Loophole for elected officials must be closed to keep kids safe from exploitation, says Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.
I once sat on a government committee implementing child protection policy with a charismatic man who turned out to be part of one of the biggest paedophile rings in Scottish history.
As the head of a major national youth work charity, Jamie Rennie was hand-picked by Scottish Government officials to help get the voluntary sector ready for the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme when it came in in 2008. One week he was there, the next he wasn’t.
The remaining members of the committee and I watched in abject horror as the extent of his crimes were laid out in the media over the following days. He is still in prison to this day.
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PVG may not have caught him – he was unknown to the police up to that point – but it left us in no doubt of the need for greater safeguarding and the reforms that we were helping to enact.
It is an offence for any organisation to employ someone in a regulated position who is barred from working with either children or vulnerable adults.
A youth worker for 19 years
The PVG scheme allows organisations to check whether someone they’re about to take on is banned from such work. It ensures that some level of vetting exists for people who would hold positions of power and influence over children or vulnerable adults. It covers school teachers, social workers, sports coaches, janitors and any other profession which has regular and unsupervised contact with kids or protected adults, save one. Elected politicians.
For some reason, those elected to public office were exempted from background police checks in the legislation. Some local authorities have since insisted on PVG checks for councillors but, in the main, elected officials get a pass. I’ve always found this quite astonishing. I was a youth worker for 19 years but my own disclosure certificate expired a good while before I was elected to the Scottish Parliament, yet week in, week out I find myself with regular and unsupervised contact with children who shadow me through work experience and protected adults who ask for privacy in my constituency surgery.
It is entirely wrong to assume that politicians are above reproach when it comes to the abuse of children or vulnerable adults. Indeed, we have recent cause to know otherwise. I will say nothing of those events other than that we would wish for our politicians to reflect the better natures of the communities they seek to serve, but they don’t always do so.
Make predators think twice
That’s why in early January, I instructed parliamentary clerks to draft amendments to the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill which would see anyone elected to public office put through a background check.
By definition, elected politicians hold positions of power and influence. They can assist vulnerable people in distress in the worst of all circumstances and they can offer young people a work experience placement like no other, with a glimpse into the magic and theatre of politics. Why should we just assume that not a single one of them may use that power to prey on someone?
Background checks won’t catch everyone – they didn’t catch Jamie Rennie – but they’re a start. They will allow constituents a level of reassurance and could even give predatory figures looking to exploit the reach and influence of elected office pause to think twice before standing.
One thing’s for certain – recent history demonstrates why politicians shouldn’t be exempt from this kind of background scrutiny.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.