Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes in which to speak.
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the waiting time for POCVA checks to be processed; further notes that this is adversely affecting child care centres, amongst other employers; and asks the Secretary of State to investigate the situation and ensure that applications are processed as a matter of urgency.
Aa’ hae mien weel wi clarity tha dae wee Holly en Jessica wur funn. An aa’ hae mien o’prayin that we wud niver wutness tha saem thing hapnen in tha Proavince. Aa’ em abreest o’ tha raisins that these searches an checks er in place an aa’ want it tae be weel kent that aa’ whael heertidly agree that ticht checks hiss’ tae be keeried oot. Tha mettar whut kinsarns me maist, is tha tiem it takks fer tae keery oot thees checks.
I remember with chilling clarity the day that little Holly and Jessica were found, and I remember praying that we would never see the same thing happen in the Province. I am well aware of the reasons for carrying out searches and checks, and I want to it to be well understood that I agree wholeheartedly that such stringent checks must be carried out. However, my issue is with the length of time that it currently takes to carry them out.
Access Northern Ireland was established on 1 April 2008, following the enablement of part V of the Police Act 1997 in Northern Ireland. Until that point, Northern Ireland was the only part of the United Kingdom not to have commenced part V, which created a legal framework for the disclosure of information relating to an individual and their suitability for employment for a range of purposes.
Three levels of disclosure certificate are available: basic, standard, and enhanced. Each certificate contains different levels of information and checks. The legislation created a statutory code for the police to disclose criminal record information and provide relevant non-conviction data relating to an individual’s prospective employment or voluntary work with children or vulnerable adults.
An enhanced disclosure certificate is used for positions involving children and vulnerable adults, and it also involves checks on disqualification lists, such as those held by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety under the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Order (Northern Ireland) 2003 and, in the education field, under the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. Where an individual has a previous GB address, checks are made against UK police forces’ criminal record information and disqualification lists held in Scotland, such as the list held under the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003.
Shortly after the commencement of the legislation, it became clear to all elected representatives that there were serious delays in the production of enhanced disclosures. I am not condemning those who created the new system. Many factors — such as time of year, business processes, and growing awareness and use of vetting checks — combined to play a part in causing delays.
However, the process must be quickened. Indeed, Paul Goggins, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, accepted that in a press release that he issued following the agency’s failure to meet published performance standards of the production of 90% of enhanced disclosure certificates within four weeks. We are all aware that it can take between 10 and 12 weeks for checks to take place. Such huge waiting times cause practical difficulties. Paul Goggins also stated on 30 October 2007, in response to a question for written answer from my colleague Sammy Wilson, that 6,095 vetting checks were being processed and that 16,145 checks were made in September 2007. Demand is great, and the need for the process to be speeded up is equally great.
Say, for example, that a nursery school in my area advertises for new staff at the beginning of June. The nursery subsequently hires a girl and tells her that she can begin work as soon as the check to be carried out on her is complete. However, a month, then five weeks, passes and still nothing has arrived. The girl begins to think that if she is not going to be able to work at the nursery school, she may have to look for another job, because not many people can afford not to work for a month. Six weeks pass and the prospective employee has to seek alternative employment. The nursery school must then begin the entire recruitment process again. In the time that has elapsed, the school has to turn children away because they do not have enough staff. It is a double whammy — the school has lost money and parents have lost the option of placing their child in the day-care facility.
I declare an interest as a Member of Ards Borough Council. Ards Borough Council had to cancel summer schemes. The council advertised for staff in May and put the applications that it received through the POCVA vetting process. However, the checks were only being cleared in August. That was too late for the summer scheme, because the summer was over. The council’s investment and the young people’s enjoyment had been lost. That situation is mirrored in playgroups and nursery groups throughout the Ards Borough Council area.
The constant delays have a domino effect. We often encourage mothers to get back into work, and, indeed, the perks of part-time positions can be considerable. However, how can we expect mothers to work if they have nowhere to place their child? Throughout the summer, staff at day-care centres relayed their anxieties to me about not being able to accommodate children because of huge delays in the staff-vetting process. At one stage, five childcare providers in my constituency — who look after a total of more than 150 children — were awaiting a response from Access Northern Ireland. The system took far too long and failed to deliver. Some people must wait 10 to 12 weeks for clearance. An increasingly large number of checks has to be processed every year: more than 130,000 checks had to be performed in 2005; more than 150,000 in 2006; and more than 180,000 in 2007.
