Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:32 pm on 8th March 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 3:32 pm, 8th March 2007

This could have been nothing more than a tail-end debate. However, some of the speeches this afternoon, particularly those made by Ken Macintosh, David McLetchie and Iain Smith, have been among the best that I have heard in this Parliament.

We must keep in front of us Iain Smith's central point: the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill is about the welfare and best interests of children. It is complex and challenging legislation, and it is a tribute to the quality of Executive officials and the strength and vitality of the Scottish Parliament's committee system that the bill has come through its passage reflecting—and strengthened by—their input and by the input of interests in wider society.

Systems are one thing, but they are given life and dynamism by people. In that respect, we are fortunate to have an Education Committee of considerable quality, distinction and independent thought, and, given that this is its final bill in this session, it is perhaps appropriate to thank the members for their courtesy and consideration, not just with regard to this bill but across the board. I also commend Ken Macintosh for being spot on in his philosophical approach to the issues that the bill deals with.

The bill has been controversial. However, the consensus shown in today's debate allows it to proceed with the good wishes of all political parties and with a united commitment to make its provisions work and to ensure that young people and vulnerable adults are protected from exposure to unsuitable people in the workforce.

As many members have pointed out, attention now switches to implementation of the bill's provisions. Hugh Henry made it clear in his opening speech that the Executive will continue to consult widely on all aspects of implementation, not least retrospection and fees. We want people—although not, of course, the unsuitable people at whom the bill is aimed—to be comfortable with the arrangements. Dialogue has already begun with local authorities, the police, the voluntary sector, regulatory bodies, representative bodies and the national health service, and that will continue to be essential to inform the detail of secondary legislation.

As well as getting the detail of the legislation absolutely right, successful implementation will depend on the availability of clear and helpful guidance, training, and advice facilities through the central registered body in Scotland and others. We will consider with our stakeholders how best to put those measures in place.

As a number of members have said, we should not forget the roots of the bill: it follows the tragic murder of two young girls in Soham, who died at the hands of an individual who had substantial access to children through his work. The subsequent inquiry exposed critical deficiencies in how we vet people who have access to vulnerable groups through work and volunteering.

The bill delivers on Sir Michael Bichard's principal recommendation that there should be a system to register people who work with children and vulnerable adults. As well as providing for a robust vetting and barring system, it will make it an offence for those who are identified as unsuitable to work with vulnerable groups, and it will deliver the means to remove an individual if he or she becomes unsuitable. That means that, when we drop children off at school or when a family member goes into hospital or a care home, we should be able to be confident that the people who are charged with their well-being do not have a history of violent, abusive or cruel behaviour towards people in those circumstances. For those of us who work or volunteer, it means that we will no longer need to fill out a complicated form every time we change jobs or decide to help out at our local youth group or community centre. It also means that voluntary sector or statutory employers will be notified if any new information comes to light that makes someone unsuitable.

As Hugh Henry said earlier, the bill enhances the range of tools that employers use to help them to make safe and informed recruitment decisions—referring back to the Dunblane tragedy, David McLetchie reminded us how central recruitment decisions are to the operation of organisations at all levels.

The bill affects statutory and voluntary organisations, but I will finish by turning specifically to the voluntary sector, about which most concerns have been expressed. We value enormously the contribution made by the voluntary sector and by volunteers in a wide range of areas, not least those concerned with children or vulnerable adults. We want them to play an ever-increasing role. We want to have youth organisations and playgroups, parent-teacher associations and meals on wheels. We want our young people to have opportunities, excitement and fun and—yes—to take part in adventurous pursuits. We have to consider the risk culture. I made some observations on that during the passage of the bill.

The bill supports all of that by making it possible to exclude nasty and unsuitable people from the workforce. Protecting Scotland's most vulnerable people is a key responsibility of the Parliament, and I believe that the bill makes a significant and proportionate contribution to that. As well as streamlining and improving the disclosure process, it will afford greater protection to those who need it most.

We obviously accept that there is a lot of work yet to be done—Iain Smith made the telling comment that, in his view as convener of the Education Committee, the bill is fit for purpose as we do that work. I have often said that the biggest thing that I have learned since becoming an MSP and minister is that passing good laws is one thing, but making them work on the ground, considering the detail of the real situation, is 99 per cent of the challenge that faces us.

Against that background, in memory of instances when things have gone wrong in the past—as David McLetchie talked about—and recognising the wider context of the bill, I urge the united support of the chamber for the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill.