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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 10 June 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Covid-19 (Tourism), Showing Solidarity with Anti-racism, Disclosure (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Disclosure (Scotland) Bill, Point of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Contents


Disclosure (Scotland) Bill

The next item of business is the stage 3 debate on motion S5M-21976, in the name of Maree Todd, on the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill.

We are already late in starting, so if members would like to finish, as discussed, for seven o’clock—or even earlier—it is entirely in their hands as to how they manage their contributions.

18:10  

I am pleased to open the stage 3 debate on the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill. First, I thank the members and clerks of the Education and Skills Committee for their sincere and constructive scrutiny of the Bill. I also thank stakeholders for their input throughout the process. I am particularly grateful to those who have been able to engage with us amid the uncertainty of the past three months. The bill is important and I am glad to be able to progress it at this time. That would not have been possible without their engagement before and throughout the parliamentary process.

Safeguarding the most vulnerable in society is at the heart of what Disclosure Scotland does, and that has been at the forefront of my mind in these challenging times. The system that we have today is in direct response to the tragic Soham murders of August 2002; we must never forget why the service is so important.

Part 2 of the bill delivers a range of reforms to the protecting vulnerable groups scheme. It strengthens that service to protect the public from those whose past conduct makes them unsuitable to carry out roles with children and protected adults. We will introduce a mandatory PVG scheme for people who carry out such regulated roles. There is overwhelming public support for such a measure, to close the current gaps in the scheme, and I am pleased to deliver the provision.

We will also provide stronger protections to those who engage the services of another in a personal capacity—for example, to those who arrange self-directed care—by ensuring that their employees are included in the PVG scheme. That complements the adjusted referral arrangements for Police Scotland, and new referral powers for local authorities, to support a safer Scotland.

This Government is committed to policies that balance public protection with the right to move on from past offences. As I have said before, those are not contradictory aims; both can be achieved. Last year, the Parliament passed the Age of Criminal Responsibility Act 2019 and the Management of Offenders Act 2019. Part 1 of the bill further delivers on those aims by making vital reforms to state disclosure. Together, all three pieces of legislation provide a transformed disclosure system that can better account for individual circumstances.

As a Government, we want to offer opportunities for everyone to flourish. That includes creating a strong, sustainable workforce, and making sure that no one faces unnecessary barriers to opportunity. Disclosure Scotland will continue to identify people who, given their past behaviours, are unsuitable for regulated roles, and will ensure that they are legally prevented from carrying one out. However, we must also allow people whose history is no longer relevant to move on.

We must give particular consideration to those who were involved in the justice system during childhood. That is especially true for care-experienced people, who are still disproportionately represented in the system. It is widely recognised that having a criminal record can significantly impact on future life chances and outcomes. Since becoming Minister for Children and Young People, I have heard powerful testimony from young people who have had to overcome significant trauma and who should not be haunted by mistakes that were made in their childhood. We have to do more—not only to prevent such experiences from happening in the first place, but to limit the damage that is done in the long term to individuals, families and communities. Those children must not be left behind.

Throughout the bill’s progress, we have heard evidence of care-experienced young people self-excluding from roles that ask for disclosure. Whether they exclude themselves due to childhood mistakes or uncertainty around how to navigate disclosure, the bill will transform their access and allow their voices to be heard.

Under the bill, there will be no disclosure period for the vast majority of childhood convictions as they will be immediately spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 in Scotland. Public protection will be served by provisions that draw a line around only the most serious criminal behaviour in childhood. That most serious behaviour will remain eligible for state disclosure and a duty will remain on the individual to self-disclose it, when asked by an employer, while it is unspent.

I am absolutely committed to ensuring that the reforms in the bill are clearly communicated to young people and those who support them. I recognise that, even with the reforms, the disclosure system can be intimidating and difficult to understand. I look forward to working with our stakeholders to ensure that everyone is able to access their rights.

The Education and Skills Committee recommended at stage 1 that the bill include guiding principles for decision making. Working together, we have ensured that those are included and apply to decisions under the bill, the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007 and the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019. That will provide helpful legal clarification on how decisions are made.

