Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:20 pm on 8th March 2007.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 3:20 pm, 8th March 2007

Much as I welcome the bill, I am saddened by the circumstances that gave rise to it. The Soham murders and other horrific child abuse cases have grabbed our consciousness in the past few years and not only brought misery to those who were directly affected but scarred us as a country. However, as the minister, members of the committee and others have commented, the biggest child abuse problem is caused by parents and other carers neglecting those who are entrusted to their care. I am therefore pleased that the Executive is taking steps to address that through a range of measures, including the "Hidden Harm" agenda.

Nevertheless, as a country and a society, we seem to have developed an incredible anxiety about strangers. We are less trusting of others and we have grown more fearful. We can point to many factors that might have led to that anxiety: we are a more mobile society, the family unit has seen a breakdown, there is less communal living and we do not know our neighbours. When I was younger, people knew who they lived alongside to a far greater extent than we do now. Of course, that was not always healthy because, although people always knew each other, someone who got above themselves would be reminded by others that they kent their faither, too.

Whatever the reasons for the breakdown of trust in our society, it has left us looking elsewhere for security, hence the need for laws such as the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill. Although we might need occasionally to remind ourselves of this, the vast majority of those whom we live alongside—the people we do not know as well as those we do—are trustworthy. The bill and the disclosure system are based on the premise that, on or off the record, officially or unofficially, there is nothing about most people that should make us question their suitability to care for a vulnerable adult or that should create anxiety in a parent.

Some of our early discussions on the bill focused on the concern that we might aggravate a climate of mistrust in our society, or that we might be pandering to the risk-averse culture in which we find ourselves. If that were the case, I would worry. However, the bill is about reassuring people and ensuring that we, as parents, can have confidence that our children are safe in the hands of the adults to whom we entrust them, and that the very small number of dangerous or depraved individuals who might be at large are not allowed to exercise, and so potentially abuse, positions of responsibility.

The bill extends to vulnerable adults the protections that were previously available to young people. It is also a major step forward for the portability of the disclosure system. When the original disclosure legislation was passed, one of its biggest bugbears was that a new disclosure was required for every activity involving helping or supervising young people that an adult engaged in. The new system will allow an individual to apply for one positive vetting statement and for regular updates to be given to employers if they are required.

As we look forward to the implementation of the legislation and of other child protection measures that are due to come into effect, I wonder if this is not the time to address our concerns about the risk-averse, overly cynical and suspicious culture that we find ourselves developing. Of course, that is not just about child protection legislation; it is about our propensity to sue or to litigate every time anything goes wrong. It is about the blame culture and the criminalisation of health and safety matters. Those who are in positions of responsibility and power therefore do not know where their responsibility ends and our liability as individual adults to make informed choices begins.

I, for one, do not wish to live in a fearful and suspicious culture. I do not like it that teachers or the janitor, for example, cannot give a reassuring cuddle to a child who has been hurt in the playground. If a man volunteers to work with vulnerable adults or young people, we should be grateful, not suspicious. When a parent agrees to help out to ensure that a school trip or show goes ahead as planned, we need to rely on our judgment first in accepting their help.

The disclosure system and the vetting and barring information to which we now have access is just corroborative evidence to support our judgment about an individual's trustworthiness. It is there to provide further reassurance of an individual's suitability for a post. It cannot replace our responsibility to assess someone's suitability. The bill provides parents and others with reassurance, but it does not replace good judgment. I commend the bill to Parliament.