Tuesday, 16 December 2003
Dáil Eireann Debate
–all health board employees, or employees at any facility or service in receipt of health board funding, are vetted before taking up employment that gives them substantial unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults;
–charities and voluntary sporting and youth organisations have access to vetting procedures for their staff and volunteers before appointing any person to a position where he or she would have substantial unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults; and
–information about people who are guilty of sexual misconduct, including the downloading, distribution or creation of child pornographic material, or of physical or emotional abuse, substance abuse, or theft from a child or vulnerable adult, is captured by the central vetting unit and made available to relevant prospective employers on a structured and controlled basis.
Ms Enright: A civilised society is one that respects and recognises its responsibilities. These responsibilities are wide-ranging and fall to the individual as well as to the Government. Each of us has responsibilities. If we fail in those responsibilities we damage our social structure: the responsibility to have compassion and concern for others; to pay our taxes; to vote; and to uphold the law or, if the law offends our conscience, to protest peacefully. These individual responsibilities are closely tied to the broader responsibilities of the State: the responsibility to ensure that people can go about their business without fear of violence or intimidation; the responsibility to apprehend those who break the law; and the responsibility to protect the younger and more vulnerable of any age within our ranks. Of all of the key responsibilities the last must rank as one of the most pressing and most important. However, it is a responsibility which the Government appears to be unable or unwilling to meet.
I have spent much time recently evaluating the systems in place in Ireland to protect children and other vulnerable members of our society. I have also been comparing these systems with those in other countries and jurisdictions. Ireland is not meeting its responsibilities or realising its duty to protect all in our society. Every organisation that has people working with children or vulnerable adults needs skilled, resourceful and dedicated staff. However, when recruiting these staff, organisations must not only focus on a person's qualifications and experience but must screen out those who could pose a threat to a child or vulnerable adult. This screening process is called vetting and it is critical that both thorough vetting procedures and good recruitment practices are followed when recruiting personnel to work with children and vulnerable adults.
In Ireland the vetting of those who work with children and vulnerable adults is still deeply inadequate. Access to the services provided by the central vetting unit is extremely limited and inconsistent, and many agencies wishing to use the service are turned away. The Government amendment congratulates the central vetting unit on eliminating a backlog. So few people have access to the unit that I do not know how a backlog could have been created.
Health boards have access to the central vetting unit but even they are not using the system as widely as they should. In contrast, schools, charities and sporting organisations, all of which employ staff or volunteers who have considerable access to children in their work, have no access to formal vetting procedures. In terms of vetting, Ireland represents worst practice when compared with other systems in place in these islands and, in particular, in comparison to Northern Ireland.
The shortcomings in our vetting procedures are unacceptable at any time. It is a sad indictment of our society that at a time when children needed our assistance in the past we failed them. At no time was this more evident than during the regime of abuse and neglect in institutions charged with the responsibility for children which the State did not tackle. With hindsight it is easy to see there were many gaps in the provisions made to protect children from abuse in the past. Today we must ensure we take every reasonable step to prevent abuse happening. Where abuse occurs it should not be possible for the perpetrator to move to another part of the country and abuse again. If we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past then we gamble with the future but for children and vulnerable people these stakes are too high.
Child abuse has an international dimension. Technological innovation such as the Internet and e-mail have assisted abuse over national borders. The distribution of child pornography can now happen in a few seconds. The increased mobility of people means that we need greater co-operation within the EU and farther afield to combat abuse on an international front. Above all, we must put in place procedures that offer the best protection against abuse in Ireland. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, said today that we must put our own house in order first, before we progress on a wider scale. It is clear that the Government has failed to implement appropriate procedures to protect children and vulnerable adults from abuse; to open up the central vetting unit and allow access to the unit by charities from the voluntary sector; to implement an adequate vetting procedure for health board employees and to bring vetting procedures to the schools, except for limited use by bus escorts and special needs assistants. This is why Fine Gael is proposing the introduction of a comprehensive system of vetting. Such a system is long overdue, and we are proposing that only a radical and far-reaching overhaul of our vetting procedures will meet the responsibilities that the State holds to every child and vulnerable adult.
The introduction of new and comprehensive vetting procedures for staff with substantial unsupervised access to children in the workplace will take some time. In other countries, vetting procedures have evolved over decades. However, because we have failed to implement even basic vetting requirements, we put children's safety at risk every day that we allow the current situation to continue. In Northern Ireland, vetting systems have been in place for 20 years, and have undergone improvement and refinement in that time. In contrast, it was not until January 2002 that a central vetting unit, operated by the Garda Síochána, was established to meet the demand for vetting in Ireland. This was a positive step but the service is far too restricted, being open only to staff at the health boards, and it needs to be radically extended. Moreover, even though the service is open to health boards, there are reports that staff continue to be appointed without the appropriate checks having being followed. The Irish Social Services Inspectorate report, 2002 stated:
Boards have a responsibility to vet staff before they take up employment in centres, to ensure, as far as is possible, that people who are not suitable to work with children and young people are not employed. According to records seen by inspectors, only one centre had completed adequate checks on all staff before employment.
In light of that report the amendments clapping ourselves on the back for what has been done so far need to be looked at again. It is very clear that we need a new approach, where the vetting of health board staff, teachers and other school staff, voluntary organisation staff and volunteers are brought under one umbrella in the interests of child safety and security. The way to bring this about is to enhance and expand the work of the central vetting unit. This unit, which needs to be adequately resourced, should be the linchpin in a new and comprehensive system of vetting in Ireland. The responsibility for the day-to-day running of the central vetting unit should remain with the Garda Síochána, but additional staff and resources should be allocated to the unit so that the following organisations have access to its services: health board staff with substantial unsupervised access to children including full and part-time staff and staff at agencies or services funded by the health boards. A statutory obligation should be imposed to ensure the procedure is followed prior to a person taking up his or her post. The system would also vet all staff at primary and post-primary schools, full and part-time staff, teachers and support staff. Charities and voluntary sporting and youth organisations should be allowed access to the central vetting unit to vet staff and volunteers before they take up positions that involve having substantial unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults. Voluntary organisations should be encouraged to meet certain specified criteria to allow them register for access to the central vetting unit.
In addition to being open to a wider number of organisations, the expanded unit should also hold information on those considered unsuitable to work with children or with vulnerable adults. In addition to carrying out a check for a criminal record, the unit would hold a list or register of personal details, to be cross-referenced in the event of an application for any person to be vetted by the unit. Information on any person unsuitable for employment with children or vulnerable adults should be given to the central vetting unit by schools, health boards, charities and voluntary sporting and youth bodies. Referral should take place following the application of normal employment procedures such as a disciplinary hearing that resulted in the individual being moved or dismissed from his or her post on the grounds of harm to children or vulnerable adults. Therefore, vetting teachers and other school staff, health board staff, or volunteers through the expanded central vetting unit would show whether the person has a criminal record and to what crime such a record relates, and any relevant non-conviction information; whether a school principal, vice principal or chairperson of a school board of management, a health board chief executive officer, director of service, or line manager, the chief executive officer or a director of a charity, voluntary, sporting or youth organisation, who employs or previously employed the person as either a member of staff or a volunteer, has recommended that the person should not be employed to work with children or with vulnerable adults, and the reasons for this recommendation.
