Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Wednesday 4 July 2001


Department for Employment and Learning Bill: Final Stage

Product Liability (Amendment) Bill: Final Stage

Budget (No 2) Bill: Final Stage

Child Protection

Children’s Hospice


The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Department for Employment and Learning Bill: Final Stage

The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):

I beg to move

That the Department for Employment and Learning Bill (NIA 12/00) do now pass.

Members are familiar with the purpose of the Bill and the reasons behind it, therefore I do not propose to rehearse those reasons in any detail.

The effect of the Bill is to afford my Department a shorter and more practical title that continues to represent its key business areas. The Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment and I agree that the title ‘Department for Employment and Learning’ meets all of those criteria. I have assured Members that the costs of implementing the change are not significant.

As we approach the end of the current session, I would like to record my thanks to the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. This is possibly the last time that I will refer to them with that lengthy and cumbersome title. I thank the Committee and its staff for their work throughout what has been a busy and challenging year, during which we found ourselves on a steep learning curve. I trust that under our new title the working relationship that we have established with the Committee will continue and be enhanced.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Birnie):

I am glad to rise for what I hope, as the Minister said, will be the last time that I will be the called the Chairperson of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. The Committee supports the Bill. It will lead to a more appropriate title for the Department and one that will be easier to remember. At Further Consideration Stage, I said that the Committee considered a variety of names for the Department. We are glad that the Minister took on board the recommendation to change the name to the Department for Employment and Learning, which can be shortened to DEL. We are heartened that the press has welcomed the new title for this important Department. The Committee welcomes the fact that the Bill will complete its Final Stage before the summer recess.

I acknowledge the work of the Minister and his officials in speedily progressing the matter to ensure that the Bill was completed in time. Simply changing the name of the Department will not create a job for anyone who is currently unemployed and will not put anyone on a training scheme. However, it is important that we get the matter right and clear the decks for future work. It is to be hoped that we can turn to that work as the Department for Employment and Learning.

Dr Farren:

I acknowledge the compliments and the support of the Chairperson of the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Department for Employment and Learning Bill (NIA 12/00) do now pass.


Product Liability (Amendment) Bill: Final Stage

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I beg to move

That the Product Liability (Amendment) Bill (NIA 13/00) do now pass.

I will keep my remarks brief, not least because a Whip has asked me to do so.

The Bill has passed through the various Stages of scrutiny, and there is a consensus and understanding that it is necessary to give effect to a European obligation. Some Members made the point that on the face of it the Bill imposes a theoretical additional liability on farmers and others at an unfortunate time. The Agriculture and Rural Development Committee also registered that concern. The Bill will be of longer-term benefit to such groups, as it will represent a small but significant step in restoring public confidence in food safety. Consumer groups and producers have noted that and welcome the measure. There have been no reported difficulties for farming communities in other European countries that have this legislation in force.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Product Liability (Amendment) Bill (NIA 13/00) do now pass.


Budget (No 2) Bill: Final Stage

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I beg to move

That the Budget (No 2) Bill (NIA 17/00) do now pass.

Mr Speaker:

I remind Members that a vote on a Budget Bill requires cross-community support, and I will apply the usual established conventions.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Budget (No 2) Bill (NIA 17/00) do now pass.


Child Protection


Ms Lewsley:

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Ministers responsible for the protection of children, in view of the anomalies in the current vetting system, to take the necessary interim steps to improve the position on vetting those suitable to work with children.

The Assembly has given priority to child protection, and it is an issue that unites politicians from all parties. It is appropriate that the motion is being debated today, with the recent report released by Barnardo’s on child prostitution and the targeting and grooming of young boys by paedophiles. It is widely accepted that we have unacceptably high levels of child abuse in Northern Ireland. That can be directly and indirectly related to the lack of investment, insufficient political direction during direct rule and poorly thought-out policy development that did not join up government.

One of the first pieces of legislation proposed by the Executive in September 2000 was the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill, which will do much to strengthen the system of vetting people to ensure their suitability to work with children. That will no doubt follow on from the Protection of Children Act 2000 passed at Westminster and will fit into arrangements in the UK and Europe.

With the open movement of people in the EU, vetting is a local, national and international problem. One of the greatest challenges in our Act is to consider the issue on an all-Ireland basis, because the legislation will only work as part of an overall system to protect children in both parts of this island. However, the issue will be complex and has the potential to slow down developments here, while the pace of change with the Protection of Children Act in England is rapid.

