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Tuesday, 4 Jul 2006

Other Questions.

Garda Vetting Services.

Ceisteanna (17, 18, 19)

John Perry

Ceist:

33 Mr. Perry asked the Minister for Education and Science when all teachers, both new and practising, will be subject to vetting; the timescale for the full introduction of vetting in the education sector; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25769/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Damien English

Ceist:

85 Mr. English asked the Minister for Education and Science if all new teachers will be vetted, prior to taking up their teaching positions, from September 2006; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25767/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Breeda Moynihan-Cronin

Ceist:

86 Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin asked the Minister for Education and Science the categories of people in the education sector who will be subject to vetting from September 2006; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25921/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (23 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 33, 85 and 86 together.

Ensuring the protection, health and welfare of children is a key concern for the Government, parents, agencies that work with children and society generally, and the Government is determined to do all it can to keep our children and vulnerable adults safe.

In the education sector, vetting is currently available in respect of prospective employees of children in detention schools as well as special needs assistants and bus escorts to children with special needs. I announced a doubling of the number of staff employed in the Garda central vetting unit, which has been relocated to Thurles under the Government's decentralisation programme, to ensure that it can handle a greater volume of requests from employers. The provision of additional staff resources will enable the Garda Síochána's vetting services to be extended to all persons working with children and vulnerable adults. This will include teachers, caretakers, bus drivers and others working with children, whether on a full-time or part-time basis.

As a first step in the expansion of services provided by the vetting unit, it is proposed that new staff employed in the 2006-07 school year will be vetted. The vetting requirement will be extended to others, including existing staff, later on.

In the case of new teachers, vetting will form part of the process of the registration by the newly established Teaching Council. The council will be responsible for submitting the applications to the vetting unit. In the case of non-teaching staff, it will be the responsibility of the relevant school authorities, including vocational education committees where appropriate, to submit the applications.

The Department of Education and Science has had discussions with the relevant interests — school management authorities, unions, the Teaching Council and the vetting unit — on the procedures and processes which will apply in the vetting of persons in the education sector. Guidelines for school authorities have been finalised and have been published on the Department's website. Hard copies of the guidelines will be issued to school authorities.

The issue of vetting of members of boards of management raises the wider issue of vetting of people who volunteer in the education sector. The determining factor in deciding whether such persons should be vetted is the extent to which they have unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults. As the expansion of service provided by the Garda central vetting unit is rolled out, I envisage that any board of management members who may have unsupervised access to children would be included in this category.

I acknowledge that there has been progress in this area but I am concerned about the pace of that progress. The Minister of State used the phrase "later on" but I would like a definite timescale for the retrospective vetting of existing employees.

It is difficult to put guidelines in place for this area. How will the Minister assess the extent of unsupervised access? It would be better if all board of management members were vetted because the idea of drawing up the extent of access each member has to children is not straightforward. We have learned from the Ferns Report that a number of people who abused children accessed them through boards of management.

The Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, is familiar with the youth council, which has called for vetting. Most of the affiliated organisations are volunteer based and they feel that vetting is necessary. The question refers to the education sector but that includes the youth work sector. Is there a timescale for retrospective vetting and the broadening of the process to youth organisations? Guidelines will be necessary on who can access and provide the information within these organisations.

There is a plan to ensure a comprehensive roll-out of vetting to all sectors, as I outlined in my reply, with substantial unsupervised access to children. Deputies should not underestimate the task involved. In Scotland, a comparable jurisdiction, the number of vets sought and obtained in a calendar year can be as high as 8 million. The numbers involved are staggering. In England, Wales and Scotland separate vetting units were established with universal access to the vetting unit from day one of the operation of the unit. Within a matter of months, both units were in a state of total administrative collapse.

A decision was taken by the implementation group that I appointed to establish the vetting unit that we would roll it out on a phased basis. All new entrants to the education sector will be vetted from September 2006 and the Minister will issue the necessary circular this week. Detailed procedures have been put in place for liaison between the management bodies, the vetting unit and the Teaching Council. That has been negotiated with the relevant interests so the vetting unit will be as efficient as possible.

