Section 67 — Fees

Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 10:00 am on 8th March 2007.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 10:00 am, 8th March 2007

Group 8 is on fees. Amendment 36, in the name of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, is grouped with amendments 14, 19 and 37.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

Amendment 36 seeks to relieve the understandable concerns of the voluntary sector about the costs of the new scheme. Those concerns have been ably channelled through the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

The SCVO has asked for amendment 36, which would secure in statute the current free checks for volunteers. As a new development, it would also waive fees for vetting paid staff in the voluntary sector, which would be particularly welcome during the initial phasing-in period of retrospective checking because the set-up cost is a particular worry. On the basis that the phasing-in period is likely to be three years, the SCVO has estimated that the total set-up cost will be £24 million, £3 million of which will be to pay fees for vetting the 120,000 paid staff who work in the voluntary sector. Although the Executive disputes the total of £24 million, I understand that the forecast of £3 million for fees is perfectly reasonable. Given that £3 million is a lot of money for voluntary organisations to find over a short period and that, furthermore, it is part of a considerably larger cost, amendment 36 asks that it be eliminated.

Amendment 36 also seeks to have fees for on-going checks waived once new retrospective checking has been completed. I concede that fewer on-going checks may be conducted than is the case at present, but the cost of a check has increased by 47 per cent in the year since the introduction of the outgoing Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003 regime. The indications are that the introduction of the new system will, at a stroke, increase the cost of a full check by 30 per cent. On the basis that such increases may continue, I believe that there is a strong case for the voluntary sector to be considered for exemption.

I applaud the minister's commitment to continuing to pay the costs of checking volunteers who work in the sector, but I feel that the distinction between volunteers and the paid staff who work alongside them is somewhat artificial in the context of checks. In practice, any fee that is levied on a paid member of staff will still be borne by the voluntary group. It is a mistake to assume that if a voluntary organisation can afford paid help, it is somehow able to bear the same financial burden as a public sector body. Given the importance of the issue, and to safeguard against the actions of a future, less reasonable, minister, I ask that consideration be given to including the necessary provision in the bill.

Amendment 37 would introduce use of the affirmative resolution procedure for the adjustment of fees. That is of great importance to voluntary groups: it would ensure that any future changes to the fee structure or level would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, which would make ministers more accountable for, and would ensure greater scrutiny of, any such changes than would the use of the negative procedure, for which the bill currently provides. There must be provision for stronger scrutiny of future decisions, for which ministers should be firmly accountable. That is the case because the Executive has preferred to defer such decisions to future ministers, rather than to set out many of the details in the bill. The Executive has also frequently allowed its plans to speed ahead of the process of consulting those who will be affected by the bill. Amendment 37 represents a necessary safeguard.

I welcome amendment 14, in the minister's name, which will signal that fee inflation should be avoided. However, Executive amendments 14 and 19 do not negate the merits of amendments 36 and 37.

I move amendment 36.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I am grateful to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton for lodging amendments 36 and 37 on an issue that has interested him and other members of the committee from the beginning of the bill's progress. However, the amendments are based substantially on incorrect premises, which I will outline.

Retrospective checking and fees are intricately linked, because a sudden introduction of retrospective checking will create a considerable cost and administrative burden on the voluntary and other sectors. However, if retrospective checking is spread out, that burden will not be created to the same extent. We have always said that fees will be fully consulted on when the bill has been passed. That remains the position.

The fees that will be associated with the scheme were the subject of considerable discussion at stage 1, and of active committee consideration at stage 2, as is right. I am aware of the need to ensure that the charging regime is affordable and sensibly structured, so I repeat our ongoing commitment to working closely with stakeholders to ensure that that is the case.

We are pretty clear about the cost of the regime. We have been through the experience of disclosure checks, when there were delays and more staff were taken on, and we have arrived at a plateau at which we can say that we know how the system works and what it costs. We know that the system is working fairly smoothly and that the new system will build on it to a large extent. We are offering the sector a variety of arrangements for dealing with fees and, as a result of the improvements that the bill will make, there will probably be a reduction in the total fees paid.

