Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 14 May 2009

Vol. 682 No. 4

Adjournment Debate (Resumed).

Private Security Authority.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, to the House. It is time that the operation of the Private Security Authority, PSA, be reviewed internally and by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to determine whether it is operating effectively.

Ireland was the last country in the EU to provide a licensing system for the private security industry. The legislation was passed in 2005 and the PSA was established in 2007. I was spokesman on justice at the time and there were vague estimates of the number of operatives in the sector. Depending on who one met in the industry, the number varied from 12,000 to approximately 18,000. After two years in operation, the PSA has licensed 22,000 individuals as private security guards, night club bouncers, hotel and pub doormen, private investigators, installers of security equipment, etc. Clearly, there is a large private security sector. With the Garda at 15,000 personnel and an Army of 10,000, the private sector rivals the public security forces.

It was unacceptable that the Garda and the Army should have highly trained, qualified and regulated personnel whereas those in the private sector needed no training, qualification or regulation and little supervision. The situation needed to be addressed, but the manner in which that has been done has retained many of the problems. The fact that more than one third of those who have been licensed in the past two years were foreign nationals is a matter of concern because all they have to do is present a foreign criminal record certificate. The PSA made no contact with embassies or the licences' issuing authorities. Nor did it ask the Garda to perform background or Interpol checks. Some 7,400 of the licences came from foreign national sources. This is an unsatisfactory situation. While every foreign national is entitled to apply, people should be obliged to be vetted in a robust fashion.

It is simple for people of paramilitary groups, ex-special forces personnel or other various unsavoury and unsuitable people to acquire Irish private security licences. This is not good enough. Therefore, it is time to review the criteria and procedures of the PSA. The Garda and Interpol must have a role in ensuring that people who interface with Irish people through the private security industry are of the highest calibre irrespective of whether they are Irish or foreign nationals.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I welcome the opportunity to set out some details of the work of the PSA. Established under the Private Security Services Act 2004, it is the regulatory body with responsibility for regulating and licensing the private security industry. The authority is an independent body. Although it operates under the aegis of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which provides its funding, the Minister has no role in the granting or refusal of licences.

The Minister is informed that, following the establishment of the PSA, the licensing of contractors commenced in April 2006. The next people to be licensed were individuals working as door supervisors and security guards, work that commenced in April 2007. In the past three years, the authority has received in excess of 1,750 contractor applications and 30,000 individual applications.

Licences issued to individuals are backed by a recognised qualification, which ensures that all those working in the industry have been trained to a high standard. The authority has put in place a standards and qualifications based licensing system which also involves criminal records checking for all applicants. Contrary to what has appeared in some newspapers during the past number of days, the Minister understands that all applicants are vetted by An Garda Síochána before any licence is issued.

That is not true. There is no requirement in the legislation to do so.

That is the de facto position. This means that in excess of 33,000 people working in the security industry in Ireland have been vetted by An Garda Síochána on behalf of the authority. In addition, applicants who have resided outside of Ireland for a period of six months or more are required to provide the authority with a criminal record certificate from that jurisdiction. All Garda vetting results and foreign criminal record certificates are assessed against the authority’s guidelines on criminality and applications are refused where convictions are deemed relevant, in accordance with the guidelines. While it is inevitable in any such procedures that the issue of dealing with such applications from persons who resided outside the jurisdiction is more complex, the criminal record checking process and criminality guidelines are constantly monitored and validated to ensure the effectiveness of these systems.

The Private Security Authority has also informed the Minister that before issuing a licence the authority will consider whether a contractor or individual is of sufficient standard to be deemed fit and proper to work within the security industry. In the case of contractors, this requires compliance with both management and operational standards, compliance with criminal records checking and compliance with tax and other regulatory requirements. The authority will also look at the previous business history of the applicant with particular emphasis on compliance with statutory responsibilities. In the case of individuals, applicants must obtain a relevant qualification and comply with criminal records checking. To date the authority has issued 22,037 individual licences. The remainder have either been refused, withdrawn or are still being processed.

