I welcome this first stage of the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill, and I thank the members of the Education and Skills Committee and the clerks for their efforts in producing the committee’s stage 1 report. I should declare that I am the holder of a PVG certificate and that I have a daughter who works at Disclosure Scotland.
The disclosure system in Scotland is undoubtedly complex and presents many areas that call for caution, clarification and improvement. The bill seeks to address those issues, and so, in principle, I support it at this stage.
The system that is delivered by Disclosure Scotland is designed to offer a layer of protection to vulnerable groups in society, which include children and protected adults. The system ensures that the recruitment process allows only suitable individuals to work with people in those groups; however, the bill needs to take a balanced approach. In seeking to protect vulnerable groups in our communities, it must also respect every individual’s right to privacy and recognise the right point at which rehabilitated individuals are entitled to move on from a past offence.
I appreciate the bill’s aim of simplifying the disclosure system. I hope that, by making it more user friendly, we will remove long-standing complexities in the system, making it easier to navigate. By streamlining the current four disclosure products of basic, standard, enhanced and PVG to two levels, which will cover basic disclosure and more serious offences, the bill will offer users and organisations much-needed simplified options.
Connected with that is the digitisation of the disclosure system, which is most welcome, as it will allow users to make applications and view their disclosures online. That will make the process quicker overall. However, I agree that a paper-based system should continue alongside that service, as we should be mindful of those who may not be computer literate and those who are based in areas without reliable internet connections. As my party’s spokesperson on veterans’ affairs, I am keen to highlight the submission of Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded, which welcomed the idea of PVG membership cards as a sound alternative option to the digital process and sought greater clarification on how that might be implemented.
I know that I am not alone in having concerns about legislative overlap and discrepancy regarding the way in which the updated disclosure process will work in practice. The Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice, Social Work Scotland and Community Justice Scotland were just some of the organisations that highlighted that issue to the committee.
When the bill is linked with the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019 and the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019, we are presented with inconsistencies regarding how childhood convictions should be treated and whether that is under a self-disclosure or a state disclosure regime. As has been mentioned, there is further confusion as to whether it is the date of the offence or the date of conviction that will be taken into account under the bill. I recognise that, as the minister has confirmed today, those discrepancies are being actively considered, but I hope that a logical solution will be found before stage 2. I fully agree with the valid points that Alex Neil made in that regard.
The move from lifetime membership of the PVG scheme to a renewable five-year membership will reduce the number of individuals who are monitored when that is no longer required and so ensure people’s right to privacy. At the same time, it will keep the system up to date and more manageable. As has been mentioned, the PVG scheme currently has more than 1.2 million members, and not all of those individuals are still carrying out regulated work. However, the evidence to the committee spoke of a need for clarity surrounding the transition period before the proposal is implemented. Such a period is needed to allow organisations to adhere to the change in a more feasible timeframe and with greater understanding.
Moreover, I join others in suggesting that, in relation to situations in which an individual has, by mistake, failed to renew their membership, further consideration should be given to moving away from penalties or short sentences, which are inconsistent with the sentiment behind the bill and the current legislation.
As has been mentioned, further clarity and guidance are needed before stage 2 on the change in concept from “regulated work” to “regulated roles” under the revised PVG scheme. That change, which will describe the work that is being undertaken, will offer greater accuracy. Despite that, many smaller businesses and organisations are uncertain about what may or may not be included under that description.
In the same thread, there may be scope to expand how the bill defines vulnerable groups. For instance, its definition of a protected adult arguably centres on protecting those with health-related needs, inadvertently missing out other vulnerabilities that may need protection, such as old age and homelessness. That is worth exploring, and I look forward to seeing whether it will be improved after further consideration by the minister and the committee.
It is clear that some areas of the bill need further detail to make it a workable improvement on the complicated system that we currently have. Although I support its key principles, further consideration is needed to address those issues, particularly as it is such an important piece of legislation.