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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.