I thank the Education and Skills Committee for its work throughout stage 1, which has provided us with an informative stage 1 report. I also express my gratitude to all the individuals and organisations who provided such valuable input to the committee’s inquiry and, prior to that, to the Scottish Government’s consultation on its proposed changes to the disclosure scheme.
As my colleague lain Gray said in his opening speech, we welcome the ambitions for the bill and will vote in favour of it at decision time.
The stage 1 report offers a wide range of recommendations to strengthen the bill, and I note from the Scottish Government’s response to the report that it will lodge amendments at stage 2 to strengthen the bill further. Those recommendations and the Government’s commitment to act on some of them are welcome in ensuring that the bill continues to meet the ambitions behind its introduction.
Simplifying the disclosure regime is necessary to reduce the complexities that many people face when navigating the system, as they must if they want to perform paid or voluntary work with children or people with complex needs, who are often vulnerable.
The reduction in the number of disclosure levels from four to two and in the number of products that are offered from 10 to four received significant support from respondents to the consultation, thus strengthening the arguments for simplifying the scheme. As Community Justice Scotland rightly pointed out in its submission,
“Simplification of this landscape is critical to ensure that people with convictions are afforded opportunities to move on with their lives.”
On many occasions in the chamber, I have argued for better rehabilitation for prisoners, and I believe that such simplification could support their rehabilitation into society and allow people whose offending behaviour lies in the past to live constructive and rewarding lives and put past events and behaviour behind them. Protecting the most vulnerable people in our society is a fundamental duty of any Government, and I believe that the bill continues to meet that duty while making it simpler for people to engage with the disclosure scheme.
I welcome the provision to introduce digital applications, which will make it easier for the applicant and reduce the administration for Disclosure Scotland and for employers who submit applications, but it is right that a non-digital system will remain in place for people who do not have access to a computer or the necessary skills to apply online. I also welcome the point raised by the criminal justice voluntary sector forum that people in the justice system are more likely to have speech, language and communication needs, lower educational attainment and higher rates of learning difficulties. It is very important that, regardless of need, people have the right support and access to information on disclosure.
Although I am supportive of the principles behind the bill, I have one area of concern, which surrounds the use of other relevant information. Assurances have been provided that a Scottish quality assurance framework will be developed in relation to Police Scotland sharing other relevant information, but I remain concerned about the sharing of information on behaviour that an applicant might have displayed during their childhood.
Alistair Hogg of the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration said:
“The concept of ‘other relevant information’ is understandable, but disclosure of it, particularly in relation to behaviour that has happened during childhood or adolescence, needs a very high threshold.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 13 November 2019; c 11-12.]
I fully agree with Mr Hogg’s point. That is where my reservations lie with regard to the sharing of other relevant information, especially for people who have come through the hearings system.
The Education and Skills Committee pointed out that
“the potential for disclosure of other relevant information held by the police undermines one policy objective of the Bill, which is to allow individuals to move on from past offending behaviours.”
I read carefully the minister’s response on the concerns that have been raised about the use of other relevant information, and I take on board the points that she made. However, I will observe with interest how the issue develops at stages 2 and 3.
I also support the ending of lifetime membership of the PVG scheme. There was widespread support for that part of the bill, because it will reduce some of the administration and monitoring of people who will no longer be required to be in the scheme. In evidence, the Church of Scotland raised concerns about how the transition from lifetime membership to five-year renewable membership would be managed. As the bill progresses, I look to the Government to set out clearly how that transition will be managed.
My only reservation in that regard is about the penalising of those who fall foul of the new term limits. I would not want anyone to be criminalised for failing to reapply, and I do not want people on low incomes who have to pay to reapply every five years to be financially burdened. I note that the current cost of an application is around £60. Therefore, I ask the minister to proceed with caution when she sets the fees in the future and to think of those low-paid workers and volunteers who pay for their membership themselves. The scheme cannot be a tax on people who perform valuable caring and support roles, or a barrier to them continuing in those roles.