The delays are unacceptable and adversely affect businesses throughout the province. It is not only the realm of childcare that has been affected. The Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety had to establish an emergency, temporary procedure to comply with the POCVA requirements. Legislation for nursing homes was amended, yielding the Establishments and Agencies (Fitness of Workers) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008. Those regulations permit employment in areas that were already covered by legislation, pending receipt of an enhanced disclosure certificate from Access Northern Ireland and subject to a range of safeguards being adhered to, including appropriate supervision of a new worker for the period that an enhanced disclosure is outstanding. The emergency legislation and temporary relaxation of requirements was necessary to facilitate vital establishments’ recruitment of adequate staff numbers. The delays have put residential homes, nursing homes and children’s homes at risk. The Ministers concerned did well to enact legislation to ensure continuity while people awaited checks to be carried out on them.
However, those small-business owners did not have the knowledge or the ability that were required in order to put in place measures that would ensure the survival of their businesses.
After the Soham murders, Government passed the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 and, in Northern Ireland, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007. That legislation is designed to deal with some of the deficiencies that were identified by the Bichard Inquiry. The legislation is particularly designed to address the system of vetting checks in order to ensure that a range of bodies share relevant information.
The 2006 Act established a new Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which administrates new automatic barring arrangements on people who have certain convictions for harming children or vulnerable adults. The ISA also has discretionary barring powers in relation to individuals who have engaged in certain behaviour or pose a risk to children and vulnerable adults.
The new arrangements are novel, in that they introduce a continuous monitoring element for those who are admitted to the scheme. The 2006 Act and 2007 Order introduce a range of requirements for posts in which individuals must be a member of the vetting and the barring scheme. Individuals may use membership of the new scheme for other posts. Therefore, it is much more portable and, ultimately, efficient, than the present check.
Parents who make private family arrangements and who wish to check on an individual’s barred status may do so. That provides an extra safeguard in an area that falls outside the existing legislation. The ISA will also maintain the two Northern Ireland lists of barred people — the children and vulnerable adults lists.
We must ensure that the present delays are not repeated when the new scheme commences in October 2009, at which time all applications to the vetting and barring scheme will be handled. For example, while non-child-related care organisations in the community and voluntary sector may at present obtain a vetting check, it is vitally important that problems faced by Access Northern Ireland are resolved by the Northern Ireland Office before the implementation of the scheme in October 2009. At that point, and for the following five years, a substantial increase in applications is likely to create worse problems.
In conclusion, the checks must be thorough and all-encompassing in order to ensure the safety of all vulnerable children and adults. However, the system in place on the mainland is a better one and one that the Secretary of State must ensure is introduced and is running smoothly in the Province by this time next year.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate and I commend the proposer of the motion for securing it. I will not go back over a lot of the issues and the key facts that he has covered. However, the protection of children and vulnerable adults is an issue that the Assembly must take seriously, and has taken seriously over recent years. Supporting this motion in no way dilutes the Assembly’s commitment or record on promoting the protection of children and vulnerable adults. I am conscious that people who follow this debate may consider that a backward rather than a forward step is being taken. That is not what is intended.
I agree with Jim Shannon that the issue of the proper protection of children and vulnerable adults is at stake. I share the concern about AccessNI; I wrote to NIO Minister Paul Goggins around 10 days ago requesting a meeting. I sit on two Committees at which our own Ministers have dealt with some of the issues that relate to the backlog of 20,000 applications awaiting AccessNI clearance. With that in mind, my colleague Michelle O’Neill and I have asked Paul Goggins for reassurance that there will be no return to the bad old days.
As Jim Shannon said, AccessNI was established in April and created a legal framework for disclosure among all relevant Departments about individuals and their suitability for employment. However, it became clear that there were serious delays, and a review of AccessNI was ordered.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask you to send a record of this debate to the NIO Minister. He said that the review would be completed by September, and it is now the first two weeks of October. I am sorry if I caught you off guard there, Mr Deputy Speaker.
A copy of today’s Hansard report should be sent to Paul Goggins, and we should ask him for a copy of the review that he said would be completed in September, because that delay has meant several things. First, it has meant that people applying for jobs have had to wait for months for their security checks to be processed. Secondly, it has meant that groups are going to the wall because they do not have the suitable people in post, and, thirdly, it has meant that some groups have had to operate at a reduced capacity.
As Jim Shannon rightly pointed out, people applying for jobs wait for so long that they start to face financial difficulties — everyone has bills to pay — and they have to find employment elsewhere. That creates a shortfall, as the best person for the job has moved on because they cannot afford to wait any longer. As a result, the vulnerable adults and children whom we talk about protecting are losing out a second time round. Therefore, we need to address the matter.
