Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:13 pm on 8th March 2007.

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Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 3:13 pm, 8th March 2007

The bill that we are considering now is very different from and considerably better than the bill that was introduced on 25 September last year. Broad support was given to the policy intent of the bill as introduced, which was to introduce a streamlined vetting and barring scheme to prevent people who are unsuitable to work with children from working with them and to extend that protection to vulnerable adults.

We must not forget that 85 per cent of children who are abused are not abused by people who are at work or in voluntary organisations; they are abused in their homes by people they know—family, friends or relatives. We must bear that important point in mind while we consider the bill. It will not protect all children, but it will reduce the risk for children while they are at school, in playgroups or in contact with voluntary organisations.

We should not forget that significant concerns have been expressed about how the bill will operate in practice, particularly its implications for volunteering and the voluntary sector. One concern is that the bill leaves too many questions unanswered and that too much detail is being left to secondary legislation and guidance that will not be available until after the bill has been passed. We touched on some of those issues this morning—they include retrospective checks, fee levels, the definition of regulated work, the applicant's rights and the sharing of child protection information.

Underlying those concerns is the fundamental question whether the bill amounts to a proportionate response to the issues that arose in, for example, the Soham case and the Bichard inquiry. There is also uncertainty about whether it provides the right level of protection to allow children to take full advantage of educational and recreational opportunities, or whether it will fuel the climate of risk aversion that restricts such opportunities.

Although the amended bill leaves much of the detail to regulation and guidance, I am confident that it can provide reassurance in the key areas that I have mentioned. That is in no small measure thanks to the work of the Education Committee. As convener of that committee, I put on record my appreciation for the diligent and responsible way in which my colleagues on the committee handled this delicate issue. I also thank the committee clerks for their excellent work in supporting the committee, and the many witnesses who gave oral and written evidence at stage 1 and prior to the commencement of stage 2.

Throughout our consideration of the bill, the welfare and best interests of children and vulnerable adults have been our paramount concern. Members will recall that, in our stage 1 report, the committee recommended that part 3, on the sharing of child protection information, should be deleted. I state once again—as I did when I moved the amendments to remove part 3 at stage 2—that the removal of part 3 should not be taken to imply that the Parliament does not believe that appropriate child protection information should not be shared when that is necessary to ensure the protection of children, but we must also ensure that the right of children to confidentiality in accessing services is protected, so that we do not inadvertently put children at risk by deterring them from accessing the services they need.

The committee was strongly of the view that stage 2 should not commence before the relevant draft regulations and guidance had been published and consulted on. In the event, the Executive was able to publish only the policy options that would be consulted on, but that enabled the committee to take the unusual step of taking further oral evidence prior to stage 2, which helped to inform the process during stage 2.

I am grateful for the co-operation the committee received from the minister, Robert Brown, and the bill team. I thank them for the positive way in which they responded to the committee's requests for additional information and advice on the bill and the way in which they responded to the committee's concerns by lodging appropriate amendments at stages 2 and 3. Working together, the committee and the Executive have produced a bill that is now fit for purpose. There will, however, be a need for diligence by our successor committee in the next session, to ensure that the commitments the Executive has given are translated into the regulations and guidance that will flesh out the bones of the scheme.

A few weeks ago, I did not think that I would be able to stand here today and say that I commend the bill to the chamber.