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Debate resumed on motion:
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. [Mr J Shannon] [Mr S Hamilton] [Mr G Robinson]
I take the opportunity to congratulate my party colleagues for securing the debate, which is timely and very important to communities outside this great Building.
As legislation stands, the comprehensive vetting system plays a central role in the recruitment procedures of all sorts of organisations and groups. Failure to adhere to the legislation will have grave repercussions: ignoring it is therefore not an option. It is crucial that the vetting system is operated as effectively and efficiently as possible. The inevitable result of inefficiency is that applications are delayed and, subsequently, organisations seeking employees, and individuals seeking employment, are left in limbo. That is what happened in Northern Ireland during the summer months, and it prompted a wave of complaints to be lodged directly with Access Northern Ireland and with constituency offices across the Province.
Although Access Northern Ireland has met its obligations in relation to basic and standard checks, the enhanced disclosure scheme has collapsed. Initial assurances were that the process would take no longer than eight weeks; however, that period has spiralled to over 13 weeks, causing absolute havoc for all those involved.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
I was contacted by several nursing homes, each of which expressed considerable frustration in relation to the lack of progress of applications for vacancies that they desperately needed to fill. That put the nursing homes in an incredibly difficult position as they struggled to ensure sufficient cover. In one instance, the process took so long that the successful applicant had to decline the offer and seek employment elsewhere. That has happened time and again across the constituencies. In another instance, one of my constituents, who had spent years studying at university, had graduated with a Postgraduate Certificate in Education this summer and who was desperately seeking work, had to turn down at least five offers of employment. Owing to the backlog, her application lay for over a month before it was even considered, and she has yet to receive clearance.
A local community association also contacted me. It provides an after-school club, a school-holiday club, youth clubs and senior citizens’ lunch clubs, and employs qualified staff as well as volunteers. The association interviewed people and offered a vacant play-worker position to an applicant in April, expecting that clearance would have been secured before the commencement of the holiday club. However, clearance was not received until the end of August.
All the situations that I have described are the results of delays that have been experienced at Access Northern Ireland. Responsibility for that lies solely at the doors of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Northern Ireland Office.
Although it is crucial that we do as much as possible to protect the most vulnerable in our society, legislation on the matter is now so profuse that many community and voluntary sectors are reviewing their willingness to provide services, and others who may have an interest are recoiling due to the amount of bureaucracy that is involved. That situation must be resolved as soon as possible. We are facing a meltdown in nursing homes and in areas that deal with the most vulnerable in our society, that is, young children. If we cannot give that group the necessary protection, we are in a great mess. I ask the Secretary of State and the Department of Health to do all that they can to ensure that there are no more delays in resolving the issue.
I also thank Mr Shannon and his colleagues for tabling the motion at this time, given the stage that we have reached with the issue. It is a hugely concerning matter. I have recorded delays of up to 20 weeks in getting an enhanced check through the process. That is clearly unacceptable. Not all the checks take 20 weeks, but delays exist. The provision of domiciliary care, nursing and residential care in nursing homes, hospital trusts, education boards, nurseries and playgroups, as well as in early-years provision, are being thrown into near chaos as a result of the delays.
It worries me more that when the undertaking was given that 90% of enhanced checks would be completed within four weeks, some of the service providers warned that that would not be possible with existing resources and procedures. Nothing was done to rectify the situation at that time, and that has created a huge gap in provision. I believe that the provision that was given when that undertaking was made was hugely misguided.
However, there is an opportunity to move the process on. Suggestions have been made that the situation will be resolved and that the four-week deadline will be reinstated by the end of the year. I hope that that is true, but given past history, I have grave doubts as to whether that will happen.
I understand that there was a temporary relaxation of the regulations sometime between 4 June and 25 July 2008. I am told that a further relaxation of those regulations came into effect from 21 August. I would like clarification at some stage as to whether that is accurate and as to whether those relaxations have occurred since 21 August. The relaxations should allow providers to get an indication of suitability from Access Northern Ireland from the initial checks that they perform. That organisation is provided with a list of unacceptable people. Service providers should be given the chance to see that list at the earliest opportunity so that they can decide whether they want to progress with the temporary employment of someone who applies for a job and who is not on the list and then put them under strict supervision. That would at least allow the issue to progress.
Another difficulty is that once a check has been completed, that person cannot carry that authority with them if they move jobs within a short timescale — they must go through the entire process again.