Before the details on any person could be added to a list held by the central vetting unit a fair and transparent process would be followed in compliance with the principles of natural justice. This type of expanded and extended unit would therefore rely upon managers and employers to give it information on any person whom they consider unsuitable to work with children or vulnerable adults. Not every disciplinary matter between employer and employee would result in a report being made to the central vetting unit. Only certain types of unsuitable behaviour would be reported, and the report would follow an internal investigative procedure. For example, an employer might contact the unit with specific information on an employee or volunteer if that person was guilty of sexual misconduct, physical or emotional abuse, theft from a child or vulnerable adult, or substance abuse. Before this report is made the employer would have to ensure the incident had been internally investigated and be satisfied that it took place; that a child or vulnerable adult was put at risk by the behaviour; and he or she considers the matter to be of such concern that any future potential employer should be made aware of it.
By ensuring these internal procedures are followed only suitably serious breaches of acceptable behaviour would result in a report being made to the central vetting unit. There is one important difficulty, namely how employers should react when they instigate disciplinary proceedings against a staff member who then leaves employment, perhaps even moving to a different part of the country. The matter should not be dropped. Cases of this type are too important for us to take the “out of sight, out of mind” approach as happens at present. In this instance, even though an internal procedure has not been followed, the central vetting unit should be contacted. Otherwise a person who abuses can move from one organisation or county to another without check. Any report to the unit on the conduct of a staff member or volunteer would be a serious matter. Therefore, reports on the conduct of a staff member or volunteer would be accepted only from a senior member of staff at a school, health board, charity, voluntary, sporting or youth organisation. School principals, vice principals, health board chief executive officers and directors of service, and the directors of voluntary bodies would have the authority to contact the unit. Detailed guidelines would need to be circulated to each of these sectors to advise on the procedure for making a report to the central vetting unit. Additionally, these guidelines should advise on how to put appropriate workplace measures in place so that any relevant information on the conduct of a staff member or volunteer is brought to the attention of a senior member of staff.
Under Fine Gael proposals the rights of the employee would be protected. The new vetting procedures that we advocate employ important checks and balances to ensure people will not find their way onto the system in error. For example, when an employer makes a report to the unit, the unit should then write to the person concerned and inform him or her that his or her name has been passed to it for consideration for inclusion under any subsequent search for information with the unit. In this instance the following procedures would be applied: if the person against whom the report has been made does not oppose his or her inclusion, then his or her details and the details of the report to the central vetting unit will appear under any subsequent search on his or her name and details with the unit; and if the person chooses to oppose the report made the matter will be referred to a standing committee, whose remit would be to decide on contentious cases. This committee will decide whether the central vetting unit should hold the person's details.
In line with the principles of natural justice, every individual in the State has access to the courts and an appeal against inclusion on the records held by the central vetting unit could be taken to court. If such an appeal was taken and was unsuccessful, the person's details could be added to a list or register held by the unit. The person concerned would have the right to have his or her case re-examined by the standing committee of the unit after a period of five years. Legislation to put the unit on a statutory basis should make abuse of it a serious offence. This should include a severe penalty for any person knowingly making a false report to the unit against any other person. Additionally, clear procedures governed by guidance and a system of registration should inform the manner in which any check on the unit is carried out.
To guard against abuse of the vetting procedures, and to ensure the confidentiality of the information held by the unit, only certain key personnel should have the authority to request that the unit vet a potential member of staff. The misuse of information released by the unit would be an extremely serious matter. The legislation putting the unit on a statutory basis should provide for an expansion of its role to deal with all the organisations to which I have referred. It should also make it a serious offence to abuse information released by the unit. This should include a severe penalty for any person leaking information obtained from the unit. Failure to protect the privacy of an individual against whom a check has been made should also be punishable.
In all this it is important to state that the vetting proposals favoured by Fine Gael, and all vetting systems internationally, are not designed to answer every single question an employer might pose about an employee. The Government's amendment refers to this. The central vetting unit does not now, nor should it in the future exist to tell an employer that any person should or should not be employed. The expanded unit we propose would exist to share information that may be relevant to an employer when he or she is deciding whether a person is suitable for work, either paid or voluntary, that involves substantial unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults.
The purpose in collating and releasing this information is to empower the employer, not to pre-empt a decision on whether a person is suitable for employment with children or vulnerable adults. As stated in the Government's amendment, I agree that other procedures need to be in place within each organisation. It is critical that charities and voluntary, sporting and youth organisations have access to the unit. These voluntary agencies are involved in essential work in all parts of the country and are focal points in the communities in which they are based, but to fully protect children, adolescents and vulnerable adults who benefit so much from the work of these groups, they should be allowed access to the central vetting unit without delay. This has been requested by many voluntary, sporting and youth organisations.
The Minister for Education and Science has stated in the Dáil that vetting procedures were more advanced in Northern Ireland than here, but not too much so. I disagree with that statement and record that we are almost 20 years behind in terms of the type of vetting service available in the North. Vetting of those who work with children has existed in Northern Ireland for more than 20 years and is extensive, being spread across two Departments as well as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the PSNI. Vetting procedures apply to staff at local health authorities, schools and certain voluntary organisations and are part of UK-wide arrangements to ensure that unsuitable people do not find employment with children.
In Northern Ireland when a person applies for employment that involves substantial unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults, and if the prospective employer is registered with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, that person will be checked according to the pre-employment consultancy service system, known as PECS. The PECS system provides a means for accessing information which might have a bearing on a person's suitability to work with children or vulnerable adults, which has been gathered from a number of diverse sources, including the PSNI, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education under its List 99 system, and individuals listed on official registers as unsuitable to work with children in other parts of the United Kingdom. In this way, the vetting procedures in Northern Ireland are comprehensive. By cross-referencing information from a number of different sources, it is all the more difficult for a person who might pose a threat to a child to slip through the cracks.
It is also critical to note that the PECS system is open to a large number of organisations. As well as applying to health authority and school staff, the system is also open to voluntary, charitable and sporting organisations which register with the Department for access to the service. It is also open to organisations based in the Republic of Ireland, which is ironic considering they do not have access to such information here.
The vetting procedures in Northern Ireland are thorough in the manner in which information is gathered and are open to a wide number of organisations. In direct contrast, the vetting procedures in place in Ireland are worryingly limited. Even with the establishment of the unit, vetting procedures are still off limits to most organisations, and even those few agencies which have access to it, such as the health boards, are not utilising its services as thoroughly as they should.
I understand that the North-South Ministerial Council is examining proposals for an integrated vetting system on this island. This is to be welcomed, but these discussions cannot be used as an excuse for failing to implement proper vetting procedures in this country now. Northern Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland already have vetting systems in place. The danger this poses for Ireland is that we could represent a safe haven for abusers from which to operate. It is clearly the case that people who are not considered suitable to work with children and vulnerable adults in other parts of these islands can travel here and seek employment without a rigorous screening programme.
Vetting procedures are a critical part of the infrastructure we need to protect children, vulnerable adults and those at risk in our society. Fine Gael has produced a clear and comprehensive way of putting these important procedures in place. I accept the need for discussion and consultation within the Government and with interest groups, but to quote the Minister for Finance in the Dáil last week – as he has quoted me in the past –“This is not in the same category as putting a man on the moon, the invention of the wheel or conquering the North Pole.” Putting in place these vetting procedures is detailed and complicated. Prior to producing our proposals we consulted widely here and in Northern Ireland. It comes down to making a decision and providing the necessary resources to implement a system.
