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We shouldn’t dismiss questions about the Named Person scheme just because Christian groups are raising them.

Readers of this column may be aware that I am not an evangelical Christian or a family values Conservative. Nevertheless, I share many of their concerns about the named persons who will be assigned to every child in Scotland from August and will be responsible for detecting signs of abuse. I’m sure the intentions are honourable and that this is not a “Soviet-style” assault on the family as some claim. However, no one has explained very clearly why this new law is necessary.

Unnecessary legislation often leads to unintended consequences, for instance the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act or abolishing corroboration in rape cases. Named persons looks like one of those pieces of legislation that are about sending a message to voters that the Scottish Government really cares about child sex abuse and is going the extra mile. But, as we know, when it comes to legislation, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Many of the law’s advocates seem to be saying that the named person scheme is merely about giving parents better health information, which is fine. But I don’t see why you need a full-scale statute to mount a public education campaign. The other argument I’ve heard most often is that “health visitors and teachers do this anyway”, whatever “this” is.

They presumably mean that teachers already have a responsibility to notify the relevant authorities if they see a child failing to thrive or showing signs of abuse. But if that is what happens anyway, why this new law? Why reinvent the child welfare wheel?

But there clearly is more to these named persons. Supporters believe that named persons will somehow prevent child sex abuse cases which, we are told, are now running at 2,500 a year. “No more baby P” is what I keep reading and hearing. This was the unfortunate child who died in 2007 after Haringey social workers failed to take notice of signs of abuse.

Everyone wants to prevent child sex abuse but what will the named person contribute to this drive? Does this person have a statutory responsibility to ensure that no child’s abuse is ignored? If so, it seems to me to take the safe spaces movement into the family home.

Armed with the family’s medical records, and a responsibility to share information on a national abuse database, the headteacher – who already has a full-time job running the school – becomes the front line in preventing harm to children in or out of the classroom. Teachers seem quite relaxed about taking on this role but it seems to me to put them in the line of fire.

Imagine when the next “baby P” dies. Who will be blamed by tabloid newspapers for failing in their responsibility “to safeguard the wellbeing of the child” as it is described in the Children and Young Person’s Act 2014? The named person will be named and shamed. It would be convenient for social workers, police and council bureaucrats to be able to shield themselves behind this individual whose role is so vague it could mean anything.

We are told that the named person will prevent the child being “passed around the various agencies” when there is problem. We’re told that children need one point of contact. But I’m not sure how this is meant to work. If the named person becomes a kind of child advocate, negotiating with social workers, courts and police over what happens to a child in distress, that sounds to me like a full-time job.

This could become particularly onerous in divorce cases where the named person could take centre stage. Some 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce in Scotland and, as anyone who has had the misfortune of going though a contested divorce will testify, the welfare of the children becomes the focus of legal dispute.

Our divorce courts already take a “child-centred” approach to divorce: the child’s interests come before the interests of the parents. What is to stop the named person becoming a kind of arbiter in the issue of the child’s emotional wellbeing? Is the child better off with distressed, medicated mother X or distant, emotionally-autistic father Y? Good luck with that.

In divorce cases there could be three “parents” involved: the biological ones and the guardian appointed by the state. Supporters of the named persons say this scenario is ridiculous and exaggerates the role. But how can the named person not be involved? When the child’s wellbeing is raised, surely the named person will be the first expert witness.

This becomes particularly difficult when there are nebulous allegations of emotional abuse. The named person is supposed to observe the requirements of Girfec (Getting It Right For Every Child). This is the Scottish Government’s child welfare checklist that every named person will have pinned on their wall.

Girfec says the named person is not merely responsible for ensuring that the child is safe and healthy but also that it is “active, achieving, nurtured, respected and included”. The Government’s advice on named persons tells parents: “You can expect to hear wellbeing referred to when your child’s health visitor or school contacts you”.

Perhaps I am being paranoid, but I find the idea of a teacher having a statutory responsibility to ensure wellbeing – that my child is “respected and included” – faintly sinister. I’m not sure how you measure it for a start. It would involve considerable investigation of the child’s domestic circumstances for a start and would largely rest on the testimony of the child.

Apparently named persons will be primed to ask leading questions of children to detect signs of wellbeing abuse. The results will no doubt be fed into a national database and endlessly recycled to every social services and police bureaucrat who claims an interest. This is not acceptable

I don’t think named persons necessarily undermine the human rights of parents, as is claimed in the Supreme Court action by supporters of NO2NP. But whenever we invite the state to take a detailed role in our private lives we should be careful this does not turn into needless intrusion into privacy.

When I hear people say, “but if only one child is saved anything it will be worth it”, my anxieties increase. This is always a specious argument. You might as well say: ban all road transport to save children’s lives or ban families themselves since this is where the vast majority of child abuse takes place.

At the very least, this looks like a snoopers’ charter. It invites people to report parents to the named person if they think a child’s wellbeing is not being respected. It risks creating yet another official database of unreliable and subjective information wide open to misuse and hacking.

Teachers are not social workers and there has not been nearly enough discussion of how this scheme will work. We shouldn’t dismiss reservations about a potentially profound change in the relationship of the family to the state just because they are made by religious activists.

 

From Herald 10/3/16

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About iain2macwhirter

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