We are dealing with sensitive information and it is important that those who request the information know how to receive, assess and apply it in the context of any decision they must make. We intend to roll out this vetting system in the next three years to all sectors that have substantial, unsupervised access to children. That is the plan and there is a schedule. Our next priority is the national voluntary organisations with substantial dealings with children and we hope to accomplish that this year. The youth work sector is also of particular importance.

Work is ongoing in all these sectors to identify appropriate contact points and to train the persons who can seek and apply the information. There is a definite roll-out plan so it is not a question of simply announcing that one section of the education sector will be vetted. The vetting of those already engaged in the sector will be a major operation and will have to wait some time because it involves going back over staff, many of whom have been in their position for many years.

Boards of management generally do not have substantial unsupervised access to children. They meet in the evening on school premises. They have limited access to children and that is why they are not automatically included. The chairperson is sometimes in a different position and the Department will examine that. We are not applying a presumption, however, that they should be vetted.

In all these matters it is important to note, particularly for non-teaching staff, that the vet does not conclusively prove the person is not a danger to children. There is no substitute for principals making inquiries about anyone they wish to employ for a non-teaching position that involves substantial contact with children.

Will the central vetting unit in Thurles require further personnel when the plan is rolled out? The more people who come into the system, the more people will be needed to run it. The Minister of State has examined the situation in Britain. This must operate on a North-South basis because of the ease of movement between both jurisdictions. What contact has the Minister of State had with the relevant authorities in Northern Ireland to ensure the system is streamlined?

The Deputy asked about the anticipated future staff requirement of the vetting unit. The personnel at present are sufficient to deal with work in the short term but the question of volume may arise if we move towards the Scottish model. We are trying to plan so that it does not automatically end up that way. Decisions will be taken on the need for an increase in staff and if charges should be introduced for vetting. The experience in the HSE was that in some cases employers submitted an excessive number of applications when a large number of people applied for a small number of positions. Too many of the applications for vets were wasteful. Clearly, that is an issue we will have to examine so the question of charging may arise. A decision was taken by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to decentralise this unit to Thurles and there was an excess of applications to fill the number of positions available in the vetting unit.

It is a very fine town.

There was no lack of enthusiasm to move to north Tipperary. Deputy Enright also raised the question of our liaison with pre-employment consultancy services in Northern Ireland. At the first meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council on 3 February 2000, the council decided to establish a 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. That group was to develop proposals in consultation with the relevant Departments to establish a confidential mechanism across the United Kingdom and Ireland for the reciprocal identification of persons who are considered to be unsuitable to work with children and young people. At the end of 2000, the group submitted a report. The council agreed on the broad approach taken by the group and signalled its desire to have detailed proposals for legislation prepared. The council also agreed that the Department of Education and Science would consult with the education partners on the recommendations made by the group.

The main thrust of these proposals is to provide structures so that people who are a risk to the safety of children can be prevented from being employed in schools. The proposed legislation would comprise the establishment on a statutory basis of a register for persons who are considered unsafe to work with children; a framework for co-operation and liaison between the relevant bodies in the health, justice and education spheres; provisions for access to the register which have due regard to child safety and the rights of individuals; the creation of a right of appeal against the registration to an appeals body; co-operation with the agencies responsible for similar registers in other jurisdictions; and cross-interrogation of the register in this jurisdiction by appropriate authorities in the others and vice versa.

The Department subsequently prepared a draft discussion paper on these proposals which it was intended to circulate to the education partners. However, before this work was completed the Department was informed of the establishment of the cross-departmental working group on Garda vetting. That working group examined the question about which Deputy Enright asked me. It was considered wiser to await the recommendations of that group before engaging in discussions with the various interest groups. Since then, most of the work has been given to extending the Garda vetting services.

In a decision earlier this year, the Government transferred responsibility for progressing this legislation from the Minister for Education and Science to me. I will take an interest in the matter. I must say, however, that the harmonisation of the child protection legislation in this jurisdiction with the legislation and practice that obtain in the United Kingdom is not a simple matter. The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution containing an unequivocal guarantee of protection for the good name and reputation of a citizen, whereas we do. That is a fundamental difference of approach with regard to restrictions. I am concerned to ensure that we forward proposals on child protection. The establishment of the vetting unit, with a mandate to extend the relevant protections to all sectors, was a necessary first step in developing a robust child protection system.

