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Wednesday, 20 Feb 2008

Constitutional Amendment: Discussion with Garda Síochána.

I welcome members to the meeting. We will proceed in public session to meet representatives of the Garda central vetting unit. These are Assistant Garda Commissioner, Michael McCarthy, Detective Chief Superintendent Noel White from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Inspector Pat Burke from the Garda central vetting unit. Ms Sinead McSweeney is modestly in the background.

The delegates are welcome and I invite them to make their presentation. I remind them they do not enjoy parliamentary privilege as committee members do. One must be elected to enjoy that, but perhaps the witnesses do not want to be elected. Following the presentation, we will have a questions and answers session with members.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

There is an ongoing commitment in the Garda Síochána to protect children and vulnerable people. To organise this commitment, Garda vetting is conducted for a wide number of organisations across agencies and groups within the child care sector, with 338 single points of contact representing these groups. Garda vetting is a significant component of the recruitment and selection process when assessing the suitability of persons for employment. However, it is only one part of the wider process and it is important organisations conduct a number of other checks. The Garda Síochána has significantly dedicated resources to the Garda central vetting unit in the past three years. From November 2005 to February 2008, personnel numbers have increased from 20 to 62. The increase includes two sergeants, two EOs, one SO and 37 clerical officers. Vetting applications have increased from 6,992 in January 2006 to 16,654 in January 2008.

There are many challenges in the legal and social issues associated with vetting in the modern context. Generally speaking, a distinction has been drawn between hard and soft facts. Where there have been convictions, whether in this jurisdiction or elsewhere, that information is made available. Pending prosecutions, such as where the Director of Public Prosecutions is considering a file, count as hard facts and such information is made available with the proviso that it be made clear matters are at a preliminary stage and there are currently no findings against the individual. Details in respect of unsuccessful prosecutions are considered hard facts and are also made available. As a general rule soft facts such as allegations, rumours, complaints, unsavoury associates or general anti-social behaviour are not disclosed.

We have taken the advice of the Attorney General and he is of the view that legislation is required to bring clarity to this area. Notwithstanding this, the Garda Síochána—

Is the Assistant Garda Commissioner suggesting legislation is needed in the area of soft information?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

That is correct. The Garda Síochána will continue its work of vetting within the current framework. There are many challenges relating to the modern context, the international dimension and the wider movement of people socially and with regard to work. The Garda Síochána exchanges information relating to instances of child sexual abuse and suspected child sexual abuse with a number of agencies, such as the Health Service Executive, HSE, the probation and welfare service, Interpol, Europol and other police forces.

The area of vetting is relatively new and there is an increasing demand for it. Like other agencies the Garda Síochána is learning as it develops the service and it is also learning in respect of sharing information with other agencies. As challenges emerge, our systems are evolving and improving and our information technology systems are being developed on an ongoing basis. We must be ever-vigilant with regard to our protocols and systems because all agencies, including the Garda Síochána and other international police forces, must assess challenges continually as they evolve.

The Garda central vetting unit conducts vetting on behalf of organisations registered with the unit that employ, register, license or educate personnel in a full-time, part-time, voluntary or student placement capacity to work with children and vulnerable adults. The specific role of the Garda vetting unit is to disclose details of all prosecutions, successful or not. Organisations seeking Garda vetting services for their personnel must register with the Garda vetting unit, and in the current expansion programme an increasing number of organisations are being registered with the unit on a phased basis.

During the registration process nominated people from organisations registered for Garda vetting are trained by the vetting unit in respect of their responsibilities relating to the management of Garda vetting applications and disclosures. These liaison persons are known as authorised signatories and are issued with registered number and security passwords for use in all correspondence with the Garda central vetting unit. The authorised signatory in a registered organisation, not the individual vetting subject, submits the Garda vetting application form to the Garda central vetting unit to be processed and all resulting Garda vetting disclosures are made directly to the authorised signatory in the registered organisation. That is the outline of the functions and role of the Garda vetting unit.

Are the Assistant Garda Commissioner's colleagues prepared to speak or is that all he wishes said?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

That is a brief outline of what the unit does.

I believe the Vice Chairman must leave to attend the Dáil so if the committee members agree he might speak first.

I would like to ask a question now as I must speak in the House.

We do not want to keep the House holding its breath.

My question relates to the specific work of the unit, rather than its general functions, which have been outlined. I received correspondence in early February from a special school that was trying to replace staff. Problems arise less when there are difficulties in finding new staff members because in such cases one may choose not to admit the extra students. If one has difficulties replacing staff members quickly, however, there will be problems looking after the children that were in the care of the former member of staff. The school that contacted me was experiencing delays of three months in getting clearance for new staff in a special school.

I tabled a question to the Minister on this subject and received a reply on 5 February that outlined, as the Assistant Garda Commissioner did in his initial remarks, the central vetting unit's staff level had increased from 13 members to 63 since it was set up. Of those 63 members of staff I was informed that five individuals are gardaí at the level of sergeant or inspector and the remaining 58 are civil servants.

There are delays in the vetting process that seem to occur further down the line. If the unit consists of 58 civil servants and only five gardaí it is involved effectively in administrative work on the basis of information fed to it from Garda stations throughout the country. The unit cannot do the direct vetting. That is done further down the line by gardaí familiar with applicants of various descriptions.

Is there a protocol on the turnaround? If a request comes to the unit from an institution in Cork and is sent back to the local Garda station, does a protocol apply regarding time limits? We know how busy gardaí are throughout the country and, however well staffed the unit is at a central level, if the data are not forwarded readily the 58 civil servants and five gardaí cannot give vetting clearances. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, has committed to giving extra resources to help reduce the waiting period from seven weeks to four, and that is very satisfactory in terms of the reply he gave me, but it seems to me the delay does not begin in the vetting unit but in individual Garda stations throughout the country.

The issue is not so serious if it relates to suitable new staff being delayed in joining an institution by seven to 12 weeks. When a member of staff leaves a special school and a new member of staff cannot be appointed to replace him or her, there is no option but to have parents look after the children in the school. This is not the issue that most concerns the committee but, regardless of the theory, practical delays in Garda stations must be addressed either by the vetting unit or the Garda authorities. If there is no protocol in place on handling vetting applications in local Garda stations and the time limits that apply the delays will continue. Can the Assistant Garda Commissioner address these issues in his reply?

As the Deputy will be leaving shortly perhaps the Assistant Garda Commissioner could reply to his questions now.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

As I outlined earlier the number of vetting applications in January 2008 was 16,654 and a four to five-week turnaround period currently applies to those applications.

That is the average but averages do not tell us what is happening in individual Garda stations that are experiencing delays.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

The majority of applications are dealt with in the Garda vetting unit by clerical officers, COs, who have access to the PULSE system in the office. Some applications may need to be referred to the local superintendent for clarification of a matter but the majority are dealt with in the Garda vetting unit.

Is the Assistant Commissioner saying that if one of the civil servants working in the unit does not find an entry in the PULSE system that is adverse to an applicant a clearance is issued? Does the unit not check with local Garda stations and gardaí who might know the individual?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

The vast majority are done from the Garda vetting office and signed off by the sergeant or inspector in that office after the checks have been carried out. If there is a question about something on PULSE, it will be referred to a local superintendent for clarification. That is the only time it would happen.