At present, we must find the resources to pay for our failure to adequately protect children in the past. I ask the Government to show it has learned from that experience and to put the appropriate legislation in place now to protect children and vulnerable adults. I regret that it has not accepted this motion in the spirit I and my colleagues have moved it, although I am not surprised as the Government's modus operandi is not to accept Opposition motions. Members of Government frequently say they seek constructive opposition, but we also seek constructive government. The proposals we put forward should be acceptable by Members on all sides of the House. Every day the current situation continues it poses an unacceptable risk.
Mr. Deasy: I was surprised when I heard the Minister of State intends to oppose this motion. The content of it could be described as being bipartisan. The motion is open-ended. It is one the Government could support and would not lose face by doing so. The Minister of State should reconsider his opposition.
I want to go address the general area of sex crime. There is a problem here which has not been dealt with in recent years as adequately as it should have been. Recently the Rape Crisis Centre released horrific statistics indicating that some 21,000 women are victims of sexual assault every year. A woman is raped every 90 minutes in this country. Only about one in 12 women who are raped report it. There is a massive level of under-reporting of the crime, something repeatedly asserted by Victim Support.
Victim Support points to the fact that the court system is a harrowing experience for anyone who is a victim of sex crime. It considers that simple measures, such as the physical layout of a court room and separate waiting rooms could be effective in helping somebody go through the harrowing process of our adversarial system. The difficulty is that the court rooms building project has been cut by 6% this year, which is an indication of the priority the Government attaches to this issue.
With regard to how bad things are, in 1980, fewer than 50 rapes were reported, while in 2002, 400 rapes were reported. There are reasons for that. The population has increased, we have better recording systems, such as PULSE, and some people may be more willing to come forward than they would have been in the past. The definition of rape has been expanded. Another reason for the increase in such crime is that alcohol abuse has increased. Approximately half of rape cases are caused by the abuse of alcohol. In 1950, 85% of sex offences recorded by the Garda led to proceedings but in 2000, this figure had fallen to 25%.
The London Metropolitan University found that more rape victims were denied justice in Ireland than in any other EU state. It compared the position among EU countries and reported that for conviction figures in rape cases across Europe, Ireland came bottom of the list. From 1993 to 1997 the conviction rate in Ireland was 2% in such cases. From 1997 to 2001 that rate fell to 1%.
The recent “Prime Time” programme on child pornography was quite convincing. It exposed the enormity and the disturbing nature of the problem. After it was screened, Children at Risk in Ireland, CARI, called for increased penalties for those convicted of child pornography offences. CARI noted that Ireland's sentencing system in this area is wholly inconsistent and that there is a reluctance on the part of certain members of the Judiciary to send people to jail for these offences. I agree with that criticism. This is a serious issue. There has been a hardening of attitude among some judges trying these cases, but a review is needed of sentencing structures for child sex abuse and child pornography cases.
As the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is no doubt aware, it is the judge who decides whether to make the name of an accused person public. There is inconsistency in this area. Even in some cases where the victim is willing to give up his or her anonymity, the lawyers for the accused can petition the judge and make the case that the name should not be made public. The judge can then impose reporting restrictions. Judges often do so, for reasons that are unclear. The reasons given for refusing identification in such cases are very hard to explain.
Last weekend I read that the Garda paedophile investigation unit's backlog of cases involves some three months' work. It is clear that the unit has not got the resources or manpower needed to deal with the mountain of cases built up over time. A couple of weeks ago, the Tánaiste said the necessary resources would be given to the unit to beef up its investigations of these crimes. Time will tell.
As the Minister of State is no doubt aware, the Copine project operates in University College, Cork. It has done some very good work over the past four years. The project is involved in 40% of identifications of children abused by means of the Internet in Ireland and the UK. Those who work on the project say the problem has continued to grow over those four years. They have asked a necessary question, namely, whether one can rely on self-regulation within the Internet service provider industry to deal with the problem. One cannot do so. We must point to responsibility within that industry as well as among credit card companies.
We also need to look at the recently rewritten UK laws in the area. The offence of grooming was introduced to UK legislation. Grooming means befriending children with the intention of eventually committing a sexual offence against them. We should consider introducing such a law.
There are currently 300 sex offenders in our prisons, of whom only 10% to 12% participate in the sexual rehabilitation programmes offered. That is disturbing. If sex offenders do not participate in these courses, the communities to which they are relocated on leaving prison should know who they are and that they did not take part in the programmes offered. There is currently no pressure on sex offenders to rehabilitate themselves, and no incentive for them to do so. We should be talking about putting such pressure on them, in order to help them with their disease, which is what it is.
It is also worrying that in the Estimates, the probation and welfare service budget was cut by 8%. This service and its officers maintain the sex register list with the Garda Síochána. The service has only 290 dedicated probation officers and cannot deal with the amount of work confronting them.
I read recently that the State's only non Government-funded centre for sex offenders was swamped with referrals of sex offenders engaged in child pornography. Citing a number of studies, the head of the Granada Institute said that treatment of sex abusers reduced the re-offending rates from 30% to approximately 10%. He said that sex offenders do not change their behaviour unless they have to. That is why we should put pressure on sex offenders to rehabilitate themselves.
Last May, a ministerial advisory group recommended that teachers and those working with children should be vetted by the Garda before taking up their posts. The group said there was no current requirement to vet teachers, students or social workers, or staff in leisure centres, libraries and crèches. The report stated that the level of vetting carried out in Ireland falls far below the standard in Northern Ireland and the UK, as well as below those of many European countries. It expressed concern that the Garda does not routinely share information on convicted sex offenders with law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions. It recommended that vetting arrangements should be extended to the education and health sectors and that such procedures be put on a statutory basis.
To deal with sex crimes we must do the following: properly resource the Garda paedophile investigation unit; fully fund the courthouse building programme as well as the probation and welfare service; ensure there is proper statistical analysis of sex crimes; conduct a review of sentencing for child sex abuse crimes as well as for crimes involving child pornography; ensure publication of sex offenders' names if they do not participate in rehabilitation courses provided for them by the State; and provide for an immediate extension of vetting arrangements to education and youth services.
The Deputies on the Government side sometimes make clear that they would like co-operation on certain Bills or initiatives taken by the Government. This motion is something the Government could support and for once agree with. It would gain a lot of credibility if it supported a quite open-ended motion. There is an opportunity to do so. As the Minister of State knows, this is not a political or partisan issue.
I thank Deputy Enright for asking me to speak on this matter. We all recognise it as a very important issue and it would be good for us to work together on it. It is something the Government could support and I would appreciate if the Government would at least consider such support.
Mr. Coveney: I am pleased to speak on this important and timely motion. With Deputy Deasy I appeal to the Minister of State to accept the motion and the wording proposed by Fine Gael. In terms of its motivation, it was deliberately drafted in a non-political manner so the Government could accept it in the spirit in which it is meant. If the Government insists on introducing its own wording, it will vote against the Fine Gael wording tomorrow night. That would send out the wrong signals. The matter is one on which we want to work with the Government. It is a matter into which Deputy Enright has put a great deal of research and work. That should be recognised.
The motion which seeks to protect children from abuse by adults who may be working or participating in voluntary activity with access to children or vulnerable adults. It seeks to update and improve vetting procedures and structures to ensure that where possible, the State will do all it can to prevent those with a history of abuse from being employed to work with children. This motion is to do with the safety of children. It focuses on an area where the State can have a positive impact by resource investment and policy change. I congratulate Deputy Enright for her research and work in producing a detailed policy document to support the motion. This is not a motion that was thought up last week or the week before last; it has taken many months of preparation.