Once again, I am very proud to be moving the motion on the bill at stage 3. At the heart of every justice reform that the Government has introduced is our absolute belief that people are capable of change. Over the past three months, tens of thousands have volunteered to support their communities in these incredibly challenging times. Some of them may even have committed offences in the past, but today they are positively contributing to our national effort. The bill maintains and strengthens the safeguarding offered by state disclosure. However, it also recognises that people should be able to move on from their past. I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill be passed.

18:16  

I thank members for their patience this evening. We have got to a stage at which the legislation has been appropriately amended and can be passed. I was new to the Education and Skills Committee during the bill’s passage, and I thank Liz Smith for dumping the bill on my desk on my first day of taking over the education brief.

It was clear during stage 1, and from the events leading up to the production of the committee’s stage 1 report, that the legislation was complex and that its effects and consequences required detailed analysis. That complexity is demonstrated by the large number of technical and tidying up amendments at stage 3, which show how difficult it was even for those drafting the bill to get it into a good place.

I will not comment much about our previous discussions on what the legislation will achieve. It is, however, important that we thank those who gave evidence to the committee and that we reflect on the importance of the bill. The whole point of the disclosure process since it was first established has been to protect children. The Parliament has made great strides in doing so through legislation in various guises. The bill will add to the collection of legislation on which I think that we will all have been proud to have worked during this parliamentary session. I also thank the minister for steering the bill through Parliament and for reflecting on some of the feedback that members gave.

The legislation is important because, as the minister said, we are on the cusp of a revolution in volunteering. As a result of the coronavirus, many people are helping out and getting involved in the third and voluntary sectors. It is important that we strike the balance between protecting children’s safety and welcoming people into the system.

I lodged an amendment at stage 2 about people under the age of 16 who are keen to engage in the voluntary sector. At issue was whether they would require vetting. We had a good debate about that. It is important that we invite and encourage everyone and anyone who wants to get involved to do so, but the process behind that needs to be robust, transparent and accessible.

At stage 1, the committee raised concerns about moving to a digital-only system and whether that would work for all groups and organisations. The Government has reflected on that. In the current situation, we want to encourage people into environments in which they will interact with children and vulnerable people. For example, there is talk about getting retired teachers into the education system quickly and efficiently. We also want to encourage people into social care—we know that that sector requires more people—the third sector, nurseries and other environments where disclosure checks are important. How do we that? How do we use the disclosure system to ensure that the large numbers of people who are coming forward are able to access services quickly?

The only other point that I want to pick up on in my brief comments is what has changed in the bill. During the stage 3 amendments, the minister commented on Alex Cole-Hamilton’s suggestions about how we further protect those who we have to, including anyone who is involved in political life. The minister briefly mentioned setting up an independent review—I believe that that was the language that was used. That is very welcome, but I ask the minister to write to the Parliament or the Education and Skills Committee with more detail on that. Now is not the time to go into that, but I invite the minister to do that so that all members can read more about what the remit and timescales of the review will be and the expectations around it.

I will end my remarks in the interests of time. I thank members for their input on the bill. It has been a pleasure to work on my first piece of education-related legislation in the committee. I know that the committee’s hard work will continue as we look to improve outcomes for all children throughout Scotland.

18:20  

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which says that I am the chair of the Hibernian Community Foundation.

In our stage 1 debate on the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill, I spoke a little bit about it being the latest stage of a road on a map of protection legislation that goes all the way back to the start of the Scottish Parliament and the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000, which was the first such legislation that we passed. The road on that map has passed through things such as the protection of vulnerable adults legislation, and this evening brings us to the end of this bit of the road. Although it was a bit bumpy at stage 2, we have reached a pretty good place. The minister and her officials have tried carefully to respond to the concerns of the committee and the witnesses, and that has been good to see.

I have made a point about how wide-ranging such bills are. Early on in the committee’s evidence taking, it was revealed to us that there are 1.5 million members of the protecting vulnerable groups scheme, so it is certainly legislation that affects many of our citizens. That was, of course, one of the reasons why there was a move in the legislation to having membership renewable every five years. The committee considered practical issues around that—for example, repeat fees and people having to remember that they have to renew their membership of the scheme—but the important thing is that the approach enables Disclosure Scotland to work more efficiently and effectively to monitor members of the scheme by enabling it to not have to monitor a significant number of members who are not using their PVG scheme membership. That is quite important and effective.

