ONE of Ireland's biggest charities has warned the Justice Minister that services to disadvantaged children could be curtailed because of the huge delays in the garda vetting system.
St Vincent de Paul (SVP) has complained that vetting of volunteers for services such as children's summer camps, home work clubs and counselling can take as long as four months.
SVP's national director Kieran Murphy said the 16-week backlog means that services might have to be curtailed or suspended as a result.
In a letter to Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, Mr Murphy said it was "critically important that the process times be substantially reduced, otherwise the operational difficulties for organisations will be significant and the credibility of the whole garda vetting process may be undermined.
"If process times cannot be reduced to within three to four weeks, some of our services may have to be curtailed or suspended with significant impact for the people involved and adverse publicity."
SVP is the latest charity to complain about the delays in garda vetting for volunteers and staff working with children and vulnerable adults.
The Garda Vetting Service – which checks convictions and prosecutions of job applicants – has been plagued by delays and backlogs almost since its inception and pressure is likely to mount when new legislation is enacted to make garda vetting mandatory.
The GAA and other community groups and charities reliant on volunteers are among those affected by the backlog. Ballyfermot College claimed in January that pre-nursing students were unable to start work experience because of delays of up to 20 weeks at the Garda Vetting Unit.
Mr Murphy said this weekend that there has been no improvement since he wrote to the Garda Vetting Unit in March and that a 14-to-16 week turnaround in vetting approval is now the norm.
"We have lots of seasonal services such as holidays for older people and children, particularly facing into the summer season, where we have summer camp activities.
"They are heavily reliant on employees and volunteers, and our policy is to garda vet all our new employees and volunteers," he said.
"Our first week of holidays begins on May 25.
"We are thinking how many volunteers have we already vetted, how many are we waiting for . . .
"It adds an additional administrative burden, which is very difficult.
"As we get closer to the summer, decisions will have to be made as to whether we would have to restrict the numbers of children or adults we can take on these programmes or whether we would cancel them entirely."
The backlog has also affected St Vincent de Paul's reliance on community employment schemes to staff a variety of its services.
Mr Murphy said that community employment participants can't wait three to four months to accept a place on a community employment scheme.
An extra 25 civil servants were transferred to the vetting service from the Department of Agriculture in March to improve processing times.
In reply to SVP, Mr Shatter's private secretary said the current processing time was 11 weeks and that the minister was looking at the staffing and resourcing issues involved.
However, Mr Shatter declined St Vincent de Paul's request for a meeting because of diary commitments.
Mr Murphy said: "My expectation was that having written to the minister that we would have gotten a reply from the minister directly and that he would have been available to meet with us, it is a critically important issue for us. It's critically important, too, that the Garda Vetting Unit is able to provide a reasonable service and it is not doing that at the moment."