It is impossible for me to consider this motion without reflecting for a moment on the shameful fact that, in the past, the State and its institutions failed many children, with horrific consequences. As someone with a significant involvement in the drafting of legislation leading to the setting up of the Residential Institutions Redress Board, I have spoken to many victims of child sexual and violent abuse, one of whom visits my office every week. The past failures by the State towards children in care must never be allowed to be repeated. We must learn from the many mistakes of the past and ensure that everything is done in a fair and balanced manner to minimise the likelihood of those who are clearly not suitable to have access to and responsibility for children.
Vetting is a key element of any comprehensive strategy for keeping children safe. The ISPCC has campaigned on this issue in recent weeks. A balance must be struck between the need to protect children and the responsibility to treat adults fairly and not label persons in an unjust manner. However, the balance that exists at present is stacked against the child and in favour of potential offenders with a history of abuse. That is not a statement I make lightly. It has been documented and highlighted to the Government in recent independently commissioned reports following the setting up of the first central vetting unit in January 2002 which is to be welcomed.
The present vetting procedures in this country are inadequate. Persons with a history of child sexual or physical abuse obtain employment which gives them access to children because the employer does not have access to information to prevent it. The situation is now worse. As I understand it, not only is vetting inadequate in this country but because the vetting procedure has been tightened up in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in particular, there is a movement of persons with a history of child abuse from the UK to Ireland to find employment in this country where they have access to children and vulnerable adults and can go undetected.
For this reason and the need to overhaul our child protection procedures generally, this House must act. Fine Gael has done so by producing a detailed policy response which is the kind of response the Government often asks the Opposition to produce when it calls for constructive opposition. It makes sense to plan for equal regulations for supporting vetting procedures in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The Fine Gael approach is consistent with where the UK authorities wish to be in a few years' time. It therefore merits serious consideration by the Government.
Fine Gael calls on the Government to expand the role of the central vetting unit as outlined by Deputy Enright and to increase resources for the unit. All health board employees should be subject to vetting procedures as should all teaching and school staff. Persons employed by charities and those working in the voluntary sporting and youth sector should also be subject to similar vetting procedures. Fine Gael asks that a mechanism be put in place to report any instances of abuse between adults and children in the workplace or in the voluntary sector.
I wish to draw the attention of the House to the growing phenomenon that offers the potential for children to be put at risk and exploited through the web, Internet access and chat room activity. Many people who are not regular Internet browsers or computer users are not aware of the current level of chat room activity among young people in Ireland, although I am confident the Minister of State is aware of it. Groups of people interact and cyber socialise through the computer in their bedroom or living room. Most of the time it is a positive experience but it is open to serious abuse by people who in a cynical and nasty manner, wish to take advantage of the vulnerability and openness of children. The problem was emphasised recently when Microsoft decided to close down a number of high profile chat room sites because of concerns regarding abuse of those sites.
Deputy Deasy referred to the phenomenon of grooming and I do not need to emphasise that point apart from saying it clearly exists in Ireland, the UK and other European countries. It needs to be tackled at a national and governmental level.
I appeal to the Minister of State to increase the levels of support for the unit in UCC that provides the Garda with much valuable information. Up to 40% of the information used by the Garda in the past two to three years has emanated from that unit which monitors child sexual abuse activities on the web and on the Internet.
Mr. Coveney: I agree. The Government has ambitious plans to roll out broadband across the country. I am sceptical of some of the plans but I am confident it will happen in time. Broadband will bring new risks to towns, regions and rural areas. It will bring the new world of the Internet to households and small businesses. I appeal to the Minister of State to accept the Fine Gael motion in the spirit in which it is drafted and to accept the Fine Gael wording which is non-partisan and non-political. I would be disappointed and surprised if this Minister of State refuses to do so.
–notes the continued implementation of the formal agreement between the health boards and the Garda Síochána to ensure the vetting of prospective employees in the health service and in certain facilities funded by the health boards who would have substantial unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults;
–endorses the decision to establish a working group on Garda vetting to examine the complex issues associated with enhancing the nature and extent of the services of the central vetting unit and looks forward to the outcome of its deliberations soon;
–approves the Government's commitment to supporting the Garda Síochána in every way possible in tackling crime, and particularly the abuse, sexual or otherwise, of children, and also by facilitating and promoting a programme of legislative change and reform within the criminal justice system, in order to meet the challenges of present day crime;
–commends the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998, which provides for a package of measures aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation by, inter alia, making it is an offence for any person to knowingly possess child pornography for the purpose of distributing, publishing, exporting, selling or showing it, punishable on conviction on indictment by up to 14 years imprisonment;
–welcomes the obligation under the Sex Offenders Act 2001 that requires a convicted sex offender to inform his prospective employer of the fact of the conviction and that failure to do so is an offence attracting a maximum penalty of up to five years imprisonment;
–commends the introduction, as provided for in the Sex Offenders Act 2001, of a notification procedure or tracking system for all convicted sex offenders, which extends to any sex offenders entering this jurisdiction from abroad;
–notes that the criminal records of all persons convicted in relation to crimes perpetrated against children and vulnerable adults, whether of a sexual nature or not, are available to the central vetting unit during the process of vetting; and
–recognises that vetting is not the sole answer to ensuring applicants' suitability for posts and that there will continue to be a particular onus of care on employers to maintain good employment practice both during the recruitment stage and in ensuring adequate supervision arrangements post-recruitment.
I am sorry to disappoint but I agree this is an important and timely motion. I agree that Fine Gael has produced a detailed policy response for which I commend Deputy Enright. I agree in general with the spirit of the contributions made by the Fine Gael speakers. I regret that the Government cannot accept the Fine Gael motion.
The Government could not accept the inference that is drawn from the report of the Irish Social Services Inspectorate for 2002 which found that vetting procedures in Ireland were unsatisfactory and needed urgent attention. A careful examination of the context of the report will show that the inadequacy had nothing to do with the operation of the central vetting unit of the Garda Síochána. It related to other matters of legitimate concern which were raised by the Opposition this evening.
I do not accept the inference in the motion that there is not the necessary financial and human resources available in the unit to ensure that all health board employees or employees at any facility or service in receipt of health board funding, are vetted before taking up employment that gives them substantial unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults. That is current practice and it is implicit in the motion that it is not.
I share the ambition of the motion in all its respects. I suggest there are substantial constitutional problems because the phrase “guilty of sexual misconduct” as used in the motion does not, in my view, refer to actual guilt as determined by courts of law and criminal proceedings but goes far beyond that.
In answer to Deputy Coveney's point, I share legitimate ambition and I initiated considerable North-South contact on this matter in recent months. We need to have the same standard in the United Kingdom and Ireland as far as is practicable. We do not have the same constitutional arrangement. The type of arrangement that pertains in Northern Ireland to which Deputy Enright referred cannot be introduced here with any safety because, in Ireland, the determination of whether or not a person is an offender must be made in a judicial forum. I thank Fine Gael for having tabled the motion because it is important for the Government to have an opportunity to outline how it proposes to address the important issue of vetting persons with substantial unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults.
I wish to take issue with a presumption, which I think is inherent – although I am not alleging it is so – in the motion tabled by Deputy Enright. That presumption is that vetting, of itself, can detect the problems that can arise. Perhaps it is not a presumption in the motion and, if so, I will accept Deputy Enright's word in that respect. However, it is vitally important for employers to check out references as there is no substitute for doing so. Although I accept that vetting has to be a part of the system, as well, careful checking of references is fundamental to child protection. There are other arguments about the presumption but I will not go into those.
