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

Thursday, 20 September 2012

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill. I congratulate the Minister on the impressive body of legislative work he has introduced since the beginning of the 31st Dáil. The statutory basis for existing procedures whereby a Garda record database is used to vet persons applying for employment working with children is very important. At the moment 300,000 people per year are being vetted. However, there is a need to speed this up because there have been many cases of people under pressure to get the vetting completed. Perhaps this could be done through better training procedures but it is something that needs to be investigated. It is a testament to the Government’s commitment to protecting our children that a great deal of the focus of this week’s proceedings has been on that. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on publishing the wording of the constitutional amendment on children’s rights. It will be an historically significant moment when this constitutional change is made and I will be delighted when that day arrives.

When I studied the Bill, I found myself considering that this level of vetting would probably not be required in tight-knit rural communities such as the one in which I grew up. However, I realised that was the wrong assumption because there have been many incidents in what we felt were very protected communities. This is about challenging ourselves and challenging the way we feel. Vetting is a reality and something that must be done. The establishment of the database is vital and we need interagency co-operation if we are to provide effective protection. I say effective because there is no point in having it there in name alone. There have been too many dreadful cases in Ireland and elsewhere where the agencies involved were not communicating properly with each other and the consequences of that lack of communication were in many cases tragic.

There are strong safeguards built into the legislation to ensure information will not be disclosed unnecessarily, thereby respecting the rights of the applicant. There is a sense that it is a sad indictment of the times that we need these procedures, but the reality is that they were probably always needed. We need to face up to the reality that there are people who harm children in our society, however dreadful that is. Routinely, parents, including me, put their children in the care of other adults and we are expected to trust those adults. It does not always start at the school gate. In many cases it starts at our own gates when children go to school in school transport. I have been unhappy about the situation for quite a long time. School transport is being tendered for under a new better value scheme. I feel that the primary care of children is not at its core. Drivers, some of whom have been on particular routes for up to 26 years, have been replaced by people who are unknown and may be from the other end of the country. The many years of good service and trust have been discarded for economic reasons, which is unacceptable because the most important thing in school transport is the children who are involved.

In recent times the courts have experienced some difficulty in securing reliable and comprehensive criminal records or certificates from police forces in other jurisdictions. We have had too many incidents of falsified driving licences, not to mention vetting. This is an area that will need particular attention. I am not trying to isolate any particular group but we need to be savvy and streetwise. We cannot ignore the fact that this is a problem that needs to be considered in a very cold fashion.

We are often asked to help out with children who might be in care and want to get a temporary work placement. We would always be willing to help out with organisations which do such fabulous work with these children and vulnerable adults. However, some employers may be reluctant to get involved in the vetting process and may choose not to co-operate. This may mean that some vulnerable children and adults may not get the opportunity to get good experience in the workplace.

I am glad this legislation has been welcomed by the Commission for Taxi Regulation as that industry has received some negative media reports in the past. Vetting benefits not only the users of the service but also the service providers. I know many people who employ young people under the age of 18, especially for summer work, and they will be subject to vetting. We need to highlight this to the public because many people are so busy in their daily lives, they do not see the ins and outs of this legislation. However, this is very practical and will affect them. I encourage the Department to publish an easy-to-read summary of the Bill’s provisions. People want to abide by the law and do not want to fall foul of it.

The definition of vulnerable people refers to people suffering from intellectual disability and people who might have a disorder of the mind. In some cases these are minor and I am conscious that certain people who may be on a social scheme and getting help from the State might not regard themselves as being vulnerable persons, even though on paper they may be.

It is important that employers are aware of the need to vet employees who work with such people so as to ensure no one slips through the net and they do not find themselves on the wrong side of the law. It is also important that vetting apply across the board, including of those people currently in employment rather than only those seeking work. People should have nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide.

I favour the introduction of a card containing biometric data which would be continually updated thus ensuring people would not have to seek re-vetting. While I acknowledge that there are personal rights involved in this regard, such a card could protect employers and employees. However, that is a matter in respect of which we might find a solution in the future.

I welcome the Bill, which is practical legislation that should have been put in place a long time ago. It is testimony to the Minister and the Government who value children and want to protect them and put them at the heart of our Constitution, as will be done by way of the forthcoming children’s rights referendum. The Bill is well structured and thought out, and I commend it to the House.