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Wednesday, 21 Sep 2011

National Vetting Bureau Bill 2011: Discussion

Members will have received submissions on the national vetting bureau Bill and the questions in context document prepared by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. Any opening statements received have also been circulated. As Members will appreciate, we do not have much time at these hearings and I request them to ask brief and focused questions.

At the last meeting the committee agreed on a lead question system. Some Members contacted the secretariat requesting that they be the lead questioner for certain organisations. When the organisations have made their submissions, I will invite the lead questioner to commence and engage in a debate for a number of questions. If people have supplementary questions, they can enter the debate afterwards. I repeat that we do not have much time so we must all be brief and focused.

I propose the following order, the ISPCC and Barnardos with Senator Ivana Bacik as lead questioner to be followed by the GAA and Swim Ireland with Deputy Tom Hayes as lead questioner. Then we shall suspend from 10.30 a.m. until 11.30 a.m. Other groups will come in at that stage such as the Teaching Council, the Irish Universities Association and the INTO, the Arts Council, Poetry Ireland and Create Ireland, the Rape Crisis Network Ireland and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The purpose of today's meeting is to have discussions with some of the organisations that made written submissions on the draft scheme of the national vetting bureau Bill. On behalf of the committee I welcome Ms Caroline O'Sullivan, director of services, and Ms Mary Nicholson, advocacy manager, at the ISPCC and Mr. Fergus Finlay, chief executive officer, and Ms June Tinsley, policy officer, at Barnardos. We will also hear other witnesses later. I thank all the witnesses for their attendance and submissions supplied to the committee. The format is each organisation shall make a brief opening statement that will be followed by a question and answer session.

Before we begin I shall draw the attention of witnesses to privilege. Please note that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they will give to the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.Members should be aware that under the salient rulings of the Chair, Members shall not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I call on the ISPCC to make its opening statements.

Ms Mary Nicholson

I thank the committee for allowing us the opportunity to make a presentation on our submission. Garda vetting has been an important issue for the ISPCC over recent years. To date in 2011 we have made 406 applications which shows a great need for vetting.

In terms of the work carried out by my organisation, a number of years ago we conducted a campaign called How Can We Be Sure They Are Safe that aimed to improve child protection and look at more robust measures. Garda vetting was a key issue, especially putting it on a legislative footing and allowing the sharing of soft information. The ISPCC is pleased to see in the proposed Bill the provision to share soft information. Obviously it is difficult to allow for civil liberties while ensuring children are better protected through the passing of legislation, but vetting is essential. At the moment the onus is on organisations to apply for Garda vetting. We believe that having a vetting measure in the Bill is very important and vetting in Ireland falls short of where it needs to be. While I acknowledge that Garda vetting is not the only measure aimed at improving child protection, it is an essential and key part. It is vital that anyone who works with children is vetted by the Garda, whether they are a volunteer or a paid staff member.

There are a large number of positives in the Bill. As I have mentioned, vetting would be on a statutory footing and the sharing of soft information would be allowed. We believe a few measures need to be enhanced and a number of measures are not completely covered in the Bill. My colleague, Ms Caroline O'Sullivan, director of services, will go through these in more detail.

Ms Caroline O’Sullivan

I shall make six short points to allow a greater opportunity for Members to pose questions on our submission. Under draft heading 5, which deals with employment positions, it is stated that registered organisations can vet individual staff or volunteers. In the section it is also mentioned that some staff or volunteers may not need to be vetted. My organisation believes that anyone working with children or working where they are or who has access to them, such as staff in an ISPCC office, should be clearly vetted to protect those children.

A second issue is access to confidential information. Organisations such as the ISPCC deal with vulnerable children. They come to our offices, meet our staff and have therapeutic sessions with them for which there are files. Administrators could have access to these files just like the staff carrying out therapeutic work. If someone had access to that kind of information on a vulnerable child and wanted to harm them, they could easily access it not only by meeting the child within the office but also by knowing the intimate details of the child, their concerns, where they live and so on. It is important that anyone with access to that kind of information is also vetted.

Under heading 6, reference is made to positions excluded from the vetting Bill, and the ad hoc definition causes us some concern. Further clarification is required. We understand that in some cases individuals do not need to be vetted, for example, someone organising a one-off breakfast to fund-raise for an organisation. A number of volunteers work for an organisation on an ad hoc but regular basis, for example, once every month or two months. Such individuals should be vetted in the same way. The definition of “ad hoc” or “occasional” needs to be clarified for the organisations and everyone else involved. We are not suggesting parents or care-givers in private babysitting arrangements should be included. That is a separate point.

We welcome the addition of compliance officers under head 9 in ensuring all registered organisations under Schedule 2 are compliant. However, we are concerned about private residences. A private home should not be open to inspection. However, the offices of some small organisations are kitchen tables, or the organisations are run from offices within private homes. Therefore, a private residence could also be a place of work. The matter needs to be clarified in that regard.

As a member of the national vetting implementation group, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, is clear on the level of difficulties experienced by the vetting unit in terms of demand and resources. We are acutely aware of the challenges it will face following the introduction of the legislation. This is not just about demand, it is also about what needs to be done next in terms of, for example, sharing information across jurisdictions. Under head 10 which addresses the question of cross-jurisdiction information exchanges, we may enter into negotiations or discussions with other groups on the sharing of information. In 2006 a memorandum of understanding was developed between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland on the sharing of information on sex offenders travelling within these jurisdictions. It needs to be developed further. Such discussions must be held to ensure best practice and the sharing of proper information across all jurisdictions. We are not naive enough to believe this can be achieved without the expending of a great deal of time and effort, but it must be done.

Head 15 relates to organisations disclosing to the bureau any relevant information they may have. Since these organisations must be listed under Schedule 2, examining the names on the list will be interesting. The ISPCC could have a volunteer working with it for four hours every week for 52 weeks of the year. To their credit, such volunteers are also volunteering with other organisations, some of which may work with children and vulnerable adults. If the ISPCC is sharing information with the bureau, other organisations with the same individual in their employ or as a volunteer must also be informed. Will this information be shared? If a person is convicted subsequent to vetting clearance, can this information be shared with the organisation which had sought clearance in the first instance? This is an important matter, given that the headings do not detail whether there will be an expiry date on a vetting disclosure. For example, if I went through the vetting procedure in 2006, when would clearance expire? I believe I should reapply in 2011.

Head 13 relates to the duties of liaison officers and contains a statement to the effect that the Minister may allow organisations or liaison officers to submit vetting applications in respect of someone already in employment who has not been vetted previously and in respect of someone who has not received clearance in the preceding five years. We cannot assume that the word "may" can be read in such a way as requiring something should be done. Not only should vetting be mandatory, resubmitting to obtain clearance after a defined period should also be required under the Bill.

Although we have asked for a number of points to be clarified, we welcome the draft heads of the Bill, as they show how seriously the issue is being taken. It has taken a long time to reach this point, but the draft heads balance well the rights of the individual with the need for protection of the child. This positive step forward will enhance the protection of children.

As with any new Bill, the legislation will not fix all wrongs. The vetting unit is under-resourced, despite the sizeable demands placed on it. The waiting period from the time of submission of a vetting application to the receipt of clearance or a disclosure is ten weeks. While this actually represents an improvement and is to the credit of the unit's staff, this legislation will increase the level of demand. We do not want longer delays while we wait for people to provide us with necessary services. We acknowledge the superb quality of the work being done by the vetting unit and do not want it to disimprove in the face of increased demand.

I thank the committee for its time and attention and will happily take questions.

I invite Mr. Finlay and Ms Tinsley from Barnardos to make a brief submission.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

I thank the Chairman for inviting Ms Tinsley and me to attend. During the course of the day members will hear many of us making many of the same comments. We have the same perspective and much in common. I will probably reiterate a great number of the points made by Ms O'Sullivan. I echo her final remarks in paying tribute to the commitment, quality and efficacy of the vetting unit in Thurles. It has but one agenda - the protection of children - which it carries out effectively and well. However, it is under incredible strain to deliver the goods. Ten weeks is probably the average waiting time, but many organisations must wait even longer because they have not managed to get involved in the streamlining efforts the Garda bureau is constantly making. When the Bill passes into law, these strains and stresses will certainly increase. Although this matter is not the providence of the Bill, we all wish to make the point that the manpower and technological resources available to the Garda vetting unit must be kept under constant review.

In common with Ms O'Sullivan, we welcome the Bill which has been a long time coming. It will place us in a position where, like most other jurisdictions, the vetting procedure will be placed on a statutory footing. In many ways, it is scandalous that it was put in place without statutory underpinning.

Each of the 420 employees and almost 300 volunteers in Barnardos must be vetted. We make it a condition of employment and volunteering that people comply with the vetting procedures and cannot begin to work until they have received clearance. I do not want this to change. We in Barnardos are concerned that, if the Bill passes as it stands, the position may change. The Bill seems to be moving away from categories of employment to categories of job. The cooks, caretakers, drivers, administrators and managers who work for Barnardos should not suddenly find themselves in a position where they will no longer be legally required to be vetted. This would place them and their employer in an invidious position. It does not reflect the reality of their working lives. They must as a first requirement of their employment be seen to be, and proven to the maximum possible extent to be, safe to work with children. That must remain the case. We would, therefore, be concerned if it was decided, in the context of this Bill, to limit or exclude in some way vetting of significant categories of employees, despite that they are working with or alongside children. We would also be concerned about the exclusion of significant numbers of volunteers. There is need for a great deal of clarity around the meaning of phrase, "ad hoc”, or the phrase “regular or ongoing unsupervised contact”. We need to know exactly what they mean before we could give the Bill the wholehearted support we wish to give it. We are all familiar with the Michael Ferry case. No one wants to pass into law a measure under which someone like him could be excluded from vetting. That does not make any sense. That ambiguity must be removed from the Bill.

Another key issue of concern is that of relevant information, which is a welcome new measure in the Bill. The manner in which the Bill deals with this issue is complex because it needs to be. There must a balance in this regard and we all recognise that. If a list of organisations who can share information with and supply information to the Garda vetting unit is to be put together, we want that list to be known, wide and comprehensive and to include the Health Service Executive. Currently, there is an ambiguity in that the HSE can undertake in-depth investigations under child care legislation and other Acts which lead to conclusions about levels of risk and suitability and can often lead to civil and other actions being taken by the HSE. Currently, none of this information is passed to the Garda Síochána. The Garda only has possession of prosecutions which it has initiated. This issue must be addressed in the Bill.