However, if there is nothing on PULSE, clearance is issued.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

Yes, clearance is issued.

Thank you. Further speakers are, in the order in which they raised their hands, Deputy Howlin, Deputy Enright, Senator Corrigan, Deputy Shatter and Senator Alex White.

I also asked to speak.

Yes. Deputy Ó Caoláin will speak before Senator White. I am sorry; all the hands went up together.

I thank the members of the Garda vetting unit for attending the committee. We met in the previous committee. One of the issues of concern in our previous discussion was that the vetting unit used a paper-based system. I was surprised that this was not known to the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. For clarity, can the Assistant Commissioner describe the system that is currently in operation? Is it now an electronic system? Where is it located and who has access to it?

The Assistant Commissioner has indicated that there are now 63 people in the unit and that he is working towards the target of vetting all personnel involved in working with children. Does he have a target date by which this is to be achieved? What is the optimum number of staff required to get to that point?

Another point that caused us some anxiety in our last discussion was the level of co-ordination between the Garda unit here and other vetting units in the UK, and particularly in Northern Ireland, in the rest of the EU and further afield. There was some discussion of the interplay between the sexual assault unit in Harcourt Square and the vetting unit. The UK authorities would indicate to the sexual assault unit that they knew a convicted sex offender was moving to this jurisdiction, but whether that information was automatically passed on to the vetting unit was unclear. The Assistant Commissioner might confirm that this is the case.

The fear surrounding this issue has increased since our last discussion. In view of the number of people from outside the jurisdiction who have moved to Ireland, we need to be alert to their criminal histories and particularly, in this case, their possible histories of sex offences in other jurisdictions. How is this carried out? What relationships and protocols have been put in place with the EU and other states?

We will not deal with the questions one by one. We will go through all the members and then the Assistant Commissioner may give a composite answer.

We are going to end up asking about how the unit operates when we should be asking a different question in terms of soft information. That was the point of Deputy Noonan's question. The Assistant Commissioner mentioned that the Attorney General's advice was that legislation on vetting was required. I seek clarification on whether the Attorney General stated that legislation was required, as the Assistant Commissioner said, or that a constitutional amendment was required, which is the information that was given to us and is the reason the representatives are here.

The last time the representatives were before the committee, Inspector Burke stated that he had assessed the rate of vetting required as about 550,000 people per annum. Is this still the case? Some comparisons were given with Scotland, which had a relatively similar population at the time. Is the Garda still dealing with prospective vetting rather than retrospective vetting? When will we start vetting people already in the system? Are there any proposals in this regard?

We have come a long way in recent years. When I submitted a Freedom of Information request on this in early 2004, all I got from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform was the Fine Gael policy document. Four years on, we have progressed. This brings me to my next question, on what information is the vetting based? Could the representatives explain the actual procedure when a request comes in, for example, from a school considering whether to employ a person? Clearly PULSE is consulted but if the vetting procedure finds that the person should not be employed, is the school provided with the details obtained from PULSE about the person in question, or is it just told that the person is not suitable for employment? In Northern Ireland the school is given the relevant details and left to decide on the person's suitability. What is the position on this?

The big issue for us is the difference between the systems in Northern Ireland and the UK and the system here, which does use soft information. What correspondence or discussion takes place between the Garda and the PSNI, in particular, with regard to how its system, including PECS, operates? I know the representatives cannot comment on political points, but have concerns been raised by schools, the HSE or other bodies about allegations that are circulating? Are they raised with the Garda even if there is no proof? To give an example, I have heard of instances in which people applying to go to Templemore to join the Garda Síochána have been refused on the basis of far-removed incidents, including, in one case, the conviction of a person's brother for an offence in England. There may be rights and wrongs in these matters. However, if there was a serious allegation about a person in this country of which the Garda was aware, he or she would probably not be admitted to the Garda Síochána but would still be able to get a job in a school. That is the concern we are trying to deal with here.

I welcome the representatives from the Garda Síochána. It is interesting to hear about their work. It is a broad area and looking at the volumes of requests involved, one can appreciate the demands on the service.

Some of my questions are for the purposes of obtaining clarity on certain issues while others relate to the work of the committee. As I understand it, the vetting undertaken by the unit is only in the Irish context. If I understand correctly, the unit carries out vetting based on information held within the Irish criminal system. In that context, perhaps the representatives could say a few words about how information is shared internationally. What are the situations in which international information-sharing would come into play? In what context would we go to other countries seeking information and in what context would they come to us? If a request is received to vet somebody, it must be accompanied by a signed consent form from the subject of vetting. If there was an international request for information, would it need to be accompanied by a signed consent form? How does that work?

While the definition of hard information is concerned with criminal convictions, I notice that the papers before us today refer to unsuccessful criminal prosecutions. Could the representatives say a few words about that? With regard to the release of information about any criminal conviction or unsuccessful criminal prosecution, does that cover all types of offences? For example, would it include information on motor tax or insurance-related offences? What is the extent of the release of information regarding both criminal convictions and unsuccessful criminal prosecutions? In addition, if possible, could the representatives tell us the current time frame for vetting? If there is a request for vetting how long does it take to turn it around? The Garda has a list of organisations at the moment for which vetting is provided. Other organisations seek to be included on that list. Have criteria been agreed for the inclusion of new organisations that can have access to vetting?

The subject of allegations was mentioned regarding soft information. If an allegation has been made against a person who is investigated by his or her employer and that allegation is found to have enough substance to merit punitive action being taken, perhaps loss of job or a suspension from the job, for example, is that information still deemed to be soft as far as the Garda is concerned? Other countries have systems for dealing with soft information and incorporating it into their vetting procedures. Has the Garda had the chance to review any of those systems and perhaps form an opinion regarding the possible inclusion of soft information into its own vetting system? What role does the vetting unit play in terms of the maintenance and monitoring of people deemed to be sexual offenders?

Is it possible to break the questions up rather than overwhelm the representatives with questions?

Perhaps there were a great number of questions.

I would be happy if some of them were answered before I come in.

Is the Assistant Garda Commissioner content to do that? The answers may be shared.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

I hope to be able to address all the questions. I was not at the last committee meeting but my two colleagues were. A number of issues have been raised. Regarding resources, many of these came to us in January this year. People must be trained to fit the requirements of their role in the vetting unit. Deputy Howlin asked about access. All staff in the vetting unit have access to PULSE which is located in the central vetting office in Thurles. I am quite happy with the numbers of staff there at the moment. When those personnel are properly trained turnaround time will be reduced dramatically.

Regarding the sharing of information with other police forces, the Garda receives information in respect of convictions imposed on Irish citizens in other EU jurisdictions by virture of the European Union convention on mutual assistance in criminal matters. That information is recorded on PULSE and is available to our staff in the central vetting unit.

That information is on Irish citizens?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

That is on Irish citizens. Concerning co-operation between the PSNI and police colleagues in the UK, consultation about drawing up protocols with the UK is ongoing. A memo of understanding is at drafting stage on that.

That deals with the UK. Are there any memorandums or protocols in preparation across the EU or elsewhere?