Mr. B. Lenihan: Good employment practice is the fundamental issue to which the Deputy referred. Checking references is good employment practice translated into ordinary everyday language that people can understand.
National guidelines for the protection and welfare of children were published by the Department of Health and Children in 1999, under the title “Children First”. They recognise the need to support community and voluntary groups to develop best practice in their dealings with children. The guidelines are based on the key principle that the best interests of the child are paramount, and are designed to help organisations of all types and sizes to improve their policies, procedures and practices to safeguard children and young people.
There is now a formal notification protocol between the health boards and the Garda Síochána, which I am pleased to report is operating well. Funds have been committed to all health boards to appoint officers to ensure that the public is aware of the existence of the “Children First” guidelines. I am concerned, however, because while health boards have invested substantial moneys in advertising the guidelines, there is still a widespread lack of public awareness about them.
The guidelines are complemented at local level by specific procedures to be completed in the management of child abuse cases, thus maximising the capacity of the Garda Síochána to protect children effectively. The “Children First” guidelines have, in turn, formed the basis of a document entitled Our Duty to Care, which was published by the Department of Health and Children in April 2002. This document promotes good practice and procedures for organisations dealing with children, such as voluntary organisations, and consists of a booklet and fact-sheets covering areas such as safe recruitment practice, developing safe management practices and policies and raising awareness of child abuse among volunteers and staff. It also provides advice on how to report concerns to the health boards. This is an extremely useful tool for voluntary organisations. The “Trust in Care” guidelines were produced by the health service employers agency, in 2002, for health service employers on the prevention of patient/client abuse and on dealing with allegations of abuse against employees.
Similar progress is being made in the education sector. In April 2001, the Department of Education and Science published its “Child Protection Guidelines and Procedures” for primary schools and the primary curriculum support programme has provided seminars on these procedures. In the 2001-02 school year, seminars were organised for the designated liaison person in each school. The training of trainers to deliver these information seminars was interdepartmental and multidisciplinary. Additional training was provided for schools in April and May 2003.
In March 2003, a working group, encompassing key participants from outside the Department of Education and Science, was established to compile draft guidelines for the post primary sector. It was decided that the working group should operate under the auspices of the social, personal and health education advisory committee. The draft guidelines were based on the “Children First” approach. As the Minister of State responsible, I insisted upon that to ensure that the distinctive institutional memories of the various Departments did not proceed to devise three different sets of guidelines. The aim is to have the completed guidelines in schools before the end of the current school year.
The draft guidelines set out the legal framework in relation to confidentiality, qualified privilege and relevant items of legislation. It offers guidance on the definition and recognition of child abuse, and it sets out the responsibilities of all school personnel in handling disclosures from children and keeping records. In particular, it sets out the requirement for the board of management to designate a senior member of staff as the designated liaison person, to be known as the DLP, who will have specific responsibility for child protection and will be responsible for all dealings with the health boards, the Garda Síochána and any other parties in connection with allegations of and/or concerns about child abuse. The Department is working on the training that can be provided to accompany the roll-out of these guidelines.
In the youth work sector, similar strides are being made via the national youth work advisory committee. This was the one area of funding which was proceeded with on the implementation of the youth plan. An expert group has been established to develop national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children in the context of the delivery of youth work services. A four-year training programme for child protection, based on the guidelines, was subsequently agreed at an estimated cost of €340,000 over four years.
The key point to take from all the aforementioned activity is that, irrespective of whatever additional arrangements may be introduced in the area of vetting in future, it will be necessary to bear in mind that criminal record checks, although important, are not the sole answer to ensuring applicants' suitability for posts.
Vetting arrangements for children and vulnerable adults have been in place for some considerable time. Since 1987, the Garda authorities have provided their vetting services to the Adoption Board in respect of prospective adoptive parents, as well as in relation to Irish persons applying for positions in the UK, which would give them substantial access to children.
In 1994, arising from allegations of abuse in children's residential centres and following formal agreement between health boards and the Garda Síochána, Garda vetting was extended to the recruitment and selection of staff in these institutions. In 1995, vetting was further extended to candidates for employment in the health service and in certain facilities funded by health boards, that would have substantial access to children or vulnerable adults.
It is not correct to state, as in some recent policy documents, that vetting is available only to health boards. Garda vetting is also available to certain organisations funded by health boards to provide services in respect of children and vulnerable adults. These existing arrangements are implemented by the Garda Síochána in strict adherence to legal advice received from the Attorney General, which is an issue to which I will return later.
By the late 1990s, it was recognised that existing vetting arrangements were not adequate to the demands being placed on them, thanks to the disjunction between demand and service delivery that developed during the mid 1990s. Following consultations with the Garda Commissioner, a comprehensive review of Garda clearance arrangements was commenced in the child care area generally. Arising from this review, it was decided to establish a central vetting unit within the Garda Síochána to expand the vetting work carried out in order to deal with the then known demand for vetting. In recognition of the importance of vetting in our shared responsibility and duty of care for our children, additional resources were made available to realise its establishment.
The unit became operational on 2 January 2002. It currently processes vetting requests in respect of prospective employees of designated agencies who would have substantial unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults. In particular, it processes requests in respect of prospective employees entering full-time employment in children's residential centres and other areas of health care and in certain external agencies funded by the health boards which would have substantial unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults; prospective adoptive parents with the Adoption Board; prospective child care workers on equal opportunities child care schemes funded by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; and Irish persons applying for positions in the United Kingdom which would give them substantial unsupervised access to children or vulnerable persons.
In terms of the vetting process itself, staff of the unit use the Garda PULSE computer system. PULSE is an acronym for ‘police using leading systems effectively', and I am sure Deputies are aware it is a highly advanced information technology system which employs up-to-date technologies to ensure the Garda organisation has the information it needs when and where it needs it. This means that the central vetting unit has access to the criminal records of all persons convicted of crimes perpetrated against children and vulnerable adults, whether of a sexual nature or not, including crimes relating to child pornography on the Internet.
I am pleased to confirm that, since its establishment and with the resources already made available to it, the central vetting unit has been operating well, with more than 100,000 applications dealt with last year. Those included many applications in respect of the Special Olympics. I would like to record my gratitude to the Garda vetting unit for its work on the Special Olympics.
When the central vetting unit became fully operational in 2002 and the various backlogs were cleared, it was envisaged that the remit of the unit would be extended on a phased basis to other groups. This was because it was recognised there were good grounds, as the Opposition Deputies rightly pointed out in the House this evening, to extend the vetting arrangements to additional organisations. A working group has been established to examine the issue, taking account of all aspects of the vetting of persons coming in contact with children and vulnerable persons, be they full-time, part-time, voluntary or community workers or students on placements.
The working group comprises representatives of the Garda Síochána, the Office of the Attorney General, the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Issues under consideration within the working group include the range of organisations which are seeking Garda vetting and the future likely demand; the resource implications of extending clearance arrangements to additional private, voluntary, community and education sectors; processing and liaison mechanisms with organisations to reduce duplication and to enhance standardisation in clearance requests; the viable means of processing clearance requests in respect of non-nationals taking up employment in the child care and health care sectors in Ireland; making the services of the central vetting unit available on a commercial fee basis to ensure that proportionality and common sense are applied by organisations; and the legal aspects of vetting.
