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Committee for Health,
Wednesday 18 September 2002
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
of Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill:
Dr Hendron (Chairperson)
Ms M Smith ) SSAFA Forces Help
The Chairperson: I welcome Ms Maggie Smith from the Soldier’s, Sailor’s, and Airmen’s Families Association (SSAFA) Forces Help. Please make a presentation about SSAFA, and the Committee will then ask you some questions.
Ms Smith: Thank you for inviting me.
I am here because there are gaps in the protection of children who are from military backgrounds, and I am interested in the impact that those gaps have on Northern Ireland. I began social work late in life, when I did a diploma in social work aged 42. At that stage I had four children, who were aged from two to 18. I count myself as one of the lucky people who managed to have three children at first, two girls and one boy, and, ten years later, I had one of life’s little surprises. That gave me a good lead into the field, as I had a real interest in the protection of children and a desire to improve their situations.
I worked in childcare in east Belfast for five years, then moved to SSAFA in 1994 as a social worker, and I have been managing the association’s social work department here for four years.
Not a lot is known about the SSAFA social work service in Northern Ireland. The organisation was established in 1885 because families of soldiers who joined the Egyptian Expeditionary Force needed support. It continued as a volunteer group until 1892 when a health visiting service was introduced. It is interesting to note that the first health visitor, under the SSAFA umbrella, was employed in the Curragh Camp near Dublin. The organisation continued to grow from strength to strength, until social workers were introduced in 1963. That was the forerunner of a very strong social work service throughout the world, in Germany, Cyprus and Gibraltar. My employment with the association in 1994 introduced the current network to Northern Ireland.
In my letter, I outlined the difficulties that we face. I am here to see whether we can resolve some of those difficulties. I am interested in the Committee’s views and will try to answer any questions.
Mrs Courtney: The Bill has raised issues about how you can employ people when you know nothing about their backgrounds. You referred to the serious gap in provision in the Bill as regards members of the armed forces. From your work, you may know that certain people are unsuitable for employment, but is it correct to say that their record is not available to any organisations here?
Ms Smith: Yes. The SSAFA social work service keeps records of people known to it. The difficulty is that people in Northern Ireland employing dependants or military personnel may not know that they can access those records through me. We are trying to bridge that gap in knowledge.
Mrs Courtney: Do you want the Committee to let employers know that they can access your service if they want to check someone’s background?
Ms Smith: Yes.
Mrs Courtney: That is good to know. We will consider the matter further.
Ms McWilliams: When I had read your submission, I contacted an organisation to see what happens in cases such as this. In the UK alone, there are three different operations. In England and Wales, the Criminal Records Bureau carries out the relevant checks. The Central Registered Body in Scotland, or Disclosure Scotland, does not have a statutory register such as the one we are about to introduce, but it does incorporate Part V of the Police Act 1997, which makes it different again. In Northern Ireland, the Pre-employment Consultancy Service (PECS) will have a statutory register, but does not incorporate Part V of the Police Act 1997.
Ms Smith: We are not registered with PECS as yet.
Ms McWilliams: I suggest that the Committee writes to the three-bureau implementation group, which is apparently going to take on the co-ordination of these bodies and Maggie’s work. As I understand it, if a member of the armed forces has a criminal conviction, your organisation would hold that information. However, if a serious offence is committed, the armed forces have their own procedures.
Ms Smith: That does not happen in all cases. Any member of the armed forces can come before a civilian court, and, in such a case, proper records would be kept. The court martial system is different, and I am not convinced that there is a way of tracking it. For example, I do not know whether there is a link between the records of members of the armed forces convicted in Germany, and the records of members of the armed forces who serve here.
Ms McWilliams: Apparently, there is no link. If an offence has been committed against a child outside the armed forces and the parent takes a prosecution to the criminal courts, the accused will receive a criminal conviction in our criminal courts that will ensure that he or she is registered on the sex offenders register and, later, I assume, on the Pre-employment Consultancy Service’s register. Please explain what happens if the same offence occurs within the armed forces.
Ms Smith: I can give one example. Allegations were made against a male babysitter after an offence was committed in Germany. That person was tried by court martial and found to be not guilty even though the evidence suggested that he might have been guilty. He was then posted on to the next place. The Probation Board for Northern Ireland mentioned "soft evidence" in their evidence. There would have been soft evidence in that case, but there was no way to pass that on. There is no problem if there is a conviction. This week, there was a successful conviction by a court martial in Aldergrove.
