Good employment practice is the fundamental issue to which the Deputy referred. Checking references is good employment practice translated into ordinary everyday language that people can understand.
National guidelines for the protection and welfare of children were published by the Department of Health and Children in 1999, under the title "Children First". They recognise the need to support community and voluntary groups to develop best practice in their dealings with children. The guidelines are based on the key principle that the best interests of the child are paramount, and are designed to help organisations of all types and sizes to improve their policies, procedures and practices to safeguard children and young people.
There is now a formal notification protocol between the health boards and the Garda Síochána, which I am pleased to report is operating well. Funds have been committed to all health boards to appoint officers to ensure that the public is aware of the existence of the "Children First" guidelines. I am concerned, however, because while health boards have invested substantial moneys in advertising the guidelines, there is still a widespread lack of public awareness about them.
The guidelines are complemented at local level by specific procedures to be completed in the management of child abuse cases, thus maximising the capacity of the Garda Síochána to protect children effectively. The "Children First" guidelines have, in turn, formed the basis of a document entitled Our Duty to Care, which was published by the Department of Health and Children in April 2002. This document promotes good practice and procedures for organisations dealing with children, such as voluntary organisations, and consists of a booklet and fact-sheets covering areas such as safe recruitment practice, developing safe management practices and policies and raising awareness of child abuse among volunteers and staff. It also provides advice on how to report concerns to the health boards. This is an extremely useful tool for voluntary organisations. The “Trust in Care” guidelines were produced by the health service employers agency, in 2002, for health service employers on the prevention of patient/client abuse and on dealing with allegations of abuse against employees.
Similar progress is being made in the education sector. In April 2001, the Department of Education and Science published its "Child Protection Guidelines and Procedures" for primary schools and the primary curriculum support programme has provided seminars on these procedures. In the 2001-02 school year, seminars were organised for the designated liaison person in each school. The training of trainers to deliver these information seminars was interdepartmental and multidisciplinary. Additional training was provided for schools in April and May 2003.
In March 2003, a working group, encompassing key participants from outside the Department of Education and Science, was established to compile draft guidelines for the post primary sector. It was decided that the working group should operate under the auspices of the social, personal and health education advisory committee. The draft guidelines were based on the "Children First" approach. As the Minister of State responsible, I insisted upon that to ensure that the distinctive institutional memories of the various Departments did not proceed to devise three different sets of guidelines. The aim is to have the completed guidelines in schools before the end of the current school year.
The draft guidelines set out the legal framework in relation to confidentiality, qualified privilege and relevant items of legislation. It offers guidance on the definition and recognition of child abuse, and it sets out the responsibilities of all school personnel in handling disclosures from children and keeping records. In particular, it sets out the requirement for the board of management to designate a senior member of staff as the designated liaison person, to be known as the DLP, who will have specific responsibility for child protection and will be responsible for all dealings with the health boards, the Garda Síochána and any other parties in connection with allegations of and/or concerns about child abuse. The Department is working on the training that can be provided to accompany the roll-out of these guidelines.
In the youth work sector, similar strides are being made via the national youth work advisory committee. This was the one area of funding which was proceeded with on the implementation of the youth plan. An expert group has been established to develop national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children in the context of the delivery of youth work services. A four-year training programme for child protection, based on the guidelines, was subsequently agreed at an estimated cost of €340,000 over four years.
The key point to take from all the aforementioned activity is that, irrespective of whatever additional arrangements may be introduced in the area of vetting in future, it will be necessary to bear in mind that criminal record checks, although important, are not the sole answer to ensuring applicants' suitability for posts.
Vetting arrangements for children and vulnerable adults have been in place for some considerable time. Since 1987, the Garda authorities have provided their vetting services to the Adoption Board in respect of prospective adoptive parents, as well as in relation to Irish persons applying for positions in the UK, which would give them substantial access to children.
In 1994, arising from allegations of abuse in children's residential centres and following formal agreement between health boards and the Garda Síochána, Garda vetting was extended to the recruitment and selection of staff in these institutions. In 1995, vetting was further extended to candidates for employment in the health service and in certain facilities funded by health boards, that would have substantial access to children or vulnerable adults.
It is not correct to state, as in some recent policy documents, that vetting is available only to health boards. Garda vetting is also available to certain organisations funded by health boards to provide services in respect of children and vulnerable adults. These existing arrangements are implemented by the Garda Síochána in strict adherence to legal advice received from the Attorney General, which is an issue to which I will return later.
By the late 1990s, it was recognised that existing vetting arrangements were not adequate to the demands being placed on them, thanks to the disjunction between demand and service delivery that developed during the mid 1990s. Following consultations with the Garda Commissioner, a comprehensive review of Garda clearance arrangements was commenced in the child care area generally. Arising from this review, it was decided to establish a central vetting unit within the Garda Síochána to expand the vetting work carried out in order to deal with the then known demand for vetting. In recognition of the importance of vetting in our shared responsibility and duty of care for our children, additional resources were made available to realise its establishment.
