider the social purpose of vetting and the consequences of the system. The paramount purpose of vetting is to protect the most vulnerable in society. This concern is at the heart of the Bill, just as it has been at the core of the Government's work in the past 18 months via the Minister for Justice and Equality as well as the first-time establishment of a Department with responsibility for children and youth affairs and a Minister with full Cabinet voting rights.

In 20 years our view of children has changed significantly. We recognise the fact that there must be joined-up thinking, an interagency approach, discussions, collaboration and a sharing of resources in the best interests of children and the most vulnerable.

The impact of past failures on society, families and children has been considerable. These failures have been on the part of all of society's strata, including the State and the church. No one can abdicate responsibility. As a legislative assembly and a nation, we must restore confidence in child protection services. I pay tribute to the many excellent people working in those services. This legislation must work with them hand-in-hand. The proposed legislative framework will ensure that the duties and responsibilities of those working with children and vulnerable adults are clear. There can be no more grey areas. The framework requires a collective responsibility to ensure that the highest standards are achieved and maintained. This and other Bills being introduced by the Minister for Justice and Equality are significant steps in achieving those goals.

I welcome the fact that this Bill will place the national vetting bureau on a statutory footing and place clear and cogent demands. It will remove ambiguities in terms of duties and responsibilities. I also welcome the fact that it will achieve a balance between the need for disclosure, the public interest and protecting the interests of children and vulnerable adults. Deputy Colreavy referred to the sharing of soft information. It is important that it be disclosed, given the fact that it is not only a criminal conviction that can indicate a risk of harm. A pattern of behaviour can indicate a risk of harm. When we discuss the protection of the most vulnerable members of society, we must remember that we are referring to children and vulnerable adults. We should not rely on the same standards as obtain in criminal trials. We should not require that something be proven beyond reasonable doubt. Those who are at risk deserve the greatest protection possible from the State. This will be ensured by the disclosure of soft information.

Let us consider the current vetting system. We know why it is necessary but is it prompt? In some cases, people experience delays in obtaining reports from the Garda.

I welcome that in the first three months of this year, the average length of waiting time has been reduced to two weeks from 12 weeks in 2010. I commend those responsible for this achievement, particularly the Minister and those working in the national vetting offices. It is important to ensure we have sufficient resources, and in a time of budgetary regression, we must allocate resources properly. If we expect a service and continuing care, those resources must be put in place.

Although we may not be overly concerned about the average waiting time, the longest waiting time is of concern. Delays have a consequence on people and organisations when it comes to earning a living or allowing an organisation gain a volunteer or be provided with a valuable service. Delays can prevent delivery of an essential service to those people most at risk. It is important that the resources of the vetting bureau are adequate and give a proper, deliverable turnaround time that his achievable and practical.

Deputies Colreavy and Healy know that in the committee dealing with health and children matters, we have examined the heads of the Children First Bill, and we have listened to a significant body of people who work with children. The State has a duty of care and it is important for us to put our house in order with regard to relevant legislation. We are doing so and the Government has come to the fore in creating an awareness of child abuse, facilitating recognition and reporting of it and managing child safety, which is very important. This is about creating a joined-up approach involving different agencies and Departments and meeting responsibilities. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Bill, the purpose of which is to protect children and vulnerable adults. Vetting of people who work with children or vulnerable adults must be mandatory; not only do we need to ensure that protection is provided to both children and vulnerable adults but we also need to protect the staff and volunteers working in the area. We have all been shocked and dismayed at the various reports that have come out detailing the abuse that children have endured in the past. What shocked me most was how recently this abuse took place. I am glad the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs are doing everything possible to strengthen the law and minimise occasions where such abuse could happen in future.

We will see a number of Bills being brought to the House in this session in this regard, as well as a children's referendum Bill. The wording of the constitutional amendment was announced today. All of this is being done to improve the protection of children in this country. As comprehensive as the legislation is, it is nearly impossible to cover all incidents where abuse is likely. This is why, as people, we should examine society closely. We all have a responsibility to ensure these new laws are successfully enforced.

The new suite of legislation to protect children and vulnerable adults includes this Bill, the Children First Bill and a new criminal justice Bill. These are indicative of the Government's approach to looking after our people, which is the State's duty of care. Such action will also ensure that total clarity is brought to bear in the protection of children, and ignoring any provisions in these Bills will be a criminal offence. These new laws, and this very detailed legislation in particular, place a significant responsibility on volunteer organisations, community groups and statutory institutions.