There has been much alarmist and unnecessary scaremongering and misinformation about fees, so I hope that there will be a more measured discussion as the Executive works up the details through consultation of stakeholders. I emphasise that the total cost of the scheme will be similar to that of the current scheme, on which it is based.

Amendment 36 would exempt paid and unpaid workers for voluntary sector organisations from payment of fees. The provision would go much further than the current policy, whereby free checks are provided for unpaid volunteers but not for paid workers. Amendment 36 would pre-empt the full and detailed consultation on fees in which we will engage later this year. Section 67 is broad enough to allow for the making of regulations to exempt paid staff in the voluntary sector from paying fees, should such an approach be the outcome of consultation.

On a point of principle, I say that I am not convinced that paid employees in the voluntary sector should be treated differently from paid employees in any other sector, given that many voluntary organisations enjoy the support of the public sector, whether statutorily or through grant and support. We can explore whether we should expand the scope of free checks as part of the consultation—it would be inappropriate to mandate such an approach in the bill because consideration would have to be given to how the costs of additional free checks would be met.

Amendment 37 would apply the affirmative resolution procedure to fees regulations, which would, for a number of reasons, be inappropriate. Most important, the approach would create practical difficulties in respect of modest inflation-linked rises in fees. For example, the Education Committee routinely deals with yearly changes for grant support for St Mary's Music School Trust Limited; such matters are uncontroversial and need not be dealt with through an elaborate procedure. I understand why Lord James Douglas-Hamilton seeks assurance on the matter, but the negative resolution procedure is appropriate and will provide proportionate parliamentary scrutiny. If a big issue emerges about a major change in fees, the negative resolution procedure will allow members to make an appropriate fuss and to bring the matter to Parliament.

In the 99 per cent of cases in which there will be only routine changes, the fairly elaborate affirmative resolution procedure will not be necessary. I am certain that when Lord James Douglas-Hamilton was a minister he would not have acceded to requests for the affirmative resolution procedure in relation to matters such as we are considering.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

Is the minister aware that when his party and the Labour Party were in Opposition, they called for the affirmative resolution procedure in similar circumstances on many occasions?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I take the point about what Opposition parties ask for—it is entirely appropriate to make such points and draw out issues. However, on balance, we must take a sensible approach to the use of the affirmative resolution procedure. As I said in an earlier debate, I am more than happy for there to be the full panoply of parliamentary scrutiny through the affirmative resolution procedure if necessary. However, section 67 sets out a sensible and proportionate approach, which we do not need to broaden.

Executive amendments 14 and 19 were lodged in response to the debate in the committee about the basis on which fees will be set. It is in no one's interest to introduce a fee that will be a barrier to encouraging employment or volunteering. Amendments 14 and 19 will place a requirement on Scottish ministers to have regard to a number of factors when they set fees, including the circumstances in which fees are payable and the desirability of maintaining a balance between quality, cost and revenue in the performance of ministers' vetting, barring and disclosure functions.

Amendment 19 will ensure that the scope of Scottish ministers' consideration of the performance of their functions under the provisions in amendment 14 extends to disclosures that continue to made under the Police Act 1997; for example, basic disclosures. That is important, because the agency will be running the whole disclosure operation and not just scheme record disclosures.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton suggested that the 40 per cent fee increase for disclosure checks in April 2006 was an increase over the course of one year. That is not correct: the increase was the first since Disclosure Scotland began operating in 2002—four years earlier—and was due to unexpectedly low demand for disclosures during the first years of the scheme's operation. The background to the fee increase is more complicated than he suggested.

It was also disingenuous to suggest that the new scheme will push up the cost of disclosure by 30 per cent. It is anticipated that the scheme will, over 10 years, be somewhat less expensive to run than the current system. Of course, no decision on fee levels has been made because there will be consultation on the matter. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton did not make good arguments for changing section 67 in the way that is proposed in his amendments.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

The minister has acknowledged the voluntary sector's concerns about fee levels for disclosure checks and the impact on their finances of large increases such as we have witnessed under the POCSA regime. However, he has dismissed such concerns rather too lightly.

