The Office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) was established in 2003, created by the legislation, The Commissioner for Children and Young People (NI) Order, 2003 . The principal aim of NICCY is to “safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people”. The detailed powers of the Commissioner are set out in the legislation. Amongst the functions of the Office, I must keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice relating to children and young people.
In deciding how to exercise my functions under the legislation I am required to have regard to relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Within the Convention, Articles 3 (best interests) and 19 (right to protection) have guided my action in relation to this review.
In December 2003, it became clear that crucial information about Ian Huntley, recently convicted of murdering Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, had not been available to those who decided to employ him as a school caretaker. The Home Secretary announced that a major review of the circumstances of the Huntley case, and of employment vetting procedures in general, would be undertaken by Sir Michael Bichard. I wrote to the Secretary of State at that time suggesting that it would be prudent to undertake a similar review in Northern Ireland, since we had different systems and organisations involved.
The Secretary of State replied in early 2004, agreeing that my Office should undertake a review to examine the clarity and effectiveness of current arrangements for carrying out employment suitability checks on individuals wanting to work with children in Northern Ireland. As part of this work, I asked Ruth Lavery, a solicitor, to undertake an independent review of the current arrangements. The attached report details the findings of over a year’s work in reviewing legislation, policy, guidance and practice as it applies to Northern Ireland.
The protection of children and young people covers a range of issues, and as is often said “is everyone’s business”. I am keen to make sure that everyone in Northern Ireland, not just those with a professional interest in child protection, takes seriously the need to protect children and young people from all forms of abuse and harm. It is no surprise therefore, that my first major review should concentrate on child protection.
As a starting point, we need to make sure that we have the right people working and volunteering with children in all aspects of their life, for example, health, education, social care, leisure etc. We can only do this by putting in place appropriate recruitment and selection processes which include employment checks against criminal conviction information and disqualification lists.
Employment Checking should always include application forms, interviews, vetting against criminal records and disqualification lists, reference taking and identity checking. I am conscious that since my office started this review there have been significant developments in how the system works (documented in Ruth Lavery’s report, for example, on Part V of the Police Act and the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Order (POCVA). However, this review of vetting showed that while there are systems and procedures in place, these are not clearly understood and/or are not universally adopted by employers of staff and volunteers who apply to work with children. This gives me cause for considerable concern.
The state of the current vetting system might be likened to a complex security alarm system for a valuable property. It has a number of different elements, all of which have to work properly to ensure protection, and that require consistent human involvement, for example, if the guards get complacent the system will fail! Given the complexity of the vetting system, I have considered carefully whether I should recommend abandoning the current arrangements and starting again to build something simpler and more coherent. However, I have concluded that this would be counterproductive, and would introduce uncertainty and delay.
I am therefore recommending a number of changes below that will I believe bring significant improvements to the system and offer better protection to children.
In her report, Ruth Lavery provides a very comprehensive examination of the systems:
It is evident from Ruth Lavery’s report that while these reforms will improve the process of carrying out employment checks, there are other, more strategic issues to be addressed to make the system more effective. I am proposing five major areas for action, and I have set out in the Annex how Ruth Lavery’s detailed recommendations relate to each of these areas.
It is vital that everyone in the public, private and voluntary sectors understands the importance of employment checking and its place as part of child protection. This issue crosses all Government Departments whose responsibility it is to develop legislation, write policies, procedures and monitor good practice. It applies to those who employ staff and volunteers across all sectors and also to self employed people who provide services which interface with children. This means a wide spectrum of people, from the childcare worker in the nursery, home music tutor, swimming pool attendant, teacher, to the caretaker and the maintenance staff employed in schools. These are adults in positions of trust and therefore we must be assured that through employing them, we do not place our children at risk.
It is my view, based on the findings of Ruth Lavery’s report, that there must be effective leadership at Government level. This will involve:
It is well documented in the Report that vetting is only one part of the safety procedures in relation to employing staff and volunteers working with children. However, the Review reveals that the fundamentals, in terms of reliable child protection policy and guidance, are not regularly in place. Indeed, there are significant inconsistencies across Government Departments and within public sector agencies, for example, gaps and weaknesses in policy and monitoring of practice were revealed within District Councils. Too often it seems that public sector bodies have assumed that their contact with children does not merit having particular policies in place. This must change and my suggestion is that it should be made a formal requirement in public bodies’ annual accounts to report on child protection, as this will then feed through to it being the subject of regular audit.