In one instance, one of my constituents made an application through AccessNI, but the job was filled in the meantime. The person got adequate provision from AccessNI and, within five days, was offered another job; but that individual was not allowed to take up that job, simply because the original check could not be transferred to a new employer. That really must be resolved; some sort of follow-up process should allow a check to be carried on to a new employer. Those issues could be helped and improved within a very short timescale.
We need to see an improvement in the service. The Minister has indicated that more staff have been put in place and have been asked to work longer hours to try to resolve the backlog. There must be clear answers; will the problem be resolved in the short term, before Christmas? If it is not resolved, providers will not be able to forward plan. If an employee at a local playgroup or nursing home gives a weeks notice, that vacancy cannot be filled. That is the difficulty, and I want it to be resolved as soon as possible.
The protection of children and vulnerable adults is, and should always be, of paramount importance to all Departments that have responsibility for delivering services of any type to the people of Northern Ireland. Currently, the caring services appear to be hit the hardest by the backlog and tardy processing and by what that means for recruitment and the roll-out of care. It is vital that the vetting procedures and security checks are carried out in a timely fashion.
In recent months, my constituency office has received many complaints from individuals who have made applications for posts and are awaiting clearance by Access Northern Ireland. In one case, a mental-health nurse’s application took 28 weeks for clearance. That is totally unacceptable. Last month, we received several complaints from separate organisations that are awaiting clearance on various appointments and are desperately in need of additional staff. None of us would condone the appointment of workers without the appropriate checks having been carried out. However, a better screening system is vital.
Minister Goggins told us publicly that he acknowledges that there is a problem and that staff are working longer hours and more staff are being employed to clear the backlog. Despite all those additional hours, it is not clear that the problem has been overcome. Is the very process at fault? At this stage, we must consider that, as more and more requests for clearance come through AccessNI, the backlog will continue, and staff deployed to deal with the initial problem will probably be resited or will return to their previous posts. The problem will linger until there is another round of complaints and — as with many of the motions that we debate — we find ourselves in the same position, in another few months, demanding change and urgent better practice.
In today’s employment and financial climate, there is desperation in the air as the credit crunch really gets its teeth stuck in. Even in a stable economy, employment in Northern Ireland has always been scarce, to say the least. However, in the midst of the current crisis, employment is more important than ever before. For families, employment means a salary, which could be the difference between living on the breadline or not. Given that scenario, the vetting process must be efficient, effective and responsive.
None of us wishes to criticise a process that was put in place to ensure the protection of children and vulnerable people. However, when that very process is backfiring on those whom it is supposed to protect, we are left with no option but to use whatever vehicle we can to improve the delivery of that process.
A full and frank investigation into vetting procedures and the causes for such lengthy delays must be implemented sooner rather than later, if we are to have even the slightest chance of providing an efficient service with a response time that will benefit the client and the applicant. In short, it is down to time, which, as the saying goes, is of the essence. Better safe than sorry should be the order of the day when dealing with the protection of children and vulnerable adults. However, if the situation is not put right immediately, each day hundreds, if not thousands, of children and vulnerable adults will be put at risk by the very process that is there to assist and protect them and their care.
The Security Minister must now act to put an end to a situation that has all the symptoms of meltdown.
I could mention several cases and describe to Members how the vetting process is being applied. The people concerned must wait and wait while organisations need them to do the jobs to which they have been appointed; and the people for whom they have been appointed to care are being sold short.
Schools are in the same position. I know of one school that is waiting for 11 clearances and has received none. The school term began at start of September, but those cases have still not been cleared. A moment ago, someone in the Chamber handed me a note informing me that it took two hours to get a phone call through to Access Northern Ireland. What chance does that give people who need to contact the organisation? Public representatives do not even have a hotline to Access Northern Ireland — perhaps they should, because that may help slightly. It is totally unacceptable that it takes two hours to get through to an organisation of that nature.
I congratulate the Members who tabled the motion on an issue that affects thousands of people across the country. To place in context how many people are affected, some 12 million people in the United Kingdom are employed in jobs that require them to undergo a security check, and more than 6,000 applications are being processed in Northern Ireland alone. The safety of children and vulnerable adults is regarded, rightly, as an important issue, and the Assembly must take it seriously.
The Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 aims to improve safeguards for vulnerable sections of society and is, on the face of it, extremely welcome. It is important that groups and organisations that work with children and vulnerable adults can be confident that their employees are not a threat to the well-being of those in their care. The Order also gives added peace of mind to family members who place their loved ones in the care of others.
However, the fact that a huge backlog of cases threatens people’s jobs and childcare, health and education facilities is not welcome. As Mrs Naomi Long said, the threat extends even beyond that to leaders of voluntary groups. At present, the delays are as long as two months, which is frustrating for those people who are being prevented from going to work, and that was not the timescale that was envisaged when the process was established. It was stated at that time that Access Northern Ireland would process the majority of applications within only a few weeks. I know of cases in my constituency of applications not even being on the system by then.