The early acts are all good examples of how having our own Parliament allowed us much more readily to catch our legislation up with other legislation, the modern world and other changes. We should not be surprised that, having set the disclosure scheme in place, we have come to a point at which it is necessary to clarify, simplify and modernise it. It had to take account of other legislation that we have passed, such as the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019 and the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019. At stage 2, a great deal of work went into trying to ensure that that happened, and we have got there now.

That will not, of course, be the end of the process. For example, the Government recently recommitted itself to the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which may well mean a legislative change that will come back to some of the measures on children and childhood offences. That would in turn mean that we would have to come up with another iteration of the scheme.

There is more immediate and quite important work—and not only the setting up of the group that was promised to Alex Cole-Hamilton earlier on. In the discussions, there were concerns—Jamie Greene mentioned this—about the fact that anyone under 16 could not be a member of the scheme, as that might make it difficult for people under 16 to volunteer at all. I think that the Government has committed to monitor that and ensure that that is not the case.

Similarly, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland expressed concerns about the impact of the legislation on care-experienced young people. I think that the Government has also committed to monitor that; I hope that it will be able to do so, perhaps as part of the care review implementation.

There is some immediate work to be done there, but the biggest piece of immediate work is for Disclosure Scotland. As colleagues will remember, when the original scheme was introduced, there was a period when it took quite a long time for disclosure checks to come through, which caused great difficulty for many voluntary organisations and workplaces. Disclosure Scotland made us promises that it could make the legislation work. Let us hope that it is right. I think the legislation in now a place where Disclosure Scotland should be able to make it work. We will certainly support the bill at decision time.

18:25  

I start by reminding members that I am a current member of the PVG scheme, through the Church of Scotland.

Rehabilitation and reintegration into society for people who have committed offences in the past is a key part of creating a more just and safe society, but it must be balanced with safeguarding vulnerable people against those who might still pose a risk.

Getting that balance wrong has serious consequences. A system that is too punitive creates cycles of reoffending, because people with past convictions face obstacles to mainstream employment and are instead pushed to the periphery of society. That is still very much part of the reality here in Scotland, despite our efforts. There are no shortage of examples of more punitive systems, in which reoffending rates are even worse.

Being too lenient, however, could leave people, especially vulnerable people, at risk, so we would be failing in our duty to safeguard their wellbeing.

The disclosure system must balance those issues and set out robust procedures for when past convictions should be disclosed. Over time, the system has become pretty complicated. Its legal framework stems in large part from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, but since then a significant volume of further legislation and statutory instruments by the United Kingdom Parliament and then the Scottish Parliament, as well as court cases, have created new rules and schemes.

As a PVG scheme member, I certainly welcome the bill’s aim of simplifying and strengthening the system. That is not an easy task, as the Education and Skills Committee saw at stages 1 and 2. Although the committee was broadly supportive of the aims of the bill, a number of issues were raised about aspects of the current system and about proposed changes that required to be addressed.

I was not the only one to express concerns about the impact of barring under-16s from PVG membership—which Iain Gray and Jamie Greene mentioned—while still permitting them to engage in regulated work, and simultaneously making it an offence for anyone aged 16 or over to engage in regulated work without PVG membership.

Currently, several hundred under-16s are engaged in such roles, mostly on a voluntary basis. My primary concern was that organisations—often small voluntary groups—might understand the message to be that under-16s could no longer engage in such voluntary work or that, even if they were technically allowed to, the legally safest option for the organisation would be to avoid that.

Another concern that is worth noting again is that the small number of under-16s who present a risk and are barred by ministers from working with vulnerable groups could slip through the net, were the PVG scheme not to apply to them.