The unit became operational on 2 January 2002. It currently processes vetting requests in respect of prospective employees of designated agencies who would have substantial unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults. In particular, it processes requests in respect of prospective employees entering full-time employment in children's residential centres and other areas of health care and in certain external agencies funded by the health boards which would have substantial unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults; prospective adoptive parents with the Adoption Board; prospective child care workers on equal opportunities child care schemes funded by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; and Irish persons applying for positions in the United Kingdom which would give them substantial unsupervised access to children or vulnerable persons.
In terms of the vetting process itself, staff of the unit use the Garda PULSE computer system. PULSE is an acronym for ‘police using leading systems effectively', and I am sure Deputies are aware it is a highly advanced information technology system which employs up-to-date technologies to ensure the Garda organisation has the information it needs when and where it needs it. This means that the central vetting unit has access to the criminal records of all persons convicted of crimes perpetrated against children and vulnerable adults, whether of a sexual nature or not, including crimes relating to child pornography on the Internet.
I am pleased to confirm that, since its establishment and with the resources already made available to it, the central vetting unit has been operating well, with more than 100,000 applications dealt with last year. Those included many applications in respect of the Special Olympics. I would like to record my gratitude to the Garda vetting unit for its work on the Special Olympics.
When the central vetting unit became fully operational in 2002 and the various backlogs were cleared, it was envisaged that the remit of the unit would be extended on a phased basis to other groups. This was because it was recognised there were good grounds, as the Opposition Deputies rightly pointed out in the House this evening, to extend the vetting arrangements to additional organisations. A working group has been established to examine the issue, taking account of all aspects of the vetting of persons coming in contact with children and vulnerable persons, be they full-time, part-time, voluntary or community workers or students on placements.
The working group comprises representatives of the Garda Síochána, the Office of the Attorney General, the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Issues under consideration within the working group include the range of organisations which are seeking Garda vetting and the future likely demand; the resource implications of extending clearance arrangements to additional private, voluntary, community and education sectors; processing and liaison mechanisms with organisations to reduce duplication and to enhance standardisation in clearance requests; the viable means of processing clearance requests in respect of non-nationals taking up employment in the child care and health care sectors in Ireland; making the services of the central vetting unit available on a commercial fee basis to ensure that proportionality and common sense are applied by organisations; and the legal aspects of vetting.
Over the past number of months, the working group has been actively progressing its work by means of meetings; the submission of position papers; the consideration of written submissions and representations made by a large number of external organisations and umbrella groups; a site visit to the central vetting unit; and research into vetting arrangements in other jurisdictions. The arrangements that pertain in Northern Ireland and our other nearest neighbours – England, Wales and Scotland – have been especially illuminating. The group has also considered matters as they are arranged in the United States of America, Canada and New Zealand.
I understand the working group is currently in the process of finalising its report and that it expects to be in a position to submit this to the Garda Commissioner and to my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in January 2004. I commend Fine Gael for tabling the motion in the House before Christmas. We will address it early in the new year. The Government today announced the appointment of an ombudsman for children and the resolutions will be before the House tomorrow.
Although expanding the provision of vetting services clearly has resource implications, I refute the suggestion that it is all about resources; there are fundamental issues of policy and legislation as well. For example, under current arrangements, Garda vetting is carried out on an administrative basis. There is no statutory underpinning for the Garda Síochána to hold information from the Courts Service in regard to convictions recorded against a person. Deputy Coveney hinted at this problem in the course of his contribution but the advantage of the current system is that it is based on the consent of the individual on whom the information is sought. It operates through a defined category of identifiable employees, so that possibilities for fraud or the misuse of information are limited.
As mentioned earlier, the Garda Síochána operates this system on the basis of legal advices from the Attorney General. A clear distinction is drawn in his advice between so-called "hard facts" and "soft facts". By hard facts I mean conviction information and information relating to pending prosecutions where the Director of Public Prosecutions is considering a file. By soft facts I mean allegations, rumours, complaints, unsavoury associates or generalised anti-social activity. There is a difficulty here. The Northern Ireland Register uses soft facts established through the employment context where problems have arisen in employment and a list is devised based on employment difficulties which is then made available to certain persons. We are advised that that constitutes soft facts and therefore legal difficulties arise. The Attorney General has advised that, as a general rule, although hard facts are disclosable, soft facts are not. He advises that issues of natural justice apply, although I am aware the Fine Gael document seeks to address those.
