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

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

I am pleased to be here on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, to present the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012.

I will now highlight the purpose of the Bill. In September 2008, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children published an interim report which recommended that legislation be introduced to regulate and control the manner in which records of criminal convictions and information, including "soft information", can be stored and disclosed by the Garda Síochána and other agencies for the purpose of child protection. The Bill will provide the necessary legislation.

The Bill will provide a statutory basis for the existing procedures whereby the Garda criminal records database is used to vet persons applying for employment working with children or vulnerable adults. These vetting procedures already operate under the Children First national guidelines. The requirement to conduct vetting for the positions covered by the Bill is therefore not new. It will, however, put the procedures that have been developed to vet these applications into law. More importantly, the Bill also makes it mandatory for persons working with children or vulnerable adults to be vetted, whereas at present this is done on the basis of a voluntary code. It will also create offences and penalties for persons who fail to comply with its provisions.

As I have mentioned, provision is made for the disclosure of "soft information" which in the Bill is referred to as "specified information". "Specified information" is information other than a record of a criminal conviction or pending criminal prosecution. For example, it includes conclusions from investigations of child abuse or neglect that have been conducted by the HSE, where such investigations have concluded that a person poses a threat to children or vulnerable adults. "Specified information" also includes similar conclusions arising from fitness to practise inquiries by statutory bodies such as those conducted by the Medical Council, the Nursing Council or the Teaching Council. "Specified information" also includes information arising from Garda investigations of criminal offences where a prosecution has not been taken but where there is a bona fide concern that a person poses a threat to children or vulnerable adults.

The Bill sets out procedures to allow for the disclosure of "specified information" for vetting purposes. It is important to note that before such information can be disclosed, the person who is the subject of the information must be given a copy of that information and must be given the opportunity to challenge the proposed disclosure. The Bill also provides that a disclosure of such information will only occur where there is a bona fide concern that the person poses a threat to children or vulnerable persons, the information has been assessed for its reliability and relevance, and the disclosure is in accordance with the principles of natural justice.

The Bill provides for the appointment of an independent appeals officer who will be responsible for assessing and deciding appeals against the proposed disclosure of specified information. By confining the information that can be disclosed to information arising from criminal investigations or statutory inquiries, and by ensuring that individuals who are the subject of such information have the right to challenge such disclosures, the Bill seeks to ensure that information such as vague rumours, innuendo or false allegations cannot form any part of the vetting process. The Bill also seeks to ensure that the constitutional right of all citizens to protect their good name, as provided in Article 40.3.20 of the Constitution is protected.

Schedule 1 to the Bill lists in detail the types of work or activities that require vetting. These include work in: child care services; schools; hospitals and health services; residential services or accommodation for children or vulnerable persons; treatment, therapy or counselling services for children or vulnerable persons; provision of leisure, sporting or physical activities to children or vulnerable persons; and the promotion of religious beliefs.

The Bill provides exemptions from vetting for certain arrangements. Private babysitting arrangements, private tuition and other private arrangements are exempt from the vetting requirements under the Bill. It is the Government's view that it is not appropriate or feasible for the State to require vetting in regard to a person's private family arrangements. There is also exemption in the Bill from vetting for persons assisting at sports or community events on an occasional basis. This exemption is necessary in order to focus the vetting requirement on persons working with children or vulnerable adults on an ongoing basis. It should be borne in mind that where persons help out on an occasional or annual community or sports event, they typically do so in full public view. It is neither feasible nor desirable to vet every parent assisting at every school, sports or community activity in the country. Instead, we must be practical and the Bill therefore focuses on requiring vetting for persons such as sports coaches, trainers, youth workers, teachers or any other person, paid or unpaid, working with children or vulnerable persons on an ongoing basis. For practical reasons, to which I will refer later, the Bill also does not require the vetting of teachers who are superintending annual State examinations and are already registered with the Teaching Council.

The scheme of the Bill was considered in detail by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. The joint committee obtained submissions from relevant organisations and published its recommendations in November 2011. Members of the Oireachtas have been very supportive of this Bill when contributing to the consideration of the draft scheme of the Bill at the hearings by the joint committee. The Bill has been drafted to include provisions to take account of the issues raised by the joint committee. The committee recommended the legislation should provide for vetting to be "portable" between different employer organisations in order to cut down on multiple applications for vetting of the same individual. This, however, may not be feasible, for example, in a case where a person who was vetted for a position with one employer last year, might have had no convictions at the time of applying for that position, but might have subsequent convictions in the current year or information relating to that person which gives rise to concern may have come to light.

The joint committee also raised concerns about the lack of information from other states about the criminal records of citizens of these states who are seeking work here. In that regard the Minister is bringing forward separate legislation, the criminal records information system Bill, which will provide for enhanced co-operation in exchanging criminal records information with other states. That Bill is expected to be published in 2013. It will implement an EU instrument providing for the exchange of criminal records data between EU member states. It will also provide for the exchange of criminal records information with states outside of the European Union.

In the meantime, the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill provides in the definition of "criminal offence" for the vetting disclosure to include offences committed outside the State provided that the same act or omission would be an offence if committed in this State. I believe the Members of the House are very supportive of this legislation.

We are all now very conscious of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults which has taken place in a variety of institutional and other settings. It is obviously very important that we have clear mandatory standards for the vetting of persons working with children and vulnerable adults. The Bill is essential to ensure employers can make informed decisions in instances where persons are seeking employment which involves access to children or vulnerable persons. I should point out to the House that the Bill will have no impact on Garda clearance procedures conducted under other legislation, which includes the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, section 15 of which requires the Minister to be satisfied that an applicant for citizenship is of good character; the Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Act 2004; the Taxi Regulation Act; the Road Transport Acts and the Private Security Services Act 2004. These Acts already require Garda clearance of persons based on a search of the Garda criminal records.

I would now like to outline for the House the key provisions contained in the Bill. The existing unit of the Garda Síochána known as the Garda central vetting unit will, under the Bill, be known as the national vetting bureau. Section 3 provides clarification with regard to activities exempt from the provisions of the Bill, which I have already outlined. Section 6 makes provision for the database which is to be established and maintained by the chief bureau officer. The database will be made up of a register of relevant organisations, a register of specified information and a register of vetted persons as provided in sections 8, 10 and 11 respectively.

Section 7 sets out the functions of the bureau in the maintenance of the database and also provides that the bureau is responsible for vetting services in respect of relevant work or activities relating to children or vulnerable persons. Section 8 requires the chief bureau officer to maintain a register of relevant organisations which can avail of vetting services. This section also includes a provision that organisations already registered with the bureau before commencement of the Bill will be deemed to be registered following the commencement of the Bill. In addition, a relevant organisation shall not be required to comply with the requirement to register where another relevant organisation, which is registered with the bureau, submits on behalf of the first organisation applications for vetting disclosures. This provision is included to enable organisations such as schools or crèches to submit applications through a representative body without requiring each and every school or crèche to register individually. There is also a provision that an organisation which fails to comply with the requirement to register under subsection (2) is guilty of an offence.

Section 9 provides for the registration of liaison persons. These are the persons in each organisation responsible for applying for and receiving vetting disclosures from the bureau.

Sections 10 and 11 provide for the establishment of the register of specified information and the register of vetted persons. Section 12 prohibits the engagement of persons to do relevant work or activities relating to children or other vulnerable persons unless that person has been subject to the vetting procedures under the Bill. It includes provision for a defence if a person can show that he or she did not know, nor could be reasonably expected to know, that the work for which a person was engaged constituted relevant work or activity.