I appreciate the Government’s position that having under-16s in a continuously monitored scheme is disproportionate and that, in any case, they should not be engaging in regulated work without an adult present who is a PVG scheme member. I also understand that other disclosure products are available. The argument was finely balanced for me, but I am content with the Government’s commitment to monitor the impact of the changes on young people’s participation in volunteering, and to communicate clearly the other available disclosure products. I note that the introduction of the offence of engaging in regulated work without PVG membership will not apply to those young people.

I acknowledge that the literal handful of under-16s who are barred and who pose a risk should be monitored by other statutory services, thereby preventing their engaging with vulnerable groups. However, as I said at stage 1, reliance primarily on overstretched social work departments is far from perfect, particularly when individuals may move between local authorities, which is when communication between services often breaks down.

The other substantive concern that I raised at stage 1 related to the two-part test for level 2 disclosures, to be established at a later date following consultation of stakeholders. Although I appreciate the importance of such consultation, the arrangements could have left parts of the system dealing directly with balancing privacy and safeguarding, without any parliamentary scrutiny. I am pleased that the Government lodged amendments at stage 2 to address that issue by providing further provisions on how the test should be applied.

I also welcome the changes that have been introduced to address other issues that MSPs and organisations including Scottish Women’s Aid raised at stages 1 and 2.

The Scottish Greens welcome the steps to simplify and strengthen the disclosure system. We thank the bill team, the committee clerks and those who contributed evidence for working towards a set of proposals that we are happy to support.

18:30  

This debate concludes my first full experience of scrutinising legislation in the Scottish Parliament since I was elected last summer. I record my thanks to the Education and Skills Committee’s clerks and the legislation team, who guided me through the process. I also thank my committee colleagues for their support. I have seen that ahead of any legislative reform a power of work goes on behind the scenes. That is even more impressive in the current context, so I pay tribute to all those who are somehow keeping Parliament ticking in these extraordinary times.

In the stage 1 debate, I said that

“the bill has the potential to make genuine, positive changes to the disclosure process.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2020; c 73.]

I will focus on a couple of the specific ways in which the bill will, after it is passed today, do that.

The bill will make it possible for people to apply for and receive disclosures digitally, which is an important and significant step for the future. It has taken a pandemic to prove that parts of Scotland’s administration are pointlessly reliant on paper, which is no longer the way that the world works. Offline alternatives are obviously still needed, and I still have some concerns about information technology capacity, given that 1.2 million people might need to apply for PVG membership as the renewal system gets under way. However, I am hopeful that if the disclosure system can maintain accessibility and make the move a success, it will create a precedent that other systems can follow.

The bill also makes sensible changes to the PVG scheme. The move to renewable five-year membership, which will be mandatory for people in regulatory roles, puts the scheme back in line with reality. Disclosure Scotland says that 20 per cent of those who are currently included in the scheme do not need to be in it, which means that hundreds of thousands of people are being monitored for no reason. Ending lifetime membership should address that pointless intrusion and the needless burden on Disclosure Scotland.

I am also glad that the bill will end automatic disclosure of childhood offences that are committed between the ages of 12 and 17. Mistakes that people make in their early years should not prejudice their adult life chances. Scotland still has some way to go, as we strive towards incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but I welcome each move that is made in that direction.

As I said, the bill will make good changes to the disclosure system, but I cannot finish without mentioning the amendments that my colleague Alex Cole-Hamilton lodged at stages 2 and 3, which seemed to be completely in line with the bill’s policy aims. It is clear that politicians fit within the scope of the bill’s definition of people who hold “power or influence”, and that situations can and do arise as part of an elected representative’s role in which such power or influence could be used improperly. It is not enough to say that it should not be used in that way; the point is that it could be.

Although Alex Cole-Hamilton did not press amendment 39, I hope that, given his work to raise the issue, and the welcome announcement by the Minister for Children and Young People that there will be an independent review to look at the safeguarding issue, there will be a change in the future. On that hopeful note, I say that I am happy to support the bill today.

We move to the open debate, with speeches of four minutes. We are already quite well over time, so brevity would be appreciated by everyone.

18:33  

I thank colleagues who have already covered many of the points that I wanted to make about the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill. I am very thankful to our clerks and to all those who took part in the bill process at stage 1.

