I thank the committee for allowing us to contribute. In common with the ISPCC and Barnardo's, who contributed earlier, the GAA warmly welcomes the publication of this Bill. We see this as a most positive move in the context of putting in place best practice as we strive, in so far as possible, to ensure the welfare of children who participate in our activities and other sporting or community activities or in youth groups. The GAA's policy was adopted in 2009 as part of its code of best practice in youth sport. This policy categorically states all persons, regardless of role, working on our behalf with children or vulnerable adults are required to be vetted, whether via the Garda vetting unit in this jurisdiction, AccessNI in Northern Ireland, criminal record bureaus in England, Scotland and Wales or equivalent services elsewhere. Vetting services in the GAA must be implemented by all units in accordance with the jurisdiction and legislation in which they operate. Where, for example, there is no such legislation, as is the case in the Republic of Ireland, we still mandate all units to adhere to the association policy whereby all persons must be vetted.
Since the implementation of our policy in 2009, the GAA has vetted more than 30,000 people in the Republic of Ireland. I often have apologised to the Garda vetting unit for this because we are adamant that people must be vetted. If in any way this causes a delay in the operations of the unit, we apologise, but in fairness we probably do not apologise for trying to maintain best practice standards within the association. Similarly, thousands more have been vetted through AccessNI, as well as through the criminal record bureau services.
Much of what I may touch upon shortly has been touched upon by the ISPCC and Barnardos, and my colleague, Ms Kate Hills, will do likewise. This may be an indication among organisations that their concerns, even if they repeat them, are of equal importance to all. Members should forgive me if I mention some of them again. When any legislation is published, we all recognise sections of the draft legislation that gain our full support and other sections that we, for example, and others think could be improved. I assure members, however, that we so do in the context of supporting any legislation that ultimately will be agreed. As an association that works with young people and adults, we give our commitment that we will implement the legislation fully, once adopted.
In our submission, we highlighted some concerns such as, for example, the ad hoc arrangement mentioned earlier. The GAA does not use the term “ad hoc” as one either works with children or one does not. In this context, if seeking a definition of “ad hoc”, our submission refers to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, which covers some of that jurisdiction’s vetting or background checks legislation. It uses the phrase, “any time on more than two days in any period of 30 days” to specify when a person must be vetted. While we do not offer this as being the answer to the ad hoc issue, it could be considered at a later stage. In addition, the danger we perceive is that using terminology such as “ad hoc” could lead to some organisations not vetting some people. Whereas a person might be vetted by the GAA or Swim Ireland, the same person could be working for a third organisation without being vetted.
I refer to the matter of charging applicants, which is mentioned under the heading of expenses. At the outset, I must state that if my recollection is correct, at the time when the vetting issue was first launched by the late Brian Lenihan as Minister of State with responsibility for children, he gave a commitment that volunteers would not be charged, which we welcomed. Volunteers give their time freely and give a lot of time and the GAA would not be in existence were it not for volunteers. Whereas I can see a point and an argument for charging paid employees or their association or employers, we urge that no charge whatsoever be placed on volunteers. Arguably, that could result in some of them not forwarding their vetting forms and eventually withdrawing their services.
In common with what has been stated earlier, we also seek a re-examination of the vetting process. When one hands a vetting form to coaches or personnel, they sign it and hand it back. One of the first questions they ask thereafter, apart from when they will get the answer, is when they will be re-vetted. The legislation must state there is a re-vetting period. The legislation should also provide vetting organisations with the opportunity to re-vet people at any given time because some information may accrue or a person's behaviour or performance may give rise to concern or whatever. We have made many other comments welcoming many aspects of the Bill, including the relevant information section. We have also sought clarification on the appeals process, as well as on the sharing of information between associations. If we share information with the vetting bureau, will exactly the same information be shared with a third party, that is, with another organisation?
When discussing the Bill, our greatest concern is to ensure all persons who are required to be vetted will undertake such a process and that this process be delivered within a realistic timeframe. Again, we applaud the work of Superintendent Pat Burke's Garda vetting unit, which does an excellent job. I do not believe one can speak highly enough of them often enough as the work they do is excellent. We seek within the legislation a portability of vetting, whereby a vetting outcome for a person who has been vetted may be shared, obviously within data protection requirements, with another organisation. This would cut down on the time that is being spent needlessly at present on re-vetting applicants. For example, we are approached by teachers and gardaí who tell us they have been vetted but, unfortunately, the GAA is obliged to tell them procedures dictate we must vet them again for the third or fourth time. We need a system that stops such duplication which adds further to the burden of the Garda vetting unit.
One recurring weakness in respect of vetting concerns international information. A good relationship exists between Ireland and Britain regarding the sharing of information, which will be shown on the vetting disclosure from the Garda thereafter, we often get zero information from some European countries. I acknowledge that Superintendent Burke and the Garda vetting unit work hard at international level, but once the legislation is passed in this country, I hope it will serve as an indication to other countries of the seriousness with which we take the issue. One might call it a tool for us to use to renegotiate with others on the sharing of information at an agreed international level.
The GAA has put some of its resources into developing what we call an online vetting service and I note there is provision in the Bill for this to be enacted. Moreover, the Garda vetting unit wishes to start a pilot project before the end of this year. The availability of an online system would enable people to apply from their kitchen, bedroom, front room, office or whatever and have the form sent in. It could still go back to the applicant organisation. It would save so much time and allow for portability and greater identification of a person by a vetting number. Whereas people may worry about the cost factor, the Teaching Council, the GAA and many other organisations have developed such systems and we would gladly share our system, were the vetting unit enabled to take it on board. We fully support and welcome what has been published and thank the joint committee for the opportunity to attend.