There is undoubted confusion around who should be vetted, who reports people to be placed on the PECS register (now the Disqualification from Working with Children and Vulnerable Adults list), who can access disqualification information, and what should be done with the information once it is received. Of particular concern is the position in relation to self-employed people like home tutors and also that of religious organisations, where currently the guidance is wholly inadequate.
We should be under no illusion that, those with a sexual interest in children will always seek to exploit any weaknesses and gaps in systems and processes. Therefore, we cannot afford to continue with the degree of confusion that was clearly evidenced in Ruth Lavery’s report. She makes strong recommendations (Nos 23 & 26) that the current limited statutory requirement for vetting those in “regulated positions” should be extended.
On a positive note, the Review highlighted a good level of acceptance that vetting should be carried out. Indeed, children and young people were particularly forceful in their views on this.
Related to the above point, the Review further highlighted that the entire system of employment checking is not easy to understand. Therefore, there needs to be one universal guidance document which explains how the different elements of the system work, and where people can get help and training with implementation and monitoring. This short document can then be supplemented by related guidance on individual elements of the system.
An area of particular concern is making sure parents know how to deal with adults who may be working directly with their children e.g. as music or academic tutors, or party entertainers. Further advice is necessary on this.
Northern Ireland is a relatively small place. Movement of workers between Northern Ireland, the U.K and the Republic of Ireland is commonplace and we now also have an increased migrant population. The current vetting system in the Republic is still being developed and is not currently as comprehensive as that in Northern Ireland. I have been in touch with my counterpart, Emily Logan, the Ombudsman for Children in the Republic, and she shares my concern that improvements should be made in the systems there as quickly as possible. It is therefore vital that we ensure consistent practice across the jurisdictions. Where new improvements have been introduced elsewhere in the UK, for example, following the Bichard Inquiry, we should consider if they are appropriate to Northern Ireland. Furthermore, where weaknesses are identified, we should use our influence to improve practice in other jurisdictions.
Ruth Lavery has presented me with valuable information from which it is imperative that immediate action is taken. It is now my intention to pursue the recommendations to ensure that they are followed. I expect to receive an initial written response to the recommendations in Ruth Lavery’s report and this document within three months. I intend to review the implementation of the actions in 12 months time, and will be requesting that the Government prepare a report by 30 June 2006 indicating progress on each recommendation by that time. I will also be seeking a meeting with the Permanent Secretaries’ group after 6 months to discuss progress.
In conclusion, I commend Ruth Lavery’s report to you. I believe it provides us all with a very comprehensive review of the current systems as well as the proposed changes to vetting in Northern Ireland. I have highlighted above what I believe to be the five most pressing areas for action, and recommendations associated with them. But Departments should also address Ruth Lavery’s recommendations on points of detail, which will greatly improve the system.
Safeguarding children from harm is a broad issue; it encompasses aspects of children’s lives outside the remit of this Review. Indeed, as Commissioner for Children and Young People I am concerned about many other aspects relating to child protection and have identified safeguarding children as one of my priorities to be addressed over the next three years.
I strongly urge everyone responsible for the care and welfare of children to consider the report carefully and implement the relevant recommendations. If we do that, then to return to my earlier analogy, we will not only have a comprehensive security alarm system, but we will have plugged the gaps, we will have security staff alert to all the risks, and everyone will understand the benefits and limitations of the system. Our children deserve no less.
Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People
|Commissioner’s Actions||Ruth Lavery’s Recommendations|
|1. Clear Leadership||2, 3, 8, 11|
|2. Consistent Policies and Practice||1, 4, 12, 27, 28, 29, 30,34|
|3. Statutory and Policy Framework||5, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 22, 23, 25, 26, 32, 33|
|4. Clear Guidance, Training and Implementation||6, 31, 35, 36, 37|
|5. National and International Co-operation||7, 9, 24|
|Follow-up & Monitoring by NICCY||13|