Disclosure (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

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

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Photo of Alison Harris Alison Harris Conservative

I declare that I, too, hold a PVG certificate.

I am pleased to be closing for the Scottish Conservatives in this stage 1 debate. As my colleague Liz Smith said in her opening speech, we support the principles of the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill. We all agree that protecting the most vulnerable people in our society is crucial, and if we can make the administration of that more efficient, we should.

The Education and Skills Committee’s stage 1 report expressed the committee’s view that it is “very concerned” with certain aspects of the bill. As Clare Adamson, Ross Greer and other members said in their speeches, one of those concerns is the impact that the bill could have on volunteers who are under the age of 16. The contribution that young people make through volunteering in any capacity cannot be overstated. Committee evidence revealed many concerns about the combination of the minimum age requirement of 16 and mandatory PVG membership for regulated roles. Indeed, one organisation stated that it is likely that the bill will

“be interpreted to mean young people under 16 cannot undertake regulated roles.”

I appreciate that the Scottish Government acknowledges that concern, but the area will require further clarity as the bill progresses.

Another issue that was highlighted in the committee was how the proposal to move away from lifetime PVG memberships to a five-year renewal period would be implemented. There needs to be a proper transition so that organisations do not end up with a huge budget commitment at the same time every five years due to current PVG members renewing on the same day. The minister suggested a couple of options for addressing that issue in her response to the committee’s report, and I look forward to debating them at stage 2.

I turn to the bill’s promise to digitise the disclosure system. The end goal is to increase efficiency, which would be a welcome outcome, but there are grave lessons to be learned from the recent move to the new IT system, which is known as PASS, or protecting and safeguarding Scotland. In the chamber in June, I raised with the minister concerns about the robustness of any IT system tied to the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill. In response, the minister said:

“we are confident that the system is at an appropriate stage and will be completed in time for the delivery of the new services.”—[Official Report, 13 June 2019; c 69.]

Disclosure Scotland has a target to complete 90 per cent of disclosure checks within 14 days, but in September last year, the percentage of PVG checks completed within that target fell to 47.8 per cent, and in October it fell again, to just 12.5 per cent.

I heard at first hand about the huge delays to disclosure checks from childcare providers who were unable to put staff in place to work due to PVG checks taking twice as long as they should. At the end of October, I wrote to the Minister for Children and Young People, and in her response, she told me that the delays were partly due to seasonal pressures causing an increase to workloads and partly due to the “bedding in” of the new digital PASS system, which went live in September 2019.

The recent Audit Scotland report on Disclosure Scotland highlighted a reduction in its performance in November. That report made for very interesting reading. It included a summary of the transition to the PASS system, which showed that Disclosure Scotland’s June 2015 proposal to the Scottish Government to take the digital contract out of BT’s hands was rejected for its high cost: £77.2 million over the transition period of 2015-16 to 2022-23. According to the Audit Scotland report, four months later, Disclosure Scotland returned with a second proposal, stating a projected cost of £34.1 million. The Scottish Government accepted the revised offer. However, in the years since, there have been several revisions to the budget forecast, and in November 2019, the costs were higher than the original figure of £77.2 million that was rejected by the SNP Government.

The bottom line is that the PASS system is over budget. It was not ready to be fully rolled out in September, and, as I previously stated, lessons have to learned from that, especially in the light of digital updates being required with the passing of the disclosure bill. At this stage, I acknowledge the very pertinent comments that Alex Neil made about IT systems.

The final issue that I will discuss today is the bill’s coherence with other legislation that has been passed by the Scottish Parliament. As other members have mentioned, several recent parliamentary acts have legislated on similar issues to the ones on which this bill legislates. Those acts include the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019 and the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019—very recent acts that may need to be amended to correct the contradictions and discrepancies that could arise because of the introduction of the bill.

I agree with the Education and Skills Committee's conclusion about the importance of ensuring that no more discrepancies arise when incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law. The minister's response to the stage 1 report stated that the disclosure bill was designed with the principles of the UNCRC in mind, but it did not confirm that changes to the bill would not be required when incorporating the UNCRC into Scots law. Instead of taking a piecemeal approach to legislation, it is important to ensure that those pieces of legislation work well together, as Beatrice Wishart mentioned in her speech.

I reiterate that we will support the bill at stage 1. However, we fully believe that amendments and clarifications are required at stage 2 on the issues that have been raised in the chamber today—more issues than I have been able to cover—such as ORI, which I know that Mary Fee and Daniel Johnson have mentioned. I also appreciate that, in her opening speech, the minister said that there is a need for clarification and discussion on those.

Several MSPs have discussed the new lists of offences and regulated roles, and those are areas requiring close consideration going forward. For the continued protection of vulnerable groups—which everyone in the chamber acknowledges is essential—we need this legislation to be right.