For several years, others viewed the system of vetting in Northern Ireland as a good model with the then prevailing practice. The Martin Huston report in 1993 brought about several changes to the vetting system and considerable investment by the then Department of Health and Social Services in training and new guidance to ensure that vetting checks were carried out by a wide range of organisations, including those in the voluntary sector.

Many organisations and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have invested heavily in systems designed to weed out those people who are unsuitable to work with children. However, the system requires more than an infrastructure to work; there is a real danger of getting lost in process and being unable to see the wood for the trees.

The most recent figures from the RUC for 1999-00 state that 788 sexual offences involving children were reported in Northern Ireland. In the previous year, the figure was 1,037. For a variety of reasons many of the perpetrators will not be successfully prosecuted. That alone merits a separate debate in the House. Very few convictions will be noted on the criminal records system or names added to the sex offenders register. That underlines the importance of the Pre-Employment Consultancy Service (PECS), which operates outside the criminal justice system and which should detect those people who harm children but are not prosecuted.

I was astounded to note, from a written answer from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, that only 16 individuals are currently listed on the PECS register, notwithstanding the apparently broad criteria for reporting to the Department and for inclusion on the PECS register. I am concerned about that.

10.45 am

We can have the best infrastructure for vetting those who work with children, but the system will fail if individuals are not reported and added to the PECS register.

That raises several issues. First, why are there so few individuals on the PECS register? What is the Department doing to remedy that in the lengthy period before the new legislation is passed?

Secondly, there is the issue of public confidence in a process that may not be as robust as it appears to the general public and members of those organisations who use PECS. There should not be an overreliance on PECS; it must be part of a wider, vigorous recruitment procedure.

Thirdly, with regard to the established Protection of Children Act list in England and Wales and the proposal for a criminal records bureau throughout the UK, we must have confidence in what is checked by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety when vetting individuals. Is the list held by the Department of Education routinely checked? What is the position concerning people coming over from Scotland? Is the Protection of Children Act list checked against the Department of Education’s list?

Since it will take time to pass new legislation and get the processes absolutely right, it is imperative that interim measures be put in place to address many of those issues. The vetting process should be examined, weaknesses and strengths should be identified and guidance should be reviewed to account for changing practice. The wider public and users of the PECS system must be informed about what it can and cannot do.

Those people who pose a risk to children know no borders and will exploit any loopholes and anomalies in the systems in the North and South of this island. That is one of the weakest aspects in the operation of the current system. It is more than a theoretical risk that unscrupulous individuals who appear on either list would seek to move across the border to the Republic of Ireland, where no such checks are carried out. We urgently need effective cross- border arrangements put into the proposed protection of children and vulnerable adults legislation, and we should implement policies and protocols at this stage. Failure to do so exposes the Achilles heel of our vetting system.

Two issues must be addressed as soon as possible. In a reply to a question for oral answer, the Minister stated that it is not possible for organisations in the Irish Republic to access the PECS system of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. That is unacceptable, and given the movement among the population North and South, it seems perverse that we are not taking urgent steps to remedy the situation. It is possible for checks to be carried out through the Garda Síochána and the RUC on Northern-domiciled staff who work in the South. We should be working towards a similar system in relation to the PECS and List 99 information.

Several organisations in Northern Ireland employ staff from the Republic of Ireland. The Department of Health and Social Service’s 1996 guidance on vetting in ‘Making the Right Choice’ highlights that there are no equivalent registers, such as PECS and List 99, in the Irish Republic. In practice, however, the Department’s forms are used to obtain a police check, and it is often assumed by the organisation that staff from the Irish Republic are vetted to the same level as their Northern counterparts. The Departments must make clear to organisations what is and is not involved in a PECS check of staff from outside this jurisdiction.

My party welcomes the North/South child protection working group that has been established through the North/South Ministerial Council. Collaboration on the protection of children on both sides of the border is long overdue. However, we must recognise that respective Departments and their civil servants will not have all the answers or solutions, and neither may they be au fait with issues on the ground.

Many voluntary and non-governmental organisations have expertise in that field, and it is essential that they are involved as full partners in the debate. New equality legislation in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is designed to ensure a new partnership between Government and the voluntary sector. We must ensure that that partnership is demonstrated in dealing with such an important issue. Both Ministers should detail how they intend to augment the expertise of their civil servants.

Our children are entitled to the highest level of protection that society can offer. It is essential not only that we ensure that young people are properly protected, but that we defend their human rights and promote their right to equality. The Administration should demonstrate that the care and protection of young people in Northern Ireland is its highest priority. We must send those who prey on our children a clear signal that their evil ways will not be tolerated.