Over the past number of months, the working group has been actively progressing its work by means of meetings; the submission of position papers; the consideration of written submissions and representations made by a large number of external organisations and umbrella groups; a site visit to the central vetting unit; and research into vetting arrangements in other jurisdictions. The arrangements that pertain in Northern Ireland and our other nearest neighbours – England, Wales and Scotland – have been especially illuminating. The group has also considered matters as they are arranged in the United States of America, Canada and New Zealand.
I understand the working group is currently in the process of finalising its report and that it expects to be in a position to submit this to the Garda Commissioner and to my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in January 2004. I commend Fine Gael for tabling the motion in the House before Christmas. We will address it early in the new year. The Government today announced the appointment of an ombudsman for children and the resolutions will be before the House tomorrow.
Although expanding the provision of vetting services clearly has resource implications, I refute the suggestion that it is all about resources; there are fundamental issues of policy and legislation as well. For example, under current arrangements, Garda vetting is carried out on an administrative basis. There is no statutory underpinning for the Garda Síochána to hold information from the Courts Service in regard to convictions recorded against a person. Deputy Coveney hinted at this problem in the course of his contribution but the advantage of the current system is that it is based on the consent of the individual on whom the information is sought. It operates through a defined category of identifiable employees, so that possibilities for fraud or the misuse of information are limited.
As mentioned earlier, the Garda Síochána operates this system on the basis of legal advices from the Attorney General. A clear distinction is drawn in his advice between so-called “hard facts” and “soft facts”. By hard facts I mean conviction information and information relating to pending prosecutions where the Director of Public Prosecutions is considering a file. By soft facts I mean allegations, rumours, complaints, unsavoury associates or generalised anti-social activity. There is a difficulty here. The Northern Ireland Register uses soft facts established through the employment context where problems have arisen in employment and a list is devised based on employment difficulties which is then made available to certain persons. We are advised that that constitutes soft facts and therefore legal difficulties arise. The Attorney General has advised that, as a general rule, although hard facts are disclosable, soft facts are not. He advises that issues of natural justice apply, although I am aware the Fine Gael document seeks to address those.
That brings me neatly to the notion of a vetting register akin to the position in Northern Ireland, where the Pre-Employment Consultancy Service or PECS, the acronym referred to by Deputy Enright, carries out checks on the suitability of those seeking work with children or adults with a learning disability. The system allows employers to check the suitability of those applying to work with children or adults with a learning disability. PECS is operated by the Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and was designed to ensure that, on the basis of information provided about those seeking to work with children or adults with a learning disability, a series of checks could be carried out.
Alongside a check of criminal records, checks are also carried out against the PECS register and records held on those prohibited from working in schools on the so-called “List 99”. The PECS register is compiled from information provided by voluntary and statutory organisations on workers who have been dismissed, transferred to other work or who have resigned in circumstances where it is considered that they posed a risk to children or adults with learning disabilities.
Leaving aside some obvious statutory issues regarding soft facts, which I have already mentioned, the question of establishing registers of this nature in this jurisdiction has arisen, especially in the education sector. In this respect, at the first meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council on 3 February 2000, the council decided to set up the 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. A report was submitted to the council at the end of 2000 and subsequently the council agreed on the broad approach taken by the group and signalled its desire to have detailed proposals for legislation prepared.
The main thrust of the proposals is to provide structures through which persons who are a risk to the safety of children can be prevented from being employed in schools. There are a number of proposals involved. A draft discussion paper was prepared by the Department of Education and Science on the basis of these proposals but before work on that was completed, the cross-departmental working group on Garda vetting, which I have already mentioned, was established. It was considered wiser to await the recommendations of that group before engaging in discussions with the various interest groups.
I would like to dispel the myth, however, that no vetting whatsoever is being conducted in the education area. The Garda central vetting unit currently processes requests from the Department of Education and Science in respect of special needs assistants, bus escorts and children detention schools. This is especially important, given that they are working with children who are the most vulnerable.
I would also like to dispel the notion that has been suggested that the 2002 Annual Report of the Social Services Inspectorate somehow calls into question the vetting arrangements that pertain in the vetting unit. In fact, the report states that according to records seen by the inspectors, only one centre had completed adequate vetting checks on all staff before employment. Five centres had obtained Garda vetting on all staff before employing them, and nine centres employed one or more staff for whom there were no records of Garda checks in the centres.
Where criticisms are made, therefore, they are not directed at Garda vetting as such but in respect of the responsibilities of local management, which emphasises the point I made earlier that the central vetting unit is not the be all and end all on this issue. The Garda vetting has been available for many years to children's residential centres and special care units.
I can assure the House that the recommendations made in the inspectorate's annual report on deficiencies in this area will be followed up by the Department of Health and Children. I have asked the inspectorate to do that and to raise these issues with the relevant health board to ensure a satisfactory response. Justifiable concern is entertained by many about vetting arrangements when there are legitimate fears about crimes perpetrated against children and vulnerable adults, and particularly offences of a sexual nature.
Members of the House are correct to refer to the disturbing nature of the content of last week's RTE “Prime Time” programme. I assure the House that the Garda is fully investigating the allegations outlined in the programme in the context of an already well-established infrastructure to investigate these kind of offences.
In October 2002, the Garda Commissioner established the paedophile investigation unit which is located within the domestic violence and sexual assault unit based at the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Harcourt Square. This specialised unit is charged with investigating and co-ordinating cases relating to alleged child abuse and the possession, distribution and production of child pornography. It investigates allegations brought to its attention by Interpol, Europol, external police forces and through the Internet Advisory Board hotline, as well as complaints made by members of the public. The unit is also proactive in monitoring Internet chat rooms and strives to maintain best practice in the investigation of child pornography with an emphasis on Internet investigations.
I understand from the Garda authorities that the unit currently has approximately 40 cases in hand. However, other than a small number of prosecuted cases, there is no evidence currently available to the paedophile investigation unit that pornographic material is being made in Ireland to facilitate trading.
This is the reason I took issue with Deputy Coveney's statement that 40% of Garda prosecutions were the result of investigations conducted by the Copine foundation. The foundation does marvellous work at University College Cork, but it primarily assists police forces in other jurisdictions by using its significant bank of material to link children used in abusive photographs with particular individuals through the most careful collation and analysis of photographs. It is fortunate that it has not had to provide this service to the Garda Síochána as we do not have evidence of the occurrence of such episodes here, although we can never rule them out and must be vigilant. It is true that the bulk of the cases prosecuted by the Garda in Operation Amethyst resulted from disclosures made via the United States authorities.
The domestic violence and sexual assault unit established in 1993 continues to act as a resource to investigating gardaí throughout the State in the investigation of sexual crimes. Prior to the establishment of the dedicated paedophile investigation unit, members of the unit had already developed considerable experience and expertise in all aspects of paedophile activity and Internet crime.
The Garda Síochána has been involved in a number of international criminal investigations into paedophile activity. These cases have involved the police forces of Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, The Netherlands and the United States. As Internet paedophile crime is a global issue, it can only be tackled effectively through close international police co-operation on intelligence and investigation. Interpol, based in Lyon in France, is working together with Europol, based in The Hague, to develop a child pornography database containing all seized child abuse images worldwide. This will assist national police forces in the identification of victims of paedophile activity and minimise duplication of effort on criminal investigations internationally. The Garda Síochána plays an active role in the working groups of these organisations.