The Minister understands that the licensing regime is supported by a resolute enforcement strategy undertaken by the authority's dedicated enforcement team. The authority is very proactive in its enforcement policy and targets those who are unlicensed and those who hire or employ unlicensed contractors or individuals. The monitoring of licensees is also important to ensure that they continue to operate within the remit of their licence. The enforcement team works in close co-operation with other State agencies and undertakes inspections at locations throughout the country including at night and on weekends. To date the authority has brought successful criminal prosecutions against 21 unlicensed operators while more than 600 consumers of security services have terminated contracts with unlicensed providers.

The Minister is glad to have had this opportunity to apprise the House of the excellent work undertaken by the Private Security Authority since its establishment. When one considers the environment which existed prior to regulation against that which exists today it is evident that the security industry in Ireland has benefited greatly from the establishment of the authority. The transformation which regulation has brought about has been remarkable and has had many positive benefits for the industry, the wider business community and the public. The introduction of a standard based licensing system has improved the service provided by contractors, removed unscrupulous security providers from the industry and restored public confidence in a multi-billion euro business.

The introduction of regulation in a previously unregulated industry will always present challenges for both the regulator and the industry. The Private Security Authority is committed to consulting with all stakeholders and considers the opinions of those in the industry in its business planning. Both contractors and employees are represented on the board of the authority along with other stakeholders. The Minister is informed that the workings of the authority are under constant review and improvements to the licensing process are undertaken when required. The authority is currently engaged in reviews in the areas of the cost of regulation, upgrades of existing standards and simplification of the renewal process for individuals.

The licensing of the security industry is a significant body of work which is delivering a professional security service supported by standards and qualifications. The Minister is assured that the authority's licensing process is robust and that the public can be assured that only those who meet the authority's criminality guidelines are licensed. The improvement in the industry brought about by the establishment of the authority should be commended.

Higher Education Grants.

This case refers to a young person who was not born in this country but came here, accompanied by his mother, 11 or 12 years ago. He subsequently attended primary and second level school and has completed his second level education. He applied for a higher education grant to participate in a third level course.

Everything was in order until he applied to renew his stamp 4 to have it updated and extended. He was told at the time that because his mother's status had changed in the past 12 months he would have to go through a special procedure to have his stamp 4 updated. However, it transpired that was not correct because his mother's status had changed some three or four years previously. His stamp 4 status had been updated at least twice or three times in the intervening period.

The above was all apropos of his application for a higher education grant. In an effort to comply with the requirements of the VEC, we managed to elicit this information from the respective Departments. His stamp 4 was eventually updated approximately two months ago but, sadly and unfortunately, he has not received a higher education grant. His mother's income is such that the family are eminently eligible for such a grant.

He was told that if he could supply documentation to the effect that he was entitled to remain in this State in his own right, further consideration would be given to his case. He duly supplied that information, which came via the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. That was submitted some weeks ago but now, unfortunately, that is not sufficient either. I am getting sick of the roundabout, circuitous route this application is taking. I do not mind the Department of Education and Science, or any other Department, introducing new rules and regulations provided they apply to everybody across the board and are in accordance with fairness, justice and due process, but for any other reason, covert of otherwise, that it might be thought that new rules and regulations should apply, I have a distinct antipathy.

The Minister of State is a fair-minded man and I am hopeful he has gone into this case in some detail because it is not a case that will readily go away. The applicant in question is eminently eligible and he should not be deprived of his higher education grant. Incidentally, today he sits his examinations and this is the last day in that respect. If his higher education grant is not approved today, he will not be allowed to sit his examinations and that will be the end of the matter. In any event, he is required to pay for his examinations, something he cannot afford. I should also mention that this man has worked in his spare time out of school to earn pocket money and to be able to do the best he can for himself.