I wish to take the opportunity to commend our Ministers. It is important that we do that, because some Departments are directly affected by the waiting time for checks to be processed. In order to deal with the mess, the Departments have decided to introduce emergency legislation to begin to deal with the 20,000 people on the waiting list. I do not want to politicise the issue, but if policing and justice were devolved, we would have access to our own local, accountable Minister. We could meet that Minister in the corridor and tell him or her about the mess and the need to sort it out.
I commend our Ministers, but they are merely introducing temporary legislation; it is only for the interim period, which means that applicants will still have to wait for the enhanced disclosure certificate.
I join my colleague in supporting and congratulating Ministers on their efforts to address the issue, but does she agree that a consistent approach across all the Departments is required? For example, the Department of Education does not require applicants who have been through the vetting process, been accredited and been in continuous employment to reapply if they wish to change posts. That simple measure would make a significant contribution to reducing the mammoth backlog.
As the proposer of the motion highlighted, the change in arrangements came about as a result of the brutal murders in Soham. It is striking that one organisation held relevant information that could have stopped the murderer from getting a job, but none of the organisations talked to each other. I agree with the Member — if people go through a POCVA check, that information must be spread to other organisations to stop the backlog.
When we talk about 20,000 people, we are talking about community and voluntary groups, individuals, schools and councils. All their projects have been put on the back-burner because of the backlog. The NIO must spell out to us how it plans to resolve the problem. Paul Goggins gave a commitment to the Committee for Employment and Learning and to the Health Committee that the matter would be sorted out by the end of the year. Did he mean the end of this year, the end of the calendar year, or the end of the financial year? We need to ask those questions.
As Jim Shannon said, unless the matter is sorted out now, the new legislation that is due to come into operation in October 2009 will make matters worse. I wholeheartedly support the motion, but the NIO must answer a lot of questions, so I would appreciate the Assembly sending a copy of today’s Hansard report to Paul Goggins. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
I broadly support the motion. The Ulster Unionist Party welcomed the introduction of the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Order in 2003. It is of paramount importance that we do everything possible to protect our children and vulnerable adults from potential predatory individuals or groups in our society. Therefore, the registration measures and the checks that are undertaken under the regulations are undeniably necessary. However, there appears to be a contradiction in introducing legislation while not providing the level of services and support needed to implement it without a detrimental effect on those whom we are trying to protect. Under the current operation of the legislation, children in care centres and people who benefit from certain community and voluntary groups are suffering due to an inability to register and, therefore, employ or utilise the necessary people.
We cannot, and should not, tolerate such a situation.
Voluntary and community groups are experiencing long delays in receiving information from AccessNI. We are all aware of the resulting significant staffing problems for groups that are carrying out vital work with children and vulnerable adults. AccessNI has been unable to cope with the level of applications that has risen sharply in recent years. It has been reported that after only six weeks after submission, groups are still waiting for their applications to appear on the AccessNI system, with no further information available about the length of time that it will take to process those applications.
I recognise that Minister of State Goggins has taken steps to ease the situation in the short term for certain groups. However, that is not a long-term solution, and it cannot help organisations providing services such as personal care, one-to-one counselling or services in clients’ homes. As we try to tackle child poverty, as we increasingly recognise the importance and the benefits of early interventions on educational and social outcomes, and as we try to address mental-health problems, it is unacceptable that AccessNI continues to fail. Mr Goggins, the Minister of State with responsibility for criminal justice, has, at least, recognised the problem, but he should be under no illusion that the steps he has taken in an attempt to get back on track have so far been inadequate and appear not to be working.
Further to the current problems, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 will come into effect in October 2009 and will introduce new safeguarding arrangements across the United Kingdom. AccessNI remains the gateway to the new system for employees to be registered with the new independent safeguarding authority. Therefore, it is crucial that we remove the current problems well in advance of the introduction of the new legislation.
The Ulster Unionist Party pledges its complete support for the new regulations. However, we must have an agency that has the capacity to thoroughly and efficiently process the applications that it receives. That means that it must have adequate resources and systems in place to achieve that outcome. I urge the Secretary of State to investigate the situation and ensure that applications are processed as a matter of urgency. I support the motion.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tréaslaím leis na Comhaltaí a thug an rún os comhair an Tí inniu. I thank the Members who tabled the motion. We must all be careful to state from the outset that our principal concern must be the protection of children and vulnerable adults. We must be careful that nothing that we say, propose or suggest today in any way endangers children or vulnerable adults. Other Members have mentioned that, and I appreciate it.
Having said that, we must have an effective and efficient system that ensures the protection of children and vulnerable adults, and which does not reproduce the long delays caused by the previous system — delays that have been inherited by Access Northern Ireland, and which are, as we have heard, causing major difficulties for childcare facilities.
