Does the Minister wish to make a statement?
National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012: From the Seanad
There are two Seanad amendments before the House. The first deals with the chief bureau officer who is to report periodically directly to the Garda Commissioner in respect of the performance and management of the functions of the bureau. Amendment No. 1 inserts a new subsection between lines 40 and 41 on page 24. The purpose of this amendment is to make it clear in the Bill that the chief bureau officer shall report to the Garda Commissioner in respect of the performance and management of the bureau in respect of any issues arising. Section 23 of the Bill already provides that the bureau will make an annual report via the Garda Commissioner to the Minister, which will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. However, the Bill should also provide that if in the course of any year, urgent issues arise which the chief bureau officer needs to bring to the Garda Commissioner's attention, he or she may do so. It is important that there is a direct reporting relationship between the chief bureau officer and the Garda Commissioner for a range of reasons. For example, if it turns out that the amount of work the bureau must undertake as a consequence of the implementation of the Bill is putting it under pressure or if there are staffing issues, it is important that this can be directly and immediately reported to the Garda Commissioner and my Department in so far as there is assistance we can give in these matters. Another example would be if some technical difficulty arose in the working of the new legislation. I would not want to go through different levels in the Garda Síochána before that was communicated to us. It is important that communications occur at speed. It is an amendment that ensures that the office can operate in a manner that is efficient and communications take place efficiently.
The second amendment deals with reception or accommodation centres which provide residential accommodation services to applicants for asylum. In retrospect, we thought that we should include those within the Bill for vetting purposes. It is worth putting on the record of the House that my Department's contracts with persons or organisations providing accommodation for asylum applicants already require that persons working in these accommodation centres be vetted. However, it is appropriate to make this requirement in law rather than relying solely on administrative arrangements. This amendment, therefore, makes it clear that the vetting of persons who work in such accommodation centres is a legal requirement.
I conclude by saying a few words about this Bill. I pay tribute to those working in what will now be referred to as the National Vetting Bureau. They do extraordinary work very efficiently. I pay tribute to the head of the bureau, Superintendent Pat Burke, who works beyond the call of duty in the hours he puts in, the very efficient way he co-ordinates the work of the bureau and in the manner in which he tries to facilitate circumstances of individuals and organisations where vetting is required at speed for some particular reason.
It is important in completing the Bill that we acknowledge this work.
The enactment of the Bill is a very important marker and very important change effected by the Government. It was part of the programme for Government that this legislation be enacted. Vetting legislation which facilitated the use of soft information was promised for many years by previous Governments but was not enacted or presented to the House. Approximately ten years ago a previous Government suggested there were constitutional difficulties in progressing this legislation. My recollection is that at least two Private Members' Bills were published in this area by members of my party during this period, and ultimately the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children reported on this issue. In September 2008 it published a report which stated there were no constitutional difficulties, which the then Government finally accepted and it recommended to the previous Government that legislation be urgently published and enacted, but no such legislation was published during the lifetime of the previous Government.
The enactment of this legislation marks a very important step in putting in place an additional protection for children and vulnerable adults against the possibility of abuse. It seeks to ensure those who are employed in these areas either professionally or through engaging voluntarily on a regular basis are properly vetted and that the vetting now includes not merely accessing criminal convictions but goes to using appropriate soft information, but in circumstances in which the individual rights of those who may be affected are protected. They have an opportunity to know what information is being relied upon and there is an appellate structure within the framework of the legislation to ensure if information is incorrect this issue can be addressed in a fair and appropriate framework.
It is an important day that we are enacting this legislation and it is right that we acknowledge its importance. I want to say to Members of the House there are statutory instruments to be made to bring the legislation into force. It is my objective that we bring it into force in the first quarter of next year. I have no doubt it will impose additional burdens on the vetting bureau. We are looking to address any staffing issues that arise to ensure staffing within the bureau is appropriate to meet the demands that may be there. It is important those groups, organisations and businesses which are required under law to engage in vetting fulfil and meet their obligations in this context. We must remember what was there previously was substantially a non-statutory scheme without penalties for non-compliance. There are now penalties for non-compliance and it is important there is compliance.
It is important that we have in place the legal architecture which provides the maximum possible protection for children. No Government can guarantee at any time that no child will ever be the victim of abuse. As much as we would like to live in this utopian world we do not do so. What we can do is put together a legal framework or architecture which creates the possibility of protection for children which tries to ensure that children are not placed at risk in circumstances where the risk should have been previously identified.
Effectively we adopt what I describe as a precautionary approach. The Bill is another brick in the wall to establish this and I thank Members for their co-operation in its enactment. I also thank Deputy David Stanton, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence, and the members of the committee for the substantial work they did when we published the heads of the Bill and for their comments on the Bill. I thank the various individuals and organisations who made submissions, not just to the committee but to the Department, to ensure we enacted the best possible legislation. I thank the Deputies opposite and their parties for the constructive contribution made throughout the debate on the Bill in both Houses. I also thank the officials and the Department for the very substantial work in which they have engaged and for their assistance in ensuring we achieved our objective of having the legislation enacted before the end of the year.
I thank the Minister and the departmental officials for their co-operation and for taking on board some of our feedback throughout the process. It is very much appreciated. This is obviously very important legislation, particularly in the context of the passing of the referendum on children and the belated accepting of responsibility by the State on these matters. We still have a long way to go but this is definitely a step in the right direction and a reassurance to the public that lessons are being learned.
An issue I wish to raise is that of spent convictions and I ask the Minister to consider further this matter and perhaps review how it progresses in time. The Minister wrote to me in October and stated it was his intention to streamline the interface between the two Bills to ensure they worked together harmoniously. We need to move forward with the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 in the year ahead and when we do so inevitable issues will arise. I read the transcript of the exchange between the Minister and my colleague Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh in which the Minister acknowledged the difficult balancing act involved in protecting the interests of children when including soft information. Sinn Féin supports this because the main priority is the protection of children. When we come to deal with the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 there may be issues to reconsider and it may be an opportunity to examine whether we can dovetail both pieces of legislation and ensure maximum protection. I ask the Minister to examine this. I saw from the exchange in the Seanad he is reflecting on it and will continue to do so, and I wanted to raise it at this point to ask that the Minister consider it again when we commence the next process which is somewhat related to this.