The voluntary sector is under significant financial pressure as a result of developments such as the phasing out of European social fund support. Throughout our discussions on the bill we have said that we do not want increased pressure on the sector to have the unintended consequence of a reduction in services to the vulnerable adults and children about whom we are most concerned. The Scottish Commission for the Regulation of Care set fees to cover its costs without consulting the sector and it is feared that the central barring unit might follow that example. We accept the minister's reassurances about full consultation on the fees regime, but we need to build in to the system protection for the voluntary sector from inordinate rises such as we have witnessed.

There are also questions about the accuracy of the financial memorandum—it is unfortunate that the Executive has not rid itself of the habit of getting its sums wrong. In the circumstances, the least we can do is ensure that proposals for changes to fee levels are subject to full parliamentary scrutiny through the affirmative resolution procedure. Therefore, we support amendment 37.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

I support the thrust of Adam Ingram's argument. Many voluntary organisations are greatly concerned about fees. I accept the minister's rebuke that we should not speak about the voluntary sector as though it were a homogenous globe, but many small organisations greatly fear that fees will go up. All history justifies that fear. POCSA was a complete shambles—it was a disaster in financial and administrative terms, so how will small organisations know that the new set-up will be any better? We have to assuage people's fears about future increases.

I have taken an interest in the procedures of Parliament; the notion that people who are worried about a particular matter can somehow have it discussed in Parliament is a complete illusion. We must have rules so that, if the Executive wishes to do something, it has to come to Parliament for a vote. It is reasonable to request that the issue that we are discussing in this group of amendments should automatically come before Parliament.

I want to make a wider point. The concept behind the fees is that the system should be self-financing. For lawyers or estate agents, for example, there should be a regulatory system to ensure that they operate honestly and within the rules and it is fair enough that those people should pay for that system out their fees. To impose the same sort of system on the voluntary sector, however, with its many different types of organisation, would be a serious policy mistake, based on a fallacy. People in those organisations give up their time to do exactly what Parliament and the Executive want. They organise good activities for young people, which—among other benefits—keep them out of trouble, and they organise help for older people, thus saving the health service and local authorities a great deal of money.

The organisations provide a public benefit at cost to themselves, so why should they be charged for people being studied to see whether they are fit to do the job? I accept that, at the moment, there is no charge for the individual volunteer, but the administrative costs to the organisations will be considerable. We should not have a charging regime that affects them; in fact, we should financially help the organisations that provide advice to smaller voluntary organisations on how to get through the bureaucratic jungle. That would enable those smaller organisations to help their local communities—which is what they want to do—rather than filling in forms. There is a lot wrong in the Executive's way of going about things.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 10:15 am, 8th March 2007

I begin my remarks with a general caveat: I hope that the minister will continue to monitor the impacts and the costs of this bill and other measures on organisations in the voluntary sector, which are undoubtedly in a vulnerable financial situation.

I do not doubt Adam Ingram's concern—which is shared by all members of the Education Committee—for the voluntary sector, but I was rather amused to hear an SNP front-bench spokesman, who cannot seem to add up to £11 billion, talking about the Executive having problems with its sums. However, I will get back to the subject of this debate.

As Donald Gorrie reminded us, volunteers all have their disclosure costs paid for them, as is right. However, the voluntary sector ranges widely from what might be described as professional organisations through to the most ad hoc groups. The people about whom we are talking are paid staff; they are in the voluntary sector but they are paid employees. I am not sure that there is any logic in treating paid staff in the voluntary sector any differently from paid staff in the statutory sector—I do not see why a social worker who works for a voluntary organisation that provides a statutory service should be treated any differently from a social worker who works for a statutory organisation such as a local authority.

It is important that organisations in the voluntary sector recover their costs, and they should do so through the usual mechanisms—through their contract with the local authorities, the health authorities or whatever.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member may recall a discussion that the Education Committee had with witnesses from the voluntary sector, who said that they expected to receive increased funding from the commissioning body in the statutory sector to cover the fees. However, the financial memorandum to the bill does not cover that. Will the member comment on that?

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

For local authorities, the costs of disclosures are met—they are included in the grant-aided expenditure for local government. All authorities that have contracts with voluntary sector bodies for provision of statutory services have a duty to meet those costs. That has to be built into the contract. The issue has therefore been addressed.