Ms O'Sullivan referred to the issue of re-vetting. Like her, I was vetted in 2005. I would like to believe I would pass vetting again in 2011. If I apply for re-vetting now when there is no legal requirement on me to do so, I am only adding to the burden. While I would like to institute a situation in Barnardos whereby everyone is vetted at least every five years, I know that if I do that, I will be putting pressure on the Garda vetting unit which is already under significant pressure. The Bill enables the Minister to decide at some future time if a re-vetting regulation should be introduced. We believe the Bill should go one step further and make re-vetting mandatory at least every five years. They are the main issues I wished to address.

Ms O'Sullivan spoke about the overlap between private homes and places of work. I agree with everything she said in that regard. I draw the attention of the committee to the fact that while many foster parents in Ireland are vetted, there is no requirement in place that all foster parents be vetted. It is frequently the case that foster parents who are relatives, albeit sometimes distant relatives of the child in foster care, do not undergo vetting. In our view, everyone who fosters a child should be vetted.

I now invite Senator Bacik to put her questions and remind Members that we have approximately ten minutes remaining before we must call the next group.

I thank both organisations for the excellent and thoughtful submissions they forwarded to us prior to the meeting, which I have read, and for their verbal presentations today. As stated, some similar themes have emerged. I would like to put to both organisations a series of questions on issues raised by them in their written submissions and today. I note that both organisations have welcomed the Bill. We all welcome it and want to try to improve upon it and, as such, any criticisms which the organisations or we make are constructive and will be forwarded to the Minister.

The first issue is the need for greater clarity in respect of definitions and exemptions in heads 5 and 6 of the Bill. Both organisations expressed the concern that head 5 defines positions subject to vetting by reference to the type of employment rather than type of employer. The organisations have suggested that everyone who works for the ISPCC or Barnardos, in whatever capacity, should be subject to vetting. Should we, therefore, build in a type of employment definition that in organisations such as the ISPCC and Barnardos, all employees, which under head 2 includes volunteers, must be subject to vetting, including those people who have no direct contact with children but do have access to sensitive information? In the organisations' view, would that be the answer to the concerns they have raised?

The second issue of concern is the definition of "ad hoc” in head 6 in relation to exemptions. As a lawyer, I believe “occasional, ad hoc, voluntary” to mean all three must be read together, namely, a person must be assisting on an occasional, ad hoc and voluntary basis. However, that needs to be clarified. Perhaps the organisations would say whether the words “and” or “and-or” should be included or if they would prefer to see a simple definition of “ad hoc”. I have two further points to make on the definitions. Both organisations raised the issue of foster carers who may be family relatives. Should, therefore, the exemption “other than family relatives” in subsection (2) of head 5 be removed or should we qualify this to include family relatives where they are in a formal foster care arrangement? Some foster care arrangements are not formal, which is a difficulty. I would appreciate the organisations’ views on that point.

Some organisations have raised concerns about the use of the phrase, "regular or ongoing unsupervised contact". Is there a better phrase that could be used? The organisations are correct that the phrase, "other jurisdictions", in head 10 is too vague. I, too, am concerned about that. How could this be strengthened to ensure information sharing across jurisdictions? The Sex Offenders Act 2001 could perhaps assist us in this regard because the Garda Síochána already shares information on convictions. On the time lapse issue in head 13, would the organisations prefer to see a requirement that it be done every three to five years? That issue has been raised by other organisations. On the types of offence in Schedule 1, an issue that arose in some of the written submissions is whether all offences should be covered? Road traffic offences would be excluded from the heads of a Bill. Does that impose too onerous a burden on the Garda vetting unit? Is it necessary, for example, for minor public order offences to be included? I would like to hear the organisations' views on that.

While, like the organisations, I praise the work of the Garda vetting unit, I must point out that it is already over-burdened with voluntary vetting, with a backlog of ten weeks in this regard. What type of resources are required? Can the organisations say from their practical experience how many more compliance officers would be required to implement this legislation effectively?

Senator Bacik has raised many questions, all of which the organisations may not be able to answer in detail now but further information in respect of which they may forward on to the committee. I ask both organisations to be brief in their responses to the points raised by Senator Bacik.

Ms Caroline O’Sullivan

In terms of definitions of types of employment or employers, we need a broader definition which states that individuals who have access to children in any situation should be vetted. That might seem too broad but if we are going to do this we must do it right. I will forward more detailed information on that point to the committee at a later date. In terms of definition of "ad hoc”, I did not read the definition in the same way as Senator Bacik. I believe we need greater definition of the term “ad hoc” than is currently the case. While “occasional, ad hoc, voluntary” could mean one thing to me, it could mean something else to another person. We can speak about ad hoc or a once-off event in a calendar year or something to that effect. There should be no confusion about the meaning of the term.

With regard to a better definition of "regular, ongoing and unsupervised access", I would like to consider the matter and return with something clearer. There should absolutely be a process of revised vetting. A three year period may be best but I mentioned five years in the verbal presentation because it was mentioned under head No. 13. The more regular the process, the better, but we must take into account the required resources for the vetting unit.

Ms Mary Nicholson

We can learn much from the UK and how it has recently managed vetting systems. It is now rowing back because of the extensive nature of what its vetting became. Although we must be conscious that relevant people are covered, we are not saying that there should be a blanket process. To reiterate what Ms O'Sullivan has said, this applies to people who will have access to children and this kind of sensitive information, whether they are caretakers or cooks. We must also be mindful and learn lessons from the UK system. If we overdo it, we run the risk of running into the same challenges as the UK, and there is a risk the process will lose effectiveness. If we have a proper system and policy in place, the problem will be overcome.

The type of offence could be more focused as well.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

I will give a couple of examples. We run a number of activities, including play and toy libraries, some small play activities and a couple of playgrounds. The best way to run them, particularly at weekends, is with a roster of volunteers. Somebody may volunteer to supervise a playground, for example, once a month for two hours on a Saturday afternoon. Is that ad hoc or regular? Is it unsupervised? If that person applies for vetting to the Garda bureau will the reply be that because there is only two hours work, the position will not be vetted? That is an area of ambiguity.

There is much experience of this from the events at Soham onwards. A groomer only needs ad hoc or occasional access to try to begin the development of a relationship. There is a wealth of information in our files and those of the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, with much relating to particular vulnerabilities, social and emotional needs of children and so on. If that information ever fell into the wrong hands, it could potentially be disastrous. All of us in the field must accept responsibility for ensuring that information is absolutely secure, and we are at fault if it falls into the wrong hands. The wrong hands can never be one of our own managers or administrators; we must be satisfied that such people are safe because by definition they will have some access.

These are the kinds of practical examples that should be considered in the Bill's context. We must examine whether the provisions fit certain scenarios. Senator Bacik asked about resources but none of us would really know the answer. It has been our experience of the Garda vetting unit and its professionalism that the personnel do not scaremonger. If there is a case to make for 30 extra officers - they will not all be Garda officers as the majority of people employed there are civilian - it should be listened to. The unit will not argue that civilisation will fall apart if the Bill is passed and it does not get what it wants. The unit is very responsible.

Ms June Tinsley

I will respond to Senator Bacik's questions. With regard to section 2 of head 5, it would be a good idea to include a provision capturing those children in foster care scenarios. There should be wording referring to children in the care of the State or foster care arrangements.

That is in preference to a blanket exemption for family members.

Ms June Tinsley

As Mr. Finlay highlighted, there are a number of relative foster carers who are currently not being vetted. The other information refers to tightening up other jurisdictions. Something can be learned from the UK, as Ms Nicholson noted, but there is currently a memorandum of understanding in operation between Northern Ireland and the UK and Ireland. If those models could operate within other jurisdictions, there could be a template to move forward in sharing information.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

I do not want to delay the committee but we came across an issue where a child was in foster care and there was a breakdown in the relationship between the foster carers. A man left and ultimately another man arrived on the scene. There was no reassessment of that case but there should have been.

Has any other member a focused and short question?

I am interested in this cross-jurisdictional exchange of information for vetting purposes. Will the witnesses give an indication of the percentage of non-national carers or people with access to children in the respective organisations that would have required Garda vetting?

Ms Caroline O’Sullivan

I do not have a percentage figure. I know there are 600 volunteers working with us on a weekly basis for four hours; they are effectively from every nationality across the globe. There are issues around getting information from other jurisdictions. As an organisation we have tried to work around this in getting vetting clearance received from a person's own country. That is an attempt to bridge the gap but it is not good enough. We must be able to get that information shared from the country of origin.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

As a pure guess, taking in employees and volunteers, between 10% and 20% of personnel are non-Irish. They might be American, Canadian, Scandinavian, African and eastern European. They are from everywhere. There is no doubt whatever that vetting in those cases is a great deal more complicated.

For information, there were 279,515 applications processed last year by the Garda vetting bureau. The witnesses are correct in saying it is extraordinarily busy and efficient. So far this year 217,809 applications have been processed. There is approximately a ten-week delay in some cases but that is a significant workload. If there are no more questions I thank the witnesses for their time. If they have further information or clarification for the committee, they are free to write to us or engage with us through other means.

We will now invite the representatives from the Gaelic Athletic Association and Swim Ireland to make their presentations. We may have to go over our time but although we are a little behind, we are not doing too badly. We will probably have to go beyond 10.30 a.m. if that is okay with members.

Mr. Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl is from the national children's office of the GAA and Ms Kate Hills is the national children's officer for Swim Ireland. Ms Sarah O'Connor is the chief executive officer for the Federation of Irish Sports. I thank them for appearing before the committee and giving their valuable time to help us with this process.

I have already read out the following provision but will do so again. Before we begin I shall draw the attention of witnesses to privilege. Please note that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they will give to the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.Members should be aware that under the salient rulings of the Chair, Members shall not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Mr. Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl

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.

Ms Kate Hills

I thank the joint committee for the invitation to highlight the pertinent areas of concern for Swim Ireland. I hold the position of national children's officer in Swim Ireland and am responsible for the child welfare and protection policies, as well as being the authorised signatory. At the outset, we greatly welcome the Bill and thank the Garda vetting unit for the support it has given us as an organisation in the past. Swim Ireland is the national governing body for the aquatic disciplines and we are one of more than 70 national governing bodies in Ireland. As a sport, we have had a lot of lessons to learn from our past and we strive to implement and work to best practice principles at all times. While this statement is made on behalf of Swim Ireland, I hope it also reflects some of the concerns in the wider sports arena. I hope the fact a representative from the Federation of Irish Sports is in attendance demonstrates the support for sport in general.