As a vivid demonstration of the importance of international co-operation, on 27 May 2002 the Garda Síochána carried out a co-ordinated search of more than 100 houses and premises for breaches of the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998, as part of Operation Amethyst. The information originated in Texas and was supplied by the Dallas police and the postal service via Interpol to Ireland. Images of child abuse were seized and a number of people were charged and convicted of their possession. A total of 124 persons were charged with offences of possession of child pornography in 2002 and a number are still before the courts.
Calls have been made for the strengthening of our current legislation, including one by Deputy Deasy this evening. As the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has previously pointed out, the penalty structure in the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998 is recognised internationally as one of the most severe, if not the most severe, in any jurisdiction. With regard to Deputy Deasy's comments, we must bear in mind that the Director of Public Prosecutions is charged with the duty and responsibility of deciding the appropriate forum for the prosecution of a case and whether it should be proceeded with summarily or on indictment. We cannot question his discretion in that respect. In addition, the question of the consistency of sentences is a matter for the courts. The penalties provided by the Oireachtas, however, are among the most severe in any jurisdiction.
Section 6 of the 1998 Act provides for a maximum penalty on summary conviction for knowingly possessing child pornography of a substantial fine and imprisonment for up to 12 months or both. If the charges are brought on indictment, a convicted person can be subject to a fine not exceeding €6,348 or imprisonment for up to five years or both. Section 5 of the Act contains even stronger measures in that it makes it an offence to knowingly produce, distribute, print, publish, import, export, sell or show child pornography. A person found guilty of such an offence is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €1,904 or to imprisonment for up to 12 months or both. Again, if convicted on indictment, the penalties are even more severe in that the offender may be subject to an unlimited fine or to imprisonment for up to 14 years or both. A person who has the custody, charge or care of a child and allows that child to be used for the production of child pornography commits an offence which can only be dealt with by way of indictment, with the possibility of a fine of up to €31,743 or imprisonment for up to 14 years or both.
The Act is generally held up as model legislation and has worked well in practice. Nevertheless, if any weaknesses are identified in the legislation, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is more than willing to examine the legislation with a view to further strengthening its provisions. A number of non-statutory controls are also in place to combat the illegal and harmful uses of the Internet, including the Internet Advisory Board, the hotline for reporting child pornography and the self-regulatory system for the Internet service provider industry enshrined in the code of practice and ethics.
Deputy Deasy raised the question of regulation or self-regulation by the industry. While the industry has done everything we have asked it to do, we would introduce legislation were it required. While we should consider this issue on a more international basis, it is difficult to get international agreement on legislation in this area. Clearly, however, international legislation would be desirable, given that we are dealing with multinational companies and a technology which is transnational in character. It is difficult to determine what further step could be taken in this area through domestic legislation.
The Internet Advisory Board was established in February 2000 and comprises representatives of relevant Departments, the Garda Síochána, child protection interests, the Information Society Commission and the service provider industry. Professor Max Taylor of the Copine Project at the Department of Applied Psychology, University College Cork, who featured on the recent “Prime Time” programme, is one of the members of the board. The board supervises a system of self-regulation by the Irish Internet service provider industry and supports the work of the hotline and promotes awareness of Internet downside issues.
I launched a hotline Christmas awareness programme this year and I am glad to see the advertisements are of a high character, have been noted on many television programmes and coincided with the broadcasting of the “Prime Time” programme.
All members of the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland subscribe to the code of practice and ethics. The membership of the association represents more than 95% of the service provider industry and efforts are ongoing to encourage membership by the remaining smaller providers. The hotline is operated and funded by the Internet service provider industry and the European Union's safer Internet action plan. It provides a central point of contact for members of the public who become aware of child pornography on the Internet in Ireland. The hotline attempts to identify the source of material and if it is hosted in Ireland, it will request the relevant Internet service provider to remove it. The hotline liaises with the Garda as appropriate and if the material originates in another jurisdiction, it will notify the relevant authority there which can take appropriate action.
There is a growing recognition that in the investigation of child pornography images, not only must evidence be gathered for the prosecution of the perpetrator but we must also work towards the identification, rescue and rehabilitation of the victims. This is obviously of vital importance as it facilitates the rescue of the child victim and potential future victims from further abuse.
Mr. B. Lenihan: The Garda Síochána has robust measures at its disposal to deal with those involved in such activities. Combating these crimes online is a complex issue, involving multiple jurisdictions and different legal systems and requires international police co-operation, constant development of mutual best practice and, above all, co-operation from all members of society and vigilance on the part of parents.
One matter raised by Deputy Deasy, to which I have not referred in detail, was the facilities available in the Prison Service for the treatment of sexual offenders. There are four forms of direct therapeutic intervention available to sex offenders in the prison system. The view of the Prison Service has always been that the convicted person must be willing to co-operate with his or her rehabilitation. Deputy Deasy appeared to hint at compulsory rehabilitation. The current view is that this does not work and that unless the offender willingly takes the vital first step, one will not achieve a successful result in terms of rehabilitation.
Ms O'Sullivan: I congratulate Deputy Enright on tabling this motion and the considerable work she has done in this area. It is important we have time to debate the issue and I hope it will have positive results. I am disappointed the Government did not see fit to accept the Fine Gael Party motion and has instead tabled its own motion. The bulk of the Fine Gael motion is in line with what the Government intends or hopes to do. While I accept the right of the Minister of State to quibble with certain aspects of one element of the motion, overall there is no reason for the Government not to support it.
I support the content of the motion and want to see progress in this area. I have frequently raised the lack of progress on the stated Government policy of introducing legislation in the context of North-South deliberations to establish a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children. I looked back through the Government programmes of legislation over the last two years. It was expected in the 2002 programme that this legislation would be on the Statute Book for 2003. The latest information is 2004.
I have raised it again recently with the Taoiseach. He has indicated there is some delay. On the 27 May 2003 I received a letter from the assistant private secretary to the Taoiseach, because I had raised the issue on the Order of Business. The letter indicated the up-to-date position and said the matter was currently being examined by an interdepartmental working group with a view to preparing draft legislation for submission by the Department of Education and Science to the Government in time for the next Dáil term. That would be this Dáil term, which finishes on Thursday of this week.
The Taoiseach gave me the following information by way of background. The purpose of the working group is to prepare proposals to establish a confidential mechanism for the identification of people who are considered unsafe to work with children and young people; to establish a register for persons considered unsafe to work with children; to establish a framework of liaison between the relevant bodies in the health, justice and education spheres; and the creation of a right of appeal against registration to an appeals body to facilitate co-operation between the agencies responsible for the maintenance of a similar register in the United Kingdom.
Again I have to call on the Government to proceed with that plan. I know there are issues involved because the Northern Ireland Assembly is not currently in operation, but there is no reason we in the Republic may not proceed, particularly in view of the information, as described by Deputy Enright, which indicates the North is already very much ahead of us as regards vetting procedures. The document referred to by the Minister, Code of Good Practice – Child Protection for the Youth Work Sector, specifically guides youth organisations to the pre-employment consultancy service in Northern Ireland and indicates that it may be used for youth organisations that operate cross-Border. We need to move forward in the Republic in this regard.
I am disappointed at the extent of the vetting, as indicated in the Minister's speech. I thought the central vetting unit, as it operates currently, was somewhat broader than it is. The Minister referred to processing requests in respect of prospective employees entering full-time employment in children's residential centres, etc. I would have thought that part-time employees should be vetted in those areas. There is a large number of part-time workers in these child care centres owing to the difficulty of getting full-time workers. The limited area within the education sector which the Minister referred to, bus escorts and special needs assistants, is very constrained.