As I was saying, it is misleading to give anyone special treatment, but we have to be careful to ensure that the voluntary sector continues to play its vital role in providing services across the board, so we should continue to monitor the situation.

I want to speak about amendment 37 in particular. I tried to address the same issue with an amendment at stage 2. There is no doubt that the voluntary sector is genuinely anxious about the possibility of a radical increase in or realignment of fees. I accepted the Executive's arguments and reassurances at stage 2, but I mooted the option of using the affirmative procedure to govern future changes in fee levels. The Subordinate Legislation Committee looked into the matter, and we decided that the affirmative procedure would probably be a disproportionate and cumbersome parliamentary procedure when most increases will be routine inflationary rises. Any future rises in fee levels will still be subject to the negative procedure; in other words, any abnormal or radical increase will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I do not doubt the ability of the voluntary sector or of parliamentarians to use the negative procedure effectively to raise any concerns.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I echo Ken Macintosh's final comments. Having pursued the bill through the Education Committee, I am sure that the voluntary sector is more than capable of raising any future concerns over regulations that would significantly change the structure of fees.

We have to consider a number of key points. Adam Ingram rightly voiced concern that we might have a gold-plating system. The care commission might decide how massive an organisation it wants to have, because it knows that it has the right to charge fees that will cover costs. However, what I think amendment 14 says is that the central barring unit will not be able to do that, but will have to take account of the quality and cost of the service and the fees paid. The central barring unit will not be able to do the kind of gold plating that caused so much concern to the voluntary sector during discussions on the care commission. It is important that amendment 14 sets down that the central barring unit will be required to operate efficiently and effectively, taking into account the fee levels and the bodies that it is setting those levels for.

The debate is largely about the impact on the voluntary sector. Parliament has talked about retrospection before, and I do not dispute that if we required everyone to be checked retrospectively within a very short period, it would have a massive impact on finances in the voluntary sector. Fees and retrospection are linked. If there is not an immediate retrospective check of everyone involved, the financial impact on the voluntary sector will not be as great as has been feared. However, we should consider the fees to ensure that the voluntary sector is not put under unnecessary financial pressure. We have to acknowledge that the Executive is committed to maintaining the policy of paying the fees of volunteers within the voluntary sector. That is very important.

I am not convinced by the argument that says that people who work in the voluntary sector as paid employees should have their fees paid. Those costs should be included in any contractual arrangement for services that are provided for the statutory sector. If the costs are not covered by contracts, organisations should perhaps consider revising how they bid. It is important that workers, whether in the statutory or the voluntary sector, are all treated the same.

There are different categories of workers. There are workers who will be applying for the first time for any form of disclosure. It is fairly clearly set out in the financial memorandum that the fees for such people are unlikely to be very different from those that are currently paid.

Secondly, there are workers who can use their scheme record to passport to other applications. They must currently pay for an entirely new full-cost disclosure, but they will no longer have to do that. Because of the passporting arrangement, they will, at most, have a reduced cost short-scheme record to pay for. That bit of the equation is forgotten when we have talked about fees. Most people who are currently paying for disclosure check after disclosure check will no longer have to do that and their costs will be reduced. Ultimately, the cost to the voluntary sector will be reduced as a result.

The next category is those who may have an enhanced disclosure at present but who have not yet been retrospectively checked. When retrospection comes in, perhaps those who are already in the system under enhanced disclosure could be passported on to the new system at a reduced fee, rather than having to pay the full fee for a new check. The final category is those who have been in the system for many years and have had no disclosure check. They may have to pay the full initial cost.

The important issue about the fees is that they are affordable. There is no logic in having routine changes to fees for inflation purposes subject to affirmative resolution. If a major fee structure change were made, I would expect consultation to be carried out and that the Education Committee—or whichever committee was appropriate—would conduct an inquiry into any negative resolution. I support amendments 14 and 19 and reject amendments 36 and 37.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

I have had a lot of sympathy for many of the points that have been raised by the voluntary sector, but I feel that amendments 36 and 37 are based on concerns about the bill as introduced rather than the bill as amended. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton referred to retrospection being phased in over three years, but we have already passed an amendment today to put that process into regulations that will be considered by Parliament under the affirmative procedure.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Bearing in mind that, for the reasons that have been stated by Dr Murray, retrospection and fees are inextricably linked, does not it make sense for retrospection and the fee level to be dealt with under the affirmative procedure?