Mr. Noel White

There is an exchange of information further afield, through Interpol and also by way of mutual assistance.

On a request basis?

Mr. Noel White

On a request basis.

Will a request automatically be made when someone who is not an Irish resident or citizen is a subject of vetting?

Mr. Noel White

Not at the moment.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

A question was asked about whether legislation or a constitutional amendment is required. The Garda works within the framework and will operate within whatever system exists at any one time. Regarding the sharing of information with other agencies a question was asked as to what is actually vetted. When a vetting application is received—

The question concerned the Attorney General's advice on whether legislation or a constitutional amendment was required.

The Assistant Commissioner said that legislation was required but he is also telling the committee that a referendum is needed.

In other words, a constitutional amendment. The committee's question was whether that was the guidance the Garda had got.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

It is my understanding that the guidance referred to legislation. I can verify that and report back on it. On the matter of the application and what is contained in it, following is the three-line declaration made by the applicant on the application form:

I the undersigned who apply to work as a — (blank) — hereby authorise An Garda Síochána to furnish to (the organisation) a statement that there are no convictions recorded against me in the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere, or a statement of all convictions and/or prosecutions, successful or not, pending or complete, in the State or elsewhere, as the case may be.

It goes beyond prosecutions or convictions and refers to prosecutions being successful or otherwise. That form is signed by the applicant and forwarded via the organisation to the Garda vetting office where checks are done. Deputy Noonan asked about the checking of soft information that may be on the PULSE system. In such a case an inquiry goes to the local district office, to the local superintendent to have further inquiries carried out. That soft information would be exchanged under the Child First guidelines and our responsibility there is with the Health Service Executive.

Is that process satisfactory if the applicant is not obliged to indicate whether he or she has spent time outside the jurisdiction? If that were not indicated how would the Garda know whether to check with other authorities?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

On the form presented for vetting the applicant's total number of addresses are set out, from place of birth to include all others over his or her life span.

Some of my questions have not been answered.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

I said at the outset that vetting is only one part of the process. There are other agencies involved.

Did the Assistant Commissioner have the chance to look at other countries that hold soft information and examine the processes by which they have incorporated the soft information into their vetting procedures?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

Our approach to vetting is to respond strictly to hard information and I outlined what that approach was for prosecutions. We carry out further checks on soft information.

I welcome the delegation from the Garda vetting unit. I am increasingly concerned about the system the Garda is operating. If a convicted paedophile from somewhere in Europe came to Ireland seeking employment and did not reveal where he or she had worked previously, there would be no international check carried out. That concerns me. In the context of putting together vetting systems — please correct me if I am wrong — there has not been interaction or co-ordination with other police forces using similar systems across the world to ensure we have the best possible system in place. What research has been done before the systems were set up? What police forces have been visited and consulted to see how their systems work? I would have expected by now that across Europe there would be an inter-agency co-operative vetting system in place, accessible by police forces across Europe through their computer systems. I would have thought based on available technology, that would be a fairly basic system to have.

With the proximity of the State to Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, I would have thought we would have in place by now an exchange of information and access to computers. We have a free travel zone between Ireland, the North and the rest of the United Kingdom. There is free movement for people seeking employment right across Europe; all research shows this happens in particular between Ireland and the UK. I would have thought in the interests of protecting children there would by now be a compiled list of convicted sexual offenders for both islands which, when a vetting application is made, could be consulted. I would like to know what movement is being made in that direction.

Is there some body in existence which is co-ordinating police forces across Europe on this? If the systems do not exist they should be put in place. I am familiar with Interpol and how it works. It seems to me that if we know of someone who has definitively come from a foreign country, it is possible to vet and check him or her using Interpol but, by and large, it is not done. There has been a significant influx of people to this country, 10% of our population are now non-Irish nationals. That makes it of greater importance that there is international co-operation in this area. Looking beyond Europe, I would like to know what, if any, level of international co-operation exists.

How is the PULSE system working in this regard? I recollect when it first started there were teething problems and I would like to know how well it is working. Are all convicted sex offenders in the State, and not just those that have been convicted since 2004, entered on the PULSE system? In the context of those who have been prosecuted and found not guilty of any offence, in particular a sexual offence, what is the nature of the record that is maintained? Is it that someone has been prosecuted and found not guilty, or is it more detailed than that? One of the concerns of this committee is to ensure that children that could be abused are protected. A second concern is to ensure that people are not, as a consequence of false allegations of child sexual abuse, cut off from the right to employment. How does the system ensure that if someone has been wrongly accused of an offence, the accusation does not end up forming part of his or her record for the rest of his or her life?

The remit of this committee is in the area of child protection and children, it does not go beyond that. Deputy Noonan raised the issue of the amount of time it takes to carry out a background check. There have been a number of Dáil questions — some of which have been distributed in our briefing today — about this where Deputies have expressed concern. If someone seeks the job of teacher, or is about to be recruited as a swimming coach, or is about to be appointed to a local parish and inquiries are made, is there within the PULSE system readily identifiable and isolated the names of individuals who are convicted sex offenders? Or is it lost in a morass of those convicted for parking offences? Say, for example, I apply for a job tomorrow morning involving children. As far as I can recollect I have never been convicted of a parking offence. However, suppose five or ten years ago, I forgot to pay a parking fine and the court issued a missive telling me I have to pay €100 or do a month in prison. In that and other instances are people who are fined for parking offences featuring in the PULSE system? Could someone who seeks a job working with children find himself or herself with a negative response because he or she is down as having been in receipt of a conviction for something of a minor nature that has nothing to do with his or her capacity to care for children?

The comment was made to one of the previous questioners that, by and large, this is dealt with by way of checking the PULSE system. I presume it is all dealt with now using PULSE and not some paper trail, can the Garda confirm if that is so? The Garda has also said that only where there is what is described as "soft information" on the PULSE system is the matter sent back to local gardaí to get information. I am a little confused about that. My understanding is that the PULSE system only carries either convictions or unsuccessful prosecutions. If that is the case, what is the soft information on the system and from whom does it come? To what extent is it validated before it is put on the system? Say, for example, someone has a neighbour with whom he or she has had a row about an overhanging tree and the neighbour is embittered and decides he or she is going to get revenge. Suppose the embittered neighbour contacts the Garda saying the person next door is abusing his children. Would that appear on the PULSE system?

What co-ordination exists between the Garda and the HSE with regard to the vetting operation that is in place? I understand that if the HSE wants to employ someone it may seek information on vetting from the Garda. However, what is the situation where a child is taken into care by the HSE because there is an allegation that the child has been sexually or physically abused in the home?

Where there is a court decision taking the child into care in civil child care proceedings based on a court finding that the child has been the victim of abuse, is any of that information put on the PULSE system? If I apply as a teacher for a job to teach in a school, and my children have been taken into care because I physically abuse them, will I get through the vetting system because that information is not on the system? These are serious issues. I am sorry for asking so many questions.

