It was reported in sections of the media as “the abandonment of a flagship policy” or variations on the theme of “humiliating climb down.” Rarely has a policy been so wilfully misunderstood or so unfairly maligned as the attempt by the Scottish Government to have a named person available to children and or their families in times of need and distress. For the Scots Tories, Liz Smith talked of “a complete humiliation”, perhaps forgetting that her party had abstained rather than opposed the original legislation and that every other party at Holyrood backed it.
The Named Person service in essence gave children from birth to 18 the ability where necessary to access support from a specific adult who might be a health worker or a guidance teacher. Someone who could function as an independent friend in need. It made provision for families too accessing this external support. It’s useful to remind ourselves who backed this scheme. It found support from many organisations specialising in helping young people in trouble including Barnardo’s, Action for Children and Children 1st. With one voice they raised concerns about unjustified criticism of the policy.
As did the Court of Session who thought the commentary had been hyperbolic and concluded that the scheme didn’t interfere with parental rights and had “no effect whatsoever on the legal, moral or social relationships within the family.” But, as is becoming traditional, the anti Named Persons coalition, backed by the Christian Institute, Christian Action Research and Education, and the dependably right wing Family Education Trust, then took its case to the Supreme Court (God presumably having too much else on his/her mind.)
And joy was unconfined in the No2NP camp when the judgement found that aspects of the scheme relating to the sharing of information would breach European privacy laws. In their enthusiasm they may just have missed the quote from the bench which concluded that the aims of the policy were “ unquestionably legitimate and benign.” As it happens many other folk consider the policy benign which is why it is already being used successfully in several local authorities including Highland which pioneered the Getting It Right For Every Child strategy.
But, in terms of legislating, the Scottish Government had to go back to the drawing board, setting up a panel to try and formulate a code of practice. And, as we now know, that code failed to materialise in a way which would make the new Scottish law fully compliant with the international one. The real losers here are not the government even if they were given a bloody nose. Over the last few years I’ve had the privilege of serving intermittently on a panel set up by Action For Children in Scotland which examined how the groundbreaking reforms of the original Kilbrandon Report were working in contemporary practice.
Kilbrandon, whose recommendations led to the birth of the children’s hearings system, and laid the foundation stones of much of the Social Work legislation which has followed since, was clear that troubled children, delinquent or not: “shared a common experience, a failure in the normal experience of upbringing,” and concluded that “the paramount consideration was the welfare of the child.”
When our panel talked more recently to children who had faced a range of problems, there was another common experience, and that was the fact that they had nobody to talk to who wasn’t part of the problem they were facing. Nobody looking out for them without an agenda. No safe space to articulate what worried them. One such interview still haunts me; a young woman who had been abused and taken into foster care. Only to be abused there too. Had she had a named adult, she might have been spared a great deal of horror.
One of the campaigners against this policy is someone I know quite well. She has long social work experience. But she has convinced herself that a) all this is an unwarranted attack on parents and b) too much emphasis is placed on child protection services rather than attacking the poverty and deprivation families are having to tackle daily. I’m not sure you can ever put too much emphasis on child protection. The statistics around children who have been in care for instance are frankly terrifying. They often lack the most precious gift we can give the next generation; the emotional security to arm them against future setbacks.
To say so is not to attack the vast majority of parents who offer love and protection often against all the odds. I can see no reason why parents who cherish their children would have reason to fear the introduction of Named Persons. I can see why parents facing huge pressures, financial or otherwise, might benefit from being able to access a source of potential support. Yet the campaigners mounted a relentless onslaught, alleging interference in family life, intrusion on parental rights, unwonted interventions by professionals and, that all purpose standby, “a snoopers’ charter”.
Here’s a news flash. Every professional I know who is involved in trying to give families and children a better life and the opportunities they deserve is pretty well snowed under in terms of their case loads. They have neither the time nor the inclination to poke their institutional noses in where it’s not wanted. In fact you might reasonably argue that what could hobble this initiative where it has been rolled out, is having more problems than people to deal with them.
Sometimes governments get things plain wrong and deserve a kicking. Sometimes their instincts are entirely sound and they still get a kicking. Reminds me why I never wanted to go into politics.
Published in The National 23.9.19