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

I was going to talk about that later. I am considering amendment 36 at the moment. It falls into the trap of treating all voluntary sector organisations as identical. As many members, including Ms Hyslop, have said during the debate, they are not all the same. I therefore prefer the approach in the amendment 14, which will allow the circumstances in which fees are payable to be considered, and allow a more flexible approach to the different types of organisations in the voluntary sector.

I want to comment on the idea that increases in fees should come back under the affirmative procedure. Like Ken Macintosh and Iain Smith, I feel that that is a disproportionate response. It is not necessary for every inflationary increase in fees to have to go through the affirmative procedure. Members have referred to future ministers being members of the "flat earth party". I wonder whether the same members feel that future Education Committee members will be devoid of brains, because I am sure that if a negative instrument that proposes a huge increase in fees for the voluntary sector comes before the committee, someone on the committee will notice that and comment on it. The shadow Secretary of State for Scotland has described some of his colleagues as "clueless". Perhaps that is being reflected in concerns about the composition of the future Education Committee.

The voluntary sector had serious concerns about how the bill as introduced would affect the sector. Those concerns have been addressed adequately, so amendments 36 and 37 are not necessary. I commend amendment 14 as the appropriate way forward.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Section 67 is important. I do not want to understate the importance of fee levels to the stakeholders, particularly those in the voluntary sector. I have a slight sense, however, that we have not been debating what the bill is currently about or, in the light of assurances from ministers during the passage of the bill, about the process. The discussion has to some degree been off to one side of the argument. We are dealing with the bill as it is—I hope that members will take that into account when they vote on the bill later.

The bill is a reform of and follow-up to the existing disclosure arrangements, which we already know about. It is not a new care commission situation; it is a situation in which we know what the existing costs are and can predict the possible ramifications of charging those costs slightly differently. That is something that the consultation will take on board.

We are not adding to the burdens on the voluntary sector, either—quite the opposite. We are, in fact, reducing the burden on it and, all being well, we are reducing the costs on the voluntary sector. That is the context in which we must consider the bill.

There are all sorts of genuine issues with regard to the way in which the voluntary sector is funded, but the question is whether the bill will create significant additional burdens or change how the voluntary sector is affected by charges. In total, it will not but, in practice, the detail is open for consultation. We are, after all, talking about a fee that is currently £20. We talked about various other computations that might be used, such as membership fees, annual fees, or a larger fee for the first disclosure and smaller fees for later ones. All of that is up for grabs. The fee structure must be seen as part of the wider recruitment process, which is what causes the cost to and the burden on the voluntary sector. The fees for disclosures are a small part of that.

I entirely agree with Iain Smith's comments on the contract costs—it is a matter of dealing with the local funding issues that affect individual voluntary sector organisations. Ken Macintosh mentioned the important issue of monitoring costs. If Parliament approves the changes in one of the later amendments, there will be an annual report. Assurances have been given in that regard, which should allow a sensible and reasonable decision when we come to the consultation arrangements about the fee situation, without our having to add in the rather cumbersome arrangements that are proposed by Lord James.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 10:30 am, 8th March 2007

These matters will, after consultation, come up in regulations in the next session of Parliament. In view of what has been said, I will not press amendment 36. However, on account of the significance of the secondary legislation that will come in due course, I see the issue of affirmative resolution in a very different light. I accept the minister's suggestion that Governments often oppose affirmative resolutions and that Oppositions invariably support them—there is an element of truth in that. However, it is the context that makes the affirmative procedure so important in this case because it could, if we are not extremely careful, lead to far-reaching decisions, which could impact adversely on the voluntary sector. It is not just inflation issues that arise out of the consultation and the decisions that are to be made in that secondary legislation—as Ken Macintosh inferred, those issues will be covered—but policy matters. Affirmative resolution would be a valuable safeguard in that context and it would be of great importance to voluntary groups. For that reason, I will press amendment 37 on the affirmative resolution for adjusting fees.

Amendment 36, by agreement, withdrawn.

Amendment 14 moved—[Robert Brown]—and agreed to.