I submitted a detailed submission previously and today would like to concentrate on our consideration of the Bill from a practical working standpoint and working with our clubs and members. I wish to clarify that I intend to use a term, "sports leaders", throughout my statement, which covers all roles of those working within sport, including coaches, teachers, team managers, chaperones, committees and so on.

Swim Ireland operates in accordance with its safeguarding children policies and has a standard to which it adheres. It is in line with the Irish Sports Council's code of ethics and good practice for children's sports and is also based on Children First. As part of these measures, we do not permit unsupervised contact with children in our activities. Vetting forms part of our recruitment and membership process for protecting children. With this in mind, we have grave concerns about what we perceive as ambiguity regarding the phrase "regular or ongoing unsupervised contact" as used in head 5 to determine those requiring vetting. Our concern is that this wording suggests nobody working in Swim Ireland need be subject to vetting.

The notes attached to head 16 indicate that those in positions as set out in head 5 which do not involve positions involving contact with children or vulnerable adults will be subject to vetting under head 16. This appears to be the first mention or clarification of positions other than those mentioned in head 5. It seems confusing because most sports leaders fall into the categories of those who can have substantial contact with children. This again raises the question about the definition of "ad hoc”. Many of our sports leaders, although they cannot under our safeguarding policies have unsupervised access to children, might well have access to children in up to ten or 11 training sessions per week. That does not fall into my definition of “ad hoc”. This appears to leave our sports leaders in limbo. We would require our sports leaders to fall into the category of vetting under head 17. This requires clarity. There is a further implication of vetting individuals in accordance with head 16 which I will deal with later.

We strongly suggest there be a requirement, in accordance with the views of Barnardos, the ISPCC and the GAA, that individuals who have access to children's details or decision-making authority which impacts on children be subject to vetting. This would include the committees of our sports clubs or similar. As we have discovered and heard, even minimal access to children can potentially lead to establishing an inappropriate relationship. Once an unchecked individual has access to children's personal details, as contained on a simple membership form, for example, this becomes a possibility. We believe only vetting individuals who have unsupervised contact with children, which is how we read the draft legislation under head 5, is opening the door to those who will seize an opportunity to gain access to children for their own needs. This is a risk to our children that is too great to bear.

The implications of vetting individuals only under the criteria of head 16, if this is what is intended for those in contact with children, are also potentially severe. Relevant information as defined in head 14 is not available to an organisation which vets an individual under head 16. Head 20 clearly sets out the use of relevant information and while Swim Ireland welcomes the concern of balancing the rights of the individual with the need to protect children and vulnerable adults, it believes this leaves a huge gap for organisations and it is imperative to fill it. Without considering the so-called soft information, there is a real danger of individuals moving between organisations with the intention of causing harm to children, even if an individual has been previously expelled from an organisation. This only requires an individual to lie on an application form and without the backup of sufficient relevant information from the full vetting process as provided by head 17, an individual, where there is substantial concern about his or her suitability to work with children, may go unnoticed, which is potentially harmful.

Swim Ireland contends that sports organisations should also be included in Schedule 2, that is, under an obligation to report any findings of a process that expels an individual for a "bona fide reason to believe that a person may harm or attempt to cause harm to children or vulnerable adults" and that all individuals who are vetted are subject to the process in head 17. It also strongly recommends that all persons with "regular or ongoing" contact with children, those in positions of authority over children and-or those who have access to sensitive information on children be vetted in accordance with the requirements of head 17. A definition of "regular or ongoing" contact with children, as the GAA has suggested, should be considered, for example, a level of contact on a weekly or monthly basis. Certainly, those staying overnight with children must be considered. We believe organisations should be given the responsibility for deciding the roles or positions to be vetted within the legislation but not restricted to this framework to enable them to make decisions in accordance with their best practice policies.

Swim Ireland operates in a largely unregulated activity where facilities operate to their own policies. However, our members working in clubs and as individual teachers and coaches are subject to all of our stringent requirements. We have introduced the concept of licensing those who are qualified with up-to-date training and who meet all our best practice principles of safeguarding children. This includes vetting. This adds credibility to the roles of those working within sport. Our licences are required to be updated and renewed every three years. The restriction in vetting a member seeking a new or renewed licence for a role training, teaching or supervising children on the basis that they have been vetted in the last five years leaves a gap in the system. It will prevent organisations from implementing their own best practice standards. While we recognise the burden this places on the bureau in re-vetting individuals, we would like to have the opportunity in bona fide circumstances, that is, licensing, to stipulate the requirement for vetting in accordance with the organisation's best practice policy. I echo Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl's suggestions about the portability of vetting between organisations, which might well solve that problem.

I wish to make further brief points surrounding the definition of "employment". Many of the courses we run include access to children and we would like this to be included in the definition in head 2. I agree with Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl's points about volunteers and charging for vetting.

The use of private homes has been raised by the ISPCC. In a voluntary organisation private residences are often used as the centre of the club or organisation and as such, should not be excluded from vetting.

There is also the question of vetting for the role, position or job title. It should be for the organisation rather than the job title.

Some clarity is required about the appeals process and the release of relevant information. We ask that if sports organisations included in Schedule 2 release information to the vetting bureau, there be a return of information back to them.

I thank the committee for giving us this opportunity. We believe there are still some questions to be clarified and we will be happy to follow up with a written submission.

Does Ms O'Connor wish to make a submission?

Ms Sarah O’Connor

There are 470,000 Irish adults volunteering in sport each year, with 83% of children of primary schoolgoing age involved in their sport outside school. This means they are partaking in sport in a structure provided by the national governing bodies of sport. We welcome the Bill and are anxious to ensure the best practice model is adopted. It is important that the standards we are requiring our organisations to adhere to are clearly set out and that it does not become a choice.

Deputy Tom Hayes will be lead speaker in this section. Please be as focused and brief as possible.

I thank the groups for attending and making their presentations. They will help us in examining the Bill.

One striking feature of the presentations was the GAA representative's reference to an on-line system. Will he elaborate on that system and how it would help the process? In the other presentations everybody was complimentary of the Garda vetting unit.

Mr. Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl

The system we use is portable in that a vetting person in a club, such as the children's officer, could call in the coaches, produce the laptop and access the information through an identifier number and other security requirements that position on our website. In a club, the children's officer would convene the people who need to be vetted and would do it on the spot via laptop or computer. Only the children's officer would have the identifier access. If both of us were coaches, we would sit down and fill it in. It is foolproof in that the document cannot be closed until all boxes are filled and it immediately lands at the GAA vetting section. Each time 50 forms land, a batch is created and that batch goes to the Garda vetting unit.

At the moment, although we have trials, we still have to print because there is a problem with electronic signature in law in the Republic of Ireland that must be addressed in the Bill. If we could overcome that, the batch would go directly to the Garda vetting unit, it would take it down and electronically return it to us in Croke Park and we would then individually engage with each of those 50 people based on the disclosure.

It would also identify the need for follow-up, for example if insufficient data were given about an address in another country. We would issue a pro forma letter that would be sent back to the coach’s home. Once a person in the GAA fills out a vetting form, it only ends up in Croke Park and Croke Park, through the children’s office, makes the decision in respect of each and every applicant and we write directly back to them. We have a number of pro forma letters already agreed in the system to ask about addresses, convictions or vetting applications. We have shown it to the Garda IT unit and it is happy with the system but it must be included in the legislation.

The GAA has an issue with the "ad hoc" term. What is the experience in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl

In Northern Ireland, no one goes into any sporting or children's organisation with vetting by AccessNI or by the previous procedure. We had occasion whereby we had to invoke the term I mentioned earlier. If we wanted to decide who had to be vetted, under Northern Ireland legislation, it is any person who gives two days in any 30 day period. Technically it means everyone. The vetting system in the North is slightly different in so far as they give the disclosure and the directive regarding the person's involvement. The system in the Republic of Ireland works equally well, if not better. The disclosure comes back to the organisation and we make the decision depending on the person's role.

Ms Kate Hills

The role is very important. I referred to the generic term "sports leaders". Even within sports an official can have different duties and can have different access to children. It is important the decision lies with the organisation, dependent on its role. What suits one organisation may not suit another. We would have experience of the AccessNI system too, as would all sporting organisations that operate on a 32 county basis.

Portability seems important. Does this mean that once a person is vetted, the vetting can be brought to different organisations, depending on the role?

Ms Kate Hills

At present, if someone is a coach with the GAA and came to Swim Ireland we would ask for him to be vetted. The same would happen with basketball. The person could be a school teacher or a garda and have up to six or seven vettings. Portability would depend on the access to relevant information. What might be acceptable to the GAA may not be acceptable to Swim Ireland or to a school. It is important that the relevant information on an individual is portable between organisations. Once relevant information is recorded against an individual and he has been vetted, any organisation with an interest in that person could get that information, it would not just sit with the vetting unit.

Mr. Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl

I fully agree. One of the difficulties on the relevant information section of the Bill is that we may only get information relevant for the role the person has applied to do. Earlier Senator Bacik asked of the ISPCC and Barnardos would exclude road traffic offences. We would exclude nothing because a person may offer his services to the GAA as a caretaker in a sports centre and like what he is doing and undertake coaching classes and progress. He would be employed under one heading and then move to do something else. If we exclude what some people see as minor road traffic offences, how could that person be trusted to be a bus driver? Portability is easy and gives an identifier number that is only shared by the organisations in Schedule 2 and therefore gives the information that is related to each person, letting them understand the threshold of acceptability for each role.

Ms Kate Hills

It also indicates a pattern of offences, although they may be minor. Sports organisations want to work to best practice so we need that information.

It would also cut down the work load of the bureau considerably.

Ms Kate Hills

Yes. We have sports coaches who operate in five or six sports and they are all vetted individually.

So the 279,000 last year could include multiple vettings of the same person.

Ms Kate Hills

Yes, and under our present standards we require anyone who moves to a more sensitive position to be vetted again. Someone who works on a committee with access to children's information and decision making authority who then becomes a children's officer in a club is required to be revetted because we do not know what might have happened to him in between.

I thank the witnesses for giving their time and sharing the expertise. This is a new process where the Oireachtas invites submissions on the heads of Bills. We have published a report on the submissions we have received to date and this further material will be go the Minister to assist the Department in producing the Bill. The Bill will then come back to committee when it is being debated and we will invite the witnesses back if they want to make further comment at that point.