I have been working with several organisations, including Irish-medium preschool groups, which are awaiting clearance for staff members.
In one case, if clearance is not received for a new nursery assistant, a number of children will have to be turned away. It is somewhat ironic that a system that should be working to protect children is actually denying them places in educational and childcare facilities. There is something not quite right about a system that produces that type of result.
The POCVA checks are not the only measures in the system to protect children and young people, as has been pointed out in the letter of easement that was sent by the Department of Education and the Department of Health. I welcome the easement that has been offered by those Departments. That will, no doubt, help the situation but, in the meantime, there is still a need to clear the current backlog as quickly as possible, to ensure the required effectiveness and efficiency of the system to protect children and vulnerable adults, and also to ensure that educational, health, childcare and community facilities can continue to operate without disruption, and without the exclusion of some of those they exist to serve. It is possible to establish a system that does both, that carries out the necessary checks, and does so within a sensible time frame.
We have been told that the backlog faced by Access Northern Ireland will be cleared by Christmas — it will have to be. The patience of employees and employers is wearing thin, and that is not surprising. I have spoken mostly of difficulties concerning education, but there are obvious implications for nursing and care homes, where understaffing is becoming a problem due to the lack of clearance through the system. The impact of that situation could have very serious implications for healthcare, if not dealt with post-haste.
Access Northern Ireland must ensure that its systems work to full capacity to clear the backlog in the shortest possible time. We have been told that it will be cleared by Christmas. I sincerely hope that, when Christmas arrives, Access Northern Ireland will not tell us that the deadline has slipped to Easter. We need an efficient and effective service, without the unacceptable delays that are occurring at present. If those delays are not dealt with, they will continue into the phase of the new legislation, and that will mean continued difficulties, even under new circumstances.
Gabhaim buíochas, mar a dúirt mé, leis na Comhaltaí a mhol an rún seo. Tá mé féin agus mo pháirtí ar son an rúin, agus tá súil agam go mbeidh fuascailt ann don fhadhb seo gan mórán moille agus go mbeidh sé ar chumas na n-eagraíochtaí atá thíos leis an mhoill seo oibrithe a fháil gan a thuillleadh moille. A LeasCheann Comhairle, aontaím leis an rún agus gabhaim buíochas leat. Go raibh míle maith agat.
I thank Jim Shannon and his colleagues for proposing the motion. We are all agreed that appropriate protections must be in place for children and vulnerable adults. Those measures must be effective and robust, but they must also be efficiently administered, and adequate capacity and resources must be committed in order to make that happen. Otherwise, children and vulnerable adults will be deprived of services that they desperately need. That has been the failure of the current system to date.
The NIO issued a statement in the last week or so, as I am sure Members are aware, outlining the action that it has been taking to try to tackle the backlog, and to deal with issues in respect of employment, and so on, in the interim, along with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
When I met the Minister a few weeks ago and raised the issue with him, he said that the clearance process was currently taking around 10 weeks from start to finish. That contrasts with what was expected: that 90% of applications for a basic check would be completed in two weeks; 90% of applications for a standard check would be completed in three weeks; and that 90% of applications for an enhanced check would be completed within four weeks.
Nineteen extra staff have been employed to try to bring the processing time back down to four weeks by December. That demonstrates how far the NIO had underestimated the volume of work that AccessNI would receive. That is cautionary tale for when the regulations are implemented towards the end of 2009. There should be further assessment of the resources that are required so that the process functions properly.
Undoubtedly, the teething problems experienced by AccessNI contributed to the backlog. However, there is anecdotal evidence that, in the past 18 months, the processing time for applications had been gradually increasing and that, before AccessNI was established, it was about six weeks. There are no statistics to support that assertion, but that is the feedback that I have received. Therefore, there is an underlying difficulty that must be addressed.
All youth leaders, volunteers, teachers and other people who work with children must undergo checks. Those people must undergo a separate check for each organisation in which they work, which has contributed significantly to the amount of applications — often, multiple applications are being processed for one person. I raised the issue of joined-up thinking in the arrangements with AccessNI, because, if someone has already been cleared to work with young people in one organisation and wants to work with young people in another organisation, they have to reapply. In its response, AccessNI said that the checks were valid only at the point at which the certificate was issued, which raises questions about continuity in the system and how information that arises after someone has been checked is fed back to the organisation for which that person works.
Members have correctly focused on those involved in childcare centres and in other paid employment with children and vulnerable adults, because the waiting time has a direct implication on their earning capacity. Many people in the voluntary sector who, like me, volunteer in organisations such as the Guides, Scouts and many others have been affected. Churches that provide valuable diversionary activities for young people have also been affected by the delays in the processing of applications. There is a timing issue, because the problems with AccessNI coincided with summer activities, such as the local council summer schemes that Jim Shannon mentioned. However, the backlog has stretched into the autumn session of many of the voluntary youth organisations, and it is affecting them.