Ms McWilliams: Let us take the example of a successful conviction.
Ms Smith: If there is a conviction, the person’s name is added to the sex offenders register in the normal way. It is the non-convicted person who would not be registered.
Ms McWilliams: So, if a case internal to the armed forces is tried by a court martial, the convicted person’s name is automatically put on the sex offenders register?
Ms Smith: I am not sure if it is automatic, but that has happened. The non-convicted person concerns me.
Ms McWilliams: It would also concern me if registration is not automatic.
Ms Smith: I cannot answer that; I do not know. I may be able to find out more about that.
The Chairperson: How effective are the current liaison arrangements between your organisation, the social work service and local health and social services trusts in relation to child protection? Could they be improved?
Ms Smith: The system works well when people apply to become childminders or nursery school staff. All our offices work well alongside social services offices. A system is in place whereby anyone applying to become a childminder who is part of the military population has a separate form to complete for our records. All social services offices are aware of that. The only way the system could fall down is if the applicant did not disclose that he or she was part of the military community.
Mr Berry: Thank you for your presentation. Your submission refers to local residential and/or day care facilities not asking for SSAFA Forces Help for background checks on childminders. In what ways could the public be better informed about the advice and information available from SSAFA Forces Help?
Ms Smith: We are currently trying to think of ways to advertise. We do not advertise externally. Perhaps we could communicate with each of the residential homes in the garrison areas and make them aware that they can apply to us for records. I would welcome the Committee’s advice on that matter.
Mr J Kelly: Thank you for your presentation. What is the position in respect of members of the forces serving abroad who are tried overseas by court martial? Are such records maintained? What form of liaison exists with social services?
Secondly, how can SSAFA Forces Help contribute to improve co-ordination of tracking potential abusers in that mobile type of community?
Ms Smith: There is no direct link between the court martial system and social services. There is no mechanism for that. SSAFA wants to improve that, and the ways to do so are being considered continually. This is a starting point.
Mr J Kelly: How would you remedy that? How could we contribute to resolving that?
Ms Smith: The Committee can help by highlighting the nature of the problem and supporting us in the advancement of our initiatives. We want to think of some links. We need the support of the Assembly and the Government to carry that forward.
Mr J Kelly: On the last question, how can SSAFA Forces Help contribute to improving the co-ordination of tracking potential abusers?
Ms Smith: We contribute as much as we can through our own records. Beyond that, we look for hints and support to carry it out. What would you like me to take away so as to consider the next step?
Mr J Kelly: It is a gap in the system that has to be addressed.
The Chairperson: Perhaps you would write to the Committee on that point.
Mrs Courtney: From my experience I know that sometimes when people from the local forces apply for a position in hospitals they would be employed before a local person, because their record would be clear. It is not always so, but there is no doubt that it happens. Perhaps the Committee could inform hospital trusts about the gap in the system so that checks can be made. An amendment could be made to the Bill.
I have singled out hospitals because I know that service personnel and their families are posted here for three months and are then transferred elsewhere, and that ends their employment. I doubt if any checks are carried out on their background. That happens a lot.
Ms Smith: We sent a letter to each of the boards for the family and childcare section. It may be wise for us to send such a letter to each of the hospitals.
Mrs Courtney: We could recommend that suggestion in our report.
The Chairperson: I agree that that would be helpful.
Ms Smith: Is there a central point from which such a letter would emanate for distribution?
Ms McWilliams: The letter should go the family and childcare section of the Department, which should send it to every trust.
Ms Smith: We have already done that: I was thinking of the hospitals.
Mrs Courtney: You should send it to the chief executive of each board. They should be told that the matter has been brought to our attention and should be remedied.
Ms McWilliams: We can assume that they have already got it.
The Chairperson: We can incorporate that into our findings.
Ms Smith: Would the letter also be passed to private residential homes or daycare facilities?
Ms McWilliams: Yes, via their inspection facilities.
Ms Courtney: It should, but they are not all registered.
Mr J Kelly: Are you suggesting that Ms Smith should write to the Committee?
The Chairperson: Yes.
Ms Smith: Are you referring to the point about courts martial?
Mrs Courtney: It would be better for the Committee if you cover all of the issues.
The Chairperson: Please address the letter to the Clerk of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Peter Hughes, and it will be passed on to Committee members. Thank you, Ms Smith.
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