The obligation on voluntary and community groups puts extra responsibility on people who already give generously of their time. Community activity and volunteering is of enormous benefit to our economy; it also benefits social inclusion, especially in rural communities, and community volunteers must not be undervalued. This is especially true in these times of high unemployment. From speaking to people in many of my community and voluntary organisations in Cork North-West, I know people are very supportive of this Bill. Community groups, more than anybody else, see the need for this type of legislation and will continue to work voluntarily to promote a particular group or sports organisation. They know the value of having staff or volunteers vetted by the bureau and how this serves to protect all involved parties.

There is a real onus on employers to comply with the new legislation. I know many of these feel there is much bureaucracy and regulation to adhere to, especially those which affect small employers with limited resources in difficult times. Everybody understands the need for this legislation and its importance, as it is not just a legal issue but also a moral one. Any organisation employing people working with children or vulnerable adults must comply with the legislation, and that provision applies no matter what type of contract the employee has. It also applies to contracts for service.

An employer must register as a relevant organisation under this Bill and employers have an obligation to vet applications or employees doing relevant work or activities relating to children or vulnerable adults. They will also have an obligation to ensure that a person previously vetted for a current position can be vetted again and employees who have not gone through the vetting process must be vetted retrospectively. There will be severe penalties, including a prison term, for non-compliance so employers must make themselves aware of their duties under this legislation.

It should be clear to everybody that this Government is totally committed to ensuring the safety of children and vulnerable adults is protected to the fullest extent possible. This Bill will go a long way to ensuring that people who work with children and vulnerable adults are properly screened, which must be good. We must all be vigilant in ensuring that children and vulnerable adults are properly protected, and for that reason I commend the Bill to the House.

I also welcome the opportunity to speak to this Bill today, given the day that is in it. Within the last hour we have seen the publication of the wording of the constitutional amendment for the children's referendum, yet another example of the Government's long overdue commitment to our children and vulnerable people in our society. I hope that people in positions of influence will now read the wording, and I note some senior members of the Judiciary were able to comment in advance of the publication of the wording. I found that very curious, particularly given the legal background of these people. There has been support this morning from people who deal with our most vulnerable children, such as Barnardos and the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

This legislation is long overdue, as we have seen from the Ferns, Ryan, Cloyne, Dublin Archdiocese and Kelly Fitzgerald reports. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Shatter, but we must ask why this legislation could not have been brought forward by the previous Government, given that a joint committee brought forward these recommendations in 2008. Nonetheless, I welcome the Opposition's support.

To date there has been a voluntary system, and most of us involved in politics have had many representations about the speed of processing of 300,000 applications each year. It is welcome that the waiting time is now approximately two weeks rather than three or four months. I encourage the Minister to put in place all the necessary support to allow for the changeover from voluntary to statutory systems so we do not regress to long waiting times. For people running voluntary and sporting organisations in particular, or people taking up employment, a quick and streamlined vetting process is vital.

The main concept in the Bill is that what is termed "soft information" held by the Garda, where criminal investigation has not taken place, can be released. It is vital that there be a quick appointment of an independent appeals officer because where information is described as "soft", it may not have been strong enough to give rise to a criminal prosecution.

Therefore, it is important that the appeals officer does not require in the ambition of protecting children that the information which comes to him or her is strong enough to force court proceedings because by definition it cannot do so. The balance of power must fall in favour of our children. It is also noteworthy that anyone who is the subject of this information will be given the legal right to challenge. I also welcome the clarification on sporting and voluntary organisations and people occasionally involved with minding and protecting young people. Several years ago I was on a parents committee and a proposal for a walking bus, whereby children would be escorted to school with a rotation of parents walking with them, could not continue because of the onerous child vetting procedures at the time. At least now we will have absolute clarity on what is required and what is not.

We are speaking about soft evidence but there is also hard evidence. I spoke to a very senior garda who highlighted an issue I would like to bring to the attention of the Minister of State with regard to the collection of DNA evidence, which would be hard evidence. In an investigation of any crime involving DNA evidence, and today we are discussing perhaps sexual crimes involving vulnerable people and children, the DNA evidence can be collected and stored only for the particular investigation. If people are deemed to be potential suspects in a crime involving DNA evidence the Garda must again collect DNA evidence from the suspects. Evidence cannot be held in a central database. This causes a number of difficulties, the most important being that gardaí are not efficiently seeking those they should be by being able to discount those for whom they already have DNA evidence. This has huge resource and cost implications. It also impacts on those who are innocent who must return to a Garda station and voluntarily submit their DNA to be cleared. This issue has been highlighted as an area that needs to be addressed.