As previously mentioned, teachers registered with the Teaching Council performing the temporary function of superintending the annual State examinations are exempt from vetting. The State Examinations Commission directly employs approximately 8,000 persons on a short-term basis for the purpose of supervising these examinations. Some are employed with as little as a few hours notice on the day of examinations to cover local contingencies. Most of those employed directly by the commission are teachers already employed in schools and registered with the Teaching Council. It is imperative that there should be no unnecessary disruption to the operation of the State examinations. Persons working as teachers and registered with the Teaching Council should not require vetting for the purpose of short term, temporary employment supervising exams.

Section 13 sets out the procedures to be followed in making applications for vetting disclosures. It confirms that an application from a relevant organisation for a vetting disclosure may be made on its own behalf or on behalf of another relevant organisation that it represents for the purpose of the vetting procedures under the Bill. This section also specifies the information relating to the vetting subject which must be included in the application.

Section 14 sets out the procedures to be followed by the bureau in considering an application for a vetting disclosure. There is provision that following the receipt of an application for a vetting disclosure the bureau will undertake an examination of its own database and the Garda Síochána criminal records for the purpose of establishing whether there are criminal records or specified information which relates to the applicant. The section also provides that specified information relating to the applicant will be referred to the chief bureau officer for assessment as to whether the information should be disclosed.

Section 15 sets out the procedures to be followed by the chief bureau officer in assessing specified information for the purpose of its inclusion in a vetting disclosure. This includes a provision that the vetting subject must be provided with a summary of the information and must be informed of his or her right to make a written submission on the information. A subsequent decision to disclose the specified information requires the chief bureau officer to believe the information in question is of such a nature as to give rise to a bona fide concern that the vetting subject may harm, attempt to harm or put at risk of harm a child or vulnerable person. The chief bureau officer must also be satisfied that the disclosure is necessary, proportionate and reasonable in the circumstances, and relevant to the particular position for which the person is applying.

Section 16 provides that where a vetting disclosure contains details of criminal records or specified information, the relevant organisation must provide a copy of the disclosure to the vetting applicant. The section also provides that the organisation may consider and take into account the information disclosed in assessing the suitability of the person for the position for which they have applied.

Section 18 sets out the manner of an appeal against a disclosure of specified information, which shall be in writing, accompanied by grounds for appeal and indicate whether an oral hearing is sought. Having considered the appeal, an appeals officer, appointed under section 17, may affirm in whole or in part the decision of the chief bureau officer or may set aside that decision, in whole or in part. An appeal to the High Court on a point of law is also provided for and this determination is final and conclusive.

Section 19 concerns the notification of information to the bureau from those organisations listed in Schedule 2. These are regulated organisations which conduct certain inquiries or which have certain responsibilities under the law relating to either fitness to practice or the protection of children. For example, if, as a result of a statutory inquiry by the HSE, or a fitness to practice process by a statutory body, the organisation has a bona fide concern that the vetting subject may harm, attempt to harm or put at risk of harm a child or vulnerable person, that organisation is required to inform the bureau of the information giving rise to that concern. This information will then be entered into the register of specified information maintained by the bureau. The organisation is also required to notify the person in respect of whom there is such a concern that it is notifying the bureau of this concern. The section also contains a provision that the obligation to report under it is in addition to any other obligation to disclose this information to the Garda Síochána or to any other person. This is important to ensure the reporting requirement under the Bill is distinct from and in addition to the obligation to report concerns to the HSE under the children first Bill being prepared by my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald.

Section 20 provides for the periodic re-vetting of persons previously vetted for their current position. Section 21 provides for the retrospective vetting of persons currently in positions which would be subject to vetting under the Bill but who have not previously been vetted because they took up the position prior to the availability of vetting in the State. Approximately 100,000 persons in the health and education sectors were recruited before the current vetting procedures were introduced and therefore have not been vetted. It is important this should be remedied.

Sections 22 to 32, inclusive, contain miscellaneous provisions including a requirement on the chief bureau officer in section 23 to present, through the Garda Commissioner, an annual report to the Minister. The Minister will be required to place copies of this report before both Houses of the Oireachtas.

This will ensure that we have an annual view as to how the bureau is working, whether it is adequately staffed and resourced, whether delays are arising and, in the context of the bureau and the chief bureau officer in charge, whether there is some legal anomaly or difficulty identified that needs to be addressed in terms of legislation.

Section 24 provides that the chief bureau officer may assign one or more members of staff as compliance officers for the purposes of the Bill. The purpose of the compliance officers is to investigate any complaint that a registered organisation is failing to operate adequate or proper vetting procedures.

Section 26 makes it an offence to falsify a vetting disclosure, or to make a false statement for the purpose of obtaining or enabling another person to obtain a vetting disclosure, or to allow a vetting disclosure be falsely used by another person.

Section 32 permits the introduction of fees for the purpose of the provision of vetting services. This is simply an enabling provision to allow fees to be charged for certain categories of vetting application, if appropriate.

Schedule 1 to the Bill sets out the relevant work or activities relating to children or vulnerable adults which will be subject to the vetting requirements of the Bill and Schedule 2 sets out the organisations which will be required to disclose specified information to the bureau in accordance with section 19.

Before putting the Bill to the House, there is one issue which I would like to briefly address, namely, the concerns about the relationship between this Bill and the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Act 2012. That Act provides that where persons applying for positions which give them access to children or vulnerable persons are asked if they have any previous convictions, they must disclose all convictions, including any convictions that could otherwise be deemed spent under that Act. The same applies under the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, and is supported by the provisions in the Bill. Because of the overriding need to protect children and vulnerable persons, a policy decision has been taken that the spent convictions provisions should not apply where persons are applying for these positions. This is because relatively minor convictions which may ordinarily be deemed spent would still have a particular relevance in regard to persons working with children or vulnerable persons. For example, when the spent convictions Act is in force, a conviction for theft or fraud may become a spent conviction if the penalty imposed is less than 12 months imprisonment and the other criteria are satisfied. However, that information may be relevant to a position of trust working with a vulnerable person. Similarly, many road traffic convictions may become spent convictions, but again these may be relevant to a position working as a driver of a school bus or a public service vehicle for persons with disabilities. For these reasons, it has been decided that in regard to the positions covered by the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, all criminal records will be disclosed.

I wish also to make particular reference to the work of the Garda central vetting unit. The unit is expected to process some 350,000 vetting applications in 2012 on behalf of approximately 20,000 organisations which are registered with it. The processing time for vetting applications fluctuates during the year due to seasonal demands when the volume of applications received from certain sectors can increase. At present it takes on average eight weeks to process applications. There will always be a reasonably significant time period required to process a vetting application. All organisations registered for Garda vetting are aware of the processing timeframes for the receipt of Garda vetting and have been advised to factor this into their recruitment and selection process. The Minister is very conscious of the need to keep this processing time to a minimum. The Garda central vetting unit, which will become the national vetting bureau under the provisions of this Bill, will have a substantially expanded role under the new legislation and the Minister is engaged in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure adequate staffing to meet these new demands.

On behalf of the Minister, I thank the Members of this House who have already provided support for the Bill when contributing to the hearings by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. I am sure that the debate on the Bill in this House will be very informed and constructive and I know that the Minister will be kept informed of those discussions. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome the Bill. Fianna Fáil broadly supports the measures outlined in the legislation to clarify and consolidate the vetting process. We have, however, two concerns about the inclusion of childminders who are working on a commercial basis and the provision of sufficient resources to back up the measures outlined in the Bill.

The Bill places the current Garda vetting system on a statutory basis, which is important, and it builds on a lot of work that was done on Committee Stage in the Dáil. I welcome the way the Bill was drafted, that the heads were published and groups were invited before the joint committee to make presentations on it. I appreciate the work that has gone into it.

