Dáil Éireann - Volume 655 - 21 May, 2008

Other Questions. - Garda Vetting Procedures.

Deputy Olwyn Enright asked the Minister for Education and Science the national vetting procedure for teachers; if he is satisfied that the system is robust and comprehensive; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19952/08]

[60]   Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: In the education sector, vetting is currently done in respect of newly appointed teachers via the initial registration process with the Teaching Council. It is also done for prospective employees for posts that involve working with children such as special needs assistants, bus drivers, bus escorts to children with special needs, caretakers and other ancillary staff.

As the expansion of service by the Garda vetting unit is rolled out my Department will be consulting the relevant stakeholders such as school managers and the unions on how best to introduce vetting of existing teachers and other education staff working with children.

Ensuring the protection, health and welfare of children is a key concern for this Government, parents, agencies that work with children and society generally. To that end, the programme for Government provides for a proposed amendment to the Constitution which will further strengthen our ability to protect our children by allowing the Oireachtas to legislate for the exchange of information that is not confined to information on criminal convictions. The programme is committed to putting in place the necessary structures and systems to increase co-operation on vetting and the exchange of all relevant information about those who work or seek to work with children and vulnerable adults.

Furthermore, there is a commitment to provide extra resources to the Garda vetting service and also to develop an all-Ireland approach to child protection.

It is important to recognise that though vetting is a vital and important process that currently can alert a prospective employer about a criminal record of a prospective employee who will be working with children, it has to be complemented through a general vigilant approach by the employer when recruiting, particularly though checking references with previous employers and probing any gaps in an employment record. This is as important for individual schools employing personnel as it is for any other employment where the care of children is a concern.

I can assure the Deputy that this Government is determined to do all that it can to keep our children and vulnerable adults safe.

  Deputy Charles Flanagan: I welcome the Minister to the House as Minister for Education and Science and wish him well but I put it to him that if he were to reduce the padding in the reply to the question we would see the reality, which is that the current vetting process is meaningless. Will the Minister concede that there are 55,000 teachers to whom this vetting procedure does not apply? In the light of his response, is the Minister saying that the improvement in the vetting process is in some way linked to a constitutional amendment because if that is the case it is news to me? What steps does the Minister propose to take in the immediate future to ensure the expansion and development of the vetting system to include teachers already in employment and not just new teachers coming into the system?

With reference to the role of his Department, will the Minister spell out precisely his role as Minister for Education and Science in this matter or does he intend to leave it entirely to the boards of management which appear to be introducing different rules and regulations in a haphazard and meaningless way?

  Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: I thank the Deputy for his kind wishes. There is a vetting system in place for all new appointments and all temporary appointments.

  Deputy Charles Flanagan: The Minister is emphasising the word “all”. He should emphasise the word “new”.

  Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: I am concise in what I am saying. There is a vetting system in place for all new appointments and all temporary appointments. I agree with the Deputy on the roll-[61] out of vetting for existing staff. We have been in contact with the Garda vetting unit on that matter and we are trying to build up a capacity between our Department and that unit to ensure a vetting system is put in place in that particular area. All of that is co-ordinated by the Teaching Council when graduates make their initial application to teaching colleges. The next roll-out will involve the full-time and existing staff. That is being done by the Garda vetting unit in conjunction with advice from the implementation group on Garda vetting.

Regarding the constitutional amendment, and this is important, my colleague, the Minister for children and youth affairs, is the lead Minister on this issue. The Constitution, as it stands, inhibits the power of the Oireachtas to provide for the exchange of information between gardaí and social services and prospective employers. This matter is being handled by the constitutional committee, which has received approximately 144 submissions. We have decided to extend the committee’s timeframe, until 30 November 2008, in which to complete its deliberations and make a recommendation to the House.

  Deputy Brian Hayes: Has the Minister recognised that there is an existing loophole in the arrangements affecting untrained substitute teachers? I understand that there are 1,000 of those teachers within the system and there are no means by which they may be vetted properly. This was the subject of a report in a newspaper about three weeks ago. Has the Minister investigated that, is his Department aware of it and how can we ensure the safety of our children and the veracity of a vetting system when in excess of 1,000 untrained teachers are sloshing in and out of the system without any procedures to follow?

  Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: We are obviously aware of it and there will always be some level of unqualified personnel. That will occur as a result of short-term absences. It is inevitable that schools must be in a position to have recourse to unqualified personnel. My predecessor indicated her intention to bring forward amending legislation which would set the limitations on a school’s capacity to engage other than qualified teachers, and it is my intention to advance this amendment to the Teaching Council Act 2001 in the current year.

  Deputy Charles Flanagan: In response to the Minister’s reference to all new teachers, will he clarify the position of those who may have come back after extended leave of absence? What is the situation? Are they covered?

  Deputy Brian Hayes: They are not covered.

  Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: I cannot give the Deputy an answer to that question, but I will find out the information and report back to him.