Disclosure (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

I am happy to speak in this stage 1 debate. I consider it necessary to introduce the bill at this time. Perhaps the best way to explain why is by quoting the purpose of the bill from the policy memorandum:

“The provisions of this Bill will deliver a range of positive and proportionate reforms to the disclosure regime in Scotland whilst also strengthening the barring service to maintain the Scottish Government’s ability to protect the most vulnerable in society.”

In essence, the bill is being introduced to modernise and improve proportionality in the disclosure system. It aims to balance public protection with the right to move on from past offences. It is split into two parts. Part 1

“creates the legislative framework for the new disclosure products for criminal history and other information” and part 2

“makes a number of amendments and insertions into the PVG Act.”

As we have heard, the bill is complex. Amendments will be required at stage 2 to achieve the desired purpose of making the disclosure scheme less complex. The current legislation provides for 10 disclosure products, which stakeholders find confusing, and the system is mainly paper based. The bill contains proposals to allow ministers to offer stakeholders online services that are not possible under the existing legislation, while recognising that online access will not work for everyone and alternatives will be offered.

The number of disclosure products will decrease, reducing confusion, and improved digital services will guide employers and applicants to the right level of disclosure.

Crucially, as we have heard, the bill will give individuals greater control over their disclosure data. They will decide whether disclosure information will be released to a third party, without eroding the vital safeguarding role of disclosure. That is especially important for childhood convictions, when offences were accrued while under the age of 18. Those will no longer be automatically disclosed. They will be eligible for independent review, which, if successful, will allow the young person to move on without being hampered by a childhood offence. That aspect is probably best illustrated by the quote that the convener cited from Robert Dorrian of Who Cares? Scotland, a witness to the committee, who was also mentioned by the minister.

As the convener Clare Adamson, and Liz Smith, Iain Gray and others have said, the committee was concerned about the impact and interaction of the bill with the recently passed Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019 and Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019, along with the proposed legislation incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Government has noted that and the minister addressed the issue in her response to Liz Smith. As I said, the Government will lodge amendments at stage 2 to remedy the matter. I am also pleased with the reassurance that the drafting of the bill took account of the UNCRC.

The committee welcomed the role of the independent reviewer, but was keen that support services would be in place by the time the bill came into force, which the Government has agreed with. The Government has also agreed that draft guidelines for the two-part test must be provided and that training must be part of that and be widely consulted on.

We were also concerned that an unsuccessful review of a list A offence cannot be reviewed for the same purpose twice, which could result in a lifetime of disclosure for the individual.

There was some confusion about how the review processes would work and how individuals could engage with the process. Those issues must be addressed. The Government has committed to considering a set of guiding principles in that regard, and the minister has outlined the situation in relation to reviews.

As Daniel Johnson and Liz Smith mentioned, the concept of other relevant information was a big issue for the committee to try to understand. There was confusion about who was responsible for that judgment, and what criteria would be used. The committee was concerned that, by allowing employers to access the information despite the conviction itself being withheld, ORI would not allow individuals to move on from past offending behaviour, particularly in the case of childhood offending and care-experienced people. The minister outlined the sensitivity of the situation, and that she plans to clear up the confusion around it. ORI is a key aspect of the disclosure scheme and does not erode the power that can lead to barring under the PVG scheme or discrimination in employment. However, it is understood that Police Scotland and authorities must reflect very seriously when deciding whether to include ORI. Although the committee supports the continuing existence of lists of offences, some anomalies will have to addressed. For example, “fraud” and “embezzlement” appear in different lists, which was also highlighted in the Law Society of Scotland’s helpful briefing.

Changes to the PVG scheme are an important part of the bill. The committee supports mandatory membership, and the move away from lifetime membership to a renewable five-year membership. That means that those who no longer need the accreditation will not need monitoring, which will reduce the administrative burden.

Iain Gray reminded us of just how important and popular the PVG scheme is. Liz Smith mentioned that there was a bit of uncertainty around regulated work and regulated roles. That has led to confusion about who should—and should not—become a PVG scheme member, which I hope will be addressed. As Ross Greer said, that happens under the existing scheme. With regard to under-16s—whom Ross Greer featured heavily in his speech—we expressed concern that the proposal for non-registration could contribute to a decline in volunteering opportunities, depending on how people and companies interpret the legislation. I take the points that Ross Greer made, and I am sure that the Government will address the issue. It has said that the number of under-16s who apply to join the existing scheme is low, and that there is automatic listing for those with a serious offending background.

The strong message that we got from witnesses is that the PVG scheme is only one of a number of monitoring and screening processes, and that safeguarding will always be the top priority. As such, with important amendments that will be lodged at stage 2, the Disclosure Scotland Bill is a huge step forward in many areas, and I am happy to support its general principles.