The Bill makes vetting mandatory for employees and volunteers working with children or vulnerable adults in the organisations covered in the legislation, although other organisations are not mentioned. We also welcome the fact the Bill includes provision for the use of soft information. This is a complicated area and the Human Rights Commission has expressed concerns about the use of soft information. It is important we are able to use it because while there should be safeguards in place, we are not protecting children if we only bring forward concerns about those with actual convictions. If an individual has not been convicted but there are sufficiently strong concerns about that person working with children, such as his or her having been questioned by gardaí several times on related matters, it is important that is captured. We must ensure the right protections are there to reconcile the use of soft information with people's constitutional right to a good name. It is important for those safeguards to be put in place.

We are concerned about the non-inclusion of childminders. As many as 75,000 children in the country are being minded by childminders. Leaving that sector totally outside the Bill leaves a lot of children without protection. We would argue that more work should be done to bring the childminding sector within the remit of the legislation, particularly those working on a commercial basis. No one is suggesting a grandmother would need to be vetted before she could mind her grandchildren but there are people working as nannies and au pairs in the home setting and such people should be regulated and vetted. They are in an unsupervised setting with children in the home and more work must be done on this.

We also want to ensure sufficient funding is put in place to back up the aspirations in the Bill. The Bill extends the sort of information that will be captured but unless sufficient funding is provided, that will lead to more delays in having people vetted. As the Minister is aware, there are already significant delays, an issue that has been brought to my attention by local groups, and these are causing real difficulties for voluntary organisations in particular. It is vital the resources are provided to ensure the vetting bureau can do its job.

The release of resources within the Teaching Council to enable existing teachers to be vetted is also a matter of concern. The last Government introduced vetting of new teachers and it was always intended that would be rolled out to existing teachers in order that all teachers would be vetted. The Minister for Education and Skills, however, has admitted on many occasions that there are 40,000 teachers who have not been vetted. That is a matter of huge concern. The Minister confirmed at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection when I raised it that the problem was not that the Teaching Council did not have the resources, it was not allowed to use them because although it was a self-financing organisation funded through fees from teachers, it was subject to the recruitment embargo; therefore, it could not hire the necessary personnel to do it.

This must be sorted out immediately and all existing teachers must be vetted as soon as possible. I also highlight the need to ensure adequate training within the sector. If child care protection really is to be improved, one must ensure the provision of adequate child protection training for those working within the sector, as well as adequate access to training procedures for staff to again ensure the reality on the ground reflects improved services and protection.

I also wish to mention two other issues, the first of which is there appears to be some confusion about the use of PPS numbers in identifying individuals involved in the vetting process. While the Minister had indicated previously the vetting process could not use PPS numbers, presumably because they are not issued for that purpose, the Bill appears to indicate that such numbers will be used. Consequently, I seek clarity as to the position in this regard because so doing appears to make sense, in that as the PPS number is the best individual identifier available in respect of public administration, it should be used.

The Minister of State referred to the issue of re-vetting and how it is covered by the Bill, which provides there can be periodic re-vetting and retrospective vetting. However, there had been indications from the Government previously that at most, this is a long-term commitment. Fianna Fáil seeks to have this provision speeded up because it considers that even within the context of the limited resources within which everyone is working, priority should be given to child protection and the party certainly would support resources being made available for that purpose. This is important on foot of the referendum that just has been passed on children's rights, which was important in respect of constitutional protection and in setting out the legal aspiration people have to ensure that children are protected. However, that will only make a real difference on the ground if the resources are actually provided. This is the reason that while Fianna Fáil supports this Bill, it considers that it could go further. I would welcome the Minister of State's comments on the issue of commercial childminders and on how they might be involved in the process and on how the requisite resources might be provided for the vetting bureau and for the system as a whole to ensure there are real improvements in child protection on foot of this legislation.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy McGinley, to the House and welcome this Second Stage debate on the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Prisons) Bill 2012. When debating the Personal Insolvency Bill last week, Members spoke of the positive impact of the manner in which the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality is now being used to have prior debate on legislation and of how effective is the liaison into which its members enter with interest groups. Once again, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, used the aforementioned joint committee highly effectively, first to outline some of his initial views on this proposal and then to take on board the concerns of all sides of the political spectrum, as well as outside groupings and organisations. The Bill has benefited from that work. It is a lesson to all Ministers and Departments as to how to most effectively use the various Oireachtas committees. As this Bill has already passed through the other House, in a sense the Seanad is acting as the second House and may be little more than a rubber stamp on this occasion because the Committee Stage debate has taken place elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is still important that Members record their welcome for the proposal.

In the course of a balanced contribution, Senator Power expressed her concern regarding the commercial childminding sector to which the Minister of State might make reference in his response. While I may be reading it incorrectly, section 3 indicates the "Act shall not apply to any of the following [activities] namely ... any relevant work or activities undertaken ... for no commercial consideration". I imagine the provision in section 3(1)(b) specifying "for no commercial consideration" means commercial childminding therefore could not be exempt but I am sure the Minister and his officials will clarify this matter because the Senator has raised a valid point that must be brought to certainty.

Most Members will consider the Bill from the perspective of children and the need to further safeguard them. Members welcome the passing of the children's referendum, which will have a positive impact, as well as the introduction in the near future of the Children First legislation. All such legislation has the strong possibility of ensuring that children of future generations will have the protection and safety that sadly, children of past generations did not always fully enjoy. While this must be welcomed by all, Members must also dwell at length on the broader question of vulnerable persons. I refer in particular to vulnerable elderly persons, whether those who are elderly and incapacitated or those who are elderly and suffering from some degree of mental deficiency. These sectors are often forgotten when one considers vulnerable people who are being abused. That said, I acknowledge in sadness that quite a number of television programmes have been broadcast in recent years on the mistreatment of elderly people in some care institutions. It is important to send a strong message that the legislation under discussion also will provide protection for these persons and will ensure the people working with them and for them on a commercial basis must be vetted and that there will be certainty about the propriety of such persons.

While the children's referendum and the Children First legislation are positive measures, I have often made the point in the House that at the other end of the age spectrum, further strengthening legislation on the rights of the elderly must be introduced. My preference would be that some day in the not-too-distant future, there may be a constitutional amendment to also protect, preserve and vindicate the rights of the elderly. This is a matter for future consideration. The Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012, which has been debated in detail in this House, is mentioned in the legislation because of the various opt-out clauses. It is correct that the Minister is ensuring that the vetting bureau and the legislation underpinning it are not prisoners of the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill because there are cases in which the aforementioned Bill is highly appropriate for broader society but might not be entirely appropriate where people are working with children and vulnerable people. Consequently, the Minister has achieved the correct balance in this regard.

I wish to refer briefly to the question of resources and Senator Power of course is correct. It is central to the debate because all the legislation passed reads well and stacks up well on the library shelves of the Oireachtas but for legislation to actually work, it certainly requires resources. Already, in the past few months, Members have been made aware of difficulties with regard to the processing of work in the Garda office responsible for general vetting policy, which I understand to be based in Thurles. If there is a blockage there and if there is a staffing problem, notwithstanding the Government's recruitment issues in respect of the public service, it must try to bring about a solution to ensure that staff are in place and that vetting is carried out within a reasonable timeframe. Members have stated in this Chamber previously that in respect of all legislation passed by this House, apart from the pertinent aspects of the legislation itself, they should ask themselves what will be its impact on employment, on employers and on encouraging people to create employment. If a person has a job or two on offer and if the persons who will fill those jobs must be vetted and will require the appropriate certification, to have a balanced application procedure and to allow everyone to apply and to be considered for the job, Members must try to ensure that vetting is carried out as quickly as possible. This vetting legislation should not act as a bar on someone's employment prospects and I ask the Minister of State to convey to the Minister Members' concern in this regard and their request that the maximum resources and the maximum flexibility within the limited resources available will apply to ensure that sufficient staffing will be in place.

Overall, I have little original to say. As I mentioned, members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality have had a lengthy discourse on this matter and it received a strong ventilation in the Dáil. It is not merely an aspirational item of legislation and is not simply a matter of Members highlighting how concerned they are in respect of children or vulnerable persons. It is real legislation which can, and indeed must, work. It is an improvement on the previous, relatively lax regulations that were in place. On Committee Stage, where Members will have a little more time, I intend to speak of some of the cases that have been brought to my attention in which there were problems in the past.

Specifically, I will refer to a case at County Cork Vocational Education Committee. In a sad reflection on how not to conduct ourselves, a person who was unsuitable to work with children became the school bus driver. We must ensure that such incidents do not recur. The legislation will be helpful in that regard.

I welcome the Bill from both ends of the spectrum. The concentration may be more on the children's end of the regulations, but we must send an equally strong message that elderly and vulnerable people will have additional protection. We need to consider the resources issue, as the system must work quickly. I hope the Minister of State will be able to resolve the points on which Senator Power sought clarification in order that the Bill can be fully accepted by all parties in the House.

I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the Bill in general. It is good to see it before the House and that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, used the committee process to formulate the heads of the Bill. I encourage more Ministers to use this process.

It is important that we do not view the Bill in isolation. It is part of a suite of legislation that includes the Children First Bill, the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill 2012 and the recently passed children's rights referendum.

I wholeheartedly support the Bill, but I will raise some concerns. One concern is the length of time taken to process vetting applications. From the documentation provided by the Library and Research Service I see that the process has improved considerably and been reduced to a matter of weeks. However, the employing organisations in question work with particularly vulnerable children. Having taken a straw poll during the weekend and today, voluntary youth work and sports organisations are waiting months. The average for vetting volunteers is three months, but could be as much as six months. We need to keep this point in mind. The Bill is not concerned with resourcing but it puts the same onus on organisations regardless of whether the persons in question are employees or volunteers. There is a slight get-out clause for large voluntary organisations. It is a considerable burden.

As Senators know, I am involved in the Irish Girl Guides. Someone who volunteers to be a leader wants to be active. I have no difficulty with that person not having unsupervised access to a group. However, one must wait for up to six months for vetting to come through. We can have all of the procedures and legislation in the world but organisations can commit a criminal offence under this Bill if they are not careful about the onus. There is a difference between an employee and a volunteer who helps out on a weekly basis. It is important that the Bill refers to occasional versus regular. However, there is a difficulty, in that they sometimes converge.

The Irish Girl Guides would never allow a non-vetted person to stay with a group overnight. Regardless of whether that person was supervised, he or she would not be allowed in the building. In the run-up to an event, though, a parent may offer to help for the weekend when a leader becomes ill and is unable to attend. We have found other solutions, for example, a leader must come from another area, but I am trying to apply to the Bill the reality of how the system will work in practice.

The Department of Justice and Equality has employed 20 civilians on a temporary basis and includes a number of personnel under the JobBridge scheme to work on the backlog. When the Bill comes into effect, the demand on the vetting bureau will increase significantly. Will this exacerbate the situation? Everyone involved in this debate wants to protect children. Sometimes, I run code of ethics training courses. Child protection in Ireland is a pendulum. For all too long it was stuck at one point and we did not want to consider that children were being abused in any manner or form. If we saw no evil, no evil was taking place. In a way, the pendulum has now swung to the other side. We have become overprotective and are placing burdens on organisations. It is important that we find the right balance in the centre. We should keep an eye on child protection without assuming that everyone is evil or that it is always a question of stranger danger. Some 92% of people who abuse children are family members or are known to the families. This is not stranger danger.

I welcome the provisions on the exchange of soft information. In light of a number of cases in recent years, our efforts would be toothless without that exchange. Under Part 3, subsection 12(3), an organisation can have the defence of "neither knew nor could reasonably be expected to know". This covers volunteers partially, but I am concerned that there is an equivalence.

My second point relates to portability. Senator Power raised the issue of PPS numbers. I am confused about whether they can be used. Many of the people I know volunteer and a volunteer is likely to volunteer in more than one organisation. It is the person's nature, yet he or she must go through the same vetting process repeatedly even if he or she is volunteering within the space of months or a year. I understand that the Minister will not provide for portability because an offence might have been committed during the two volunteering or employment opportunities, yet we are told that re-vetting is not practical. If one has been in an organisation for five plus years, one should be re-vetted. The Minister can consider this issue under the Bill, but no guidelines have been included. I am concerned that we are not sending a clear message to organisations. Is it the case that, once one is in, one is safe and not a harm to children? I have a difficulty with the distinction between employees and volunteers. A volunteer with the Irish Girl Guides will work for two hours per week. Someone might volunteer for years without anyone ever knowing what occurs during the other hours of his or her weekly life.

I am also concerned about the status of being offered a job subject to vetting. I am conscious of the High Court case that is currently before Ms Justice Mary Laffoy about someone who failed to get a job with Kilkenny County Council because of five non-convictions relating to alleged criminal damage, road traffic matters and theft, all cases of which were struck out without evidence being heard. If an organisation has offered someone a job subject to vetting, what is its legal status in a lawsuit after the information comes through?

I support Senator Power's point on childminding. If there is one issue on which I will table an amendment, this is it. We have excluded far too large a group. A grandmother or other family relative might mind a child, but some people engaging in childminding are gaining monetarily and should be covered by the legislation. If someone makes any financial gain, he or she should be covered. This vetting legislation will cover volunteers, but it will not cover people who make financial gains from minding young children. I have an issue with this and I will table amendments. Having read the Dáil debate, I have a number of concerns. In light of the time constraints, I will revert on the issue.

The Spent Convictions Bill is also before the House and I will table amendments to it. I am experiencing a dilemma regarding spent convictions.

A shoplifter may have the spent conviction wiped but it will be on the record for life. Therefore, if a person with such a conviction applies for any social care work, he or she will not be eligible for those courses.

We know from statistics that if a person has not reoffended in a certain time, he or she is as likely as me or anybody else to commit an offence. I have a difficulty with something being carried for life if there is a possibility of a person working with any group. I can understand such a stipulation if a person is to work with vulnerable children and adults, but I am concerned about its operation in mainstream organisations.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, to the House in introducing this important Bill, which has cross-party support. I welcome the very comprehensive view given by the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, in an earlier speech. It is very necessary and will put in statutory format practices that are already ongoing in vetting procedures required under the Children First national guidelines. As the Minister of State indicated, approximately 350,000 vetting applications will be processed this year by the Garda vetting unit in accordance with those guidelines. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure we have a statutory framework for what is an ongoing practice.

Senator Bradford referred to the justice committee hearings which took place to discuss the heads of this Bill in September 2011. I echo his comment that this is a useful process, where the Members of Dáil and Seanad have an opportunity to examine in depth the heads of a Bill before it is drafted with the assistance of stakeholders. We heard in September last year from 12 organisations, including sports groups like Swim Ireland and the GAA, children's groups like the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardo's, and other groups like the Teaching Council and the Irish Universities Association, the INTO, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Rape Crisis network. These are a variety of groups with front-line experience, and we were very impressed with the vetting procedures already followed by them in the course of their work. That applies both to groups which started as voluntary organisations and those who carried out different statutory functions.

We were impressed by the vetting procedures already in place and we heard some useful points from the groups that came to us. We heard about potential problems with the draft of the Bill and I am glad the Minister of State has indicated that the report of the committee was taken into account in formulating this Bill. It seems much of the wording of the Bill has changed compared to the heads that we had.

There are a number of recommendations on which I would like to focus that were made by the committee and addressed by the Minister of State. Senators van Turnhout and Power referred to the issue of portability, which the justice committee raised in last November's report. The committee argued that the legislation should provide "for portability of vetting whereby a vetting outcome for a person who is vetted could be shared within data protection requirements with another organisation to cut down on multiple applications for vetting of the same person and reduce the burden on the Garda vetting unit". We are all aware of that burden. The Minister of State provided a very appropriate response in indicating that this may not be feasible, as a person vetted for a position with an employer may gain subsequent convictions prior to applying to a second employer. I agree that in considering the protection of safety of children is paramount, and that should overcome any practical issues in trying to cut down multiple applications. That is a fair response to the point.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality also raised concerns, as the Minister of State indicated, about information from other jurisdictions, which was identified by organisations as an important issue. We heard there was good co-operation between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK in sharing information on the vetting process but this was not always the case with other countries. I am glad the Minister of State has given a very clear response in that respect and that separate legislation will be brought forward, the criminal records (information systems) Bill, to provide for enhanced co-operation in exchanging criminal record information with other states. That is important because many organisations were concerned about it.

Another issue that exercised the committee membership was exemption from the working of the Bill. I am glad to see the use of the phrase ad hoc has now been removed. Many groups had difficulty with its use regarding exemptions, with persons being exempt where there was occasional or ad hoc voluntary or assistance work with organisations dealing with children or vulnerable adults. Many people argued that this was too vague and arbitrary, and a tightened set of exemptions in section 3 is a great improvement.

I was interested in Senator Power's comments about childminding not being covered. Senator Bradford indicated that section 3 appears to cover it but section 2 seems to exclude the activity, as the definition of a relevant organisation does not include an individual who employs a person to work with children in the course of a private arrangement. That is the difficulty identified. The definition covers the provision of relevant worker activities for the benefit of the individual or a child or vulnerable person who is a member of the individual's family. It seems that a childminder hired in a commercial sense in one's own home may not be covered. It may be useful to get clarity from the Minister of State in that respect.

It is an interesting point as the issue arose in the justice committee when we considered head No. 5 of the Bill, which was a specific statement that the "provisions of this Act shall also apply to persons providing accommodation in their private home for children or vulnerable adults other than family relatives". I know Barnardos supported the inclusion of people running small-scale crèches for a small number of children, which is perfectly legal and facilitated under other laws. Apparently, the practice may not be covered, although the legislation may have tightened this up somewhat. The only exemption appears to be in respect of a person employing somebody for the benefit of their own child and it is somewhat unclear. Play dates are excluded, which I am glad to see, and there are some cases where we must be sensible.

The Minister of State has also indicated that babysitting and private tuition are excluded. As with childminding, there can be a range of activities; childminding can involve a grandmother caring in her or a child's home for a child which should not be covered, but private tuition can extend to a long period with a person who may be involved with a number of tuition arrangements. We must consider what should be covered and there must be greater clarity in that regard.

There were other issues raised at the committee but they have been dealt with by the strengthened version of the legislation we have before us. Senator van Turnhout raised the issue of due process and concerns about previous convictions, which forms another element of the justice committee's report. We questioned whether it would go too far to have very minor traffic convictions disclosed. I accept, in the interests of child protection, the view that it is better to be overly inclusive in that respect, and the spent conviction legislation would go some way to addressing those concerns. Spent convictions would be covered under the soft information process.

The re-vetting issue is crucial and I hope we will revisit it on Committee Stage. Section 20 is strong but it still leaves discretion to the Minister with regard to time limits. The organisations expressed concerns about that and they wished to see the process tightened. We heard that the Garda vetting bureau backlog was ten weeks but the Minister of State has indicated it is now eight weeks. Extra resources will be required.

To reiterate the thoughts of the committee, we were very pleased to note in our hearings that many of the organisations which took part in the process had, in advance of the legislation, introduced procedures that in many cases go further than required by the Bill. Vetting procedures are already in place and it is important and welcome that they are being put on a statutory footing at last.

In general I welcome the Bill. It is a question of balance and everybody has accepted that notion. There is no question or doubt but that all of us want to protect children and people of my age realise how devastatingly innocent we were after seeing the recent disclosures. None of us understood the pervasiveness, extent or degree of abuse of children by swimming coaches or television stars. I was shattered to see reports that Uncle Mac, whom I remember from the 1950s as the genial voice of BBC radio's "Children's Hour", is now under grave suspicion.

All our illusions in that regard should be gone.

The Bill puts the entire vetting procedure and the use of Garda criminal records on a statutory footing. The question of soft information in the Minister of State's contribution concerns me. What exactly is soft information? Some of our journalistic colleagues seem to be a little confused in that regard. I refer to a Mr. Paul Cullen who stated in an article in The Irish Times that four years ago an Oireachtas committee recommended that vetting procedures be placed on a statutory basis and that legislation be introduced to regulate the way criminal convictions and other soft information is used for child protection purposes. I would have thought that criminal convictions were hard information and to use the word "other" suggested soft information is the same. It is described in the Bill as special information. I would be concerned if the existence merely of gossip, for example, and this is placed under the legislation on permanent record to be held somewhere and therefore it is a permanent black mark at least to the degree of suspicion against somebody, was placed on a par with actual criminal conviction.

One has to take into account again the question of balance because we live in a common law jurisdiction where one is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. That is a very important human rights safeguard and it is significant that Dr. Maurice Manning, the recently retired chairman of the Human Rights Commission and former leader of Fine Gael in this House, expressed concern on this when he stated:

Once a criminal conviction is imposed, it follows the individual for life and can inhibit their access to education or employment, their ability to obtain licences, insurance and housing and can place restrictions on their travel. For a person who is convicted of a minor offence or fined, to have to reveal that conviction for three to seven years seems entirely disproportionate.

It was interesting that several of my colleagues, many of whom have a clear commitment and long track record in this area, expressed some degree of concern.

With regard to the question of traffic offences, for example, I suppose a minor traffic conviction or even a medium traffic conviction is appropriate if one is driving a bus but it is not important just for children; it is important for everybody else. If one has a track record of drunk driving, breaking red lights, driving without insurance and tax or whatever and one has an accumulation of offences, one is a danger to everybody. On the question of one's age or other status such as disability, it might make it more tragic if an accident occurs but any civilian will be killed if somebody drives inappropriately because they have not been properly vetted in this way. I do not see the point of that, particularly for minor traffic convictions.

I share the concerns expressed by some of my colleagues about the vetting procedure and the resourcing of it. I would like to know about the quality of the vetting. How good is it? Is it a cosmetic exercise? I do not know how long it takes but we are told there are 350,000 to be done per annum and there is a backlog of 100,000. I am not good at mathematics unless they are round figures but even if they take, say, half an hour to vet one person that is 150,000 hours. If we take it that people work a five hour day, that is 30,000 days before we get the extra 100,000 in two sectors. I am not sure it is being done adequately and that we have the resources or the person power, to be politically correct, to do this work appropriately.

There is also the question of private tuition. I would think private tutors could be fairly beastly and capable of inappropriate behaviour towards children. Why are they exempt?

There was an interesting article in a newspaper last week in which a woman was quoted as saying that she stands on the side of a hockey pitch once or twice a year and as a nominated parent she has to be vetted, whereas the woman up the road who looks after three under-age children on a regular basis does not have to be vetted. That is the kind of anomaly that could be teased out in the Seanad, but it is a rather worrying one.

I am pleased that the idea of balance to which I referred appears to be addressed by the Minister in the sections of the Bill which give the person who is the subject of the information the opportunity to have a copy of the information and to challenge the proposed disclosure. That is important and it goes some way towards meeting my concerns because that is democratic. If somebody accused of something, unlike in other areas of the law which survive where somebody can be accused and then denied access to the information, which I always thought was crazy, has the opportunity to correct that, then that is a good development.

Following on from what I said, the Minister of State stated in her contribution that it was the Government's view that it was not appropriate or feasible for the State to require vetting in regard to a person's private family arrangements. I reiterate that a great deal of abuse takes place within the family, of which, therefore, we must be aware.

I am interested in the cost of the vetting procedure because that will affect it. We hear of cutbacks every day and my concern is that if we are to have vetting, it should be fair, proportionate and balanced and should include people who are most likely to offend or to be a threat or a risk to children. It should not bother with people who are not, and it should be effective, efficient and properly resourced. I am not convinced that the Government, in the current economic climate, will resource it properly. Many worthy measures have been passed by this House and the other House including, for example, the guardian ad litem which, tragically, has not been properly resourced or maintained. That would be a worry.

I welcome the Bill. I am sure it is not perfect because very little in this life is perfect but we must monitor it. Perhaps there should be a clause in the Bill to review its operation because it is a new procedure and it contains this slightly worrying idea of soft information which I hope will not just be gossip. What we all want to do is protect children and I very much hope this Bill will do that and that the correct balance between the rights of the individual and the obvious and appropriate desire to protect children will be found and maintained by the Government.

I welcome the Bill and the Minister of State to the House. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, for the comprehensive overview of the Bill which is welcome. I agree with Senator Norris that the records in regard to abuse indicate that much of it occurred within the family. It is important that this legislation deals with the areas that went unchecked for many years.

I recall a case not long ago where a family made a complaint about their nine or ten year old child who had an intellectual disability to four organisations: the bus company, the people who had subcontracted to the bus company, the school the child attended and the Garda, but no action was taken for ten days.

That person contacted a public representative, who subsequently contacted me. It was only when we threatened to arrange for the child to be transferred to the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, to have the child examined that action was taken by any of the four organisations. That incident did not occur very long ago. In a subsequent investigation, a person pleaded guilty and served four and a half years. It shows the detail of how far we have come in taking complaints seriously and putting in place proper procedures. Much work has been done on a voluntary basis in recent years, making sure the proper practices are in place and that people assisting and in charge of children had gone through the proper checks. The legislation is welcome as it puts what is required on a statutory footing. It puts an obligation on the organisations to comply with regulations essential to the care of children when they are with people other than their parents.

It is important that the legislation, particularly section 15, ensures a balance in order that when specified information becomes available the person who it relates to has the opportunity to deal with it and has the right of reply. If the person is unhappy with a decision under the Bill, he or she has a right of appeal. It is important proper procedures are followed and the legislation clearly sets it out, particularly in section 15. The Minister of State covered this point in her address.

We must constantly monitor this legislation. That the Bill has been passed does not mean we have crossed all the t's and dotted the i's. There may be a need for review. Our responsibilities do not end when legislation is in place. It is an ongoing process and one we need to keep under review. We have made much progress in the area in the past ten or 15 years. It is important to make sure proper procedures are followed by various organisations looking for information. I remember advising organisations in which people felt they had followed the proper procedures. I insisted they go back to the start because they did not follow all procedures and did not give a proper hearing to the person whose background they were looking into. I advised a number of organisations to start again from scratch.

The legislation sets out clear guidelines on how vetting is to proceed. The Garda Commissioner will appoint the head of the bureau and there will be a certain independence. Legislation is required to ensure that what was done on a voluntary basis is put on a statutory footing. This is welcome and it is important that back-up support is provided. The issue of the backlog was raised and it is important to address it at an early stage. The last thing any organisation needs is for the work of the many people in the voluntary sector to be held up because they do not have the answers it requires in a short period of time.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I will declare an interest, I currently hold the position of chairman of the Leitrim County Childcare Committee. Over the years, I have been made aware of the vetting difficulties in employing people who work with children. I was surprised the Minister of State referred to the Bill making a practice mandatory, "whereas at present this is done on the basis of a voluntary code". That may be technically or legally correct but in my experience dealing with child care organisations and those involved in them, anyone employed in any capacity where children are involved is not employed without Garda clearance. That has been the practice but the Bill reinforces it. It is not the case that the Bill will create a new environment, in case that impression is created. On the ground, vetting procedures are taking place.

I discussed this matter with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, last year. He had taken a personal interest in the vetting process and had, admirably, improved the speed of response. By the spring of this year, the vetting process had been reduced from the original timescale of three months to six weeks. However, I am sad to report to the House that the best efforts of the Minister have been thwarted, whether by bureaucracy or an overwhelming number of applicants. The vetting procedure and the timeline for processing applications through the Garda Síochána has increased. There are longer delays. The Minister's advisers are present and I ask that they investigate why the good work under way last year seems to have slowed. Is it a question of resources or an the increase in the number of applications? On the ground, it is causing difficulty for those who want to have the vetting process up and running and out of the way. Members on all sides made reference to resources and perhaps that is what it is. Is the Minister of State responding to this debate?

The Minister of State will be called to respond at 6.50 p.m.

I hope she will be alerted to the questions I am asking about the vetting procedures in order to give an indication of the reasons behind the delay.

Does the Bill provide for the use of PPS numbers? I cannot find any reference to it in the Bill. There seems to be an absence of clarity, to use the phrase we have grown used to in the past few weeks. The practical effect and the impact of using PPS numbers is seen if someone goes on a training course. The person cannot go on the training course without Garda vetting. If the person is involved in dealing with children, the person must be vetted even though a voluntary code applies.

Senator Mooney has one minute left.

It is amazing how time flies when one is enjoying oneself. The person could leave the environment within two or three weeks of being employed and must go through the vetting process again. It represents a disruption to the employer and the putative employee. It is important that the use of PPS numbers is provided for in the Bill. It would clean up the system as the next employer could check vetting using the PPS number. People would not have to go through a new application for Garda clearance.

My final point concerns childminders, who are not mentioned in the Bill. I plead for an acknowledgement that someone in the childminding area needs to be responsible.

I suggest the emergency officer who could be the spouse of the childminder or someone who was in the house and would be left in charge if the childminder had to leave the house would have to be vetted and that anyone in the house over 18 years of age would also have to be vetted because they would be dealing with children who were not of the house but were being taken care of by the childminder who was in loco parentis.

These are the points I have raised and I would be grateful if the Minister of State would address them.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome the Bill. It is an important step forward. All the contributions to the debate have recognised that.

I am struck by the coincidence of concerns on every side of the House, particularly relating to the issue of childminding. Like other speakers, I would appreciate the Minister of State taking these concerns into consideration.

One of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality related to the idea of an individual vetting certificate that could be transferred from one employment to another. That was an excellent suggestion. Like Senator van Turnhout, my experience of working in the voluntary sector is that people move within the sector from one employment to another and tend to remain within the same sector. The idea of a single certificate makes sense. In dealing with the thorny issue of child care, and private child care is not covered by the legislation, the idea of an individual being able to apply for an individual and personal vetting certificate would be a way to progress this debate. The Bill only allows for an approved organisation to make an application for a vetting disclosure. Anyone working individually in a child care scenario or with children in any capacity, including, for example, the giving of grinds, cannot make a personal application for a vetting certificate. Enabling an individual to make an application would be an interim step along the way, where those persons who are engaged in child care could make an individual application for a vetting certificate.

An estimated 28,000 childminders are operating within the child care system. The Bill will carry a two-tier child care system down the track. On the one hand, we have a regulated child care system where a parent has the security of knowing that everyone in that system has been vetted. On the other hand, there is the black economy where many children are being very appropriately cared for in appropriate circumstances. Other Ministers have expressed the view that it would be an extreme step to require vetting of all child care professionals, given the extent of the child care system which is, effectively, in the black economy.