I wish to come to an issue that is of particular concern to members of the committee in the work we are doing and then I wish to deal briefly with one other issue. The remit of this committee is to look at the need for a constitutional amendment to facilitate a vetting system being put in place that does contain soft information. We have yet to define exactly what that is and how the system will work. Leaving aside for a moment that the Assistant Garda Commissioner, Michael McCarthy, has said there is some sort of soft information on the system, the sort of information this envisages certainly would not be required to have been the subject of criminal prosecution. It would be information, perhaps, where there was a concern from people in a position of authority who deal with children that someone might pose a risk to children without them being certain about it. What is going on within the Garda vetting unit to look at what type of system could be put in place to implement a comprehensive soft information vetting system? Is that compatible with the PULSE computer system? I suspect it may not be. Could the existing programmes cope with that or would something new be required? Has there been any preparation to put in place the something new, so to speak.

To my knowledge more than 14,500 applications have been made to the Residential Institutions Redress Board on behalf of adults who, as children, were the victims of institutional abuse. Some of those who perpetrated the abuse have been convicted in our courts over the past ten years, some have died and some have never been the subject of criminal prosecution. In the context of every application made to the redress board, the institution within which the individuals resided has been given the opportunity to facilitate the redress board by providing information to it to confirm whether the individual concerned was resident in that institution and whether the person who is alleged to have abused them was an employee of that institution or a member of the religious order concerned. In the majority of applications made to the redress board the veracity of what has been alleged has been accepted. There are many individuals who have abused children in institutional care over the decades who have not been the subject of criminal prosecution. The adults, who were the unfortunate children of the time, are getting compensation through the redress board.

Is any information provided by the redress board to the Garda vetting unit to identify those who the redress board has accepted have perpetrated abuse on young people? I do not believe the redress board legislation makes statutory provision for that. I emphasise this is not the fault of the Garda Síochána or the vetting unit. It appears to me that if some people who have been abusing children, as a consequence of which they have sought redress from the redress board, are either no longer in religious life or were employees of religious orders running institutions and who today are seeking employment with children, a vetting system if it is to function properly needs to be able to incorporate within it information about those individuals. Is that an issue that has come before the Garda vetting unit so far? If the redress board legislation were amended to facilitate the board furnishing the names of individuals to the Garda Síochána, would the PULSE system cope, based on the existing programmes incorporating that information into it?

I will also call Deputy Ó Caoláin. It would be helpful if the Assistant Garda Commissioner were able to address all the issues that have been put to him by the various speakers. I am conscious that Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked a question. I certainly did not glean much confidence from the answer. The question was how does one know what the person has put on the form. Does one just rely on the information as put forward by the applicant? Perhaps the Assistant Garda Commissioner could deal with that question again. Am I correct about that, Deputy Ó Fearghaíl?

I join colleagues in welcoming the representatives of the Garda central vetting unit. I have a number of questions. The focus of this committee is on the area of enshrining children's rights in the Constitution. In terms of the Garda vetting unit, does its brief or responsibility stretch to vulnerable adults and the placement of people in roles of responsibility?I speak specifically of people who are viewed by many in society as children in their lifetime, that is, those with intellectual disabilities and in institutional care support settings.

I wish to draw attention to a letter I received from the Taoiseach on 8 February. It was in response to parliamentary questions I had tabled on 6 November 2007. The letter quotes from a missive from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform at the outset of this month. It refers to the GCVU currently processing applications. This is from the Taoiseach's office via the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It states that the GCVU processes up to 250,000 vetting applications per annum with an average turnaround time of approximately four weeks. It states also that the dramatic increase in staffing levels within the unit represents an increase from 15 in 2005 to 50 at present. This letter is dated 8 February 2008.

Three days later on 11 February, I read an article in the Irish Independent by Tom Brady, security editor of that newspaper, which said that last year 187,000 applications were dealt with, that the current average processing time for applications is about seven weeks and that the current level of staffing is 63. It is clear there are significant differences in the information. Perhaps the representatives could share with us the definitive position on all these issues? I know the Assistant Garda Commissioner has addressed this issue in his opening remarks but if he could state the position just to get the record straight, as much for the Minister’s and the Taoiseach’s information as anybody else’s. My sense is that Mr. Brady has it more accurately than either of the two Departments I have cited. That is in relation to the number of applications per annum, the turnaround time and current staffing levels.

On staffing levels, it has been brought to our attention from previous questioning that some of the Garda vetting unit staff do not work for it exclusively. Notwithstanding that a breakdown has been given in the briefing note document that was circulated to us, will the Assistant Garda Commissioner clarify if it is the case when it is stated that the current number is 63 that the numbers of staff referred to are exclusively accredited to the work of the Garda vetting unit? I know from previous questioning that it was indicated that the increased number included people who were not part of a dedicated allocation of staff but had other responsibilities, duties and roles. If that is the case I seek clarification on what is involved. How many have other roles and responsibilities and what is the factual position on dedicated staff and the work of the Garda vetting unit?

On the issue of PULSE and accessing historic data on individuals, how far back in time does that reflect on a citizen's history? A case has been brought to my attention — the Assistant Garda Commissioner will discount this if it is inaccurate — of an individual who urinated in public and 20 years later, as a result of an inquiry while seeking work in a setting where children were involved, that incident was wrongly portrayed as exposure. As a result, the individual concerned got a negative response and was not employed. That must raise serious questions too because the role of such a service and the purpose of making the inquiry is to protect children from abuse yet in that case somebody was wrongly represented and punitively dealt with. It is only five years since 2002 but in that period, and I do not ask the question to statistically embarrass the Assistant Garda Commissioner in any way, have there been cases such as the one I have just outlined where it was established subsequently that the information presented through the GVU, PULSE or whatever was shown not to reflect accurately on a situation that may have arisen in an individual's life many years previously?

One of the recommendations in the submission by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties to the committee is that the Government should extend the collection and exchange of soft information to include vulnerable groups of adults. I have reflected on that and have sought clarification as to the unit's current remit in that regard. Bearing in mind that we are here not just to ask questions, and as the representatives before the committee are the people at the coalface of dealing with the system, I want to offer them the opportunity to indicate, from their experience of it, if other areas should be addressed? Are there gaps in the system of inquiry that legislators should be taking into account by which change can be effected in their areas of responsibility? This could happen in terms of the current consideration by this committee in regard to a referendum proposition, a constitutional change, or in the domain of legislation referred to earlier.

I and my party would support the use of soft information to protect children but we would have great concerns about how it was managed and processed. It requires careful management. Do the representatives have a view on the idea of independent oversight or more robust safeguards being employed, in other words, another tier of engagement rather than direct engagement with the Garda vetting unit? Do they see a role for a type of bridge between the inquiring agency, be it the Health Service Executive, the Department of Education and Science or whatever, and the Garda vetting unit? I refer to some independent oversight body or team that would be an additional protection against a wrongful portrayal, as in the instance I cited earlier.

Assistant Garda Commissioner McCarthy might reply to the questions posed by Deputies Shatter and Ó Caoláin. He may refer them to his colleagues if he wishes.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

I will first address the question put by Deputy Ó Fearghaíl. As I mentioned at the outset, the authorised signatory on the register authorisation, and not the individual subject, submits the vetting application. The authorised signatory validates all information on the application form to ensure it is correct. They will have the curriculum vitae, the application form and all other relevant information on that. It is the authorised signatory who submits the application.