Sitting suspended at 10.40 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.

We are resuming our discussion with some of the organisations which made written submissions on the draft scheme of the national vetting bureau Bill. All the delegates are welcome. Before we begin, I draw their attention to the position on privilege. They should note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should be aware that under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I welcome Ms Gaye Tanham, head of young people, children and education at the Arts Council; Ms Audrey Keane, young people, children and education officer, and Ms Anna Boner, development officer, from Poetry Ireland; and Mr. Arthur Duignan, assistant director, and Ms Jane O'Rourke, office manager, from Create Ireland. This is a relatively new process in which we have invited groups to make presentations on the heads of a Bill before it is formally published. It enables all of us to have an input into the Bill at this stage, as it is more difficult to make changes to the overall thrust of a Bill once it has been published. We have had a number of groups in this morning and have had a very interesting interaction. I ask everyone to be brief in his or her submission. We have a lead questioner who will ask a number of focused questions. Others may then ask questions. I ask the representative of the Arts Council to begin.

Ms. Gaye Tanham

We welcome the commitment to establish a national vetting bureau on a statutory basis. I will highlight a few of the points we have made in our submission that might have particular relevance to the arts sector. The Arts Council has been proactively involved in the welfare and protection of children since 2004 and there are more than 400 organisations which we come into contact with, whereby we require such policies and procedures to be in place.

We recommend further clarification of the scope of the legislation; specifically, it should state it includes unpaid work, private work and community activity involving children and vulnerable adults. The addition of vulnerable adults to the proposals is welcome. We also strongly recommend that the provisions be extended to include vetting of individuals working as solo practitioners, a particular issue in the arts sector, or self-employed artists, teachers and facilitators, and that smaller organisations are given access to vetting, either as registered organisations in their own right or as members or associates of representative groups.

We are concerned that the legislation, as proposed, excludes people who may have contact with or access to children through their employment by, membership of or association with organisations, although their primary roles do not directly involve working with children. This has been mentioned by previous speakers, but we would like to add our weight to it and strongly recommend that this be reconsidered.

We would welcome clarification of whether relevant information such as the findings of HSE investigations or risk assessments will be made available, with due regard to natural justice and the constitutional right to a good name, where the balance of probability suggests a threat to the safety and welfare of children or vulnerable adults. This may be relevant to other settings also.

We urge the committee to consider how the new bureau will be resourced in order to fulfil its role efficiently and effectively, including through the use of secure technology - we are echoing other submissions in this regard - to reduce duplication and repeated vettings and ensure relevant up-to-date changes or disclosures are tracked and made available to employers as they arise. In this regard, it is hoped any charges will not place an unsustainable burden on organisations with limited funds which are already struggling to survive, of which there are many in the arts sector, as I am sure is also the case in other jurisdictions, and that volunteers and voluntary groups will be exempt from such charges, as happens in other jurisdictions. Voluntarism is an important part of delivering arts programmes for children, young people and vulnerable adults.

We thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to contribute to this most important process and taking the time to consider our submission. We will do our best to answer any questions the committee might have about the detail of our submission. These are just a few of the points we wish to highlight.

Thank you, Ms Tanham.

Ms Anna Boner

I will make this as brief as possible. Poetry Ireland warmly welcomes this opportunity and is happy to have been invited to contribute to this process.

I applaud the work done by the Garda vetting unit. Poetry Ireland's Writers in Schools scheme supports visits by writers to primary and post-primary schools in the 32 counties. We have a panel of approximately 250 writers and storytellers registered with the scheme for schools to select from and invite for a single half-day visit or a residency of over two months. Our main area of concern in the Bill is ambiguities with regard to the employment positions covered by the Bill, the status of writers working on the scheme and the terms "ad hoc”, “occasional” and “regular”. Many artists have erratic and unpredictable working patterns, with invitations to work often coming at short notice, for example, some of our writers might do 20 half day visits in a year and some might do a series of longer-term residencies whereas other people may not be called at all to do a visit, or somebody may get a request at short notice.

Clarity around the terms "supervised" and "unsupervised" would also be appreciated. The implementation of the idea of supervision, for example in our case there is no guarantee that writers are always supervised in a school context. Situations might occur due to staff pressures or sudden emergencies where a teacher may have to leave a room.

I wish to reiterate the point about multiple vetting of an individual and the time delays that result from that.

I now call Mr. Arthur Duignan.

Mr. Arthur Duignan

We welcome this opportunity to come before the joint committee. I thank the members for taking the time to read our submission.

Broadly, we are enthusiastic about the Bill but have some difficulties with definitions. We welcome the definition of vulnerable adults, which had not been defined. We have been engaging in Garda vetting for more than two years and I have been involved in the arts for more than 20 years. The arts organisations are responsible employers and we share an enthusiasm for higher standards of protection.

We have, however, some concerns about the Bill, and the following case study will illustrate how unclear things are for artists and arts organisations. If a local authority advertises a bursary, a residency or commission and selects an artist to work with a youth group in a particular area, the artist gathers a team of fellow workers from a theatre project, for example, and approaches a local school or club to use their hall for rehearsals or events. In my experience the artist is being asked by the club or the school to produce evidence of Garda vetting. The artists ask the school or the club to help them to get Garda vetting but the school may say that it cannot help because it only vets its own employees.

The artists go back to the youth club which says it will supervise the work and do not see the need for vetting and will not organise it. When the artists ask the funding body to help them, the response is that the policy is to vet only those people on their payroll and not contract staff. Contractors are on their own. The artists then call me looking for help and the individual explains how he or she has been asked for Garda vetting but nobody is willing to tell him or how to get it. I then have to explain that vetting is not available to individuals and that we will be unable to help the individual artists. What happens on too many occasions is that artists miss out on opportunities to work and earn a living because they cannot get access to vetting. My question is where does the responsibility lie? It is not clear now and it will not be any clearer on the enactment of the Bill.

Arts activities are different from other types of activity in that they cross generations. One can have children, young people, vulnerable adults all in the same room at the same time. They happen in quite a broad range of social contexts, from schools, youth clubs, hospitals, drug rehabilitation centres, and in the juvenile justice system. It is right across the board. It is very difficult to generalise about them. Different art forms require of necessity different types of contact. If one wants to learn a musical instrument, the best way to do it is by one-to-one contact with a tutor. How does vetting apply in that situation? It is not always clear.

Other activities such as dance often require physical contact. That is a particular type of contact, and we are not sure on how that impacts. The new Bill does not help us in defining this and does not tell us what substantial contact might mean. As Ms Boner has stated, our concerns centre around the situation for freelance practitioners, which is very unsatisfactory. Vetting is not available to individuals and it is not portable between employment.

To reiterate, some artists are losing out on the opportunity to work, because of a lack of access, other artists are being asked to undergo the process of vetting on multiple occasions in a short time-frame and for different employers. That situation is unfair and unsatisfactory. Artists are increasingly mobile. They may have worked or studied outside Ireland and it not clear how these periods of time can be verified by an employer in Ireland, particularly if there is a foreign language involved.

We welcome the legislation, but it has implications for the resources of our organisations. We are being asked, and challenged to raise awareness of best practice and to invest in information services, training, administration, IT, all of which cost money. If we face additional charges for engaging in this process, it will be very difficult for us to continue.

As I said at the outset, the arts provide a safe environment for children, young people, vulnerable adults. By addressing some of these concerns we will contribute to higher standards of protection for all concerned.

I thank Mr. Duignan for raising these very interesting points. Does the Senator know there is a vote in the Seanad? I call Deputy Tuffy, who is the lead speaker this morning.

Will I ask all the questions at once.

Should the Deputy want to ask a question and get clarification, we can work that way, but the Deputy can work either way.

I have a similar question for each organisation but first I will address it to the Arts Council. From its experience of vetting, does the Arts Council believe it can manage the current system? Does it have concerns about complying with the terms of the proposed legislation? In its submission, it refers to extending the vetting to solo practitioners, how many people would it then apply to? In the current employment climate, artists are now doing things to make a few bob, such as face painting. Is the Arts Council suggesting that they should be covered by this legislation? Is it practical to extend the vetting to individual artists?

I wish to put a question to Ms Boner from Poetry Ireland. I understand from Ms Boner that Poetry Ireland is involved in vetting. Does she feel able as a voluntary organisation to manage the system of vetting? Does she anticipate that the work-load will increase with the enactment of the Bill? Does she feel confident that Poetry Ireland well be able to operate within the terms of the new legislation?

Ms Boner raised the question of PPS numbers. Does she consider it should be mandatory to include such information?

It appears Create Ireland wants to broaden the legislation on Garda vetting to individuals? Would that be feasible? Would the legislation not become too broad? Have arts organisations considered the possibility of having individuals vetted by a nominated arts body such as the Arts Council? It would be extremely resource intensive to have individuals vetted by the Garda. How would a requirement to incorporate the vetting of individuals in the legislation be achieved in practice?

Is the current vetting process, with which the bodies before us have engaged for two years, working? Are they able to cope with the current regime? Are they worried about compliance and capacity issues if the legislation is passed?

Ms Gaye Tanham

I will do my best to respond to Deputy Tuffy's questions to the Arts Council.

As with all policies in this field, the central concern is the protection and welfare of children as they engage in arts activities. It is a condition of funding of the Arts Council that organisations have policies and procedures in place, while solo practitioners must submit a code of practice. The council accesses Garda vetting for its own staff through the National Youth Council of Ireland. We undertake to have artists and facilitators with whom we may have short-term engagement vetted. This applies to all volunteers involved in any of the projects or programmes we promote directly. Within the sector, Poetry Ireland, Create Ireland, the National Association of Youth Drama and the Ark, the children's cultural centre, are registered with the Garda vetting unit and can, therefore, provide a vetting service.

Mr. Duignan correctly raised the issue of solo practitioners because it is central to concern in the arts sector. How can a self-employed artist access the vetting process in the event that there is confusion around who is the employer? Many self-employed artists want to be able to access the vetting process. Poetry Ireland, the National Association of Youth Drama and the Ark vet all their own artists, volunteers and staff because each is a registered unit. The issue arises in the wider sector, for example, in the case of music and arts teachers, those who may be engaged in face painting as part of the service they provide as an individual artist and the many volunteers involved in the large number of festivals which take place. As I stated, Create Ireland offers a service to people other than its members and affiliated organisations. This is an issue for artists who are trying to comply with and wish to get on board with regard to increasing best practice in the arts sector. It is something we strongly urge in the interests of child safety and protection. While it is not an issue that can be easily solved, it is one that the vetting bureau should examine.

