Disclosure (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

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

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Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I remind Parliament that I currently hold a PVG certificate, primarily because I am still active in coaching all age groups, and vulnerable groups. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. If I may, I will use my time to focus on the volunteering sector.

I think that we would all agree that every precaution must be put in place to ensure the safety of the young and the vulnerable. As Iain Gray highlighted, there are far too many high-profile cases in which the vulnerable have been let down, and we must do everything that we possibly can to make sure that every protection is in place. We know about the lifelong impact of adverse childhood experiences, which has been well documented in this place. As such, the need for a robust PVG check is apparent.

Having said that, I also highlight the need for the volunteering sector to be accessible to those who are so minded. Volunteering is crucial in so many areas, especially in enabling communities to access activities that tackle issues around isolation, health, education, and social interaction. The Deputy Presiding Officer knows that I have a real passion for that kind of preventative agenda, and such community activities have a central role to play in improving the health and wellbeing of our nation, and reversing a worrying trend in preventable ill health. Moreover, volunteering can have such a positive effect on the lives of the volunteers. As such, we need to ensure that opportunities exist, and are accessible, while ensuring that the highest standards of protection are not compromised.

I want to raise a specific issue that is illustrated by the case of a friend of mine against whom a vexatious allegation was made. It was eventually proved to be unfounded, but the impact on him as a coach and on his charges was profound. I recognise that such situations are very difficult to address, but address them we must. It is not a situation in which the person is innocent until proven guilty: they are removed from the situation immediately an allegation is made. How we should tackle that is an extremely difficult question, but I suggest that, in such situations, the coach could become supervised, potentially by another coach, to ensure that there is still protection.

When I renewed my PVG certificate recently, the process was not exactly simple or seamless. It required me and the club to fill in the forms and submit them to the governing body, and then we had to fill them in and submit them again when something went awry in the process. I then had to wait six weeks for clearance. It is a cumbersome process. I welcome the move to a digital system, which Liz Smith mentioned, as it should allow for a much more user-friendly experience. When a PVG certificate is renewed, all that is really being asked is whether anything has changed since the previous issue. A digital communication and collaboration platform should be able to access that data routinely. Such a system should also be much more effective in the on-going monitoring of those who already hold a PVG certificate, and it should be swifter in raising potential breaches. I look forward to the implementation of that system.

I also highlight that, at one time, I held three separate disclosure certificates for different organisations in order to work with the same sorts of vulnerable groups. There is surely no need for such duplication. Perhaps the bill will allow us to tidy up that situation.

The caveat that I want to highlight is that PVG checking should be seen not as an intrusive experience but as an enabler. It should be welcomed by all those who participate and it should keep parents satisfied that their children are being effectively supervised. On that point, members will know about the continuing petition on the subject, which the Public Petitions Committee is considering, as well as the Health and Sport Committee’s investigation of child welfare in sport. Those committees have certainly highlighted the issues, and it would seem that they are now being addressed. I hope that the outcomes of those investigations and actions will be positive. It is imperative that sports’ governing bodies implement the highest duty of care for their members. The work that those committees have done and continue to do demonstrates that there has been considerable variation in implementation of duties of care across governing bodies, so I would be interested to hear from the minister how the Scottish Government will ensure that there is full compliance with the legislation and how that will be monitored.

I was also interested in the points that Liz Smith made about PVG provision for former young offenders who have demonstrated a period of good behaviour. They brought to mind a scheme in Kilmarnock prison where inmates were offered the chance to take their football and rugby coaching exams. I took a parliamentary football and rugby team there to play the inmates and prison guards at football and rugby, which we all survived. It was a great opportunity to highlight that those people are still members of society and that, having served their due sentences for the crimes that they committed, they will be expected to reintegrate into society. It is clear to me that a coaching certificate allows such people the possibility of making a positive contribution to their community and their subsequent acceptance back into that community.

Of course, without the requisite disclosure certificate, they will not be allowed to deliver that coaching. I can definitely see the issues here. I am a parent who has all the same concerns that any other parent has, be they perceived or otherwise. However, if we are to create opportunities for those who have previously fallen foul of the law, we need to consider how the skills that they have learned during their sentences can be used in the community. Perhaps that will involve them working in partnership with other coaches and starting with the least vulnerable groups. Again, I would be interested to hear the minister’s thoughts on that.

Outside sport, I am working with a constituent in relation to allegations of historical childhood rape in schools. It is an extremely sensitive subject. It is part of a petition at the moment, and it has now gone to court. I would never comment on a particular court case, but the teacher in question at that time was just moved to another area and the PVG check did not follow him. Again, the bill perhaps gives us an opportunity to close what is, I think, a fairly major loophole in the law.

As has been outlined, the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill attempts to simplify the complex disclosure system in Scotland. That is very welcome. The reservation that has been expressed today, which I share, is that it does so in a complex manner. Evidence from the Law Society of Scotland, Children in Scotland, and Recruit with Conviction, concurs with that concern. I will not repeat that evidence, as it has already been highlighted.

Conservative members will support the bill at stage 1 but, in doing so, we recognise that there is a fairly hefty amount of work required to make it fit for purpose at subsequent stages. I urge the Scottish Government not to lose sight of the objective, which must be to ensure that the application process for a PVG certificate is user-friendly and does not deter those who wish to volunteer, all the while maintaining protection for those in our society who are most at risk. I am more than willing to work with the Government on that, should it see fit.