Disclosure (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

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

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Photo of Gail Ross Gail Ross Scottish National Party

I add my thanks to the clerks, my fellow committee members and everyone who has given evidence to the Education and Skills Committee, both in writing and in person. It has been thorough and, at times, complicated, such is the depth and importance of the legislation that we are dealing with.

The bill will help to protect some of the most vulnerable people and groups in our communities and, as Alex Neil pointed out, it is imperative that we get it right the first time. The bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament by the cabinet secretary last June, and it aims to simplify what is, as we have seen, an overcomplicated system of disclosure.

During scrutiny of the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007, the Government said that it would review the PVG scheme. As the scheme has been in place since 2011 and the Parliament has recently passed other, related pieces of legislation such as the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019 and the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019, the decision was made to review and update the whole disclosure scheme.

As we have heard—this is what happens when you go last: everybody has said everything before you—various changes are being made, one of which is reform of the current suite of disclosure products. Currently, there are four types of disclosure checks: basic, standard, enhanced and PVG. The proposal is to replace those with level 1 disclosure, which would be the equivalent of basic, and level 2 disclosure, which would replace everything else. Responses to the Government’s consultation show that there is significant support for that reduction. Other feedback said that the complexity of the system lies not only in the suite of products that are available but in a lack of understanding of the underpinning legislation and difficulty in navigating the system.

The bill also makes changes to enable people to apply for and receive disclosures digitally. It is hoped that that, too, will simplify the system, but it is worth noting that there will still be a paper-based system for those who require it. That is in line with responses to the consultation that expressed support for the move to digital with the provision of a non-digital alternative. The committee also recommended full engagement with organisations that cannot access a digital platform. I am sure that the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee will give that IT system proportionate and thorough scrutiny when the time comes.

One of the other major changes will be the ending of lifetime membership of the scheme and its replacement with a five-year renewable membership. Disclosure Scotland told the Education and Skills Committee that as many as 20 per cent of the 1.2 million people who are currently on the scheme no longer do regulated work. It considers it important that the scheme membership accurately represents the number of people in Scotland who undertake regulated roles. However, the committee was concerned about the proposed penalty of a short custodial sentence for those who fail to renew their membership, and it recommends that the Scottish Government look again at whether that is proportionate. I also agree with my colleague Mary Fee, who asked about people on low incomes. I am interested to hear from the minister whether there will be any help with funding for those individuals.

As I said, the bill does not stand alone. Like most of my colleagues, I love a package deal when it comes to legislation. It is our duty as legislators to ensure that the laws that we make fit together seamlessly, and a number of witnesses noted what they see as discrepancies between the bill and the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019 and the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019. Organisations such as the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice, Social Work Scotland and Community Justice Scotland all expressed concern. Their concerns included state disclosure and self-disclosure, the date of the offence versus the date of the conviction and how the new acts will align with the new disclosure system. The Scottish Government has confirmed that it will lodge amendments at stage 2 to deal with any discrepancies. I also welcome the explanation that the minister gave to Liz Smith, which was extremely helpful in addressing such concerns. The committee recommended that any future legislation, such as the legislation incorporating the UNCRC, should work well together with the bill, and I was glad to see that the minister, in the Government’s written response, confirmed that that will be the case.

There was also broad support for the moves to reform how offences that are committed by young people between the ages of 12 and 17 are disclosed and to bring about the end of automatic disclosure. I will share a quote from Community Justice Scotland. It said:

“This, at a stroke would reduce the likelihood that people will experience discrimination based on events that happened when they were a child, which have no reflection on their current or future potential to work or study as fully rehabilitated adults”.

I have no doubt that, like any legislation that comes before us at stage 1, the bill will be amended at stage 2. However, the underlying aim of simplifying the disclosure scheme is entirely sensible—or, to use Ross Greer’s word, “sound”. The committee supports the general principles of the bill, and I urge other members to do the same.