I remember an evening event at Parliament, in Queensberry house, that went on quite late. People had travelled from far and wide to take part in a focus group. That would almost be unheard of now, but it happened just before we went into lockdown. It would no doubt happen via Zoom, nowadays.

The current crisis has delayed proceedings a little, and it seems to be a long time since we last discussed the bill in the chamber, but—as many members have said—it is now in a good place.

The work that has been done by stakeholders, the bill team and the Government is evident from the ease with which the bill has gone through stage 3 this afternoon, and from the consensus on it that has been expressed by members from across the chamber.

I would like to highlight one aspect that came to light in the evidence that was heard by the focus groups. The bill’s progressive nature can be seen from its approach to the impact on young people of disclosure of convictions that they accrued when they were younger. We heard emotional evidence from those who took part in the focus groups. Robert Dorrian asked us to recognise adolescence as

“a unique phase of life by ending the automatic disclosure of convictions accrued while aged between 12 and 17 years and introducing an assessment by Disclosure Scotland acting on behalf of Ministers as to whether convictions ought to be disclosed”.

One of the people who attended from Who Cares? Scotland informed the committee that although people who have been in care make up only an estimated 0.5 per cent of Scotland’s population, they make up 33 per cent of our youth-offender population and 31 per cent of the Scottish adult prison population. Those figures should make us all stop and think about what we are doing systemically in the care system that leads to such a situation. As Ross Greer rightly said, it is important that those young people had the opportunity to take part in the process of consultation on the bill.

Of course, we are now in the Covid era. If anything, the bill is now more important than it was before, because we want to harness the energy and willingness to volunteer that people have shown recently. We are in a good place to ensure that that can be done effectively in the future, through the bill.

I again thank everyone who has contributed to the process.

We seem to have lost Jeremy Balfour—I hope, just temporarily. In the meantime, I call Daniel Johnson.

18:37  

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am sorry—you caught me off guard there.

There are only 23 minutes left before we all want to be out of here, so I will try to be brief. I will simply remark on the fact that the reasons for our having the bill are important ones, as was set out by the minister and Iain Gray.

As Ross Greer said, the bill deals with the balances that exist between rights and responsibilities and between obligations and expectations I will add one more to the many reasons that others have already set out for the legislation’s importance. Giving people the ability to see information about them that is being disclosed at job interviews is a welcome development, because foreseeability is an important issue.

The main line of questioning that I pursued throughout stage 2 and during the evidence that the committee took at stage 1 was on the two-part test. One of the most important concerns that was raised then was about whether information that would not be disclosed in relation to a criminal conviction could be disclosed if it formed part of what is known as “other relevant information”—or ORI. Such principles being in the bill helps greatly. The guidance that will be made on them will clearly be hugely important in ensuring that such information is safeguarded, and that information that would not be disclosed as relating to a criminal conviction is not disclosed simply because it involves other relevant information.

The General Teaching Council for Scotland plays an important role in regulating members of the teaching profession. It has been in touch with me to state its concern that information that it needs in order to understand and assess whether people are right and proper candidates to be in that profession is simply not reaching it, from either Disclosure Scotland or Police Scotland, both of which have cited reasons relating to the general data protection regulation.

It is somewhat ironic that PVG information is required to gain accreditation in the first place. However, if there is new information about a police investigation, and even if Disclosure Scotland is made aware, the details would not be passed to the General Teaching Council, nor would the police alert it. That is an issue that requires some urgent attention. The Information Commissioner for Ireland has said that that information should be shared, and my understanding of GDPR legislation is that information sharing is permissible when it comes to child protection. I urge the Government to look at that.

18:40  

I am happy to speak in the stage 3 debate on a bill that is incredibly important to the Scottish Government’s ability to protect the most vulnerable in society. In a nutshell, if passed today the bill will modernise and improve proportionality in the disclosure system, balancing public protection with the right to move on from past offences. It is a progressive and necessary bill. Significant amendment and improvements have been made in its journey from stage 1, and I thoroughly recommend that it is passed. As we have heard, it is a detailed bill with many parts and I commend the minister and her officials for getting it into such a good place.