I welcome the Bill and reiterate the call for an independent assessment of disputes, which needs to be efficient and have statutory support to fall on the side of vulnerable children where a dispute arises.

I call Deputy Catherine Murphy who will share time with Deputy Seamus Healy.

The thrust of the Bill is positive. However I have some concerns which I would like to address. We have had too much legislation which does not have a solid practical application and uncertainty about how it will be applied. It is important to consider this legislation not only in its own right but also where it fits into the jigsaw in terms of the suite of child protection legislation. We must examine the institutions in the first instance. In this respect we have been very bad at putting in place good institutional architecture.

With regard to reform, this morning I listened to the Taoiseach speak about squeezing as much as possible out of the Croke Park agreement. This is not reform; it is a system of cost-cutting. If we are to have very good institutions which can deliver in the area of child protection they must be integrated with each other and we must have real reform which allows this. This cannot be left to the individual organisations themselves. There must be political input in designing the end game and putting the citizen at the heart of it. This is a deficiency in the area. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, stated he did not want to micromanage some of the systems but a broad philosophy on the outcomes is essential.

To return to the Bill, its main purpose is to establish a vetting process. Will this require additional resources? Who will do it? Will it cause delays? We have been given information on the delays in vetting being reduced. This does not stack up with my experience. I have heard from community organisations which are very critical of the time it takes to vet those who are required to be vetted for jobs, schemes or courses. The two week time period does not stack up with the experiences of those who contact me. The bureau relies on temporary staff, as 20 people and four from JobBridge were assigned to it earlier this year. The way it is being handled at present does not give me a sense of certainty. I completely understand there can be peaks and valleys in the number of requests but unless we have certainty about the people who will do this work we will have logjams, delays and problems and it will not work for those to be vetted, those it should exclude, or children.

The Bill deals with vulnerable adults. We cannot disconnect this from what is happening at present. Nobody is more vulnerable than vulnerable adults who are part of a special school such as St. Raphael's in Celbridge. Transport provision for people within 3 km of the special school was not considered a front-line service and was cut. The people involved used to get a bus but this service has been dispensed with now there is no money to provide it. The only way they have of getting to the special school or to the sheltered employment in which they are involved is for their families to collaborate in taking a taxi. Some of the families have contacted me to state if those involved were brought to the end of their county they would not know how to say it is not where they want to go, let alone be able to identify whether they are being inappropriately dealt with by a driver. This is not to cast any aspersions on a particular cohort of people in the transport system. Cutting services which are not deemed to be front line is leading to the creation of gaps. If people cannot get to the services it causes a deficiency. If they must rely on a service which is not vetted it leaves them vulnerable.

It must be considered in the broadest sense of the word.

I have concerns in regard to soft information in particular. If soft information had been used in the Soham case in England, for example, and the caretaker had been identified, it might well have prevented those deaths, although that is an extreme example. Soft information has a place. However, this must be very carefully applied because somebody could feel it is unconstitutional. I would not dismiss the Irish Human Rights Commission in regard to its concerns. It says that under Article 43.2 of the Constitution people have the right to a good name. It is not just any individual who can notify but specified organisations. However, one can never dismiss the prospect of something which may be vexatious. There must be very good guidance in regard to how this is applied because somebody could take a constitutional case. That would be a terrible irony because we are talking about including something very positive. Earlier this morning at a briefing with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, I saw the wording of the new article, with which I am very comfortable. It will be a positive insertion in the Constitution should the citizens decide to include it. It would be a terrible irony if that was included as a means to protect children while a means to do that could be found to be unconstitutional. How it is applied will have to be considered very carefully.

A point was made earlier in regard to PPS numbers. I do not understand why they are being collected if they cannot be used as an identifier. We get quite a lot of advice about what information we can and cannot hold in regard to data protection. There is a question in that regard which should be answered.

People have major concerns about duplication. We need to work more smartly with the resources available to us. If a person does three different things and requires to be vetted for three different organisations, there should be a smarter way to do that within a timeline and which does not lead to the kind of duplication that absorbs administrative time but provides the kind of scrutiny required.

