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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.