The Law Society and COSLA support the development of a simplified regime for disclosure in Scotland, balancing an individual’s right to privacy with protection of the public interest, and acknowledge that the current disclosure regime is complex and difficult to navigate. As Daniel Johnson said, the two-part test was greatly debated in committee. The Scottish Government and Disclosure Scotland have outlined the approach on statutory and non-statutory guidance and the Law Society is keen to contribute to that work.

One of the most vital parts of the bill relates to childhood offending; children should not serve a lifetime sentence of discrimination and unemployability for offences in childhood, many of which were a result of adverse childhood experiences. The bill will end automatic disclosure of convictions that were accrued between the ages of 12 and 17.

For adults, the fundamental aim of the disclosure regime is to balance public protection with the right to move on from past offences. A theme of the policy discussions is how care-experienced young people can be particularly susceptible to becoming involved with criminal justice agencies, as the minister and the convener articulated. One care-experienced witness, Robert Dorrian, said that

“care-experienced individuals often self-exclude, which cannot be quantified ... Our members have told us that childhood convictions have prevented them from moving on from their past.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 13 November 2019; c 6.]

That needs to change and the bill is an opportunity for that change.

The bill will simplify and modernise the disclosure system, with applications being made online. With digital applications and disclosures, the process is expected to be faster. However, the committee welcomed reassurances from Disclosure Scotland that non-digital means of seeking disclosures will remain.

I am delighted that amendment 25 defined the meaning of domestic abuse and I thank Women’s Aid for its involvement in that. Alex Cole-Hamilton’s amendments to the bill were withdrawn, but I was pleased to hear of the working group proposal that was outlined by the minister.

The bill is hugely progressive and will strike the balance between protection and allowing people to move on with their lives. I am happy to support it at stage 3.

I am afraid that we have not been able to get Mr Balfour back—oh, he has arrived just in the nick of time. We have not made up all the time that I was hoping for, but never mind.

18:43  

I apologise, Presiding Officer. I will keep my comments brief; technology let me down there.

Unlike other members who have spoken so far in the debate, I come to the bill new. I read with interest the stage 1 debate and the amendments that were lodged at stage 2.

I come to the bill with a real interest; I am a current member of the scheme and I think that I hold three different certificates for volunteering that I do. One of the important aspects of the bill, which was pointed out by the Law Society of Scotland, is that the current regime is complex and difficult to navigate. I welcome the changes that the bill will bring about, because they will make the scheme easier. There is a difficult balance to get right: we want to protect children and vulnerable individuals in every circumstance but at the same time we want to encourage as many people as possible to come into volunteering.

As others have said in the debate, since the present crisis started, there has been greater awareness of what volunteers can do. We want to ensure that that continues. The bill has got the balance right. It will encourage people to volunteer, and it will make sure that they are the appropriate individuals.

I welcome the comments by the minister and others today about giving people a second chance. That is an important principle. We all make decisions that we live to regret. In particular, individuals make decisions in their youth that they live to regret. That can hold them back from being able to volunteer and give back to their communities, and the bill has done a great deal to rectify that.

I know that you want to move on, Presiding Officer, and I know that many of you have had a long day. Let me tell you, it is no more comfortable sitting on a chair at home than it is sitting in the chamber, so I will stop there. I welcome the bill and look forward to its enactment.

Thank you, Mr Balfour. I am glad that you finally managed to join the debate.

We move to the closing speeches. We are not too bad for time—you have up to four minutes, Mr Gray.

18:45  

I hear the “up to four minutes”, Presiding Officer. We find ourselves in the twilight of a wet Wednesday, in a sparsely populated chamber, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, and, indeed, in the shadow of a powerful debate on racism that ranged across the globe and across the centuries and dealt with matters of good and evil and life and death for far too many people. At this stage, it really is the truth to say that less is more.

However, I want to say this. We should be proud of our Parliament and pleased with ourselves for doing this today. Passing the bill is a symbol of something very important. The purpose of the disclosure regime is to make two things possible in safety. The first is the professional caring and nurturing of the vulnerable—teaching, caring, helping children and supporting people with disabilities. The second is all the volunteer-supported activity in our communities, which adds so much richness to our lives and opens so many doors that our young people would otherwise never even get to stand in front of—youth clubs, Scouts, the Boys Brigade, every kind of sports club that we can think of, and more besides. Those are things that create joy in our lives, and disclosure is about ensuring that they can happen in the confidence of safety from any who would pervert them for their predatory purpose.