Of the applicant?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

Of the applicant.

And that is taken.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

That is taken.

There may be a misunderstanding in that regard. It might be helpful if the Assistant Garda Commissioner or one of his colleagues could explain the position regarding the authorised signatory. It could be Barnardos, the Teaching Council or different intermediary bodies who are involved—

No. He is talking about the applicant.

No, the authorised signatory. That is the organisation — Barnardos or the Teaching Council. There might be a misunderstanding in that regard.

The Minister of State might not have been here when Deputy Ó Fearghaíl asked the question.

That is what I understood he was talking about.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

I will ask Inspector Burke to outline the procedure when an application is received.

Mr. Pat Burke

If an organisation like the Teaching Council, for example, registers with us for vetting, it nominates a person to liaise with our office. That person is vetted before they are assigned to that role. We take them to a training session on their responsibilities regarding applications coming in to us and disclosures being sent back. A major part of their role is to ensure that the application we get mirrors the correct data of the vetting subject. The employment organisation will have the application form for the job, previous employment histories and CVs and it validates that form and signs off on it before it is sent in to us. That ensures we get an exact picture of the person who is to be vetted.

They are the authorised signatory for that organisation.

Mr. Pat Burke


That clears up that matter. Thank you.

Who can access the information within the organisation?

Mr. Pat Burke

The authorised signatory, and if it is an employment organisation it would be the human resources department. It will be the decision maker — a recruitment manager or whoever would be making the decision. It may be a small group deciding whether to give somebody a licence and it is tightly managed within the organisation when it goes back to them. They have processes to ensure there is an accountable system in place that is not accessed by unauthorised people. It is people within the organisation who are authorised to have it.

Will the Assistant Garda Commissioner deal with the questions from Deputy Shatter and Deputy Ó Caoláin?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

I will ask Detective Chief Superintendent White to address Deputy Shatter's questions as he has responsibility for the sex offenders register.

Mr. Noel White

On Deputy Shatter's question about an international paedophile coming to this country and if there is an exchange of information between us and the jurisdiction from which he came, there is an exchange of information if it is known. If he is compliant in the jurisdiction from which he came and he notifies them that he intends to travel to Ireland, that information would be transmitted to us. The individual would then be subject to the same conditions under the Sex Offenders Act as if he were convicted in this jurisdiction. The same obligations apply to him in that regard.

We would have a difficulty with such an individual who decides to come here who is non-compliant. The Deputy mentioned the multinational population who are coming to this country. It would be naive of us to say we are capturing all such offenders, but where they are compliant in other jurisdictions, we are notified of those and we deal with them as they would be dealt with if they were a convicted paedophile in this country.

Regarding the Deputy's other question on the PULSE system, all registered sex offenders are recorded on that system. All that information is available to the force.

The only people who would be registered sex offenders are those who fall under the ambit of the Sex Offenders Act, which provides for registration. If a sex offender was convicted in the early 1990s and released, that individual would not appear as a registered sex offender. Is that correct?

Mr. Noel White

That is correct.

There is a gap in the system in that if a series of people convicted of sex offences during the 1990s — prior to the enactment of the legislation providing for registration — were released back into the community and they sought employment in a position where they would be vetted, they would not be recorded on the PULSE system. If they did not disclose in their documentation the fact that they were previously convicted, which I suspect many would be unlikely to do, the vetting system would not work. We could be blind to large numbers of convicted sex offenders prior to the enactment of that legislation in, I believe, 2001.

Mr. Noel White

Yes, 2001.

A series of convictions of people for sex offences were made during the second half of the 1990s. Is the detective chief superintendent saying that a sex offender convicted in the period from the 1990s up to the coming into force of the 2001 Act cannot be properly vetted because such information is not on the PULSE system?

Mr. Noel White

No, I am not saying that.

I apologise if I gave the wrong impression.

Mr. Noel White

The Sex Offenders Act 2001 will not capture all the people who were convicted of sexual offences here prior to its enactment, but those convictions are recorded as a sexual offence on the system.

Those offenders are not on the sex offenders list but those convictions are recorded as an offence and that information is on the PULSE system.

Mr. Noel White


That is satisfactory.

Yes, it is. I apologise if I misunderstood the position.

Mr. Noel White

The Deputy asked is the PULSE system working and is it working properly. We would all like to have a perfect system but, as the Deputy is well aware, technology is constantly evolving and we are trying to keep abreast of that with the PULSE system. We are currently modifying it to take account of the position that will arise if a new Bill is passed in regard to the management of sex offenders. It would place an onus on us in that regard. That work is being developed and is well advanced. The PULSE system is working well at present.

I do not want to take up other people's time by asking the same questions—

I am conscious that other people wish to speak.

—but some questions have not been answered. What about the capacity of the system to cope with soft information if a constitutional amendment were passed that allowed for the introduction of legislation to provide for that? I also asked about the exchange of information with the HSE in circumstances where children are taken into care as a consequences of the courts accepting they have been the victims of abuse but in respect of which no prosecution has been taken. Does that feature in the context of the information that is maintained?

Mr. Noel White

There is soft information on the system, but at present we do not share it.

With anyone?

Mr. Noel White

Not unless it was an issue that pertained to a child protection issue. If it concerned such an issue, we would have to speak to the HSE about the matter and a caveat would have to be included in that regard.

Does the HSE furnish the Garda with information on circumstances where children have been taken into care because they are the victims of abuse to enable the Garda to include on its system, for example, the name of the abuser, be it a parent or a third party? Is that information on the PULSE system?

Mr. Noel White

It may well be in specific instances, as in an instance involving circumstances such as those mentioned by the Deputy. What we refer to as "soft information" is information in our possession that we cannot progress any further.

The detective inspector is referring to information that the Garda could not progress to a successful criminal prosecution?

Mr. Noel White


I am sorry for being difficult about this, but am I correct in understanding that if the HSE simply take children into care because the District Court has decided that they have been the victims of child sexual or physical abuse in the home and if no criminal prosecution is taken, information about that will not be on the system should the person believed to be the perpetrator of the abuse seek a job involving work with children at a later stage? This is not a criticism of the Garda vetting unit. My understanding is that the systems are not in place to allow for such information to be recorded but the systems should allow for that. We need to know the parameters of the system in terms of what is working and where problems exist. It is not that I am trying to make the detective chief superintendent's life difficult. My understanding is that this information is not available generally to the Garda to put on the system and that new systems will be required to be put in place for interaction between the HSE, particularly the child care division of it, and the Garda.

Mr. Noel White

Where the HSE would be aware of a situation where children were being taken into care because of an allegation of sexual or physical abuse, it would be a matter in respect of which there should be a case conference where all parties concerned would discuss it and try to process the matter from there.

Would that generate information on the PULSE system?

Mr. Noel White

Yes, it would. If such an incident arose and both parties came together, or if there was a allegation of such abuse and it merited investigation, it would be recorded on the PULSE system.

Is the detective chief superintendent satisfied that the Garda is getting that information? For example, during the past 12 months, on how many occasions would the Garda have received that sort of information, as notified to it by the HSE?