I ask the Minister of State to consider changing the legislation to enable an individual to make an application for a vetting certificate. In that way we could move in a stepped manner towards a system where, when a parent interviews someone for a child care position they can, at least, make a choice between someone who has been vetted and someone who has not. I put this forward as a way of dealing with the situation as it stands. I accept that we cannot just move child care out of the black economy in one fell swoop.

I share other Senators' concerns about delays. Again, my voluntary sector experience shows me that delays in the vetting process far exceed eight weeks. Delay is definitely a difficulty in the voluntary sector.

I am concerned about resourcing issues. I welcome the Minister of State's comment on sections 22 to 32 that the legislation will be reviewed annually to ensure that it is working adequately and that the bureau is adequately staffed and resourced. My concern is that the bureau as currently constituted is not adequately staffed and resourced and by extending its remit we are ensuring that it will be even less adequately staffed and resourced. If we are serious about this legislation a commitment must be made to provide more staffing and resourcing.

I am concerned about the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Act. I voiced my concerns in the course of the debate on the Bill. It is neither fair nor just to deny someone an opportunity to mend their hand at any point in their life. It is particularly invidious to allow someone to have a spent conviction while requiring them to disclose it when seeking certain types of employment. Having to disclose a conviction does not mean one is prohibited from employment. In reality, however, we all know that by forcing disclosure of a conviction, perhaps in someone's very young years, that person is, in fact, disbarred from certain employments. Many vulnerable children live in impoverished communities where their role models will have convictions. We must look again at the spent convictions provision.

Tá céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Díospóireacht iontach tábhachtach é seo agus fáiltímid, go ginearálta, roimh an mBille seo atá á thabhairt chun cinn ag an Aire. Go deimhin, bhí páirt dlúth ag mo chomhghleacaithe, na Teachtaí Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin agus Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, ins an plé ar fad a bhí ann maidir leis an mBille.

I welcome the Bill and commend the Minister for bringing it forward. We are all aware that the State has a poor track record in protecting children. We can look back on the history of industrial schools, general schools, churches, institutions and clubs where children were left open to abuse.

During the debate on the Bill in the Dáil, my colleague, Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, drew attention to a 2011 report by the special rapporteur on child protection, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, which exposed the alarming inadequacy of laws, procedures and resources to protect children from abuse. He highlighted the lack of regulated access to soft information on potential abusers of children as one of the main issues that needed to be tackled. Sinn Féin agrees with this viewpoint. During his time on the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin joined with the other members of the committee, in September 2008, to recommend that legislation to regulate soft information be introduced. We are glad to see this done. It is long overdue but it is also appropriate that it is now being debated some weeks after the constitutional amendment to protect children was passed.

The purpose of the Bill is to regulate and control the manner in which records of criminal convictions and information, including so-called soft information, can be stored and disclosed by the Garda Síochána and other agencies for the purpose of child protection. Soft information may include, but is not limited to, circumstances in which an allegation of child abuse is made against a person although it does not result in a conviction. It includes conclusions from investigations of child abuse or neglect that have been conducted by the HSE where such investigations have concluded that a person poses a threat to children or vulnerable persons.

As numerous previous contributors have highlighted, there is a balance to be struck, and striking that balance is key. Clearly, the rights and interests of the child are paramount. This is an area in which the State in previous generations simply failed. The State did little or nothing to protect many children, and generally the most vulnerable children, the poor and the marginalised. The State turned a blind eye while various private institutions covered up.

Much of this abuse is now in the past, which is a cause for great relief. It would, however, be naive to think the reality of children being at risk is all in the past. I think, in particular, of our system of direct provision. The Minister of State will be familiar with the difficulties I have with this system. I have expressed reservations about it in the past. It is an inhuman way of treating people and allows for a degree of out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Children who are pushed from pillar to post and then left largely to their own devices are, of course, vulnerable and isolated. Can the Minister of State clarify whether employees of the private companies that run direct provision centres will be covered by the Bill? I hope the Minister for Justice and Equality will soon follow through on his commitments to review the system of treating asylum seekers.

Child safety and the safety of vulnerable people are of paramount importance and we must ensure the highest standards are in place to protect the young and vulnerable. We must also ensure that this right is balanced with the right to due process.

The right to one's good name is covered by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As such, it should be a cornerstone of any human rights-based justice policy. We must ensure in the desire to protect children that we do not become reckless and run the risk of ruining the good name of innocent people.

The protection of children is a key policy priority and constitutes exceptional circumstances, and in those circumstances there is a clear argument in favour of sharing information. To permit this, certain steps must be taken to ensure the risks are minimal. The dissemination of information must be carefully managed, with independent oversight and subject to robust safeguards. It must be done while ensuring full human rights and data protection compliance. In our view, the provisions concerning soft information should only deal with information that has been brought to the attention of the Garda or the HSE. Persons should be informed if they are placed on a soft information list and be given appropriate opportunity to appeal the limits set upon them by being placed on such a list prior to any request for vetting being placed upon them by a third party.

On the whole, as what the Minister proposes strikes that balance, we are satisfied to support and welcome this legislation. As well as the safeguards, the other key aspect is that there must be adequate resources to ensure these safeguards do not fail. The new national vetting bureau must be properly resourced. The work of vetting and the protection of children will become more onerous in the coming years after the passing of the recent referendum and after the Children First guidelines are placed on a statutory footing. The workload of the bureau will be considerable. Already there are significant pressures on vetting bodies. Approximately 300,000 vetting applications are processed by the Garda vetting unit each year. Figures from the Teaching Council of Ireland reveal that due to lack of resources at the Garda vetting unit, 42,000 teachers still await vetting. There cannot be any shortcuts in this regard or children will be put at risk, innocent people's names will be ruined or both will occur. We must ensure there are robust safeguards, both for soft information, including limits and controls monitored by an independent body, and on how the vetting bureau gains, stores, accesses and reproduces soft information.

There are jurisdictional issues. Sex offenders will move north and south and failure to maintain an awareness of where they are will pose significant risks for children. The partition of the island poses a considerable challenge for the Garda and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, in the management of those who pose a risk to children and young people or those who are sex offenders. Currently, agencies in the North risk-manage all sex offenders in a structured way. Risk management approaches are only now being advanced in the Twenty-six Counties. The Government must work with Northern authorities to ensure the safety of children, and there must be uniformity to the best degree possible across the board and across the island.

On balance, we will be pleased to support the legislation while reserving the right to table amendments on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, to the House again. He is a frequent visitor and is always most welcome.

I welcome the all-party support for this critical legislation for child protection. The people recently voted in favour of inserting the rights of children into the Constitution. This was ground breaking, necessary and important. It was an accurate and fair response to what had happened before. As a result of that vote, however, there is an onus on the Houses of the Oireachtas to legislate accordingly. I hope there will be a comprehensive suite of legislation in the area of child protection. The Bill is an extremely important part of ensuring children are put at the heart of everything we do in society.

Vetting of people who have regular access to children is a must and is just. One often received anecdotal information over the years whereby a someone might say they would not let a certain person within an ass's roar of their child. Parents were very much in tune on this and the person they suspected was somebody about whom they needed to be concerned. History over the decades has shown there were sex offenders disguised in all facets of individuality among the citizens. The profile could range from the most professional, highly respected sports stars, teachers, coaches and people in the public domain to people in the religious orders. Although the religious orders tend to get the publicity and the ball-breaking headlines, the other professions are equally represented in terms of people who have interfered with the most vulnerable members of society, our children.

This legislation is important. It is also balanced. It is pointless to require an individual who might take part in the annual sports day or the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in the community, where they are visible to the public at all times, to go through the Garda vetting process. It will just clog up the system and ultimately make it unworkable. This legislation targets individuals who have regular access to children, whether it is through work or voluntary activity. Thankfully, there are significant numbers of people in this country who participate in voluntary activities, ranging from youth clubs to a myriad of sporting organisations. In recent times, we have seen new sporting activities such as cricket coming to national prominence.