Those are the very things that Covid has closed down. Caring has become a front-line battle, and the fun and companionship of sport and clubs has closed down all together. Hibernian Community Foundation, which I chair, usually runs children’s community football and holiday camps across the whole of the south of Scotland. We do not expect that to start again for a very long time, but start again it will. Taking the time today to pass the bill, even if much of what it effects is in abeyance, signals our hope, confidence and determination that those activities, which enrich our normal lives with joy and fun and caring, will be back. Children will play and learn again, and people will meet together again to socialise and support each other—and they will do so in safety.

That is not a bad night’s work.

I do not think that your card is in properly, Mr Halcro Johnston. In fact, it is not in at all. It is not as if we have all the time in the world here. [Laughter.]

18:49  

My apologies, Presiding Officer. I thank all my fellow speakers for giving me so much time to expand on the points that I want to make today.

Increasingly, organisations—from businesses to those in the public sector—are faced with difficult questions about safeguarding vulnerable people and how they accommodate people who have previously been convicted of crime. There has always been a delicate balance to maintain, and it reaches to the heart of our justice system. A great deal has been said about the sometimes competing interests of retribution, rehabilitation and reparation.

In more practical terms, we know all too well the problems that are faced by institutions when vulnerable people, especially children, have not been adequately safeguarded. Too many lives have been destroyed and too many people still carry the scars—physical and mental—of abuse that could have been prevented. It is right that the needs of victims and those who are at risk come uppermost in our considerations, but we must recognise the broader needs of society and those who have criminal convictions. That is what the minister dubbed

“the right of people to move on from their past behaviour.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2020; c 55.]

Criminal behaviour carries—in many cases, quite properly—a stigma. However, once a person is released into the community, we cannot expect them to find constructive rehabilitation if they cannot contribute through employment but also, if appropriate, through other means, such as volunteering.

The bill is welcome. It streamlines a complex system and helps users to navigate it more effectively. Some of the work at stage 2 has also improved the bill. The need for effective rehabilitation for people who committed offences as children is even more pressing. The broad direction of travel seems to have been widely welcomed.

The bill places weighty powers in the hands of the Scottish Government to decide what is reasonable in any particular case. Such powers must clearly be used sensibly, with consideration given not only to what is serious but to whether something presents a serious future risk. Undoubtedly, a number of the provisions will have to be monitored once they are implemented. That is not a criticism of the Government’s bill but simply an acknowledgement of the difficulties that are inherent in this area of law.

The bill makes sensible changes to a vital system that provides protection for some of the most vulnerable in our society. There are a great many provisions in the bill, and it would be impossible to touch on them all, despite their importance. However, what is necessary is that the principles and purpose of the systems that the bill creates and modifies are foremost in our minds. The proposals make a number of substantial improvements. Conservative members will support the bill.

Given how things have gone, I ask the minister to speak for a wee bit longer than her allotted time. [Laughter.] It would be useful if you could take us to just before decision time.

18:52  

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am hastily replacing all the pages in my speech.

I thank all members for their contributions today. Again, I thank the Education and Skills Committee for its detailed scrutiny of the bill. The bill is technical, and it has been difficult for all of us to understand its drafting and detail. However, the meaning of the bill is very clear; it serves a powerful purpose in our society.

I thank the bill team, which has been mentioned several times by members from across the chamber. It has, indeed, done a sterling job of working with stakeholders and parliamentarians to ensure that we understand the detail of the bill. If members will indulge me for one moment, I note that the bill team leader has a significant birthday today. I hope that he is watching at home with a wee glass in hand, so well done Kevin Lee and happy significant birthday.