I have followed this particular case, as I have had a number of other cases of applicants who qualify for various benefits in recent years. There appears to be a general tightening of the noose in so far as members of the general public gaining access to certain qualifications are concerned. An aspect that has become notable is a closing date — the closing date has long passed in the case to which I refer due to the failure to process the application. I do not accept the need for closing dates. The applicable year is all that matters. It is simply for internal operations that closing dates were introduced, but people are now being seriously disadvantaged by virtue of the application of such rules. I object strongly to such procedures.

Depending on the reply now available, I will seek to resolve what remains of the issue in the current week. Very little remains to be done for the unfortunate young man concerned. His family had particularly tragic circumstances in the past in their native country. That is not relevant to this particular conversation but if he is seen to have been deprived of what are clearly his just entitlements, this nation should be ashamed of itself.

I am replying on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline the position of Education and Science on an application by the man in question for funding under the maintenance grant schemes. The Department funds four maintenance grant schemes for third level and further education students. These are the higher education grants scheme; the vocational education committees scholarship scheme; the third level maintenance grants scheme for trainees and the maintenance grants scheme for students attending post-leaving certificate courses. The higher education grants scheme is administered by the local authorities. The other three schemes are administered by the vocational education committees.

Under the terms of the maintenance grants scheme, grant assistance is awarded to students who meet the prescribed conditions for funding, including those which relate to nationality, residency, means and previous academic attainment. The nationality requirement states candidates must hold EU nationality, or have official refugee status, been granted humanitarian leave to remain in the State prior to the Immigration Act 1999, be a person in respect of whom the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has granted permission to remain following a determination not to make a deportation order under section 3 of the Immigration Act 1999, have permission to remain in the State by virtue of marriage to an Irish national residing in the State, be the child of such person not having EU nationality, have permission to remain in the State by virtue of marriage to a national of another EU member state who is residing in the State and who is or has been employed or self-employed in the State, be the child of such person not having EU nationality or a national of a member country of the European economic area or Switzerland.

The decision on eligibility for a maintenance grant is a matter for the relevant local authority or vocational education committee as appropriate. If an individual applicant considers that he or she has been unjustly refused a maintenance grant, or that the rate of maintenance grant awarded is not the correct one, he or she may appeal in the first instance to the relevant assessing authority. Where an individual applicant has had an appeal turned down in writing by the relevant assessing authority and remains of the view that the body has not interpreted the schemes correctly in his or her case, an appeal form outlining the position may be submitted by the applicant to the Department of Education and Science. No appeal has been submitted to date in this case.

In this case the decision on eligibility for third level grants is a matter for Kildare Vocational Education Committee. It recently sought advice from the Department on the candidate's eligibility under the nationality clause of the vocational education committees' scholarship scheme 2008 as the applicant's mother was recently granted naturalisation.

It was not recently.

The Department contacted the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to establish if this conferred a similar right on her child. That Department confirmed that although the mother had been granted naturalisation, this did not extend to the candidate, as an individual needs to apply for and be granted naturalisation in his or her own right. I understand evidence has not been provided as to the applicant's own immigration residency status and the Department of Education and Science has advised Kildare VEC that it should request the candidate to provide evidence of the grounds of his residency-immigration status in the State in order to establish if he meets the nationality requirements of the scheme. On receipt of this confirmation, Kildare VEC will assess the application for a maintenance grant.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform adjudicates on a person's entitlement to remain in the State. The Deputy will appreciate that it is not open to the Minister, the Department of Education and Science or the assessing authorities to depart from the terms and conditions of the maintenance grant schemes in individual cases.

It is open to the Minister to ensure the rules are applied and observed. That is not the answer.

School Transport.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the time to outline the details of this case. I regret I have to raise such an issue on the Adjournment owing to the fact that one section of the Minister's Department or perhaps one or two officials have been unco-operative with me and the family concerned.