The next step we must examine is the full implementation of the recommendations in the Ferns Report. Legal advices have been obtained concerning the inter-agency groups, which suggest that particular recommendation will need to be put on a legislative foundation. I intend to bring proposals to Government in that regard. When that is accomplished, the wider North-South aspects can be examined. This is a complex area, however, and an intensive examination of these issues is being undertaken by the Attorney General's office.

Children with special needs who travel to schools by taxi are a particularly vulnerable group. Will the taxi drivers concerned be vetted in September? My second question may be more appropriate to the Minister for Education and Science. A large number of children — usually young teenagers — from other European countries come to Ireland to learn English during the summer. Is there any obligation on English language schools to check out the families with whom these young people stay? I would have thought they are another vulnerable group. The Minister of State may not know the answer but the matter needs to be examined. Obviously, in that case, the obligation would be on the schools because they are private institutions.

As regards special needs children who avail of a taxi rather than a bus service, I can confirm that this matter will be addressed within the scope of the protection envisaged by the Department. As regards protection for children of other nationalities who attend our schools from other parts of the world, I am not quite clear what point the Deputy is driving at concerning obligations.

Young teenagers, aged 13, 14 or 15, stay with families in Ireland and they are vulnerable. I wonder if there is any obligation on the schools concerned to check out those families.

I cannot see that there is because children of that age would be in attendance at second level schools. Clearly, if the school was aware of a concern, the normal practice would be for the principal of the school to alert the local social services about the difficulty. That would be the best practice to follow for a school principal who was worried that there might be a child protection concern about a person resident with a family in Ireland. In that case, the principal would alert the social services and it would be up to the HSE to investigate the matter.

I am not talking about secondary schools, but schools that run language classes during the summer.

Summer camps and the like.

For example, many Spanish students come to Ireland every year and stay with families.

They are the people I am talking about.

It is a private matter. Agencies generally organise this and it would be their responsibility. We are currently examining whether we should have more robust requirements. The problem is that unless one lays down this principle as a matter of general legislation, one is in the area of practice. Ultimately, it is a matter for the HSE to intervene if an abuse is established. In so far as one wishes to establish an anticipatory system of checking, however, one must have a legislative requirement. Alternatively, in advance of that, one must get the relevant interest to co-operate. It is easy to accomplish the objective in sectors such as the HSE, which has been vetted for a number of years, and education, which is now embarking on this course, in addition to youth work and child care where there is substantial public funding and we can make it a condition of funding that checks be made. It can be much more difficult, however, in informal sectors such as the one outlined by the Deputy.

I just wanted to flag the issue as something that needs to be looked at.

If this was not such a complex area I am sure the legislation would have come before us a long time ago. The public is not really interested in how complex it is, however — it wants to know when the legislation will come before the House. Does the Minister of State have a reasonable timescale for introducing this immensely complex legislation? Will it be in September?

I am not sure to which legislation the Deputy is referring. A child care Bill was approved——

The harmonisation legislation

Harmonisation legislation will take some time because it is difficult to harmonise a jurisdiction where the Queen is sovereign with one where citizens have written guarantees. There is an incompatibility between them. In my earlier reply I said that one cannot harmonise legislation with a country that does not provide its citizens with a basic guarantee of their reputation in the constitution, which therefore permits blacklists to be compiled about persons. We cannot go down that road in this jurisdiction. We are examining whether, as the Garda vetting report suggests, there is some other formula we can adopt, where in effect we assemble information about people who are deemed to be undesirable and give them some judicial right of appeal if they are found to be undesirable even though they have no criminal conviction. That is why I said it is a complex issue. I will bring proposals to Government on examining our child care legislation to see whether we can amend it to put on a statutory basis the approach that was suggested in the Ferns Report.

Education Welfare Service.

Ceisteanna (20, 21, 22, 23)

Bernard Allen

Ceist:

34 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Education and Science the most recent information relating to the average caseload for each educational welfare officer; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25729/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Martin Ferris

Ceist:

54 Mr. Ferris asked the Minister for Education and Science if she is satisfied with the resources allocated to the National Educational Welfare Board and the number of educational welfare officers at present. [25811/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Phil Hogan

Ceist:

84 Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Education and Science the number of educational welfare officers employed by the National Educational Welfare Board; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25727/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joe Sherlock

Ceist:

94 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Education and Science if she will ensure that the National Educational Welfare Board is allocated sufficient funding in the 2006 budget to allow it to recruit its full quota of educational welfare officers to carry out its statutory duty; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25932/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (3 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Education and Science)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 34, 54, 84 and 94 together.