I want to mention one particular case with which I have been dealing in my constituency — with, I must say, little success. I was contacted by a lady who had been working at the PlayAway Nursery in Island Magee. That is a fairly small nursery that employs only three members of staff. The lady had been working there for some time, but she is still waiting for her vetting clearance to come through. She was told that she cannot go back to work there until the vetting forms have been returned. The nursery simply cannot survive with two members of staff, and my constituent is understandably irritated that she cannot continue in the job that she loves because of delays and red tape.
Mrs Dowey is not alone in her frustration. If the delay causes the nursery to close, the parents must look elsewhere for childcare. When I asked Access Northern Ireland whether it could fast-track the application, I was told that that was not possible. The organisation said that it had not even begun to process the application because it was still working through others that it had received several months earlier. Thankfully, Access Northern Ireland finally agreed to prioritise the application and process it manually, but it still took some time and remains unresolved.
It is not only the PlayAway Nursery that suffers from being placed in that impossible position. Members have heard today of many nursing homes and childcare facilities across Northern Ireland that are in a similar position. As groups experience difficulty in hiring staff, the delays put children and vulnerable adults at risk, because those who are keen to work are left at home, awaiting clearance or, as is more often the case, walk away from the job to do something else. As previously mentioned, most people cannot afford to wait for clearance or rely on their wages to survive, particularly now that current global economic conditions are severely stretching household finances.
My constituent Mrs Dowey loved the work that she was doing and is willing to wait for clearance, but the vast majority of people simply cannot afford to take that option. It is paramount that changes be made to the system to make it more efficient and speedy, so that groups and childcare facilities are not put under pressure to find accredited staff, and so that ever more people are not forced to walk away from jobs that they enjoy. I support the motion.
I also support the motion, and I declare an interest as a volunteer officer in the Boys’ Brigade. I, in common with others in the Chamber, am subject to vetting checks. Potentially, people in voluntary services will not be able to provide support to their communities or facilitate the progress and learning of children.
Furthermore, I am a member of Horizon Sure Start, which employs people in the children’s sector. That organisation may experience delays. My son, who is seeking part-time employment, has experienced difficulties with the legislation, whereby the employer told him that he could not start employment until the completion of the process. That process has taken several months.
Lessons must be learnt from the Soham inquiry, and legislation must be produced and delivered. At the minute, delivery is failing. The legislation is correct in theory, but systems must be established, and the resources must be available to ensure delivery. As other Members said, a wide range of services is affected, including critical areas such as children’s services, nursing homes, residential homes, the teaching profession and the PSNI. The Northern Ireland Office and AccessNI are endangering children and vulnerable people. As a result of the delays, there is a risk of understaffing and failing to help children and vulnerable adults. That is an indictment of the Northern Ireland Office and AccessNI, and the situation must be rectified immediately.
I am aware of that; it is a serious breach of data protection legislation and an indictment of the administration that is handling that sensitive personal information.
Successful applicants who cannot start employment will seek other jobs. That adds huge costs to the system such as re-advertising costs for employers and costs of submitting additional checks. That bungs up the system, and AccessNI may receive more applications for every full-time job than is necessary. Removal of that bottleneck is essential.
One of my constituents is experiencing difficulties receiving clearance to become a part-time taxi driver. After six months, his application has still not proceeded. That individual has a clean record and is a respected member of the local community. That is an important employment issue and, moreover, affects our towns and city centres in the evenings, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. AccessNI is not allowing young people to travel home safely and quickly, and avoid potential difficulties on the streets.
We must introduce new legislation to improve the safety of children and vulnerable adults. Where are the systems, resources and staff to deliver those improvements? The Northern Ireland Office must fix the situation. I concur with my colleague Tom Elliott, who outlined that the system must be altered — even temporarily. Individuals have received approval and, five days later, are told that they must return to the bottom of the pile and wait several months before they consider a similar job in a similar location. That is ridiculous; it is bureaucracy gone mad, and changes are essential. A rolling extension to those procedures — whereby an increasing number of areas will be scrutinised — is in operation. It is essential that the scheduling is carefully examined in order to ensure delivery and to ensure that our children and vulnerable adults do not experience further difficulties.
I support the motion and thank my colleagues for highlighting such an important and timely matter.