That brings me neatly to the notion of a vetting register akin to the position in Northern Ireland, where the Pre-Employment Consultancy Service or PECS, the acronym referred to by Deputy Enright, carries out checks on the suitability of those seeking work with children or adults with a learning disability. The system allows employers to check the suitability of those applying to work with children or adults with a learning disability. PECS is operated by the Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and was designed to ensure that, on the basis of information provided about those seeking to work with children or adults with a learning disability, a series of checks could be carried out.
Alongside a check of criminal records, checks are also carried out against the PECS register and records held on those prohibited from working in schools on the so-called "List 99". The PECS register is compiled from information provided by voluntary and statutory organisations on workers who have been dismissed, transferred to other work or who have resigned in circumstances where it is considered that they posed a risk to children or adults with learning disabilities.
Leaving aside some obvious statutory issues regarding soft facts, which I have already mentioned, the question of establishing registers of this nature in this jurisdiction has arisen, especially in the education sector. In this respect, at the first meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council on 3 February 2000, the council decided to set up the Joint Working Group on Child Protection as one of a number of working groups to take forward matters for co-operation, having regard to the common concerns and interests of both sides. A report was submitted to the council at the end of 2000 and subsequently the council agreed on the broad approach taken by the group and signalled its desire to have detailed proposals for legislation prepared.
The main thrust of the proposals is to provide structures through which persons who are a risk to the safety of children can be prevented from being employed in schools. There are a number of proposals involved. A draft discussion paper was prepared by the Department of Education and Science on the basis of these proposals but before work on that was completed, the cross-departmental working group on Garda vetting, which I have already mentioned, was established. It was considered wiser to await the recommendations of that group before engaging in discussions with the various interest groups.
I would like to dispel the myth, however, that no vetting whatsoever is being conducted in the education area. The Garda central vetting unit currently processes requests from the Department of Education and Science in respect of special needs assistants, bus escorts and children detention schools. This is especially important, given that they are working with children who are the most vulnerable.
I would also like to dispel the notion that has been suggested that the 2002 Annual Report of the Social Services Inspectorate somehow calls into question the vetting arrangements that pertain in the vetting unit. In fact, the report states that according to records seen by the inspectors, only one centre had completed adequate vetting checks on all staff before employment. Five centres had obtained Garda vetting on all staff before employing them, and nine centres employed one or more staff for whom there were no records of Garda checks in the centres.
Where criticisms are made, therefore, they are not directed at Garda vetting as such but in respect of the responsibilities of local management, which emphasises the point I made earlier that the central vetting unit is not the be all and end all on this issue. The Garda vetting has been available for many years to children's residential centres and special care units.
I can assure the House that the recommendations made in the inspectorate's annual report on deficiencies in this area will be followed up by the Department of Health and Children. I have asked the inspectorate to do that and to raise these issues with the relevant health board to ensure a satisfactory response. Justifiable concern is entertained by many about vetting arrangements when there are legitimate fears about crimes perpetrated against children and vulnerable adults, and particularly offences of a sexual nature.
Members of the House are correct to refer to the disturbing nature of the content of last week's RTE "Prime Time" programme. I assure the House that the Garda is fully investigating the allegations outlined in the programme in the context of an already well-established infrastructure to investigate these kind of offences.
In October 2002, the Garda Commissioner established the paedophile investigation unit which is located within the domestic violence and sexual assault unit based at the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Harcourt Square. This specialised unit is charged with investigating and co-ordinating cases relating to alleged child abuse and the possession, distribution and production of child pornography. It investigates allegations brought to its attention by Interpol, Europol, external police forces and through the Internet Advisory Board hotline, as well as complaints made by members of the public. The unit is also proactive in monitoring Internet chat rooms and strives to maintain best practice in the investigation of child pornography with an emphasis on Internet investigations.
I understand from the Garda authorities that the unit currently has approximately 40 cases in hand. However, other than a small number of prosecuted cases, there is no evidence currently available to the paedophile investigation unit that pornographic material is being made in Ireland to facilitate trading.
This is the reason I took issue with Deputy Coveney's statement that 40% of Garda prosecutions were the result of investigations conducted by the Copine foundation. The foundation does marvellous work at University College Cork, but it primarily assists police forces in other jurisdictions by using its significant bank of material to link children used in abusive photographs with particular individuals through the most careful collation and analysis of photographs. It is fortunate that it has not had to provide this service to the Garda Síochána as we do not have evidence of the occurrence of such episodes here, although we can never rule them out and must be vigilant. It is true that the bulk of the cases prosecuted by the Garda in Operation Amethyst resulted from disclosures made via the United States authorities.
The domestic violence and sexual assault unit established in 1993 continues to act as a resource to investigating gardaí throughout the State in the investigation of sexual crimes. Prior to the establishment of the dedicated paedophile investigation unit, members of the unit had already developed considerable experience and expertise in all aspects of paedophile activity and Internet crime.