Mr. Noel White

I could not give an absolute figure in that regard.

Is it something that happens rarely or frequently?

Mr. Noel White

Information of that type would be passed to us on a fairly regular basis.

The PULSE system can accommodate that?

Mr. Noel White


What happens to that information subsequently? If a school contacts the Garda requesting it to vet an individual, what happens to the information the Garda has from the HSE in respect of the individual? Is it passed on to the school, or does the Garda advise the school that there is a question mark over the employment of that individual?

Mr. Noel White

If it is information we cannot stand over, if it is soft information, to the degree that we cannot verify it any further than we have it, other than that it is an allegation, it would not necessarily be passed on to the school. It may well be passed back to the HSE to make it aware that this individual has made an application to teach in a school and the HSE may well take the matter up with the school.

This is the kernel of what we are here to discuss. The detective chief superintendent said that the information would not necessarily be passed on. We have been told on several occasions in the Dáil that the Attorney General's advice is that no soft information can be used. Is the detective chief superintendent saying that such information is never given on any occasion or is it given on the odd occasion?

Mr. Noel White

If it was information where a child care issue was at stake, it would go back.

If it warrants it; that is what the detective chief superintendent is saying.

Mr. Noel White


Would it go back to the HSE?

Mr. Noel White

It would go back to the HSE which would take it up with the relevant school, as per the scenario Deputy Shatter outlined.

Senator Corrigan has a question appertaining to previous answers.

My question relates to soft information and the question I asked earlier. I refer to the following instances, namely, if an allegation was made against an individual, investigated and found to have sufficient substance and punitive action was taken by the employer against the employee whereby the employee was suspended or lost his or her job. Another such instance is if substantial information were found that warranted a child being taken into care or for the redress board to award compensation to a person who made an allegation. If I understand the detective chief superintendent correctly, in each of those instances that information would be classified as soft information because a criminal prosecution was not taken on foot of the allegations made. In some of those situations it might not be possible to pursue a criminal prosecution.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, particularly with regard to the care of vulnerable adults, is often of the opinion that it will not be possible to make a case stand, although there was sufficient substance to the case that the person loses their job, compensation is paid and the decision is not overturned on appeal. Under our system at present that information is classified as soft information and even though the gardaí might have knowledge of it, they cannot use it in their vetting procedures although they can, perhaps, alert the HSE to the fact that the person is seeking to apply for a job. Is that correct?

Mr. Noel White

There is a difference in what we say where an investigation is carried out and we cannot find sustainable evidence to give us a prosecution in the case. Where a file would be submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions it would not be regarded as soft information.

Just to clarify, in a situation that comes back from the redress board or a case where the HSE had to take a child into care or a situation where an employer had to take punitive action against an employee, they have a responsibility to notify the unit immediately so the Garda can at least prepare a file, even if it goes no further.

Mr. Noel White

If there is a situation where an employer takes punitive action against an employee, we would have a report on that.

Perhaps you would respond to Deputy Ó Caoláin. After that we will hear from Senator Alex White, Senator Fitzgerald, Deputy Peter Power and the Minister. I do not mean to put the Minister last but the other representatives had their names down first.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

Deputy Ó Caoláin's first question was about PULSE. All incidents are created on PULSE, whether they are prosecutions or convictions. They are usually created by a garda and signed off or verified by a sergeant. The Deputy asked about the number of personnel in the vetting office. All the personnel are full-time officers dedicated to the Garda vetting office. The current staff comprises one inspector, four sergeants, two executive officers, three staff officers and 52 clerical officers. That number increased from 43 clerical officers on 2 January this year to 52 on 28 January. It is a substantial increase.

The Deputy posed other questions.

He asked about people working with the elderly and vulnerable.

No, the Deputy spoke about a particular incident.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

That is correct. I have no information on that type of incident or problem being encountered at the Garda vetting office with regard to the scenario put forward by Deputy Ó Caoláin.

The Assistant Garda Commissioner has no knowledge of any such case?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

I have no such knowledge.

Mr. Pat Burke

I have no such knowledge either.

It happened.

I will certainly go back to my source on that. I cannot put a name to it but I am concerned that such a situation could present. The other questions I asked were about the throughput numbers annually, the disparity between the newspaper reportage and the response of the Taoiseach and Minister over a week ago, which does not add up, and the time involved. I am aware that the Garda can only give us an average time frame and that questions have been asked about it already but there is a huge difference between seven and four weeks. There is also the situation of vulnerable adults, the extension of the vetting unit's role in that regard and the unit's opinion as to the usefulness or otherwise, in the area of soft information, of independent oversight bridging the vetting unit and the inquiring agency. Can our guests share any further views on those matters?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

I outlined earlier what constituted soft information. We do not disclose soft information, which is allegations, rumours, complaints, unsavoury associations or general anti-social behaviour. Under the HSE child first guidelines, there is a protocol where all information is disclosed between us and the HSE. There are set procedures where we notify the HSE or the HSE notifies us. The systems kick into place once that is done, the case conferences are called and meetings held between the local district officer and the representatives of the HSE under the various headings of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse — there are four headings — which generate a response from the two agencies. All information, be it soft or hard, is exchanged with the HSE.

Can a further opinion be offered with regard to extending the brief to include vulnerable adults?

Senator Corrigan also asked about vulnerable adults.

Mr. Pat Burke

We conduct vetting for a number of organisations at present whose staff work with vulnerable adults, for example, the HSE, nursing homes and so forth. That will continue accordingly as the organisations apply to us. We deal with a large number already. We also deal with a huge number of disability organisations, such as the Irish Wheelchair Association, the Special Olympics, homeless agencies and the like.

Is there a legal obligation on organisations such as private nursing homes to go through the vetting process when taking on additional staff?

Mr. Pat Burke

There are some health care regulations but I do not have them with me and cannot quote them. However, my experience and understanding are that most of the organisations that apply to us do so because it is their policy of best practice. They apply to us within that policy. I cannot answer about the legal requirements on the different agencies. I am aware there might be some in the health care regulations, especially in respect of nursing homes, but I do not have them with me so I cannot give a definitive answer.

I realise it is late and that our guests have been asked many questions. We might have to return to this issue. The focus of this committee in respect of soft information must be to consider the desirability or necessity of introducing legislation to provide for the disclosure or exchange of soft information. The allied issue to that is whether that would require constitutional change to give security to the legislation that might be introduced. That is the question.

That was pointed out earlier.

Without necessarily exploring that, I will deal with the issues that are troubling me and, I believe, the committee. For my own part, I would not be in favour of a change in the law unless it could be justified. There are too many risks associated with this kind of change, allowing for the disclosure of soft information, for me to agree to it unless there was a strong case to be made for it. I am not saying that there is not a case to be made for it, however. The child protection committee sets it out quite well on page 87. I will read briefly from what that committee said in terms of focusing on our discussion:

Naturally, there may be a basis for concern about the suitability of any particular person for employment or other positions involving unsupervised access to children, even in the absence of a previous conviction. Such a concern may become apparent from a consideration of what is sometimes referred to as soft information, i.e. information arising from previous investigations or inquiries, or the experiences of others who have dealt with the individual in question, which gives rise to concern but which was not or would not be a sufficient evidential basis for prosecution and conviction.