Ms Anna Boner

I am the authorised signatory in Poetry Ireland. To answer Deputy Tuffy's question on difficulties we may have, I will echo the comments I made earlier. Administratively, we acknowledge the work done by the Garda vetting unit, but the issue that arises is the time required to have individuals processed. It is a condition of participation in the Writers in Schools scheme that writers being inducted into the scheme agree to be vetted. However, we still operate under an ambiguity as to whether the individuals in question are bound by law to be vetted. We need clarity on this issue. Will all those whose names appear on the panel of writers be required to undergo vetting or does a writer have to carry out a certain number of visits to schools each year before he or she is bound by law to be vetted? I echo the comments made on the ambiguity surrounding the terms "occasional", "regular" and "ad hoc”. While the use of PPS numbers would be a good addition, that proposal might raise privacy issues for some individuals.

Mr Arthur Duignan

In broad terms, we estimate that the arts sector would generate approximately 15,000 vetting applications annually. This figure may decline in time because a substantial amount of vetting is retrospective rather than new. I estimate that vetting would be required in approximately 5,000 new cases per annum. In the case of Create Ireland, we would probably have a throughput of between 400 and 500 applications annually. While this figure may be small in terms of what the busy new vetting unit is doing, it is a significant volume of applications for us.

We also estimate that between 1,000 and 1,500 professional artists are working in a social context that could give rise to contact which, depending on how the employer views it, may or may not give rise to a requirement for vetting. Whether it is feasible to broaden the legislation to cover such individuals is a moot point and I am not sure of the answer to that question. The way we operate the system is that until relatively recently we only provided a service for employers affiliated to our organisation. At the end of the vetting process which is straightforward in the case of 99% of all applications, we simply return the certificate to the employer stating the individual concerned has completed the process. In the other 1% of cases a decision may be required in response to a disclosure of some description. In most cases, such disclosures involve what are described in the Act as "minor offences" and may be described in plain English as having timed out because they took place a long time ago. An offence could have involved, for instance, parking in a disabled parking space 15 years ago.

What we tell individuals is that if they are associated with our organisation and wish to avail of a vetting service through us, we will hold on to the certificate and when they encounter an employer who requires them to have a certificate of having completed the process, they should put the employer in touch with us and we will provide the certificate directly. That the individual does not receive, have or hold the certificate is our way around the lack of portability in the system. I understand this practice is not applied everywhere. For instance, once one is registered with the Teaching Council, one receives a letter confirming that one has completed the process and one brings this letter to whichever employer one encounters. We are not willing to go down that route.

The difficulty for us will arise where there are significant disclosures. How will we handle such information? Will we have to keep it on the chance that an employer may appear in a year's time - it could be in a year's time when the artist encounters an employer who requires vetting. Where do we stand legally, in terms of holding on to the information for that extended period? We cannot, rightly or wrongly, ask an individual to sign away their rights under data protection. Even if we had that piece of paper, allowing us to hold on to that information for a significant period which would be allowed under data protection, it still might not stand up in law. The individual may make a complaint later. Something could happen, our office could be broken into, our system's security could break down and the information could get out, all of which leaves us uncertain. Also my board, which is voluntary, does not want me, as an employee, or us, as an organisation, to be able to say who is suitable to work in the arts and who is not. The idea of a register where everybody is pre-approved from our point of view is not workable because if one is not on the register, what does that mean? How might it be interpreted by a third party? If one does not have Garda vetting and is not on Create Ireland's list, one may ask why?

This will be difficult while the position of individuals is quite difficult. One of the reasons we want to explore this issue and go down the road of working with individuals is precisely because many artists are self-employed. They can represent themselves to one as being a business or an individual, depending on the circumstance. If they represent themselves to us as a business, no matter how small - there may be only two people - we are unwilling to engage with them in a Garda vetting context because, effectively, it means that they are the decision-makers on their own Garda vetting. For us that is a substantial issue. If we are asking the sole owner of a business to make a determination on whether something is relevant or irrelevant, is an obstacle to employment or is not an obstacle to employment, we are in a grey area regarding their own Garda vetting application. The position of individuals is complicated.

The more one goes into the detail the more complex it appears. In a way the Arts Council is taking on responsibility for the individual as if it was their employer, which is a major issue. Is there any other organisation of which Mr. Duignan is aware that provides this type of service for self-employed artists? Would this legislation apply to those who have been vetted or is that a voluntary regime that would still be in place? This is a complex issue and will have to be given much consideration.

All the delegates have raised the issue of resources. Do they set out budgets and employ staff members specifically allocated to this purpose? Do they anticipate taking on new or additional staff and, if so, will the organisations have to budget further? What preparations are being made for when the legislation will be in place given that there are penalties for organisations for breach of the legislation? There would be implications for the delegations in terms of the criminal law code. Have the organisations sought to put the resources in place to comply?

Ms Gaye Tanham

We are asking that this be taken into consideration when the legislation is put in place. From an Arts Council perspective it is part of HR. We would budget for it within our own organisation but we are a State agency. For some of the lesser resourced organisations, time and resources would come into play.

That will probably not be accounted for in the legislation. In that case, should there be a transition period? If and when the legislation is enacted and the organisations, and particularly the voluntary organisations, find they do not have the resources to comply, have they looking at that issue?

Ms Anna Boner

As a small organisation the main resource implications on us would be on time.

Has Mr. Duignan given consideration to that issue?

Mr. Arthur Duignan

We have about 200 associate members and we provide vetting as an optional service to them. We came into this in response to a demand from them that something be done to facilitate the lack of access which they had, which is the reason we approached the vetting unit in 2007 and requested that we become registered. They welcomed us with open arms because we were the first arts organisation to approach them. It is an optional service and is part of what we do. We are uniquely placed in some ways to act on behalf of the broader arts because we have a national profile.

We are the only organisation that works specifically in a collaborative or participative context and we also cross all the art forms. Ms Jane O'Rourke and I manage the service. I am the authorised signatory. It takes about a day per month, but it is growing, to deal with the bureaucracy. Days such as today are extra time. Policy meetings, training, information provision is all extra. Answering the telephone and dealing with inquiries, of which there is a growing volume, is an issue. I am not sure it is sustainable in the longer term. We have to make a strategic decision in the context of diminishing funds generally.

I call Deputy Seán Kenny for a brief question.

Mr. Duignan has raised some important issues on how the vetting procedures are carried out and the difficulties that people experience, not just self-employed artists. People turn up at our clinics who have applied for a position in a crèche and they require Garda vetting. That request has to go to another body before it goes to the-----

Does the Deputy have a specific question for this group because we can speak about that other issue-----

The point raised about the difficulties in the current vetting procedures need to be addressed in the Bill. I agree with Mr. Duignan in that respect. I also agree with him in respect of the timed-out offences. Unfortunately, they do not time-out. I have come across a case of a person who shop-lifted at 16 years of age, got her life back together, completed her education and proceeded to third level and got her degree. When she sought a job that required vetting, the shop-lifting incident came up and she did not get the job. The issues raised by Mr. Duignan need to be addressed in the new Bill.

That is the point of having the hearings here. I invite the delegations to say if they are aware of best practice in other jurisdictions, in particular, with respect to individuals? If they have other suggestions as to how the Bill might be improved they might let us know given that the Bill is at a preliminary stage. The idea is that we can feed into the development of the Bill before it is published. As there are no other questions I thank the delegations for their time and their input. It is much appreciated and let us hope it bears fruit.

I welcome the Rape Crisis Centre and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. I welcome Ms Caroline Counihan, legal director, and Ms Cliona Saidléar, policy and communications director, from the Rape Crisis Centre of Ireland and Ms Mandy Nordell, national co-ordinator, from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Witnesses should please note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of any evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in regard to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members should also be aware that under the standing rules of the Chairman, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Ms Caroline Counihan

On behalf of Rape Crisis Network Ireland, RCNI, the national network of rape crisis centres, I thank the committee for this opportunity to come and speak to it. We have long advocated such an approach as is outlined in the draft heads of this Bill and are delighted to see it at last come to fruition. Survivors and their needs are at the very heart of everything we do and we are committed to an evidence-based strategy to achieve our goal of providing a nationally co-ordinated range of specialist services for survivors of sexual violence which is founded on best international practice.

Our approach recognises that reliable, accessible data is vital for addressing sexual violence. The RCNI annual national statistic report on crimes of sexual violence against women, men and children is the most comprehensive and reliable data set in Ireland and is readily available to inform public policy, multi-agency collaboration and services delivery. With over 15 rape crisis centres in Ireland entering high quality data into a secure web-based system, data on over 1,500 victims of sexual violence who attend rape crisis centres annually and the crimes perpetrated against them is analysed. This system has been custom built to collect data in front-line services. Over the past six years the data categories have been refined in order to represent better the collective story of rape crisis centre service users, answer important questions necessary to provide better services and inform national service planning and policy. Our evidence base leads us to agree with many of the presentations we have heard today. We can certainly say from our evidence that increasing numbers of under 18s now access rape crisis centres. Reported perpetrators include friends, acquaintances and neighbours. For example, boys are very likely to be abused in the school setting.

This means it remains important to ensure we do all we can to increase the safety of our children, including by supporting the proposed new legislation to enhance the vetting process and set out detailed vetting obligations and procedures. In order for this legislation to achieve its aims, like previous speakers, I submit that it is very important to bear in mind the practical context in which it must work. I endorse what previous speakers have said about the current system becoming electronic. In these days of encrypted technologies, I am confident we can have a secure online system which will address the legitimate fears the Garda might have that data might not be tightly enough controlled.

As the authorised signatory for Rape Crisis Network Ireland for our staff and volunteers, I would make a plea for the forms to be rationalised to provide enough space for current information and dispense with the need to record one's address under the age of seven years. This may seem over the top, but how the form should be filled in is not self evident, even to people like me who have been trained. Perhaps there should be a website with online information and training for vetting subjects and authorised signatories and for management personnel. Currently, the authorised signatories are trained in face to face sessions. My concern is that we should reduce the burden on the new national vetting bureau. I endorse strongly everything that has been said about the national vetting bureau being properly resourced if the new legislation is to work.