The vetting of those who work or volunteer with children or vulnerable adults is one part of our system that is in place to stop unsuitable people getting access to those who are at risk. Members will know that emergency legislation was introduced earlier this year that temporarily relaxed current vetting procedures pending receipt of an enhanced-disclosure certificate, but such legislation was absolutely essential to enable key establishments to recruit adequate staff.
We are all aware of the graphic results when a protective system fails, and we recall the terrible events in Soham and the activities of Ian Huntley. More locally, the inquiry of 1993 that produced the ‘An Abuse of Trust’ report examined the activities of sex offender Martin Huston, who managed to abuse children in a number of organisations, despite some professionals being aware of the risk that he posed and his past offences, combined with a then lax and underdeveloped system of pre-employment vetting.
With the enactment of the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, arrangements were strengthened, and further built on the provision of the pre-employment consultancy service that was run by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The 2003 legislation significantly improved vetting requirements and created a statutory disqualification list, and made vetting and reporting those who had harmed children a requirement for a range of posts in childcare organisations.
For others, mainly in the community and voluntary sector, uniformed and sporting organisations, the vetting of those who sought posts was facilitated by the legislation, encouraged by the Department of Health and Social Services and was widely prescribed as good practice. Running parallel to Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 was the issue of Part V of the Police Act 1997, which was enacted in all other parts of the UK with the exception of Northern Ireland, despite the fact that Parliament intended the legislation to apply here.
The NIO eventually implemented Part V of the Police Act 1997 this year — 11 years later. That also facilitated the establishment of AccessNI to process vetting checks, which took over that responsibility from the Department of Education and the Department of Health. Part V of the Police Act 1997 also created a more robust statutory process for the police to provide disclosure information, particularly in enhanced disclosures when relevant, non-conviction data can be provided.
A lot of work has gone in to encouraging organisations to carry out vetting checks and to operate the new processes and arrangements. However, it is regrettable to witness the considerable delays that have developed very quickly with AccessNI. Similar problems occurred when the Criminal Records Bureau was established in England and Wales. It is extremely disappointing that we find ourselves in the same position and that lessons do not seem to have been learned. For whatever reason, that is totally unacceptable and must be resolved immediately if public confidence in vetting is not to be undermined.
We have heard countless examples today of organisations that are unable to recruit quickly to a range of posts and sectors, which causes real hardship. That is also unacceptable, and decisive action is required. In my own constituency, Comber YFC had to wait almost four months before its youth worker could begin work. As for volunteers, there is a constant delay in the process, and, subsequently, people tend to lose interest and move on to some other charities while waiting. It has become rather like a lottery for individuals who want to offer their services — they simply make themselves available to a selection of youth charities and the one that comes back the quickest is where they go.
Following the Bichard Inquiry, new legislation is in the offing in the form of the safeguarding vulnerable groups Order, and in the radical new vetting and barring regimes that are being introduced by that legislation in Northern Ireland in October 2009. AccessNI will play a pivotal role in that, and will process applications for the new continuous monitoring scheme. Current problems will be dwarfed by what will come at that point. It is absolutely essential that problems in business processing and timescales are resolved.
The Minister, Paul Goggins, has taken a personal interest in this issue. I add my voice to the call for him to ensure, as a matter of importance, that the turnaround time for enhanced disclosure is brought back to four weeks. It is essential that he acts, and does so quickly. It may be also be very helpful if the Minister were to appear in person before the Education and Health Committees to advise as to the current position.
The problem with speaking at this stage of a debate is that everything that could possibly be said on the subject has already been said by a variety of Members. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, as will other Members in the House, that is not something that has stopped me in the past, and it is not something that will stop me now.
It is refreshing that there has been unanimity throughout the Chamber on this very important issue. Having listened to the debate, it is clear that few MLAs or constituencies have not been adversely affected by this matter and, throughout the summer and recently, MLAs have encountered a broad range of complaints from various sectors about it.
I shall address the points that were made by several Members. However, nothing that I say should be misconstrued as a call for a rolling back of the structures that are in place — far from it. We have heard about various horrors over the years in the education sector, in nursing homes and in the health sector, and about the dreadful things that can go wrong if checks into people’s background fail to happen. That is not a situation to which we wish to return; we want to move on.
I welcome the breadth and depth of AccessNI’s strong system of checks into people who work with children and vulnerable adults. That system co-ordinates the work of the Northern Ireland Office, the police, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the Department of Education. I welcome that system’s alignment with the rest of the UK, and I welcome AccessNI’s ambitious targets. I am sure that we all agree that, if delivered, four weeks for an enhanced check is a reasonable amount of time for someone to accept and take up a post and to offer notice to an employer. In such situations, everything should move relatively smoothly.
