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

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 774 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Finian McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath Zoom on Finian McGrath] We have many of those talented people. Many former colleagues of mine in the teaching profession have intervened in such situations when they discovered these issues and prevented abuse. Of course, there are many cases where children slipped through the net.

At the core of the strategy we must focus on prevention. I do not want to bore Deputies to death on the question of disability. There are many children with an intellectual disability who need our protection. This must be given priority in the vetting procedures. I continue to be concerned about these children, despite all the education, publicity, reports and legislation. We must ensure that we focus on these children. Many of the stories have not yet been told, but we need to act as a matter of urgency.

The Bill will provide a statutory basis for existing procedures whereby the Garda criminal records database is used to vet persons applying for employment working with children or young adults. The Bill also provides for the use of soft information with regard to such vetting and the disclosure of such information to prospective employers. Soft information is information other than a court determined criminal record. That is important. We need to have good background information on people who are about to become involved in a service. The Bill also provides that before such soft information can be used in vetting procedures, the person who is the subject of the information must be given a copy of the information to be disclosed and must be given the opportunity to challenge the proposed disclosure if he or she does not consider the information to be accurate. In my previous day job, I often came across people who had been involved in petty crime and had got their lives together and gone on to work in a local school, perhaps as a care assistant. Such people should not be blocked from employment. At the same time, the principal and board of management have a duty to know such a person's background and other staff members should be supportive of them.

A friend of mine once said to me that keeping an eye on people can prevent much abuse. Good supervision and common sense by a properly-trained manager, class teacher or youth club leader will prevent many situations arising. We have thousands of such people working for the Special Olympics and Paralympics or with people with disabilities. We have many quality people and we often do not give sufficient recognition to the amazing work they do.

The Bill provides for the appointment of an independent appeals officer who will be responsible for assessing and deciding appeals against the proposed disclosure of soft information. I welcome this part of the legislation. We must always be respectful of people and of human rights and civil liberties. We must, however, maintain a balance. Priority must be given to the safety of the young person or child.

The types of work activities that require vetting are set out in the legislation. These include positions working in schools, health services, child care, residential care services and foster care. The Bill also requires persons providing services to children in sports clubs or community organisations to be vetted. Private babysitting, tuition and care arrangements are exempt from the vetting requirements. That is common sense. However, one needs to be careful in these situations. I came across a case in my clinic where a person told me he had been abused by someone who was giving him private tuition in his own home. We must be vigilant because a person who has an agenda will find ways to get around the vetting system. We must be careful if our children are being given private grinds, for example.

There is also an exemption for persons assisting at sports or community events on an occasional basis. It is for the organisers of such an event to make sure that abuse is not possible. Supervision by reliable people is the major part of prevention. The purpose of this exemption is to avoid having to vet every short-term volunteer with a community or voluntary organisation and to focus instead on vetting persons working with children on an ongoing basis.

We do not want to become too bureaucratic, but we must be vigilant. I have already mentioned children with an intellectual disability and younger children. There are people who will come up with various ways to gain access to children in order to abuse them.

The Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, of which I am a member, heard submissions on this matter in 2011. I welcome the fact that many of the committee's recommendations have played a large part in the legislation. That is the way to be inclusive and democratic when we are dealing with legislation in the Oireachtas.

Deputy Halligan referred to delays in vetting. That is not acceptable because many organisations and groups require vetting. This is a resources issue. We cannot legislate for vetting and protection services if we fail to provide the resources to implement them. That is not an option. There are thousands of people out there who are not being vetted. We must face up to reality. If we cut back on services how are we to protect children in the long term? Referendums will be of no use if we fail to provide back-up services.

The focus of the 2011 Children First guidelines was the protection of individual children about whom a report was made and of other children who might be at risk from an alleged perpetrator of abuse. The national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children was a voluntary code published by the Department of Health and Children in 1999 and updated in 2011. At the time, I welcomed that update. It was very positive. Under Children First, an organisation is required to appoint a designated officer. This has been done in many areas, organisations and groups and is very important. This designated officer makes sure staff and volunteers are vetted, recruited properly and trained in the safety and protection of children and in recognising the signs of abuse and neglect. It is important that staff and volunteers can recognise the signs of abuse and neglect. The designated officer also makes information available to parents about child protection in the organisation and ensures that a system is in place to check and report on compliance with the legislation. The designated officer must update himself or herself on situations and ensure that guidelines and supports are being implemented in a strong way. The Children First guidelines also deal with the role of the HSE which is to assess children at risk and the HSE must be provided with the information necessary to monitor and provide support to a child who may have been abused.

Section 11 of the Bill refers to the register of vetted persons. Vetting will be required for registered social workers, those working for accredited adoption bodies and in care and welfare residences and designated centres for older people, licensed driving instructors and those working in child care, special care, mental health care and private security. The Bill will not change current legislation.

We must have a system that is professional and respects civil liberties but puts children at the top of the agenda. I urge all Deputies to look carefully at the legislation and put children and their protection at the top of their political agenda. All of us, regardless of party politics, have a duty to ensure that children are protected from abuse, now and in the future.

Debate adjourned.

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