Offenders can change their name by deed poll. That matter is not in the remit of any of the Ministers here; it is the responsibility of the Secretary of State, and I have brought it up with him several times. What legal requirement is there for offenders to report such a change to the relevant authorities? That loophole has not been given adequate consideration and negates the effect of the PECS checks. The Secretary of State should address that issue without delay, enabling us to pull our child protection legislation together and provide effective measures to deal with the problem. I urge the Ministers who are responsible for PECS and List 99 to make a recommendation to the Secretary of State about that issue.

Mr Gibson:

Our main difficulty is that suitability checks are not applied in a standard fashion throughout the Province. Also, there is no system that applies to workers coming in from Wales, England or Scotland, mainly because of the speed with which devolution has taken place. There are no quick verifiable checks in place. The Assembly should take that on board, and the Minister should try to establish a comprehensive system of suitability checking as quickly as possible.

There could be some operational difficulties for schools. Education and library boards have established a system of suitability checks for schools to use. However, those of us who are involved in community work will know that nowadays, many after-school activities take place in community centres, including after-school playgroups and work with children with learning difficulties. Many such activities are operated by community groups. That is where the expertise is lacking, and Ms Lewsley should have concentrated on that area.

People working in such circumstances should receive clear guidance. People with a perverse nature may be able to insinuate themselves into that new situation. Whereas they would previously have been detected by the Government institutions, they may now be able to take advantage of that opportunity. We must ensure that support for children goes further than is envisaged in the motion. There are agencies, not directly under the Minister’s control but under the control of community or voluntary agencies, that deal with children almost from birth until they leave school and beyond. Such agencies must be given help with carrying out suitability checks.

I do not buy into Ms Lewsley’s suggestion that all-Ireland institutions be established. A good deal of child abuse has taken place in all-Ireland-based institutions. We are all aware that personnel who have created difficulties in schools and institutions in the North of Ireland have been moved to the South of Ireland to camouflage their perversion. It is therefore essential that our Minister has direct responsibility for establishing suitability checks on individuals, whether they arrive from England, Scotland, Wales, elsewhere in Europe, or America. There must also be a code of conduct to examine not only those who have been prosecuted for these offences, but individuals about whom there are personnel files that hold details suggesting that a degree of perversion has been detected. Often, people are moved on quietly to ensure discretion or to protect the good name of an institution. Sometimes people are protected quietly by a change in the institution in which they work. We are all too aware of examples of such incidents.

In general, I support the resolution, but I ask that the relevant Minister take direct responsibility, because he can establish quickly in his Department the necessary suitability checks and procedures. The onus is on us to establish codes of good practice to safeguard children. Those of us who do not have any expertise in that field should put codes of good practice in place in our community groups. Those should extend as equally to small rural playgroups as to organisations in conurbations where operations may already exist. We all share that responsibility. It is easy to focus on the main institutions such as schools, but we do not always consider smaller organisations such as voluntary and community groups, which provide day-to-day activities for the youth of our community.

Ms Ramsey:

Go raibh maith agat. I thank Ms Lewsley for proposing the motion. It should be welcomed, because this is the last plenary session before the summer recess, and children’s rights are at the top of the agenda again. Other Members have highlighted issues concerning the PECS system and List 99. However, as Ms Lewsley mentioned, we must take on board the fact that many Departments and Ministers have some form of responsibility for children. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Minister of Education, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Northern Ireland Office all have some responsibility for children, so it is not surprising that the legislation relating to the issue can be confusing. Until we have a Minister who has overarching responsibility for children, none of those Departments can take the lead to ensure that children’s rights are paramount. The ‘Our Duty to Care’ document states that

"child protection is all our business, establishing good practice, taking the necessary steps to improve the vetting procedure minimises the potential for abuse and maximises the level of safety for our children."

The present vetting system, whether carried out by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety or the Department of Education, has its problems.

11.00 am

We must welcome the proposed protection of children and vulnerable adults Bill that is due in the next few months, as it will put the legislation on a statutory footing. We must protect children throughout the island. Every week, press and television reports tell us of someone being convicted in the South who moves North and vice versa. That problem must be tackled.

Allowing groups and agencies to check an all-Ireland register would help prevent unsuitable people from working with children. Many of those groups have voluntary workers, yet they have no way of accessing these lists.

We must review the vetting system, as most of those who offend against children are not convicted for various reasons. That is perhaps an issue for another day.