This matter concerns a young girl of seven years, Ciara Hosey from Grangecon, County Wicklow. She suffers from a physical disability and attends a special needs school, St. Anne's, in the Curragh. The school has been excellent in its care of the child, as have the bus drivers dealing with her. Ciara who is due to make her First Holy Communion tomorrow week on 22 May suffers from a severe disability. She travelled to St. Anne's on a school bus between 2006 and 2008 with an escort and special ancillary equipment and no difficulties arose. However, in December 2008 she was transferred from one bus operator to another. At no time did the family receive a communication from the school transport section of the Department of Education and Science on why this was the case. Last Sunday night they received a telephone call from a person from one of the bus companies to outline that the company could not carry Ciara to school any longer and that the service was being withdrawn while the company assessed the health and safety aspects of the case, including any medical requirements. This followed a telephone call from Ciara's mother who simply sought to have better facilities put in place for her daughter, not for a withdrawal of facilities. She was informed on Sunday night that there would be no transport to school for Ciara.

This is unacceptable. It is unacceptable not to provide school transport. Equally, it is unacceptable because there was no communication with the family. Over a couple of days they tried to obtain information but were unsuccessful. I contacted the Department of Education and Science and it was most co-operative. However, when I got through to the school transport section, I met a stone wall which in my experience is not representative of the general courtesy extended to members of the public or public representatives. I have been dealing with the section dealing with school transport in County Wicklow since I was first elected and it has been excellent; therefore, I was surprised in this case that I could not get any information. I was told to contact the family as it was a matter for them. When I contacted them, to my surprise I discovered they had not been given any information. I can understand, therefore, the frustration and annoyance of a family whose child is being left at home. They have not been able to get any information from the Department.

I ask the Minister of State to ensure this child will have transport to school. She is making her First Holy Communion tomorrow week. He must examine the policy in his Department and ensure the officials dealing with the public who are paid by the taxpayer afford the normal courtesy to people, particularly those who face very difficult personal circumstances. I was in contact with the family shortly before I came into the House and my understanding is that they may have been contacted by the school in the last hour or two, stating the girl will be able to attend school next week. I do not know if this information is included in the Minister of State's reply. I may be incorrect in my information but ask the Minister of State to use his good offices to resolve the matter and ensure staff in his Department who are public servants empathise, understand the plight of and the difficulties families face and to realise that Oireachtas Members are messengers of the people and elected to represent them and that they should also be afforded access to information.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to clarify the general position on school transport for children with special educational needs.

The purpose of the school transport scheme for children with special needs is to provide a reasonable level of transport service for children with a diagnosed disability and-or educational need who, because of the nature of their disability, may not be in a position to avail of a school bus service which would be timetabled to pick up other children along the route of service. Children are eligible for school transport if they are attending the nearest recognised mainstream school, special class or special school or a unit that is, or can be, resourced to meet the child's special educational needs under Department of Education and Science criteria.

My Department also allocates funding to schools for the employment of escorts to accompany children with special educational needs whose care requirements necessitate continuous support on school transport services. In general, transport arrangements are made by Bus Éireann, which operates the school transport scheme on behalf of my Department. I must emphasise that the safety and welfare of pupils availing of school transport services are of paramount importance to my Department and to Bus Éireann.

In the case referred to by the Deputy, the pupil in question has special educational needs and has been facilitated with a school transport service since 2006. Recently, Bus Éireann advised that the existing level of service provided under the school transport scheme might not be sufficient or suitable to meet the child's specific needs. In that regard, the child's mother was informed by my Department of Bus Éireann's concerns and pending a review of health and safety issues, it would not be appropriate to continue to carry the child with effect from Monday 11 May.

My Department is liaising with Bus Éireann and the school authorities regarding the measures to be put in place to ensure that the child's welfare is taken care of, while travelling on the bus. My Department has been in continuous contact with the child's mother, and kept her informed of developments. In the course of conversations between the child's mother and my Department the child's mother raised a number of additional issues regarding the suitability of the service for her child. These have been forwarded to Bus Éireann and to the school authorities for their consideration. The service for the child cannot be restored until all the issues raised have been fully examined.

I appreciate why the Deputy put down this Adjournment debate matter and I will endeavour to resolve this problem as soon as possible.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 19 May 2009.