Geoffrey Shannon expressed his concern at the current system where, in effect, the person applying for a position must furnish necessary police vetting from other jurisdictions in circumstances where Garda vetting is not available for staff, students and volunteers who have lived outside this jurisdiction. He stated that many would argue that self-provided police vetting is not acceptable. I would pay serious attention to somebody like him who has had such a high level of involvement in a report as recent as the one in which he and Nora Gibbons were involved.

The Bill defines coaching, mentoring, training and counselling. That is very important because we do not want to stop people from volunteering to do things but at the same time we want to define areas where there is engagement with children on an ongoing basis which would leave them open to inappropriate or criminal behaviour by an adult.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill. I am generally supportive of it and expect to be in a position to support it through the Oireachtas. I welcome the announcement in regard to the children's rights referendum and the fact the referendum will be held on a Saturday which will give most people the opportunity to register their position on it. The referendum is a long time coming but, nevertheless, it is welcome.

Like other Deputies, I have not had the opportunity to go through the wording in detail but from a cursory examination of it it would appear to be in line with what we have been expecting, from the initial report of the Oireachtas committee, various wordings and preparations of wordings from previous Ministers of State with responsibility for children. It appears that what we have been expecting has been quite well outlined in the wording. There is a recognition of the rights of all children. The wording proposed by the committee spoke of physical and moral failure which is very broad and general but the proposed wording is more specific in that regard. The question of adoption is also addressed. It refers to the best interests of the child in proceedings and states that the views of the child "shall" be taken into account rather than "may" be taken into account. From a cursory examination of the wording, it would appear to be a very welcome development and I look forward to being involved in the debate on it.

I refer to suggestions from Government speakers that the McKenna judgment should be interfered with in some respects and that opposition voices should, in some way, not be catered for or reduced in their access to the media and in this process. A referendum on our Constitution is very important and we should have the widest debate. There should be no interference with the McKenna judgment in that regard.

I welcome this legislation which is set against a background that is not good and which has seen many failures to detect and prevent the abuse of children and vulnerable adults. We have seen various reports over the years, including the Kelly Fitzgerald report, the Ferns report, the Dublin Archdiocese report, the Ryan report, the Cloyne report and various other recent reports on other dioceses in the Catholic Church.

It comes from that background and the vetting system needs to be put on a statutory footing. It also needs to dovetail with other legislation relating to children, including the Children First Bill, the referendum on children's rights and the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012. This Bill is worthwhile in that it dovetails with the aforementioned legislative measures.

The Bill provides for a statutory framework to define soft or specified information and sets out procedures for use of this relevant information in addition to records of prosecutions or criminal convictions. It also sets out categories of persons who are excluded from vetting, provides a mechanism for the Minister to create a system of re-vetting and introduces an appeals procedure.

There is no doubt that the current vetting system needs to be put on a statutory footing. Excellent work is being done in this area but I have heard complaints about the length of time involved in processing applications and I hope sufficient resources are invested to provide the staffing and information technology arrangements needed to ensure a quick and thorough vetting system which is also transparent and accountable.

The question of soft information has been addressed by several speakers. While I agree that such information should be made available to the vetting system, it is an area in which we need to proceed with care. An independent appeals system will be required in respect of vetting generally and this type of information in particular. There must be trust in the system.

While re-vetting is provided for in the Bill, the Department has indicated that it will not be a priority. This is a pity and the Minister should reconsider the matter to ensure re-vetting is properly resourced because it is essential for the protection of children and vulnerable adults.

I call Deputy Spring, who is sharing time with Deputies Kevin Humphreys and Seán Kenny.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012. This Bill provides the necessary statutory basis for the use of the Garda's criminal records database to conduct vetting of persons offered employment or working on a voluntary basis with children or vulnerable adults. It puts the existing system of Garda vetting on a statutory basis and in order to provide greater levels of protection it introduces criminal sanctions for those who do not properly use the vetting system.

As is evidenced by the introduction of several legislative developments in respect of the protection of children, the Government is proactive in taking the protection of children and vulnerable people into consideration. This is at the core of what our Government aims to achieve. We are looking forward to the referendum on children's rights which will be held on 10 November as an opportunity for enhancing the reputation of institutions of State, sporting organisations and the church as safe places for children and vulnerable adults. In addition to the referendum on children's rights, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 and the Criminal Justice (Withholding Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Adults) Bill 2012 have been introduced this year and the heads of Children First Bill 2012 were published in April.