We are aware that the Departments and the social services keep a list of people whom they deem to be unsuitable. However, many groups find it hard to access that list, and we must examine ways of making it easier for them to do so. Groups must follow a procedure to gain access to the list. First, they must contact the childcare unit. Then they must give details of the constitution and structure of the group and names and addresses of their members and officer board. They must provide a job description, show how the applicant will have access to children and state why access is unavoidable. All of that must take place before they are allowed to access the list.

Sharing information is important in assessing whether children are at risk and in ensuring their safety. We must make those procedures easier so that organisations can access that information. Why do we create problems for groups and organisations that want to access information to ensure that the children in their organisations are safe?

I support the motion, and I agree with the mover that we must get this right. I welcome the proposed protection of children and vulnerable adults Bill. We must examine the North/South and all-Ireland child protection initiatives. Has that child protection work been stopped by the refusal of the First Minister, or the caretaker First Minister, to nominate Ministers? That must also be examined.

I pay tribute to the community and voluntary organisations that work in this sector. I also pay tribute to local councils, especially Lisburn Borough Council, for its work with the NSPCC in drawing up childcare policies. Groups, organisations and local councils have taken the lead and implemented the ‘Our Duty to Care’ booklet despite problems from the Departments. They have left the Departments behind in that matter. It is up to us to ensure that that legislation is put in place so that we can complement the good work of the community and voluntary sectors and local councils.

We must ensure that Ministers implement the relevant legislation and get rid of the red tape. We must make it easier for interested groups to access the list of those who have been deemed unsuitable to work with children so that we can ensure that children’s rights and safety are paramount. I support the motion, and I thank Ms Lewsley for moving it today. Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs E Bell:

I welcome today’s debate for several reasons. I fervently believe that children are important; that is the bottom line. We must do everything in our power to protect them and give them the quality of life that they are entitled to.

I support wholeheartedly the motion in the name of Ms Lewsley, whom I am pleased and proud to work with on the all-party children’s committee. We will continue to work with the organisations mentioned by Sue Ramsey, to ensure that the vetting system will be amended. Voting for the motion will help that work. I congratulate the Members, including Patricia Lewsley, for their comprehensive speeches.

Statistics on abuse of children in Northern Ireland are horrifying, and I make no apology for stating them. The NSPCC and the Voluntary Development Agency provided the figures. In 1995, seventy children suffered the horrors of rape. In 1996, the figure was higher. The estimates for last year are that three children were raped and 12 were assaulted every week. Last year alone, over 900 sexual offences were recorded, and the rape figures were over 150 — the tip of an iceberg, Mr Speaker. We must do more to protect our children.

Ms Lewsley has already talked about the problems with the Protection of Children Act, List 1999 and the PECS register, and these must be addressed immediately and directly.

The realisation that something must be done has grown steadily over the years. A turning point for many people, certainly for those in my own constituency, was the tragic case of the abuse perpetrated by a senior teacher at Bangor Grammar School. Strangers rarely threaten our children — it is usually people they know, respect and trust. We must do everything possible to ensure that the people involved with our children are worthy of that trust. One of the ways in which we can do this is to educate the general public with correct information and provide access to advice and support.

Most children are abused by adults whom they know and trust. The reported cases of child abuse are just the tip of the iceberg of the cruelty, exploitation and neglect to which children in our society are subjected. Disabled children are more vulnerable to abuse. They are more dependant on intimate care and are sometimes less able to tell anyone or run away from abusive situations. Children fear the consequences of telling; if things are bad, perhaps they will get worse. Unfortunately, many children have become very good at hiding their unhappiness and distress. Another statistic, which I find horrifying, is that the majority of children whose names were placed on the child protection register in Northern Ireland in 1995 were between one and nine years of age.

Westminster passed the Protection of Children Act 1999, which allows for the establishment of a criminal records bureau and a list maintained by the Secretary of State to prevent abusers moving from one location to another to continue the horrific attacks on our children and society. I can only hope, as I am sure do all Members, that the bureau is created and action plans are implemented as quickly as possible.

The NSPCC has supported the use of independent visitors for some time. The role of an independent visitor is to befriend, advise and have an independent, positive relationship with the child or young person. The NSPCC carried out research on young people in care who had access to an independent visitor. Key findings of ‘Official Friends and Friendly Officials’ were that independent visitors received high approval ratings from young people and played an important role in mediating or advising young people when problems arose. Young people commented on the value of the role. I would go along with the NSPCC in advocating reform of article 31 of the Children Order 1995 to read

"When an authority is looking after any child for more than 3 months and where not placed with its parents, the authority should take steps, in consultation with the child or young person, to appoint an Independent Visitor for him."