As the Member is broadening the scope, she may be interested to learn that a body as august as the PSNI had difficulty getting an entire cohort of trainee officers through the checks. That highlights how widespread the problem is. Will the Member agree that it is important for people to realise what the checks consist of? At a basic level, the checks are no more than people saying that they are who they say they are. We must get the process right and invest the appropriate resources.
I thank the Member for his intervention. As I am being allowed to speak beyond my five minutes, I assume that I have been given extra time to respond. I agree entirely with the Member: there must be clarity. However, the AccessNI website does not offer that clarity; it is very unclear on what a basic check entails. Most organisations that undertake basic checks think that, at the very least, there has been a check against an individual’s police records, but that is not the case. That raises serious questions about the robustness of the system in the minds of those who use it to try to protect young people. I hope that the legislation addresses those questions. AccessNI could help the situation by providing more detailed information on certain issues.
There is a serious issue about allowing people —
The delays in completing the appropriate background checks, and the temporary measures to reduce those delays, could expose the most vulnerable people in society to an unnecessary risk. That is a concern for my party and me.
Continuity of care can be guaranteed only by ensuring that there is a readily available pool of suitably qualified employees to fill those vacancies.
I know of care homes and childcare facilities that are unable to maximise their operating capacity due to a lack of staff, partly as a result of the lengthy wait for confirmation of an applicant’s suitability to work in such an environment. I have been told that many people who applied for work in those sectors found employment elsewhere before the required checks were completed and clearance to work given, thereby creating an additional recruitment problem. The only way to rectify that situation is to have a process that is quick, accurate and ensures ease of recruitment for employers.
These delays have an adverse impact on prospective employees and employers. It is totally unacceptable for those such as teachers, classroom assistants, taxi drivers and bus drivers seeking jobs in childcare provision, nursing homes and esidential homes to be held back from employment due to delays in background checks. Those areas of employment need staff, and need them quickly. There are advertisements for jobs in some of those sectors every week in the local press. I appreciate that the necessary approval will take longer for people who are applying for work but are not UK-born. However, a means must be found in order to speed up that process, too.
The delays that people are experiencing are denying the sectors that look after the most vulnerable in society the care and security that they need.
I agree entirely with the Member.
Delays in checks are hampering employers and, it seems, are making people apply for employment outside the sector.
The Secretary of State may well not wish to examine the current ridiculous and deplorable situation. If he does not, however, that is a reflection on his commitment, rather than this Assembly’s, to changing the system for the better. I urge the Secretary of State to hold an urgent inquiry into the problems that are being experienced, and to ensure that recommendations presented as a result of such an inquiry are treated as a priority for implementation.
I support the motion, and commend Mr Shannon for bringing it to the House.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the motion. The main issues and problems that surround POCVA have been dealt with by Jim Shannon, Sue Ramsey and other Members. There is absolutely no doubt that people who work with children and vulnerable adults need to be properly vetted. That is essential. However, it is the logistics of carrying that out, and particularly the time taken, that is causing a huge problem. The problem is ongoing, affecting potential employers and employees.
Naomi Long spoke about anecdotal evidence. In 2007, I dealt with a case concerning a local crèche where, because of the delays involved in workers being vetted, the employer was on the verge of having to close down, thereby losing the employer’s livelihood and several much-needed jobs.
It was hoped that the advent of Access Northern Ireland would go some way to solving the problem. Unfortunately, that has not happened. Immediate priority must be given to the whole area of POCVA; there must not be a half-hearted attempt to try to resolve the problem. A figure of 20,000-plus delays was mentioned, and that that would be sorted out by Christmas. With the best will in the world, however, that is unlikely to happen.
A point that was raised, and which needs to be reinforced, is that a POCVA check does not carry-over from one employer to the next, even if the period is just a few weeks.
Recently, I dealt with a case in which someone had received a POCVA certificate from the Southern Education and Library Board. Two weeks later, that person got a job in a playschool. Social services insisted that the individual go through the entire process again. In that case, the employer was placed under severe pressure because of staff shortages. That situation has continued.
I live in a border constituency. Obviously, workers in the area travel back and forth a lot. Perhaps an all-island approach to POCVA checks should be taken. People move from social-services jobs in the North to similar jobs in the South, and vice versa. As so many different types of jobs are involved, the entire area of POCVA checks has become complicated. A simple solution is for a centralised body to deal with those checks.
I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.