Vetting is carried out by the Garda central vetting unit and is only conducted on behalf of registered organisations. Areas affected by vetting include: the Civil Service; sports organisations, including sports clubs and national governing bodies; volunteer groups; registered social workers; accredited adoption bodies; care and welfare of residents in designated centres for older people; licensed driving instructors; child care in pre-school services and special care; approved mental health centres; and private security. However, vetting for individual sole traders whose profession involves a level of contact with children and vulnerable people should also be considered in the near future, perhaps through an association of which the trader is a member. Child entertainment has become a large industry and it is only prudent to ensure that the same level of governance is provided to private industry as is the case for State institutions and other recognised organisations.

One of the main changes this Bill permits is the introduction of soft information, which is not permitted in the existing vetting system. Hard information encompasses official criminal cases and section 15 of the Bill permits the introduction of soft or specified information. I welcome that anybody can seek to protect their good name through an appeals process. This is a well thought out and just provision. With the enactment of this Bill the bureau will be allowed to consider information that has not led to a criminal case if it concerns possible harm to a child or a vulnerable person and includes information gathered by gardaí in the course of an investigation or other organisations such as the HSE, the Teaching Council, the Medical Council or the Health Information and Quality Authority. It is important to realise that information which may have been insufficient for a prosecution can be pertinent to the role an individual plays in an organisation.

Arguments have been made both for and against soft information. In 2007, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, a solicitor and child law expert, stated that soft information can add another important layer to the vetting process and he has welcomed constitutional or legislative amendments which would lead to the use of such information in vetting persons who have unsupervised access to children. Kieran Walsh, a barrister and lecturer, stated in July 2010 that such issues, while complicated, have been part of discourse within child protection circles since the early 1990s, if not earlier, and are legitimate as long as adequate safeguards are put in place. However, the Irish Human Rights Commission has expressed concern that the disclosure of soft information is unconstitutional and the Law Society Gazette suggested in May 2010 that hard information on unsuccessful prosecutions could be seen as a breach of rights and soft information as an extreme violation of human rights.

The Deputy's time has concluded.

I have discussed this with my colleagues and it is okay for me to go over my allotted time.

The look on Deputy Humphreys' face suggests otherwise.

The introduction of such information does not necessarily mean it will be disclosed and the head of the bureau will determine the validity of the information. If the information gives rise to a bona fide concern, the affected person will be notified by the head officer and an appeals process will be made available.

While I am not happy that a certificate is non-transferrable, I understand the concerns raised by the Minister for Justice and Equality in the response he gave to a parliamentary question I submitted on the matter.

I encourage him to consider the situation of people who are working abroad. In 2009 and 2010 nearly 130,000 people left our shores to seek work abroad.

Many of these will be working in countries where vetting systems are in place and will need Garda or police approval in order to work. That needs to be expedited and is something we could do at a national level. Are we dealing with this issue? Many people have come to my office to seek help with regard to their children who are living abroad.

I congratulate the Minister for Justice and Equality and his Department on bringing this Bill forward. It forms part of the Government's extensive efforts to reform public services in the area of children and youth affairs. I also compliment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. I know she was extensively consulted in the preparation of the Bill.

With the upcoming children's referendum, the Government is making a clear statement that the aim of the Government is to protect children, cherish their rights and ensure that we deliver on our responsibilities to the next generation. The Bill will make a big difference to many people. It is important that vetting is put on a clear and statutory basis.

We must understand the size of this problem. Last year, 19,000 organisations and 300,000 people were vetted. This demonstrates the demands on the system. I hope the Bill will ensure that vetting becomes more efficient and speedy. Like Deputy Murphy, I believe delays continue to occur in the system. Deputy Murphy referred to a recent report showing that the vetting period had been reduced to two weeks in 2012. My experience does not reflect this. Delays in vetting are leading to delays in the uptake of places in community employment and JobBridge, especially in the critical areas of child care to which the Minister for Social Protection referred in her contribution.

The framework the Bill puts in place is important as it ensures that the public will have confidence in the process. It not only takes convictions into account, but provides specific information on bona fide concerns to be considered. I will not go further on this issue because Deputy Spring has covered it adequately.

I welcome the recent addition of 20 civilian employees to the process of vetting queries. This will free up the gardaí and will make the process more efficient. I hope it will make inroads into the substantial backlog.

The exclusion of re-vetting due to resource constraints is worrying. Organisations not covered will have to opt in voluntarily. These issues will need to be considered at a future date. It is important to note that the Bill will make it mandatory for persons working with children and vulnerable adults to be vetted by the Garda. That is to be welcomed. Children at all stages must be protected.