While I accept the Minister's point that it behoves all employers to ensure that the people they hire are appropriate for the work they do, nevertheless, a less haphazard approach is required if children are to be protected. It is leaving the onus on the employer, the school, the sporting or youth organisation or whatever. Many of these organisations are concerned at taking on responsibilities. Things have changed. In the past one generally knew the type of people who might volunteer to work in sporting or youth organisations. Now people move around and there is not the same sense of trust for the person who might volunteer to work in these areas.
In the context of trying to be absolutely sure about what we are doing rather than leaving it to chance, I would like to quote the last paragraph of Suffer the Little Children, written by Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan. Mary Raftery was the producer of the “States of Fear” television programme which initiated so much of the response we currently have to the child abuse of the past. Referring to the Laffoy Commission, she says in the last paragraph:
Most importantly, perhaps, for the future of children in this country, the deliberations of the Commission may finally allow society to learn fully the lessons of the abusive past – a past that had generally been conveniently forgotten. Through that process there may, at last, be a full acknowledgement in every aspect of the childcare system, both in legislation and on the ground that the potential for abuse is a constant reality. The children of this country have experienced so much of it in the past that we should now be in a position to deal with it thoroughly and ruthlessly whenever it raises its most ugly head.
That is a timely warning that we need to learn the lessons of the past, when there was an assumption that children were safe because they were in the care of religious under the supervision of the Department of Education. It took decades before it was acknowledged that they were not at all safe and that people in whom the most trust was vested were those who least deserved that trust. That is a major factor in the consideration of the whole area of child abuse. People who abuse children can be extremely clever and deceptive in the methods they use. It must be ensured that the protection systems are absolutely foolproof and comprehensive.
The issue of balanced rights must be considered. Deputy Enright went into that in detail, as did the Minister. It must be ensured that people are not falsely accused and put on a register or vetting list in error. The right of appeal, and the right to defend one's good name, must be written into the system. That must be insisted on.
I would differ from Deputy Deasy regarding the extent to which he would go in respect of sex offenders. The Minister has made the point that people who are in prison have to go with the process. I would not agree with Deputy Deasy that local communities should be told if someone has not taken a course while in prison and gone out into the community. Such an approach is fraught with danger.
I am disappointed to note the operation so far of the Sex Offenders Act 2001. The Minister indicated that over 500 names are on the register of offenders. These are people registered subsequent to the enactment of the legislation, which is not retrospective. I am not sure that those running schools, voluntary organisations or health, community or youth projects are aware of the existence of the register. Even though I participated in the legislative process when the Bill was going through the Oireachtas, I am not sure how people can access the information. If a principal is running a school and has to replace a teacher who is sick for a couple of weeks with a part-time or temporary teacher, I am not sure whether he or she may inquire from the local Garda whether the prospective employee is on the sex offenders' register. If I am not sure, as a legislator who took part in the process of enactment. I am sure many more people are in a similar position. I would ask the Minister to take that point on board.
He has told us that over 500 people are on the register. I would like clarification as to exactly how people get access to the register, for example the principal of a school or people running a youth group. They need not necessarily have access to the names on it, but at least they should be able to have somebody run through the register on their behalf to ensure someone is not included if they are considering employment.
Ms O'Sullivan: It is important that the information is put in the public domain as to how people can find out if a person is on the sex offenders' register, if they intend to employ someone to work with young people on a voluntary or any other basis.
I commend the Fine Gael Party and Deputy Enright in particular on asking the Government to have a sense of urgency in introducing the legislation, particularly as regards people considered unsafe to work with children.
Ms Lynch: I congratulate the Fine Gael Party and Deputy Enright on bringing forward a motion in which everyone will find something he or she can relate to. It is said that the hallmark of any civilised society is how the weakest are protected. If that is taken as a benchmark it must be accepted that everything possible must be done to protect children.
The country was shook to its core a few years ago with the revelation of numerous abuse cases. The call from everyone, including politicians, the church and civil society, was that we must not allow that to happen again. Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned the programme, “States of Fear”, and the excellent book written by Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan. I was horrified when I read that book. Most of us lived through that period. When “States of Fear” was shown, I remember talking to a woman who was in her 70s and who told me she had not known what was happening at that time. However, we all remember being threatened with the local industrial school if we did anything wrong. People may not have known the details, but they knew it was not a nice place to be and that children would not like to go there. Children are not fools.
I attended a lecture a number of years ago which was given by a man whose name I will not mention but whom I have not forgotten. He is an expert in the area of child sex abuse. He asked the audience to describe a paedophile, but no one could do that. He said no one could describe paedophiles because they come in different shapes, sizes, colours, classes and creeds. However, he said one could clearly describe their victims and that it was possible to say where to find them. They could be found where there are children over whom they have power and to whom they have access and who can usually be taken away overnight. They can be found in scouting organisations, swimming clubs, youth clubs, schools or anywhere a group of children are gathered.
The Government has not done what Fine Gael is looking for in the motion, but it has also failed to produce a programme to inform potential victims about their defence. It is not protecting our children. The man who gave the lecture said he could walk into any school yard full of children and pick out potential victims. They are the quiet ones who are looking for friends and who usually need protection. They do not have much social interaction. He said children should be taught to be noisy and brazen and to scream if anyone comes near them. We do not do that in Ireland. We continue to tell our children to behave and not to tell stories. We should tell them not to keep secrets. I have not forgotten that lecture. I can pick out potential victims in a group of children because they do not have the same self-confidence as the noisy child in the middle of the group. I presume each of us in the House was the noisy child in the middle of the group, which means we do not have that experience.
I know some people who work with swimming clubs. The swimming world was hit by a big scandal. It was sued and brought before tribunals and the sport was brought into disrepute. Those involved in swimming are trying desperately to rebuild it. However, they cannot employ the people they need to rebuild the sport and to give the swimmers the confidence they need because the vetting procedures which they require to keep children safe are not in place. I am not sure that everyone knows about the vetting procedures. I am not sure that organisations, such as youth clubs, sporting organisations, swimming clubs and schools, know they can ask if it is safe to employ someone before doing so.
The man who gave the lecture I attended, which had a profound effect on me, also said that serious sex offenders will make at least ten fumbled attempts at assault before they eventually succeed. He said they could have up to 50 unrelated victims before they are caught. If it is established that it is not safe to allow someone to work with children and that person is dismissed, he will move to the next victim or group of children. I am worried that organisations are not being given the type of information they need. We are putting our children at risk.
At the start of this month I visited Notting Hill in London at the invitation of a small group of people who represent a larger group of victims of institutional abuse. As soon as they got out of institutions in Ireland, they went to England by ferry and did not return. It is estimated that 40% of all the victims of institutional abuse in Ireland now live outside the State, the majority of whom live in England. They range in age from their mid-30s to their mid-60s and each of them was damaged for life. One woman told me she did not celebrate birthdays or Christmas and, therefore, she did not know how old she was. She said no one could give that back to her. We have the opportunity to ensure that such abuse does not happen again.
We have good intentions, but the Government is dragging its feet on this issue, which is disgraceful. We can tolerate many things, but we cannot tolerate the potential abuse of children. I congratulate Deputy Enright for tabling this motion. I hope the Government has a change of heart and accepts the motion. I hope we can do something significant to ensure that such material is not available for the type of book mentioned.
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