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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.