The passage of the bill will not be the end of the journey. It is the vehicle by which to provide greater protection, opportunity and flexibility to people and businesses in Scotland. As I set out previously, the Scottish Government will consult widely on disclosure fees before the regulations are laid for the Parliament’s consideration. I understand all the more acutely at this time how important that will be to individuals and to different sectors. We have a long-standing commitment to waiving fees for volunteers on the PVG scheme who are with qualifying voluntary organisations, and that will continue under any revised arrangements. As a temporary measure, we have also removed the fee on applications for key workers and volunteers who are contributing to Scotland’s response to Covid-19.

Engagement does not end with the bill. If the bill is passed, as I hope it will be this evening, we will continue to learn from stakeholders and the many communities with an interest in the bill. We will work in collaboration with them to find out more about what works best, and we will welcome scrutiny and challenge.

Daniel Johnson mentioned the General Teaching Council for Scotland, which I will use as an example. It is vital that we work with stakeholders to get things right for them. It is vital that we are able to share certain information with regulators for the purpose of safeguarding, which is why my officials have engaged with the GTCS and other regulatory bodies on that matter.

After the GTCS raised concerns with Disclosure Scotland, it reviewed the practice and made changes so that when Disclosure Scotland notifies the GTCS that a teacher is being considered for listing it will always state the source of that information. That will allow the GTCS to use its powers to ask for the information from the organisation that owns it. Recent improvements have focused on better communication between the GTCS and Disclosure Scotland about such cases.

Will the minister reflect on the point about the police, which the GTCS said are also part of the issues that it faces in obtaining the information?

I am certainly happy to work to continue to improve the information-sharing relationship, because it is important. I have to make clear that if new information is added to a scheme member’s record that results in the scheme member being placed under consideration for listing, regulatory bodies and employers would be notified.

Disclosure Scotland has developed a new information technology system and it now controls that by itself, rather than being dependent on an external supplier. That has enabled it to quickly implement solutions in response to Covid-19. That would have been significantly more challenging under the previous system. Its ability to quickly change the system allows Disclosure Scotland to make positive, sustainable improvements, which will enhance its ability to deliver the bill and protect vulnerable groups. The bill’s implementation will build on the existing new system at Disclosure Scotland, and the estimated costs that are set out in the bill’s financial memorandum remain valid.

It is important to highlight the significant work that has been undertaken at Disclosure Scotland in response to the Covid-19 crisis. The requirements of home working and the national imperative to get health and care workers checked without delay required Disclosure Scotland to rapidly deliver change; its response has been phenomenal. Stakeholder feedback about the changes that it has made has been incredibly positive, and I thank everyone at Disclosure Scotland who has made that possible during these unprecedented times.

Although, of course, Disclosure Scotland needs to be in a position to implement the provisions, stakeholders must be ready, too. Digital delivery is only one aspect of implementing these provisions. Some elements of the bill will alter how organisations approach their recruitment practices, and we need to ensure that those organisations are confident about their new rights and responsibilities before the provisions of the bill come into force. True to our approach from the outset of reviewing Scotland’s disclosure system, we will work closely with the stakeholders to map out the steps from the current situation to the post-bill services.

The transition from regulated work to regulated roles must be handled very carefully, at a pace that stakeholders are comfortable with. Stakeholders have been very clear about wanting to do this in a collaborative and iterative way. These changes will not happen overnight. It is not only Disclosure Scotland that needs to be ready; stakeholders must be ready, too.

We are committed to developing better training and guidance, which will be co-designed with stakeholders to ensure that it is more targeted and suits the needs of our users—including children, young people and those who support people with convictions. This bill shows that we are absolutely focused on protecting the most vulnerable people in our society, but also that we recognise that people can—and do—change. It offers a more responsive and individualised approach to disclosure. Together with other recent acts, including the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019 and the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019, it will transform the situation for Scotland’s children and young people, so many of whom have been marginalised and stigmatised because of state disclosure.

At stage 1 of the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019 we heard moving testimony from Lynzy Hanvidge.

Unfortunately, Lynzy’s story is not unique, and care-experienced young people are more likely to have interactions with the criminal justice system. In recognition of that, the provisions of this bill—building on the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019—have been developed. I believe that they will have a transformational impact on the life chances of someone like Lynzy. The bill provides that some of the barriers to a better future can be removed.

I am delighted to commend the bill to Parliament.