However, the system of which we are so welcoming is not working; it is badly failing many people. As many Members said, it is ironic that a system that is meant to protect children and vulnerable people is actually putting those people at unnecessary risk because it is failing to deliver its service.
There are many reasons for being in that predicament; however, although many are understandable, they are unacceptable. The setting up of any new agency poses problems. The establishment of AccessNI coincided with the establishment of many community and voluntary sector and council summer schemes, and that probably did not help at the start. In addition, throughout Northern Ireland, there is a general rise in the uptake of such checks. All of those factors have had an impact on the predicament in which we find ourselves, but none is acceptable.
I share some of Naomi Long’s concerns. She said that, although there may be particular failings, there may also be inherent problems with the system and how it works that have been inherited by AccessNI from the old system.
I could, as other Members have, recount umpteen examples of AccessNI’s failure to work properly for people in the voluntary and community sector, the education sector, and the health sector. I have been in contact with a great many nursing homes that are experiencing real problems, including, for example, one that attempted to recruit people from India, who were unable to do their jobs while checks were being processed.
Michelle McIlveen spoke about volunteers who are waiting for positive checks to be processed, and many good schemes are losing such volunteers. I spoke with the manager of a community group who said that, having gone through the process of recruiting an after-school club manager in May, his clearance did not come through, and therefore that person was not able to start until September. Consequently, critical time in establishing an after-school club programme was lost, and that club could not start until well into the academic year. Those are typical of the type of problems that are being experienced.
Jim Shannon spoke about how other councils and groups that were setting up summer schemes have lost out.
The impact of all the delays is severe and widespread. Vulnerable people — including children and vulnerable adults — are being deprived of the services, which are not being delivered. Although not exclusively, in most cases the least well-off in our society are losing out. By and large, summer schemes and schemes that are run by the community and voluntary sectors, for example, are not operating in the most well-off parts of Northern Ireland; they are working in those communities that very much need those services. Therefore, it is the people that those services are aimed at — the elderly, children in care, former offenders, and the mentally ill — who are losing out as a result of the checks not coming through. Therefore, the most vulnerable in our society are suffering as a result of those problems.
The inability of nursing homes to recruit staff is having an adverse effect on those businesses and on health targets in general. Working in a nursing or a care home is not a glamorous job at the best of times; it is difficult work that is a vocation for many people. Given the current economic climate, when someone who is seeking employment applies for a job in a nursing or a care home and finds that there is an inordinate delay in their taking up that post, there is an obvious attraction for them to work in a corner shop or in a major supermarket, for example, where they do not have to go through any vetting process and where the work may be easier or better paid. The nursing or care homes will then lose out.
I am aware of one nursing home that has had to close one floor because of the loss of staff that it has suffered and because of its inability to fill those vacancies quickly, with the result that 12 beds are not being filled. Therefore, 12 elderly people with care needs could be in those beds and getting the service that they require. However, that is not happening. That also has an adverse effect on the operation of that nursing home as a business, and it does not help to ease the problem of bed blocking.
It was mentioned that there is a cost to an organisation as a result of losing out on a person whom it wanted to recruit — it must re-advertise the position and pay another fee for an enhanced check. There is also a cost to the worker, given that some people may want to take up a post but are unable to do so and are, therefore, losing out on the money that they would earn over that time.
The problem has been acknowledged at the appropriate levels of Government, and, as has been mentioned, temporary measures to deal with it have been put in place. However, it is clear that those measures are not working either. The letters that were to be issued have been delayed, with the result that that process has not been simple and straightforward. The letters are certainly not a long-term solution and are not entirely appropriate for people who are offering one-to-one care. In many ways, the letters are putting the burden on organisations and businesses to employ someone and, in doing so, to take a risk. That is not something that I or any Member would encourage a business to do.
As I said, the problem has been acknowledged at the highest level. That is a start, at least. It would help if Access Northern Ireland information were made accessible to us, as elected representatives, and to the businesses and organisations that use it. Along with other Members, I am concerned that, at times, it is impossible to gain information from Access Northern Ireland and that, at other times, such information is released quite slowly. From speaking to other Members, I know that they have also encountered that problem.
I do not know whether the problem is with the system, with the availability of resources, or whether it is a combination of both. I suspect that it is a systemic problem and that the structure must be improved and supported with the appropriate resources. Whatever the problem, a solution must be found, because far too many people in our society who are vulnerable and in need of the services that are provided by various businesses and groups in our community are losing out. That is unacceptable. I therefore commend the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
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.
Adjourned at 4.49 pm.