The Garda Síochána has been involved in a number of international criminal investigations into paedophile activity. These cases have involved the police forces of Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, The Netherlands and the United States. As Internet paedophile crime is a global issue, it can only be tackled effectively through close international police co-operation on intelligence and investigation. Interpol, based in Lyon in France, is working together with Europol, based in The Hague, to develop a child pornography database containing all seized child abuse images worldwide. This will assist national police forces in the identification of victims of paedophile activity and minimise duplication of effort on criminal investigations internationally. The Garda Síochána plays an active role in the working groups of these organisations.
As a vivid demonstration of the importance of international co-operation, on 27 May 2002 the Garda Síochána carried out a co-ordinated search of more than 100 houses and premises for breaches of the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998, as part of Operation Amethyst. The information originated in Texas and was supplied by the Dallas police and the postal service via Interpol to Ireland. Images of child abuse were seized and a number of people were charged and convicted of their possession. A total of 124 persons were charged with offences of possession of child pornography in 2002 and a number are still before the courts.
Calls have been made for the strengthening of our current legislation, including one by Deputy Deasy this evening. As the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has previously pointed out, the penalty structure in the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998 is recognised internationally as one of the most severe, if not the most severe, in any jurisdiction. With regard to Deputy Deasy's comments, we must bear in mind that the Director of Public Prosecutions is charged with the duty and responsibility of deciding the appropriate forum for the prosecution of a case and whether it should be proceeded with summarily or on indictment. We cannot question his discretion in that respect. In addition, the question of the consistency of sentences is a matter for the courts. The penalties provided by the Oireachtas, however, are among the most severe in any jurisdiction.
Section 6 of the 1998 Act provides for a maximum penalty on summary conviction for knowingly possessing child pornography of a substantial fine and imprisonment for up to 12 months or both. If the charges are brought on indictment, a convicted person can be subject to a fine not exceeding €6,348 or imprisonment for up to five years or both. Section 5 of the Act contains even stronger measures in that it makes it an offence to knowingly produce, distribute, print, publish, import, export, sell or show child pornography. A person found guilty of such an offence is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €1,904 or to imprisonment for up to 12 months or both. Again, if convicted on indictment, the penalties are even more severe in that the offender may be subject to an unlimited fine or to imprisonment for up to 14 years or both. A person who has the custody, charge or care of a child and allows that child to be used for the production of child pornography commits an offence which can only be dealt with by way of indictment, with the possibility of a fine of up to €31,743 or imprisonment for up to 14 years or both.
The Act is generally held up as model legislation and has worked well in practice. Nevertheless, if any weaknesses are identified in the legislation, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is more than willing to examine the legislation with a view to further strengthening its provisions. A number of non-statutory controls are also in place to combat the illegal and harmful uses of the Internet, including the Internet Advisory Board, the hotline for reporting child pornography and the self-regulatory system for the Internet service provider industry enshrined in the code of practice and ethics.
Deputy Deasy raised the question of regulation or self-regulation by the industry. While the industry has done everything we have asked it to do, we would introduce legislation were it required. While we should consider this issue on a more international basis, it is difficult to get international agreement on legislation in this area. Clearly, however, international legislation would be desirable, given that we are dealing with multinational companies and a technology which is transnational in character. It is difficult to determine what further step could be taken in this area through domestic legislation.
The Internet Advisory Board was established in February 2000 and comprises representatives of relevant Departments, the Garda Síochána, child protection interests, the Information Society Commission and the service provider industry. Professor Max Taylor of the Copine Project at the Department of Applied Psychology, University College Cork, who featured on the recent "Prime Time" programme, is one of the members of the board. The board supervises a system of self-regulation by the Irish Internet service provider industry and supports the work of the hotline and promotes awareness of Internet downside issues.
I launched a hotline Christmas awareness programme this year and I am glad to see the advertisements are of a high character, have been noted on many television programmes and coincided with the broadcasting of the "Prime Time" programme.
All members of the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland subscribe to the code of practice and ethics. The membership of the association represents more than 95% of the service provider industry and efforts are ongoing to encourage membership by the remaining smaller providers. The hotline is operated and funded by the Internet service provider industry and the European Union's safer Internet action plan. It provides a central point of contact for members of the public who become aware of child pornography on the Internet in Ireland. The hotline attempts to identify the source of material and if it is hosted in Ireland, it will request the relevant Internet service provider to remove it. The hotline liaises with the Garda as appropriate and if the material originates in another jurisdiction, it will notify the relevant authority there which can take appropriate action.
There is a growing recognition that in the investigation of child pornography images, not only must evidence be gathered for the prosecution of the perpetrator but we must also work towards the identification, rescue and rehabilitation of the victims. This is obviously of vital importance as it facilitates the rescue of the child victim and potential future victims from further abuse.