Topical Issue Debate

Garda Vetting Applications

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for allowing me the opportunity to raise this issue.

I was contacted by one school in County Galway which offers a post-leaving certificate, PLC, course in child care. Part of the course involves students gaining work experience which requires Garda vetting. Two students who started the course in September have still not received their vetting clearance and it is now early December. This has a knock-on effect. Part of the course involves gaining work experience and they cannot do this without vetting clearance. Even when they have completed the course, they will have to be Garda vetted again if they take up employment in a child care setting. Waiting times for applications to be Garda vetted are up to 14 weeks, which is proving extremely frustrating not only for the school but also for these participants in the PLC course mentioned. These are students who want to further their education and get into a specific area. It is one in which an arm of the State is actually holding them back.

This problem has been ongoing for many years. It does not just cover schools but also the voluntary sector and sports groups. I worked with Foróige, a national youth organisation, for four years in which we had to vet volunteers. Delays in vetting are completely unacceptable. When this issue was raised before, one answer was that there were not enough staff in the Garda vetting section and more staff were provided for it as a result. We need to move past this. In certain parts of Europe a person can walk into the local police station, provide the equivalent of a PPS number and a vetting letter will be sent there and then. Why is our system so archaic that it takes many application forms and stymies the opportunity for people to move on in what they want to do? If one is working in the voluntary sector with one organisation, one will have received Garda clearance. If one moves to another organisation, one must apply again. That is also unacceptable. We need to do a lot of work to reduce the delays in being Garda vetted from 12 weeks to an average of two, as well as to completely change the processing system to make it easier for people to be vetted.

I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality. I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter as it provides me with an opportunity to inform the House that the current average processing time for Garda vetting applications is, in fact, four weeks from date of receipt. This is not considered to be an unacceptable delay in processing times for Garda vetting applications. Any vetting process will take a certain minimum amount of time to complete. Taking into account the need to protect children and vulnerable adults, while providing an effective and efficient service, this period is not unreasonable.

The Garda central vetting unit, GCVU, provides for employment vetting for organisations, registered with the Garda for this purpose, which employ persons in a full-time, part-time, voluntary or training capacity in positions where they have substantial, unsupervised access to children and-or vulnerable adults. Garda vetting applications are processed in chronological order, based on the date of receipt in the GCVU. All organisations registered for the purpose of Garda vetting are aware of the processing timeframes and have been advised to factor them into their recruitment and selection processes.

Approximately 18,000 organisations are in receipt of vetting services from the GCVU, covering a wide range of health, educational, sports and recreation sectors. The GCVU provides ongoing support and advice for these organisations in managing their vetting requirements. To put some perspective on the matter, in 2014 the GCVU processed over 318,000 applications, while up to 293,292 have been processed to date in 2015. The majority of these applications were dealt with in the average four week processing time referred to. Processing times can fluctuate, depending on seasonal demands and volumes of applications received. On occasion, further inquiries have to be conducted in respect of some applications. In such instances, processing times may be longer than the general average. Given the primary objective of the vetting process, the Deputy will agree that the necessity for a thorough inquiry is understandable. I will undertake, however, to pass on the specific concerns he has raised to the Minister for her attention.

I think the Minister of State for his response. The problem is that it is claimed the average waiting time for vetting clearance is four weeks. I can, however, give the Minister of State an example of two students who applied at the end of September but who have still not received clearance and it is early December. I might not be a mathematician, but that is more than four weeks. It is actually eight. These two students have been held back from gaining work experience and further work. I am disappointed that the reply started with a reference to the four-week average waiting time and then moved to the fluctuations due to seasonal issues excuse. That is covering it both ways. The Department should consider that pressure will be exerted on the system at the start of September when PLC courses start.

There was nothing in the reply from the Department about changing the vetting system. I was a youth worker for four years and very much understand the need for adequate Garda vetting, particularly when one has volunteers working with young children. However, that is not a good enough reason for there being a long delay. I am looking for a change in the process. Nobody is trying to short-circuit the Garda vetting process because we all know how important it is. However, the reply does not hold much water for the two students who have been waiting eight weeks for clearance. I will supply the details of the two individuals concerned to the Minister of State and the Department to see if we can speed up this element of the Garda vetting process.

The Minister for Justice and Equality is resolute in her view that the protection of children and vulnerable adults must remain a priority. She is also aware, however, of the necessity to provide a modern and efficient service. During the Government’s lifetime, staffing levels at the GCVU have increased by almost 100% and the average vetting application processing time has dropped by almost ten weeks in most cases. This has been achieved by the redeployment of staff from other Departments, resulting in a more efficient and effective use of existing resources and a substantially improved service to the public.

I acknowledge that the Deputy has raised a specific case.

I have undertaken to bring this particular case to the Minister as an example of a case which is taking substantially longer than it possibly should. There will always be some cases that for one reason or other take longer to consider. Each case must receive the attention it requires. The processing time, when considered in the context of the tasks involved, is found to be reasonable and allows An Garda Síochána to take measures to seek to ensure that the most vulnerable in society remain protected.

As already stated, I will undertake to pass on the Deputy's concerns to the Minister who will respond directly.

Before calling Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, who has tabled the next Topical Issue, I call the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, to make a statement under Standing Order 140.