As became evident during the recent foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, Northern Ireland shares a border with another state, and it is all too easy for a perpetrator to move from the South to the North or vice versa. Such movement on either side usually masks an unsavoury past. I therefore wholeheartedly support the idea of an all-Ireland children’s strategy. Mr Gibson, when he was outlining his argument against such a strategy, only illustrated that if we work together, we get things done.

The Probation Board for Northern Ireland works closely with the South, and that leads to effective action. Our aim is to establish an effective working partnership between the two countries and between Departments on this project, which concerns us all. A great benefit of the Assembly is that we can raise the issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland and work towards solutions.

What are the Ministers doing to increase the safety of our children, and how are they implementing the Protection of Children Act 1999? What measures are they taking in conjunction with their Southern counterparts to ensure the safety of all children on the island? The public must be given more direct access and practical information so that children are confident that there is broad support.

The most important reason for supporting the motion is to protect children, who are our most valuable resource. Let us make their childhood safe. We welcome the forthcoming protection of children and vulnerable adults Bill. The motion also gives us a chance to illustrate how the Assembly can make a difference to the lives of children and everyone in Northern Ireland. If we protect our children now, we will have a better society in the future.

We can make a difference for the better. There should be no loopholes. Our children should be protected effectively and practically, and I am confident that we can accomplish that. The consensus that was evident today will continue: therefore it is with pleasure that I support the motion.

Mrs Carson:

I support Patricia Lewsley’s motion. There is dissatisfaction with the current system for vetting those who work with children. The protection of our children in any circumstance is most important. Anyone who comes into contact with children through employment or on a voluntary basis must be suitably vetted. We must encourage and promote the highest standards of child safety in all strands of our society, because no strand is immune from child abuse. We must learn from the lessons of the past and ensure that the future is safer for our children.

Who could forget the Waterhouse report, which catalogued a horrifying account of child abuse and the failure of a system designed to safeguard vulnerable children. Last year’s report by Warwickshire County Council listed several initiatives, the adoption of which could be considered as an interim measure. These included introducing a whistle-blowing policy for staff to report matters of concern, and making it an offence to fail to report bad practice or misconduct. It also called for more inspection reports and safeguard checks to be carried out on all residential placements.

Any vetting procedure must be implemented in co-operation with all the recognised children’s organisations and the RUC to give maximum protection to our children, who are the most vulnerable sector of our society. I ask the Ministers and the Departments concerned to take immediate suitable interim steps to improve the situation until there is a more extensive debate on the matter in the autumn.

Mrs Courtney:

I support the motion, and I congratulate Ms Lewsley for proposing it at this critical time. Children are the most vulnerable people in our society and must be protected. At present there are insufficient places available to children who are in need of care.

Last week a headline in The ‘Derry Journal’ said "Review slams trust — Kids forced into unsafe homes". According to that newspaper report, children are being forced into residential homes that have insufficient resources. They are also placed in foster homes. However, there are also inadequate places available. We know what happened in Belfast when a 14-year-old slipped and fell because he was probably placed somewhere that initially seemed safe but was not.

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In Foyle Trust, there have been inadequate placements of children in residential care. At times, children have been placed with parents or relatives who do not have the resources to look after them. A report from the Western Health and Social Services Board states that even when children are placed in care, staff at times were inadequately trained, inadequately supervised and were experiencing unacceptable workload pressures. It stated that foster carers in the Western Health and Social Services Board area had not been offered training in the past five years and revealed that out-of-hours provision could no longer be guaranteed.

Shortly before I became a Member of the Assembly, I came as part of a deputation to the Minister of Heath, Social Services and Public Safety, asking for more resources to be put into childcare. As yet, that has not really happened. The report is quite damning in that it says that the care is just not there, and any care that is available sometimes falls far short of what is required.

The staff are aware of the shortcomings, which they blame on lack of resources. For example, in north and west Belfast, funding, which Members would agree is inadequate, is 25% to 50% higher than in the Foyle Trust area. The report also reveals a serious lack of resources in every part of the family and childcare programmes.

As the Assembly is about to go into recess and as we are unsure about what is going to happen to it, it is important that the motion is passed today. Without it, children in our society will be unprotected. The Assembly will probably appoint a children’s commissioner. It is necessary because children are our natural resource, and we have a responsibility to protect them. Without a children’s commissioner there is no way that we can protect children in the future.


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