The National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB, was established under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 as the single national body with responsibility for school attendance. The Act provides a comprehensive framework to promote regular school attendance and tackle the problems of absenteeism and early school leaving. The general functions of the board are to ensure that every child attends a recognised school or otherwise receives a certain minimum education.

The board is developing, on a continuing basis, a nationwide service that is accessible to schools, parents, guardians and others concerned with the welfare of young people. For this purpose, educational welfare officers have been deployed throughout the country to provide a welfare focused service to support regular school attendance and discharge the board's functions locally. The authorised staffing complement of the board is 94, comprising 16 headquarter and support staff, five regional managers, 12 senior educational welfare officers and 61 officers. Five regional teams are in place with bases in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

In deploying its service staff, the NEWB has prioritised the provision of services to the most disadvantaged areas and the groups most at risk. This deployment includes areas designated under the Government's RAPID programme where an intensive full level of service is provided.

Since September 2005, every county in Ireland is served by an educational welfare service. I have been informed by the NEWB that the current average caseload is 138 per officer. This compares with an average caseload in July 2005 of 164 per officer. The decrease can be partially attributed to the appointment of ten more staff at the end of 2005. The budget allocated to the NEWB for 2006 is €8.15 million, with the allocation to the board having increased by more than 25% since 2004 to support it in delivering on its key objectives.

In addition to the NEWB personnel, 490 staff within the education sector are deployed in education disadvantage programmes whose work involves an element of school attendance, and significant scope exists for integrated working between these personnel and educational welfare officers. My Department is anxious to ensure that the maximum benefit is derived from these substantial personnel resources. Consequently, work is ongoing to develop appropriate protocols for all agencies and services to work together in collaboration and to ensure that optimum use is made of the resources deployed.

The Government is determined to do all that is possible to ensure that every child gets all the opportunities and support he or she needs to enable him or her to achieve his or her potential and participate fully in education. I will keep the issue of the NEWB's staffing and financial resources under review in light of the roll-out of services, the scope for integrated working and any proposals that the board may put to me regarding clearly identified priority needs. In that context, the draft partnership agreement, Towards 2016, includes provision for an additional 100 posts for the NEWB and the National Educational Psychological Service by 2009, which I hope will be adopted by the partners.

When one speaks to individual schools, their comment on the National Educational Welfare Board when contacted about an individual child is that it is good in coming back to assist that child. On the issue of officers being able to visit schools uninvited and look at the difficulties, the drop-out rates and the failure to make transition, the board does not have the time or resources to do that because of the number of caseloads. Will the Minister comment on whether that is an accurate assessment?

The Minister has mentioned that there is a degree of overlap between the home-school-community liaison scheme and the National Educational Welfare Board. What is the level of communication between the two entities? Are there specific areas to which each should be assigned or should there be a greater degree of co-ordination between them? The National Educational Welfare Board informs us it is under-resourced and that it does not have enough personnel. While there is a need for many more officers, we must ensure there is not unnecessary overlap between the two entities.

The educational welfare officer should be the last port of call. It is only when a case has been dealt with by all the other bodies in respect of a particular child that the educational welfare officer should be called. That would allow them to look at the general position.

A substantial number of groups have a direct involvement with the child and his or her family but it would not be possible to designate each of them specific areas of responsibility because every child in the family is such a complex unit. There is a need for protocols between them and that is what we are working on. The assistant chief inspector is chairing the working group.

The bodies dealing with such children include the National Educational Welfare Board, the National Council for Special Education, because obviously children who may have particular learning difficulties are more likely to drop out of schools and particular attention has to be paid to them, the National Educational Psychological Service, the visiting teacher service for the hearing and the visually impaired, the home-school-community liaison scheme, the school completion programme and those directly employed in that area, and the visiting teacher service for Travellers. Through all those groups, 490 people work specifically with disadvantaged children and part of their remit is to ensure they regularly attend school. All those groups have been working together along with the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals and the Irish Primary Principals Network with a view to developing protocols for each of those groups so that those children can be targeted and the level of absenteeism reduced.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.

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