Deputy Spring referred to sole traders. There are vendors who target children and are involved in unsupervised contact with children. This contact can occur at ice-cream vans, specialist sweet shops or play centres where there is unsupervised direct access on a daily and weekly basis. It is important that we do not act in a reactionary way but we must take stock of the risks that exist. Excluding such core groups from the legislation could lead to a migration to non-covered areas. The legislation must be robust. There must be provision for further action that may include irregular unsupervised interaction with children being added to the list or areas where vetting is required, possibly by statutory instrument. That might be a mechanism for keeping the matter under constant review.

I recently spoke to a constituent who, over a period of a year, had to be vetted three times, due to administration issues. This resulted in a waste of Garda time and a loss of earnings. As people in the child care area often change employment, I ask the Minister to consider including a mechanism to allow a person's vetting status to be easily checked and updated. It should be easier to transfer one's Garda clearance to new employment. However, I recognise that putting this process on a statutory basis will lead to a more efficient, secure and responsive system.

I warmly welcome the Bill which, when it is enacted, will make it mandatory for persons working with children or vulnerable adults to be vetted by the Garda. A series of reports has clearly demonstrated the absolute need to strengthen our procedures to protect children and vulnerable adults. The publication of the Bill represents a major step in that direction. The State has a tragic legacy of having failed children and vulnerable persons. This legacy must be addressed comprehensively.

As well as the Bill and forthcoming legislation, we will also be holding a referendum to enshrine the rights of children in our Constitution for the first time and to afford protection to adopted children that does not currently exist. The amendment will give children constitutional rights that are robust, but in a way that does not undermine the rights of parents unless they have failed in their duty towards their children. I wholeheartedly welcome this referendum.

The need for vetting is clearly illustrated by the case of the murderer Ian Huntley in the United Kingdom. I note that Deputy Catherine Murphy referred to this case. While it happened in the United Kingdom, it has relevance for this jurisdiction as an example of what is sometimes referred to as soft information not being recorded. People will remember the awful murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, two ten year old girls who were murdered in Soham in England over a decade ago. The girls passed the home of their local school caretaker, Ian Huntley, who called them into his house and murdered them.

The history of Ian Huntley is disturbing and relevant not only for his actions, but for the lack of action by the authorities. He could have been stopped from working at his job which involved caretaking duties at a local school. While his dreadful acts did not take place on school property, he should never have been allowed to work with children. Huntley had no previous criminal record. Nevertheless, a number of points about his history should be noted. After he had been convicted of the murders it was revealed that he had been investigated for sexual offences and burglary but had been allowed to work in a school, as none of these investigations had resulted in a conviction. In August 1995, when Huntley was 21 years old, a joint investigation was launched by the police and social services in Grimsby after a 15 year old girl admitted that she had been having sex with Huntley. Police did not pursue the case against Huntley, in accordance with the girl's wishes. In March, April and May 1996, Huntley was again investigated over three allegations of having sex with an under age girl. Again, he was not charged. In 1998, Huntley was arrested on suspicion of raping a woman. He admitted having sex with the woman but claimed it was consensual. The police decided not to charge Huntley. In May 1998, Huntley was charged with rape and remanded in custody, after an 18 year old Grimsby woman claimed to have been raped by him on her way home from a nightclub in the town. The charge was dropped a week later after the Crown Prosecution Service examined the CCTV images from the nightclub and determined there was no chance of a conviction. In July 1998, Huntley was again investigated by the police about allegations that he had indecently assaulted an 11 year old girl in September 1997. However, he was never charged, but in April 2007 he confessed that he had attacked the girl. In February 1999, Huntley was investigated over allegations of rape of a 17 year old woman but no charges were made against him. In July 1999, when a woman was raped and Huntley, by now suspected by police of being a serial sex offender, was interviewed, he supplied a DNA sample and had an alibi provided by Maxine Carr, later his accomplice in the Soham murders, to assert his innocence. The woman subsequently said Huntley was not the rapist. This was the only case where the victim had not identified Huntley or named him as the attacker. Following the announcement of Huntley's conviction for the Soham murders, it emerged that various authorities were aware of these allegations from a number of sources. The only allegation that resulted in a charge was a rape for which he had been remanded in custody but released when the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was not enough evidence for a conviction.

On the day of Huntley's conviction the then UK Home Secretary, Mr. David Blunkett, announced an inquiry into the vetting system that had allowed Huntley to get a caretaking job at a school, despite four separate complaints about him reaching the social services.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.