I also agree with the point made by several speakers on portability of vetting. In this regard, the committee should give consideration to certain organisations that are working with children, particularly NGOs, being required to vet all their staff because, in smaller organisations in particular, it is impossible to say when in some emergency somebody might be put in a situation where he or she would be required to deal with a child or vulnerable adult on a one-to-one basis. This suggestion is worthy of consideration. I welcome the provisions set out in section 14 with regard to relevant information and feel they are necessary. As the Bill is drafted, there is no obligation to go back and have a revetting procedure when relevant information comes to hand. That information must go back to organisations so that they are not in a situation where somebody has been recently vetted but when something happens, unless the person is revetted or vetted for a role in another organisation, that vital information does not get to the organisation. I ask the committee to consider that.

I suggest, with respect, that it is important that all the various pieces of child protection legislation work together, for example, the withholding of information and the forthcoming child protection legislation so that there are no anomalies and all the provisions work in a seamless manner in as far as is possible. I included in my note on my presentation some new statistics for the committee's consideration only. They are not yet published or available to the public and we are not putting them on the public record as yet.

I thank the committee for this opportunity to come and talk to it. I am glad to do so and to answer any questions.

Thank you.

Ms Mandy Nordell

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul welcomes the proposed legislation and the establishment of the national vetting bureau, and in particular the inclusion of defined vulnerable adults which has, to date, been absent from our legislation and guidelines.

To provide some context about our society, we have approximately 9,500 volunteers working throughout the country and 500 staff. We provide both structured services, such as hostels, child care services and holiday services as well as home visitation services. Therefore, the majority of our volunteers meet vulnerable people in their homes and outside of a structured activity. To date, Garda vetting has served us well. We have been vetting new members and new staff since May 2007 and have had an opportunity to reduce the risk of people with unsuitable disclosures or convictions having access to vulnerable children and adults.

In common with many of the others who made submissions, we would like some clarity on the definitions, in particular with regard to "volunteers". We suggest this definition should include paid and unpaid volunteers. Many volunteers do not consider themselves employees and this might provide them with an opportunity to opt out of compliance with the legislation.

We would also question the definition of "unsupervised". What does it mean in the context of structured services? We are clear that people who are working directly with children should be vetted, but there are also ancillary services such as cooks, bus drivers and caretakers. Previous child protection inquiries in this jurisdiction and others have suggested that people who want to harm children use these ancillary services as ways of accessing children. We would also like clarity on the term "working with", and we suggest that it be strengthened and replaced with "having access to or contact with through their organisational role". We would also welcome some further clarity for the term "ad hoc”. In the Northern legislation, that is clearly defined as two days’ access per 30 days.

In the section dealing with the sharing of relevant information, we ask that this include risk assessment and child protection assessment in the context of the HSE and the Garda. Other than that, our main concern would be with the operation of the Garda vetting system and timeframes and portability. While the timeframes are prolonged and the portability is limited, it provides an opportunity for people to opt out if Garda vetting becomes something that is difficult to engage in. For this to be successful, it must be easy to engage in if volunteer organisations are to commit completely.

Thank you very much. I call on Deputy O'Brien.

I thank the witnesses for coming and for the submissions. As the Chairman pointed out, asking for submissions on the heads of a Bill is a new development. It has been worthwhile because all of the groups have more or less identified the same issues, such as the definitions of "ad hoc” or “unsupervised”, “relevant information”, the portability of the system and so on, so it has been worthwhile.

Senator Bacik asked a question this morning about Schedule 1, which dealt with the offences. Is it the witnesses's opinion that all offences should be included or not? Can they expand on the portability issue and how they would see that working in practice? Should we be looking at this more closely? Any comments are appreciated.

Ms Caroline Counihan

There is huge merit in having all offences included in Schedule 1. When a person goes to Templemore to be trained as an authorised signatory, he or she is told that when making the decision about the suitability of a particular candidate, and with all the vetting information in front of him or her, it is very important to have a look at the nature of the offences. Somebody made the point this morning that a one-off driving offence committed a few years ago is not too serious for a person who is looking for a role that involves sitting down all day, so driving a child or a vulnerable adult does not arise, but if we are looking for somebody who may be driving children on a regular or even an irregular basis, we would not want that person to have a string of even minor driving offences. If I were the person making the decision whether to employ somebody in such a role, the number of the offences would give me pause, but I would be looking at it in the context of the role.

We were certainly taught very clearly in Thurles by the gardaí there that each person needed to be assessed for a particular role, but that is really a management concern. In respect of portability, let us suppose that I am the authorised signatory. If somebody told me that he or she had already been vetted for a very similar role, it would be great if there was some place on the form to input that information. Perhaps there should be a separate fast track procedure for that at the GCVU, or the NVB as it will soon be called. That is more an operational question really. I do not know enough about technology to get into it, but I feel confident that there is a way that can be found without too much trouble for the gardaí at the GCVU.

Ms Mandy Nordell

We would support the disclosure of all offences. It is often not just the nature of the offences, but the repeat offences and the timeframes that contribute to making good risk assessments and keeping children safe. There is obviously some question about young people who have offended and whether or not those offences should be struck off after a certain amount of time, or when a young person has shown that he or she has changed. In those cases, young people should not necessarily be precluded from continuing in these careers based on things they might have done when they were very young.

In respect of portability, the issue for vetting at the moment is the organisation which holds the ownership of the vetting process. Each organisation takes responsibility for how it risk assesses each candidate. There might be an opportunity where information is held on individuals. In the North, they are given a pin number and the organisation checks against that pin number. It still gets access to the information, but in a quicker, more streamlined way, as the information is held centrally. It would be easier when the GAA, swimming organisations and so on submit similar forms.

I want to take up a line of questioning which I raised earlier in the morning with Barnardos and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. To put it in a context, lest anyone think there is an ultra-nationalist approach to this legislation, there certainly is not. The witnesses said earlier that around 270,000 applications are being dealt with annually by the bureau, which works out at almost 1,000 per working day. That is extraordinary and if I can extrapolate from the information given in response earlier by the ISPCC and Barnardos, approximately 10% of those are non-national queries.

Where I am coming from is a concern about the reach, the efficacy and reliability of the information coming back from the countries of origin. It is true to say that we might place more reliability on information coming from some countries than from others. In that context, I would like to ask the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Rape Crisis Network Ireland if they have had any issues in respect of approvals granted by the bureau, where they found out subsequently that the people involved may not be suitable. There are different societal norms. We would like to think that child welfare is a universal issue and that everybody approaches things from the same point of view, but regrettably, across the globe, there are different approaches. It is not long ago in this country that corporal punishment was an accepted approach to disciplining children, but that would not be tolerated at all today. That is just one instance and there are many other instances of different societal approaches to child welfare.

While all of these submissions are very welcome, and we have a new approach to legislation which will enable us to deliver better legislation at the end of the day, I think there is one piece of the jigsaw missing here. Perhaps we should write to the Garda Commissioner and ask whether the chief of operations in Thurles would come in to give us their view as well, so we can put it all into the melting pot. I am not sure I have previously seen Garda or Army members in here to discuss legislation, but this is important. Perhaps we could explore the possibility of writing to the Garda Commissioner to seek his view on the draft legislation and put all of it into the melting pot. That is where I am coming from but I am keen to hear the view of the organisations.

Thank you, Deputy. Certainly, we will explore the possibility of engaging with the Garda Commissioner to establish if he has a role. Will the deputation respond briefly to the first point made by Deputy Creed?

Ms Caroline Counihan

"No" is the short answer. It has never arisen for the Rape Crisis Network Ireland.

Ms Cliona Saidléar

We have standardised training to manage cultural difference. Anyone who is not originally from Ireland is involved in that and must come up to that standard anyway. That addresses the issue. The vetting process is not simply about people coming from different countries; it also applies to Irish people who have lived abroad. The information the Garda has is dependent on whatever comes from other countries. What is deemed a sexual offence in Ireland may not necessarily be a sexual offence in another country. That is always an issue. It is extraordinarily important to begin to discuss the matter with the international community in various locations to determine how we co-ordinate and streamline it.

Ms Mandy Nordell

Our situation is similar. We have had no situations whereby people have been through the Garda vetting process here and subsequently information about convictions from other countries has come afterwards. That has not happened.

I am not referring to information about convictions but rather the impact of their practical engagement in the duties that organisations assign to them. Do the organisations have concerns about their approach vis-à-vis what we expect and accept as the required standard of care?

Ms Mandy Nordell

The answer is "yes" in some circumstances. There may have been situations whereby people have gone through the Garda vetting process successfully and other recruitment and selection checks which we put everyone through. In practice it comes through that perhaps a person is not suitable based on background etc. That is why we have everyone on a trial or probationary period until it can be established. There is a risk this might crop up in every potential volunteer or staff member.

I appreciate that it can apply equally to someone who is Irish.

Ms Mandy Nordell


My concerns relate to the effective reach of the police, the reliability of the information coming back and what are acceptable as societal norms in other countries but which might not be acceptable here, as well as the conviction issue.

Ms Mandy Nordell

From a child protection perspective, Garda vetting can only be seen as one part of a good recruitment and selection process. That is something we must repeat again and again. Often it is far more effective to carry out good reference checking. It is simply one part of a larger suite.

The message is that we must be alert at all times. Thank you for coming today and for providing your valuable time and expertise. Please feel free to engage with the committee as this Bill and others go through the process.

The next group to come forward and make a presentation is made up of the Teaching Council, the Irish Universities Association and the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO. I thank the group for their patience and for waiting. I realise there was a slight change in the schedule. I convey apologies for Members who must attend in either Chamber for votes or debates or who must attend other committees. There is coming and going all the time. I welcome Ms Áine Lawlor, council director, and Mr. Brendan O'Dea, deputy director, from the Teaching Council; Ms Anne Fitzgerald, secretary to the college at TCD, and Mr. John Coman, corporate and legal affairs secretary, UCD, from the Irish Universities Association; and Ms Noreen Flynn, president, Ms Deirdre O'Connor, senior equality officer, and Ms Anne McElduff from the Irish National Teachers' Organisation.