I emphasised the word "may", although it is not emphasised in the report. It is important to draw attention to that. The committee raised this as a legitimate cause of concern — should we change the law and should we provide for disclosure of soft information in circumstances where it cannot currently be done? Members of the committee have acknowledged that there are risks associated with introducing such a law. We would all acknowledge that but it may be that those risks are not of a sufficient seriousness to override the basic argument, which is that we need to do this. In other words, the need to do it trumps any worries about the risks. That is the question we as a committee must wrestle with.

I am interested in knowing some information which would help my deliberations. The response by Detective Chief Superintendent Noel White to Deputy Enright was interesting. She pressed him on what is meant by soft information on the system and whether there were any circumstances in which it would be released. He was inclined to say that they would be exceptional but when Deputy Enright pressed him further he said he would do so if there was a child care issue involved, or words to that effect. Does that not solve, or at least partially solve, the problem that the child protection committee has identified?

We should only make a change if it is necessary to do so, but if that soft information — as Detective Chief Superintendent Noel White told the committee a short while ago — would be released in those exceptional circumstances in any event, as matters currently stand, what is the need to change the law if in fact that is already provided for? I am asking that question rhetorically and am not saying that I have a settled view in my mind about it. However, given the fact that it can be done currently in those exceptional and difficult circumstances — which are the child protection circumstances that we are all concerned with on this committee — does that not obviate the need for legislation if it can be done in any event?

If it can be done in the interests of the child?

Yes, in the interests of the child. Since I have the floor may I finish with a second question based on what Deputy Shatter and others asked? I am conscious that the more questions one asks the harder it is for Detective Chief Superintendent Noel White to wrestle with them, so I promise I will keep it short. When the detective chief superintendent was asked what soft information was on the system he said that where case conferences were held, for example, that information would certainly find its way onto the system. Even if it cannot be done today, would it be possible to assist the committee by giving a list of examples of the kind of soft information material that is on the system? I am not asking him for actual examples, nor would he provide them to us.

However, perhaps we could have categories of documentation or other information, including for example an investigation file, a statement of complaint, and a scanned-in page from a garda's notebook. I am genuinely inquiring about what category of document constitutes soft information that is on the system. Finally, what soft information does the Garda Síochána hold, other than that on the system? Is it paper-based or hard-copies of soft information?

I would liked to follow up on that.

It was said that if there was an exceptional case, that is, a child care issue, the information would be released. Surely, however, given the fact that all requests for vetting involve either child care situations or vulnerable adult care situations, then all 187,000 cases should be deemed exceptional because they all concern children or vulnerable adults.

I will call Senator Frances Fitzgerald before Detective Chief Superintendent Noel White answers the questions.

I thank the detective chief superintendent for his presentation which was very helpful. My understanding was that soft information goes back to the HSE and not necessarily to the organisations that have asked about vetting. That is quite a different issue and the course it may take could vary. Perhaps he could clarify that point because that was my understanding from what he said. As regards the number of people he has been asked to vet over the last number of years, does he have percentage figures for the number of people who want to work with children but who have turned out to have a criminal record?

Mr. Noel White

I will first deal with the different situations. When we talk about soft information there is a certain balance involved. I was asked whether it should be legislated for or if there is a need to legislate for it. First, the information we are talking about may be information that the Garda Síochána has but cannot actually stand over or verify, other than the fact that it has been said. It could be a vexatious complaint or a false accusation, so there must be a balance. As to whether we legislate concerning the exchange of all soft information, that may well be an issue for the legislators. It may well be a decision that they will have to take. On occasions, we have all been in the position, as policemen, concerning information that we have had in our possession that we cannot progress and it does not sit easily with us. I talked to the committee about the situation involving a child care issue where we bring it back to the HSE to try to progress it, perhaps through another avenue.

I am not in a position to answer the question about the number of people involved, but perhaps Inspector Burke could answer it.

The question concerned the percentage of those involved.

Yes. Of all the people who have come to the Garda Síochána for vetting and want to work with children, what percentage turn out to have a criminal record? I have two other questions about that but if Inspector Burke has the figures perhaps he can tell us.

Mr. Pat Burke

Members of the committee must remember that we vet for public departments and vulnerable adults as well but generally, over the last few years, of the percentage of applications we get, some 10% to 15% have disclosures.

So 10% to 15% would have a criminal record?

Mr. Pat Burke


Would the disclosures be about child abuse or would they be other types of criminal convictions?

That is what I wanted to ask.

That has never come out in an answer.

Of all the vetting cases that come to the Garda Síochána, 10% to 15% have a criminal record, but what is the answer to the subsequent question?

Mr. Pat Burke

We disclose anything we have recorded in respect of convictions and prosecutions, whether successful or not. Therefore, they include drunk driving, dangerous driving and public order offences. I cannot say how many of those are specifically sexual offences. In the applications we get, 10% to 15% would have a disclosure and that would include all convictions, including traffic offences.

Would it include things like parking fines?

Mr. Pat Burke

I can only answer anecdotally, but there are very few parking fines. It would include those if we had them but there are very few of those because they are all ticket offences now, so they are not convictions.

So if someone goes to court because they have not paid a parking ticket, they could end up on the PULSE system.

Mr. Pat Burke

Yes. When we have an incident, the garda starts the incident on PULSE and everything up to the court outcome is recorded in respect of that incident.

If someone goes to court for a parking fine and the District Court judge dismisses the summons, would they still end up on the PULSE system on the basis that it was an unsuccessful prosecution?

Mr. Pat Burke

Yes, because that is our operational and organisational record of what we did with that case.

Would the Garda, if it was able to decipher and discern this, send to the committee the percentage which were disclosures on sexual offences as distinct from parking fines?

If Inspector Burke sends his answer in response to a request from the authorised signatory on a person who has applied for a job to work with children or with a vulnerable elder, does he specify the offence of which the person concerned has been convicted?

Mr. Pat Burke


No one applying for a job would disclose that he or she once received a parking summons with which they went to the District Court and had dismissed because a District Court judge took the view that the summons was inappropriate. He or she could then be presented as having given an untrue account of his or her affairs. There is some information — whether hard, semi-soft or soft — that makes it look as if he or she has said something that is untrue.

This is a follow-up question. With regard to the demands made on Inspector Burke's time, organisations must assess the information he has sent to them in terms of how relevant the conviction is of the person applying for the job, given the discussion here about parking fines. Do organisations often come back to him for further information or analysis of the conviction?

Mr. Pat Burke

Yes and no. The answer is yes in the case of a new organisation, as in the early weeks and months of disclosures they want clarification about what is meant, but the answer is no as organisations become proficient. It is completely up to the organisation concerned to assess the suitability of the applicant.

We vet school bus and HSE drivers. Parking and traffic offences are important when they are being assessed.

Driving offences are important—

Mr. Pat Burke


—but not if someone has been subject to a parking summons which has been dismissed. Such dismissals would not indicate that persons were or were not appropriate individuals to hold a particular job.

We will leave the issue of parking, on which we all are clear. Senator White posed questions. I ask him not to repeat them.

