John Swinney turned the indignation meter up to 11 in his defence of the Named Persons scheme in Holyrood yesterday. Critics should be “ashamed of scaremongering” he roared and “creating a climate of misinformation”. But there’s been no need for the opposition to do that. It was, after all, Nicola Sturgeon who said that the NP scheme was “not compulsory”, when it emphatically is.
Mr Swinney added to the confusion by comparing the Named Person with a family doctor – a “service” to be accessed, as Mr Swinney put it, “only when the family needs it”. But GPs are not responsible for preventing child abuse. The former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Tavish Scott, insisted that “parents and carers can say: thanks, but no thanks” to a Named Person. He then contradicted himself by saying that families will “no longer be allowed to hide abuse”. Exactly.
Child protection is not optional. This has to be made clear, whatever side you take in this issue. There is no way that families can refuse to have a Named Person. It is as John Swinney eventually admitted about “prevention and early intervention”. And this is not just the prevention of actual harm, but the prevention of anything that hinders the child’s “wellbeing”, which covers a vast range of subjective criteria over and above actual protection from harm.
Inevitably the shadow of four-year-old Liam Fee, who was murdered by his mothers, hung over the debate. The SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth accused the Tories of “using the death of a child to score political points”. The Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson had tweeted that Liam Fee already had a Named Person, which was half right. Fife Council admitted that Liam had indeed been assigned a one as a “point of contact”. But they went on to say that this wasn’t a fully operational, all-seeing NP with all the extensive powers that go with the post.
The trouble here is that a “point of contact” is precisely how the Government has been selling the scheme. The phrase was used repeatedly in Holyrood yesterday by MSPs. Yet it is clearly very much more than that. The SNP furiously object to the term “state guardians” but that is exactly what a Named Person is turning out to be, whether they intended this or not.
They are appointed by the state for every single child in Scotland from the moment they are born, without exception. This is an entirely new proactive approach to child welfare that is called Getting It Right For Every Child, or “GIRFEC”.
The various charities, such as Barnardos, which inspired this scheme and lobbied for its introduction have never been in any doubt about this. They believe the state has been too squeamish about intervening in family life. Most child abuse takes place in the home and most abusers are known to the victims. It seems logical, therefore, to conclude that children are not safe in the family and that they need outside intervention to ensure that cases do not slip through the net.
The Named Person is “a key part of the early warning system we need to make sure that every child in Scotland is protected” according to Barnardos. An early warning system only works if it has an unrestricted view. Named Persons will be expected to spot the early signs of abuse and exchange information with GPs and police – in other words to create a database in which abnormal behaviour will be monitored, recorded and assessed. This could create a bureaucracy of state intervention in family life that is unprecedented anywhere in the world.
The responsibility on the named person will be onerous. When the next Liam Fee happens – and it certainly will happen – the finger of blame will first of all point, as it did last week, to the Named Person who is supposed to be the protector of the child. The teacher or health visitor will be dragged into the media spotlight and held to account for their failure to discharge their statutory obligation. If the council refuses to identify the Named Person it will be accused of a cover up.
Teacher and health service unions, realising the scale of the task their members are about to undertake, have been calling for more resources. But what is more important, surely, is clarity over what they are supposed to be looking out for when guarding the “wellbeing” of the thousands of children in their care. This is not simply looking for signs of physical or mental harm. Getting it right for every child means ensuring that all children are reared under another acronym: SHANARRI, which means safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included. These are very vague categories. Safety is one thing, but how do you tell if a child is not being included or respected?
The Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Children and Young People’s Act 2014 without asking these questions because politicians were eager to ‘do something’ about child abuse. Yesterday MSPs insisted that anything and everything must be done to protect children’s lives. The Tories and Labour both called rather feebly for a pause in the implementation of the policy, but couldn’t bring themselves to actually vote for it. They are now presumably hoping to see the Scottish Government hoist by its own petard.
Ministers hope that this will all blow over by the time the scheme is introduced in August. SNP loyalists are out in force saying that criticism is manufactured by Unionists, Tories and religious obsessives purely to undermine the Scottish Government, as “SNPbad”. But I fear they are under-estimating the strength of feeling about this among ordinary voters. According to a poll reported in The Herald earlier this week, even a majority of SNP supporters oppose the scheme.
It is an issue that has captured the imagination of Scots, but not in a good way. It is a potent mix of anxieties about state intrusion and the sanctity of family life. And it’s not just evangelical Christians who are concerned about the state “snoopers”. There is growing resentment from people of all social and political backgrounds at what is seen as an increasingly nannying, bossy and intrusive government that wants to tell people how to raise their children, how to speak, how fast to drive, how much alcohol to drink.
The SNP has always had something of a tin ear when it comes to civil liberties. Perhaps this is because, unlike many national liberation movements, it has never had to contend with an over-powerful state. We have had a succession of illiberal policies from the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act to the formation of Police Scotland and now the Named Persons initiative. Of course, like “consensual” stop and search, the Named Persons, we are assured, will only intervene in “problem families”. But that is naive. Scotland risks being turned into precisely the surveillance state that the SNP MPs in Westminster say is being created by the Investigatory Powers Bill.
But Named Persons are now a done deal, Parliament has spoken. We can only hope that John Swinney’s promised “refreshing” of the policy will be more than just cosmetic.