I will call on the Teaching Council to make a small presentation but first please note that you are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence you are to give this committee. However, if you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members should be aware that under the Salient Rulings of the Chair they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Ms Áine Lawlor

On behalf of the council I thank the committee for inviting us. The council welcomes the introduction of the heads of the Bill on vetting. My presentation will be a synopsis of our previous submission and I will be brief. The Teaching Council is the professional and regulatory body for teaching in Ireland. We deal with primary and post-primary teachers and some teachers in the further education sector. Currently we have 71,000 teachers on the register. We are the authorised body to seek the vetting of teachers. We do this for registration purposes because we have a role in establishing evidence of character and we do so at the request of the Department of Education and Skills for employment purposes as well. As someone from the arts group stated previously, when we have the result of a vetting, we issue a vetting letter to each teacher who has applied and the letter is then used to present to potential employers.

We process approximately 9,000 vetting applications every year. Currently, some 38% of teachers on the register have been vetted. Some 62% of teachers have not been vetted because they had unconditional admission to the register when the council was established in 2006. They were previously in employment and there was a clause in the Act which provided for this.

We have worked closely with the Garda central vetting bureau with a view to considering online applications and the electronic passage of data for efficiency purposes. A key requirement involves the underpinning of the use of electronic signatures by the applicant and the authorised signatory in the organisation liaising with the Garda central vetting bureau. We hope the legislation can deal with this.

We also consider multiple vettings. Often when we seek vetting for teachers who are applying for registration, they make the point that they have already been vetted because of coaching or work with a youth club and so on. Sometimes they resent the fact that we ask them to be vetted again for registration and potential employment purposes. Perhaps something could be done to cover that.

We have concerns about the interpretation of "organisation". It would appear to deal only with corporate bodies which are employers and it is used as such throughout the Bill. This might exclude the Teaching Council because we do not employ teachers. Although there is reference in section 11(2) to the position that bodies already registered as authorised bodies will continue to be registered. We are included under that reference and under Schedule 2 as one of the named bodies. The Department of Education and Skills is keen for the council to continue to be the authorised body. The Department does not believe it would be practical for up to 4,000 schools to apply individually. Perhaps the interpretation of "organisation" could be extended to include some of the wording already in the proposed Bill. Section 11(3) refers to "licensing or regulating". If these words were included in the interpretation it would facilitate the council as a body seeking the vetting.

With regard to the onus on school management to vet teachers, it could appear from the Bill that all schools should register as vetting organisations for their teachers. This would exclude the council from carrying out that job. It could also cause duplication if schools and the council were doing it for registration purposes.

Ms Anne Fitzgerald

On behalf of the university sector I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to speak. I wish to clarify for the committee that the current practice in universities of the Garda vetting students registered on courses that would bring them into contact with children, such as nursing, medicine or social work, will continue regardless of whether the legislation comes into force. Also, the vetting of staff whose research brings them into contact with similar groups will continue. The sector is fully supportive of the objectives of the current draft legislation.

Nevertheless, two issues arise, one of which may be an unintended consequence, which have a direct impact on the sector. There are a number of registered students in universities who are under the age of 18, which technically brings them under the definition of a child although the universities treat them as adults and deal with them directly.

If the current draft stands it will mean all employees in the university sector will have to be vetted to take account of a relatively small number of registered students under 18 years of age because at any time any member of staff, be they academic, technical or support staff, could have unsupervised access to them. There is no way to predict how this could happen because students are scattered across courses and in their first term could chop and change between them. It would be an impossible task for any university to predict how this interaction could occur.

In addition, universities, through their academic staff, generally offer a level of pastoral support over and above health and counselling services to students. It is an in loco parentis type function. It is a confidential service and of necessity requires one to one interaction between academic staff and students. If a student happens to be under the age of 18 it raises the issue of predictability as to which academic staff member would offer support to him or her under the terms of the Bill. Perhaps consideration might be given to not requiring university staff to have Garda vetting solely because they happen to work in an institution that may have unsupervised access to students under the age of 18.

Another issue of concern could be addressed, as other speakers said, through the definition of the term "ad hoc”. Employees of universities have interaction with children through schools liaisons, open days and shadowing events. They are usually very short term in nature and all members of college staff could find themselves involved in such activities. We might want to consider whether such staff will also have to be vetted.

It is not clear from the current draft of the Bill whether the concept of a volunteer in a university setting would extend to students. As many people who have attended third level will know student societies, activities and sports clubs all operate on a voluntary basis. If the term "volunteer" is intended to apply to students in that category it will require vetting of 100,000 students in the university sector alone, to say nothing of the institutes of technology.

I have outlined our concerns. Our solutions may not be the right ones but I would like the committee to give them some consideration.

They are interesting points.

Ms Noreen Flynn

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to present our views to the committee. The INTO is the largest teaching union in Ireland, representing over 30,000 primary school teachers in the Republic. As president I welcome, on its behalf, the publication of the heads of the Bill and the commitments contained in it to establish the national vetting bureau and to place vetting on a statutory basis.

The vetting of persons working with children and vulnerable adults is vital in ensuring the highest standards of child protection. The INTO is committed to the promotion of child protection procedures and policies. We have supported the current system which requires vetting for teachers being appointed for the first time, teachers returning to work after a leave of absence of two years or more and, since 1 January 2011, teachers who are transferring to another school.

We support the fact that vetting is a prerequisite for registration with the Teaching Council. On the point made by Ms Lawlor, the INTO would support the current role of the Teaching Council as the authorised body with regard to vetting. I ask the committee to clarify its role in the Bill because there a lack of clarity.

The INTO has also engaged with the Department, management bodies of primary schools and the Teaching Council, with a view to the extension of vetting to existing teachers. In the wider area of child protection for more than ten years we have participated in working groups, developing and revising child protection guidelines for schools based on children first. Teachers have been responsible for the implementation at school level and have also been involved in the development and delivery of the Stay Safe programme and the social, personal and health education elements of the primary curriculum.

In their role as designated liaison persons principal teachers have been responsible for making key decisions in the referral of child protection concerns to the HSE. The INTO supports the incumbent requirement on designated liaison persons to adhere to the guidelines and make referrals to the HSE where appropriate. The key to any sound system of vetting is ensuring a correct balance between the primary objective of child protection and the constitutional and human rights of the person who is the subject of the vetting, bearing in mind that a false or erroneous allegation can cause irretrievable damage to a person's good name.

In this regard, it is vital that processes used in assessing relevant information and making a disclosure of vetting are sufficiently robust and fortified to ensure decision-making is totally reliable, scrupulously fair and in line with due process and fair procedure. I will hand over to my colleague Ms Deirdre O'Connor who will outline some further observations on the Bill.

Ms Deirdre O’Connor

Ms Flynn has already outlined our welcome for the introduction of vetting on a statutory basis and our concern that the far-reaching decisions involved in assessing information and issuing a disclosure of vetting are taken in a fair and transparent manner. The key change in this Bill is the inclusion in section 14(b) of information in the vetting process beyond the current information related to prosecutions.

The INTO is concerned that due process and fair procedure must apply in the provisions outlined in section 14, which refers to relevant information, as well as the process carried out by the vetting bureau outlined in section 20, which refers to the use of relevant information in assessing data and issuing a vetting disclosure.

I want to outline two possible sources of relevant information. We have huge concerns about variations in practice within the HSE and boards of management in arriving at decisions on allegations made to them. We have had direct experience of HSE investigations which have purported to arrive at findings against members without having spoken to them. A number of cases have been before the High Court.

I ask Ms O'Connor to be cautious about what she is saying. We have to be careful not to identify any person, group or organisation.

Ms Deirdre O’Connor

These are cases that are on the public record-----

Even so-----

Ms Deirdre O’Connor

-----and have resulted in the quashing of HSE decisions.

Another concern is the HSE's issuing of decisions which are inconclusive and whether such information being passed to the vetting bureau is relevant. We are also aware that there are huge delays in responding to allegations received by the HSE, which is also on the public record. These can be exacerbated by the policy of the Department of Education and Skills to refer untested allegations to the HSE.

Section 14 seems to indicate some information arising from disciplinary processes in schools would be deemed relevant to the vetting process. Training and resources are essential if boards of management are to make reliable decisions on bona fide reasons for believing that a person may cause harm or tend to cause harm. The procedures adopted by the vetting bureau in assessing relevant information for the purpose of making a vetting disclosure must adhere to due process and fair procedure.

The heads of the Bill are largely silent on the procedures to be adopted by the vetting bureau. In particular, we are concerned the proposals outlined in section 20 refer to written submissions only. All submissions and the opportunity to challenge evidence must be included as part of the process. The opportunity to appeal as set out in section 21 is vital. We believe an appropriate standard of proof must be used in making decisions and we hope the Bill, as published, will give explicit detail with regard to the procedures to be followed in assessing information.

In light of that, we are also concerned that the notes on section 7, which refer to the national vetting bureau, indicate a view that the expanded vetting process can be carried out with minimal additional funding or structures. We find it difficult to see how the existing Garda vetting bureau, which currently takes approximately three months to issue vetting letters and which process does not involve any assessment of information, can be expected to take on the additional numbers and responsibilities outlined in the Bill without additional personnel and expertise resources.

The Bill does not address how the information contained in a vetting disclosure should be handled by the receiving organisation, be that an employer or other body such as the Teaching Council. The INTO, as Ms Noreen Flynn has said, is supportive of the concept of vetting, both for employment and registration, and the continued involvement of the Teaching Council in the vetting of teachers. I thank the committee members for their attention. We look forward to discussing these matters further.

Senator Mullen has opted to lead the engagement with this group of witnesses on some points of clarification and questions.

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Cuirim fáilte roimh ár n-aíonna uilig agus gabhaim míle buíochas as ucht an méid atá ráite acu agus as ucht a gcuid oibre agus iad ag réiteach na ráitis a thug siad. I thank the Chairman and our guests for their hard work and their presence here today.

I would like to focus on a few issues. Two levels of education are represented at this meeting, namely, those under 18 and those over 18. I will home in on what our guests from the Irish Universities Association, IUA, have had to say. They seem to say that because a relatively small number of students attending university are under 18, vetting of university teaching staff is too onerous a requirement. While I sympathise with that view, seeing it through an administrative lens, is it not also possible to look at the issue in another way and say that the very reason universities and third level colleges have such a range of pastoral support, from which I have benefited on occasion, is that there is a realisation that young people in college are still at a vulnerable stage in life? If we are truthful, that vulnerability does not end when they are 18, in some cases. Merely because a relatively small number are under 18, is it not, arguably, all the more necessary to have vetting, precisely because there are people who could be vulnerable? We hear from time to time of academics who abuse their positions within faculties. I ask the association to consider whether there is another way of looking at this. Young people are vulnerable and sometimes even after they are 18, but the law must be concerned with the vulnerability of young people who have not yet reached 18. The very existence of pastoral support in our colleges implies a recognition of that. Should we not, therefore, take seriously the need for vetting of staff with that in mind? I do not say there is not a reasonable point behind what the association says, merely that there is a whole other way of looking at it.