There is a meitheal spirit among the people. People want to be involved and if there is one benefit of the downturn in the economy, it is that people are beginning to realise the importance of community and that one can achieve a huge amount of satisfaction, both personally and within one's community, by participating and being involved. I hope this meitheal or community spirit and the sense of belief and generosity will not change when our country inevitably gets back on its feet and is in a position to move forward. I hope what we have learned and what we are achieving will be sustained. I see it in my community and others. The type of people who are involved in community activities now would not necessarily have been involved at the height of the Celtic tiger economy. That is very welcome and there should be some way of ensuring this type of voluntarism is ring-fenced as we move forward in order that people realise everybody is part of the community. A community is a community because of its people.

However, the new people who are involved must be properly vetted and the system must work. I noted Senator Mooney's comments about the delays, and those are unacceptable. People should not have to wait for a prolonged period to secure Garda clearance. Perhaps the legislation will have to be amended in due course. Amendments will probably be tabled on Committee Stage, but I consider this legislation to be an incremental type of measure that can always be reviewed, if that is deemed necessary, and further strengthened. We would all be amenable to that. The welfare of children and legislation such as this are political issues but, thankfully, not party political ones, and the generosity from all sides of the House is very welcome in this regard.

I thank the Senators for their contributions to the debate and their support for this important legislation. The points that were raised have been noted and will be brought to the Minister's attention.

This is an important Bill. It is another step in fulfilling the Government's commitment to ensure the required measures are in place to provide for the protection of children and other vulnerable persons. A significant element of the Bill concerns the use and disclosure of so-called soft information. When enacted, the Bill will ensure relevant information which gives rise to concern regarding a person working or seeking to work with children is available and disclosed in the appropriate manner.

The disclosure of such information will follow a defined procedure set down in the Bill ensuring that individuals who are the subject of such information have the right to defend their name. The Bill also seeks to ensure that information such as vague rumours, innuendo or false allegations cannot form part of the vetting process. This is an important feature of the Bill as recognised by the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children which called for legislation to ensure such information could be stored and not disclosed by the Garda Síochána and other agencies for the purposes of child protection.

I wish to make some preliminary responses on a number of issues. The issue of babysitters and childminders being exempt from vetting was raised. We need to consider the fact that there are many private childminding arrangements where people employ neighbours' children, family members, in-laws or nannies in the child's own home. There are also many arrangements, formal and informal, where people will leave a child with a neighbour or a relative for childminding. Currently, under the of the statutory Child Care (Pre-School Services) Regulations 2006, a person carrying out a preschool service shall ensure appropriate vetting of all staff, students and volunteers who have access to a child. The Bill will also create the requirement that childminders or nannies employed with an agency must be vetted by that agency as this would fall within the definition of an employment. This is covered by the Bill. Any parent who wants to hire a childminder or nanny who is vetted can, therefore, do so through an agency. I would, however, pose the question whether it is appropriate or feasible for the State to extend this requirement and effectively prevent parents from making their own arrangements for the care of their children. In preparing the Bill it was considered that this would not be either appropriate or feasible.

It also has been suggested that organisations might exchange vetting disclosures. The Bill does not make such a provision. First, it is considered that organisations would not be willing to do so in many cases. More important, however, under the Data Protection Act, personal data cannot be used for purposes that were not disclosed at the time the data were obtained. The Data Protection Acts already apply to the collation of criminal records data by the vetting unit and the Acts also apply to the collation of soft information in accordance with the provisions of this Bill. The Data Protection Commissioner, therefore, has an inspection and oversight role in regard to the use of both the criminal records database and the soft information database which will be established under the Bill. I should add that the reason there is no provision for use of personal public service numbers in regard to vetting is because of data protection considerations. The use of PPS numbers in this way would be outside the scope of the current legislation in any case because the Bill provides for the use of a passport number and the mother's maiden name - that is, the personal identification number - in addition to the usual information regarding identity. The vetting units are satisfied that the use of PPS numbers would not be necessary.

I wish to refer to the issue of making vetting disclosures portable between jobs in order that a person vetted to be a J1 volunteer would not have to submit a separate vetting application to apply to be a nurse. Similar points were raised during the debate in the other House but it should be recognised that once there is a time lapse between the two applications for two different jobs, any conviction incurred under the first application would not be contained in the vetting disclosure. There is, therefore, a potential danger posed to children or vulnerable persons by such an approach. This issue is much broader than is encompassed by the Bill. Portability of vetting would be contrary to the provisions of the broad range of Acts which require vetting at the time a person is being considered for appointment. The Bill does, however, provide for each vetting applicant to be given a unique ID number. This would then be used when duplicate vetting applications are received in time in respect of individuals instead of each application being treated as a new application. The previous vetting record will be used and any additional information that has arisen since the last application will be added to the disclosure. This is expected to speed up significantly the process of repeat applications concerning the same individual.

The Minister is also aware of the need to continue to ensure the bureau is satisfactorily resourced and the need for it to provide an effective service. The Minister is also considering bringing forward an amendment to the Bill which will require the chief bureau officer to report directly to the Garda Commissioner. This will ensure any urgent issues relating to the management and operation of the bureau are brought to the attention of the Garda Commissioner without delay. The Minister also engaged in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure adequate funding to meet the new demands of the Bill. Equally he will continue to ensure this is prioritised. In September there were a huge number of applications from schools and teachers everywhere, which is a reason for the delay. September is the busiest month of the year but the vetting bureau is doing a very good job.

In regard to the issue raised by Senator Jillian van Turnhout, if the organisation, of necessity, had to have a volunteer at short notice to fill a vacancy, it can go ahead under the provisions of section 3(1)(c). The organisation is not obliged to conduct a vetting where a person is giving assistance on an occasional basis. It should be borne in mind that once the Bill is enacted, organisations that are compliant with the Bill will be able to cite the provisions of the Bill in any defence in a legal action where a person fails to secure a position due to criminal convictions.

Senator Norris raised the issue of the appropriateness of dialogue in connection with major road traffic offences. It should be borne in mind that speeding or parking tickets are not disclosed as they are fixed penalty offences which are not a criminal offence. They would only become a criminal offence where a person does not pay the fine.

Senator Paschal Mooney asked the time taken to process a vetting application. The vetting time was six weeks but it is now takes up to eight weeks to process applications. The Minister is acutely aware of the need for vetting to be conducted as speedily as possible. However, there is always a surge in applications in September. The Minister is having discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, who is conscious of the funding requirement. As a matter of policy, the Department does not propose providing vetting directly to self-employed persons. Self-employed persons must be vetted via third parties. The policy objective is that self-employed persons are not responsible for either making disclosures on their own behalf or for deciding on their own behalf whether they are fit persons to be employed working with children or vulnerable persons. This is provided for in section 13(3)(c). Self-employed persons can apply for vetting either through the organisation which is engaged in a service, such as a school or community organisation, or through an umbrella organisation which represents them for the purpose of vetting.

In response to the comments on re-vetting, I advise the House that the intention is that re-vetting will commence once the retrospective vetting of teachers and health workers has been completed. It is sensible not to prioritise re-vetting of persons already vetted until everybody who requires vetting has been vetted at least once.

The points raised by Senators Hayden, Ó Clochartaigh and Mooney will be taken on board by the private secretary to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. The Minister is anxious to get as many views as possible. As a far-sighted Minister he wants to get the Bill right.

I thank Members for their consideration of the Bill. As I have mentioned, the matters raised will be brought to the attention of the Minister and no doubt there will be further opportunity for discussion and amendments as the Bill progresses through the House. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 4 December 2012.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.