Section 67 — Fees

Part of 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 Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 10:00 am, 8th March 2007

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.