Would the association like to respond to that before we move on to other questions? It seems to be a very serious issue.

Ms Anne Fitzgerald

I thank Senator Mullen. There is no question of our not aiming to support those under 18. The sector's view was that anyone attending university was probably 18 plus and this could be an unintended consequence. We have put the issue into the public domain and while the requirement may be made, it will be made in the full knowledge that it will place an extra burden of 20,000 staff members having to be vetted by the Garda vetting unit, and the universities will have to absorb that administrative burden. This brings us to the resourcing issue. At present, we are absorbing the cost of what we have to do.

Pastoral support given in colleges does not stop at 17. It can go right up to postgraduate students who are in their 20s and older. That is possibly not an entirely relevant argument. The fact that we have students under the age of 18, who are children within the definition, is something that needs to be ventilated and to be out there and a conscious decision made as to how we progress it.

This is an issue for the universities. From our earlier discussions, it seems that organisations like Swim Ireland and the GAA are saying the legislation is under-inclusive because their vetting procedures cover everyone in their organisations, even those who do not have regular ongoing contact with children. One way of resolving the issue of the requirement being under-inclusive in one respect and potentially over-inclusive in another, if it covers every member of staff in a university, would be for the Bill to define certain organisations and employers and everyone who works for them, whether they are in direct contact with children or not, to be covered by vetting procedures. That would cover organisations such as sporting bodies, Barnardos and the ISPCC, which also raised this. There might be some way, in the case of universities or other entities where contact is mainly with over 18s and peripherally with under 18s, to look at the definition to ensure that not everyone is covered but that college tutors, for example, would be covered because they would be likely to have one-to-one contact.

The issue was raised of including all students in universities if they act as volunteers in sports and are dealing with those under 18, for example. It is not simply a question of staff. The whole university community could be involved. This is a legal question which we will have to look at.

I realise the difficulty that goes into collating information for the purpose of submissions to committees. When the IUA was preparing this submission on behalf of the sector, did it have direct consultations with the pastoral care departments of the colleges? If not, might it have been advisable to solicit the views of chaplaincies and counsellors and so on? Where there are young people who might be vulnerable, I would imagine they might their first ports of call.

Ms Anne Fitzgerald

The staff of those departments are vetted anyway.

I mean in terms of consulting them about the approach to be taken.

Ms Anne Fitzgerald

This invitation came in the middle of summer. In Trinity College, I was able to consult our counselling and health centre staff and our civic engagement officer. In fact, they were the people who brought this issue to my attention as one that should be brought forward.

The Teaching Council is an interesting group. There is a sense in which it is proposed that the council would act as a broker. There are thousands of boards of management and it is envisaged that the Teaching Council would be responsible for the vetting of teachers, particularly those coming into the profession. Is it sufficiently nailed down that this is to be the job of the Teaching Council? Is there potential for confusion regarding the need for boards of management to know that the people they are taking on are suitable and pass all necessary tests? Is more focus needed to allow the council to carry out that function?

Ms Áine Lawlor

Evidence of character is a requirement for registration purposes. We see the vetting process as partly fulfilling that. As was said in a submission to a previous session of the committee, one can never negate the requirement that the recruitment process look at every avenue for evidence of character and so on. The Department of Education and Skills asked the council to be the body to seek vetting for teachers and, by giving the vetting letter to the teacher, to make that information available to boards of management. Our relationship is with the individual teacher. The result of the vetting comes back to us. We give the vetting letter to the teacher and the teacher is required to present it to the employing body at the point of being offered a position.

We have had ongoing negotiations about the retrospective vetting of those teachers who came in with unconditional registration and, therefore, did not go through the vetting process. That involved all the stakeholders in education, including the Department, management bodies, parent groups and unions, sitting around the table on many occasions to look at how retrospective vetting would happen. In that context, it was deemed appropriate that the Teaching Council would be the authorised body to seek the vetting and that boards of management would accept that the evidence of character panel established by the council, which looks at convictions, would register people if it deemed a conviction not to be sufficiently serious or relevant to warrant the person not being registered. The boards of management have accepted the council's role in that regard but this does not preclude the boards from putting other measures in place for employment purposes if they wish to do so.

If I may ask a related question. If an incident is alleged in the school place, the Teaching Council has a role with regard to fitness to teach. However, the complaint may have been made within the school or within that area and may have been dealt with by the board of management. Is there a synchronisation between the responsibility of a board of management to investigate and make an adjudication on complaints and the possibility then of those issues coming before the council in the context of fitness to teach and vice versa?

Ms Áine Lawlor

There are two routes for dealing with complaints, the first being at the local level through section 24 of the Education Act where the board of management would investigate the complaints. Part V of the Teaching Council Act 2001 provides for a fitness to teach inquiry. That part of the Act has not been commenced as yet but we expect it will be commenced in the coming year. All due procedures at local level must first be exhausted and then the matter would come to the council.

If a board of management dismisses a teacher, the Teaching Council Act requires that the board notify the retirement of a teacher as a result of that dismissal, to the council. The board of management may seek the inquiry into the fitness to teach of the teacher because the teacher might still be registered or the council itself could be the applicant for the inquiry into the fitness to teach of that teacher. There is a mechanism for further investigation because an individual could be dismissed by post and if he or she continued to be registered they would continue to be employable in another circumstance. In order to protect against such a situation, the council could conduct an investigation which would lead to deregistration.

Either way, any relevant information would find its way to the bureau, presumably, under this proposed legislation.

Ms Áine Lawlor

I am not sure if it is not the reverse. I do not think the Teaching Council would be telling the Garda vetting unit if we had done an investigation and a teacher was deregistered. If, on the other hand, an individual had a conviction and this knowledge came to us through a vetting disclosure, we would act on this information. We have a panel dealing with evidence of character consisting of seven members of the council. They examine convictions when these are disclosed and they make a judgment as to whether this should negate the person's application for registration.

What did Ms Lawlor say with regard to the deregistration and the relationship with the Garda Síochána?

Ms Áine Lawlor

I was unclear as to the Senator's point. Was he saying that we would tell the Garda Síochána?

Yes, would that arise?

Ms Áine Lawlor

We have not discussed it. In either case, if the council deregisters a teacher, this must be validated by the High Court. The teacher can go to the High Court to appeal a decision of the council but the council has to go to the High Court if it plans to deregister somebody. The High Court could either uphold the decision or modify or nullify it.

I have read the submission from the INTO and I note a laudable concern to balance the issue of child protection, to put it bluntly, with the issue of an individual's civil and human rights. We are all aware that this is a deeply sensitive area in so far as one is not talking about convictions.

With regard to the area of the use of soft information which comes under the heading of relevant information, is the INTO happy that the Bill is addressing its concerns in the criteria for the kind of information that must be disclosed and there is provision for an appeal? When a complaint is made against a teacher in a primary school, in some cases I presume there will be a suspension on pay and an investigation. Sometimes there will be a suspension, other times a dismissal or the teacher will, in other cases, return to the job. Which of those scenarios would the INTO regard as being the subject of a disclosure?

Ms Deirdre O’Connor

Given that this is an area that has not been considered before, this is the aspect with which we must grapple. The key issue is about assessing information received and how it is disclosed. There are two stages, the relevant information stage and the difficulties around arriving at what is to be a sound decision at that point. This might include, for example, a decision of the board. A board becomes involved in a disciplinary process and its perspective is concerned with administering proportionate and fair discipline to a teacher. I do not think boards of management always have in their mind the issue of the potential to cause harm. A board is involved in the disciplinary process. The other issue is that once a complaint comes to the Garda vetting bureau there are standards that need to be adhered to. We would welcome more legislative clarity as regards the processes and procedures to ensure that a teacher will be afforded due process and fair procedure where an allegation has been made against him or her.

Has the INTO any specific measure in mind which it would like to see added to the Bill?

Ms Deirdre O’Connor

We mentioned in our submission the opportunity for oral submissions during the Garda vetting bureau process and the right to challenge evidence. This would be very important to allow for due process and fair procedure. We welcome the fact that-----

We are looking at that in the context of the Abbeylara referendum, Ms O'Connor will be pleased to hear.

Ms Deirdre O’Connor

I refer also to the absolute necessity for an appeal process. Given that these are such far-reaching decisions, people are entitled to have access to the full rigours of due process and fair procedure when these decisions are made.

Ms Noreen Flynn

I reiterate the importance for the bureau to be funded and resourced. The issue of assessment of the information is a new process for which the bureau will have responsibility. It is crucial that it is adequately resourced to do this work.

Ms Áine Lawlor

We omitted to say in our submission that we do not have any plans for repeat vetting. For instance, a person is vetted on registration and it is anticipated they will be vetted every five to ten years thereafter. However, a lacuna could arise because something could happen before the repeat vetting. The council would wish that teaching be a notifiable profession. I am not sure whether the courts have a facility to do this but if it were possible, this would prevent that gap in information.

That is a very good point. There are some delays in the Garda vetting procedures at present, a delay of approximately 12 weeks. I do not mean this to be a criticism because the number of procedures is very high, as Deputy Creed said. Is this having an impact on the registration of teachers?

Ms Áine Lawlor

A total of 3,500 student teachers will be graduating this month. Between January and March every year, we visit all the colleges and universities and we speak to all the final year teacher education students and at that point we ask them to complete the vetting form. We advise them there can be delays. We make sure they make their applications by the end of March, if possible. This means they are all vetted before they are registered in August. We have established a very good relationship with the Garda vetting unit and while at times there was a significant backlog in the unit - which is beyond its control - on the whole, we are not experiencing difficulties.

I was astounded at the numbers the vetting unit deals with every year, with approximately 279,000 applications processed last year. I know of a case where there had been a delay in registration and this is the reason I asked the question.

Ms Áine Lawlor

If they have not made an application for vetting by the time of registration in August then it becomes an urgent matter and they may blame the unit or blame the Teaching Council.

I thank the witnesses for their attendance. This is a new process and I invite the organisations to engage with the committee in the future if they wish to bring other matters to our attention.

The joint committee went into private session at 1.09 p.m. and adjourned at 1.10 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday 5 October 2011.