I asked about categorising information documentation such as complaints, files, etc. If my question was understood, could it be responded to in writing? I would be happy with such a response.

I asked if that could be done because it would be helpful to the committee. Inspector Burke could furnish the information to the clerk to the committee. We understand that he does not come here like a Minister with all the facts.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

That will be looked after.

Does Deputy Power, the Chairman of the previous committee, wish to pose a question?

I thank the members of the Garda vetting unit. I am a fan of its work at the cutting edge of modern policing. In the absence of a legislative framework, it is difficult for it to operate. Much of that has to do with us. I wish the unit well in its work which can be sensitive but which is of significance.

Like other members, I am trying to grapple with the demarcation line between so-called hard and soft information. There is not a statutory definition, a matter with which we must grapple. This follows the line of questioning of Senator White which hit the nail on the head. To what extent does the Garda vetting unit consider certain information to be hard information? Obviously, information on prosecutions, whether successful or unsuccessful, and convictions would be regarded as hard information.

I thought I detected a difference in emphasis between Detective Chief Superintendent White and Inspector Burke on files forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions which did not result in prosecutions. Detective Chief Superintendent White indicated that such would constitute hard information which the unit would disclose but I thought Inspector Burke excluded this. It is a regular occurrence in many Garda stations for files to be piled high on an individual relating to investigations dating back a number of years and based on numerous allegations against the person concerned which present a pattern of information which gives rise to suspicions and investigations but which for evidential reasons do not lead to the files being sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. I presume the unit would consider such information as soft, even though the allegations made may be serious.

Mr. Noel White

If there was a pattern in the case of an individual, for instance, a connotation of sexual offences, a judgment call would have to be made.

That is what I am trying to get at. Who makes that judgment call?

Mr. Noel White

In a particular instance it would have to come down to the investigator, the individual investigating the complaint. He would bring it to the attention of the authorities and a decision would be made. This happens where one is speaking about an individual, for example, a flasher, who engages in the practice on an ongoing basis.

I apologise to the Chair if we are at cross-purposes. Inside the Garda central vetting unit, who is the decision maker on those tough questions of what constitutes hard and soft information? There appears to be a disparity. Is a file forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions which does not result in a prosecution considered to be hard information?

Mr. Noel White

I will answer the question in the following way and it relates to the answer we gave earlier about a particular incident. If the Garda responds to a particular incident, it becomes part of the PULSE system. If, for example, Inspector Pat Burke is vetting and has a number of incidents which show a pattern, he would refer an inquiry back to the district officer, as previously stated by Assistant Commissioner McCarthy, for a report on the matter. A decision would then be made on whether it was soft or hard information.

Deputy Power wants to know who takes the decision.

I take from Detective Chief Superintendent White's response that somebody decides. Decisions are made one way or the other. As he stated, it is a judgment call. There are occasions on which there are no prosecutions and no files are forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Any information released is considered soft information.

Mr. Noel White

It would be but there would be a pattern which causes us concern. As I stated, there are given situations that do not rest easily with us.

That is the point.

On the way to becoming hard information.

What Deputy Shatter called "semi-soft" information. What I am getting at is that clearly there were circumstances where information thought to be soft was disclosed and that the Garda vetting unit definitely feels there is a need for this. There are circumstances which warrant the dissemination of information on an individual, even though there has not been a prosecution.

Mr. Noel White

It would be a helpful outcome if there was a legislative footing or some protocol to cover such a circumstance.

I am very grateful to Detective Chief Superintendent White.

That is up to us.

Mr. Noel White


The matter is back in our court. I thank Detective Chief Superintendent White. I call the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brendan Smith.

I thank the assistant commissioner and his colleagues for their explanation. I had the opportunity a number of months ago to visit Thurles and meet Inspector Burke and his colleagues. It would be useful if members had an opportunity to visit the unit to observe the procedures and processes that are in place. It is reassuring when one meets Inspector Burke and his colleagues, particularly as they can show one how the system operates. It would be easier for members to visit the unit rather than have someone explain to them the workings of the system.

The Attorney General has given the Government clear advice to the effect that a constitutional amendment will be required if we are to legislate in respect of soft information. It will only be after the introduction of such an amendment that the necessary legislative process can be put in place.

The authorised signatories are crucial to the vetting process. The organisations that act as authorised signatories play an extremely important role because they are charged with carrying out the initial screening in respect of applicants. Relevant information is sent back to the signatories by the Garda. Does the Garda engage in an ongoing process of educating, training and upskilling the authorised signatories?

Mr. Pat Burke

We are responsible for their initial training. We are in regular contact with them by telephone and through written correspondence. We have not yet started a retraining programme. We hope to reach that stage at some future date.

With regard to the exchange of information between the authorised signatories and the Garda, everybody is new to this work but I am sure the experience gained in the past two years can strengthen the mechanisms that are already in place. It would be good if the authorised signatories spent a day with the committee in order to exchange views and experiences.

That would be very productive. I wish to thank Assistant Garda Commissioner Michael McCarthy—

Before we conclude, I am conscious that this is a new operation but I wish to discover what has been done to date to ensure that we are incorporating, within the procedures used by the unit, international best practice in the context of vetting procedures. What liaisons have taken place in that regard? Will such liaisons take place in the near future?

Mr. Michael McCarthy

I will ask Inspector Burke to deal with that matter.

Mr. Pat Burke

I am constant liaison with my counterparts in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. In that regard, we had a round-table meeting in my office at the end of October. In addition, I am a member of a working group in Europe which is charged with examining developments relating to criminal records and the implications of a particular framework decision. Our office has been examining systems across the globe, via the Internet, etc. We are continually working towards improving our system and ensuring that it is more efficient. We want to take account of everything developing around us as we go forward.

This has been a helpful and valuable discussion and members of the committee thank our guests for attending. I hope the questions I raised did not make life too difficult for them. If, on reflection, there is some additional information they may wish to provide—

I asked our guests if they would do that.

Yes, it would be helpful.

We were heartened by everything our guests had to say. If, however, they come across questions in respect of which thorough answers may not have been given, perhaps they might furnish the relevant information to the clerk to the committee.

Senator Mary White inquired about a number of categories.

That is right. In addition, Senator Fitzgerald inquired about the percentages relating to those who were turned down on the basis of previous criminal or sexual offences.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

We will provide that information. A large number of questions were asked. We did not intend to miss out on answering any of them.

We will forward the transcript to our guests and they can identify any questions in respect of which answers were not provided.

I thank our guests for their attendance. I also thank them for their openness and the frank answers they provided. In my opinion the work they are doing is wonderful and is evolving all the time. Everyone involved is learning as they go along.

Mr. Michael McCarthy

As stated earlier, it is only one part of the child protection programme.

I thank the Assistant Garda Commissioner, his colleagues and the Minister of State for attending.

Would it be in order to ask our legal advisers a question in private session?

No. It is nearly 7 p.m. The Deputy only arrived midway through the meeting, whereas other members have been here since 5 p.m.

I should have apologised to the Chair for my late arrival.

I am not reprimanding the Deputy.

The joint committee went into private session at 6.56 p.m. and adjourned at 6.58 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Wednesday, 27 February 2008.