Research published this month paints a troubling picture of child protection services in England.
A study for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services concludes that rising demands on social workers has left front-line services in crisis.
The picture in England is bleak. But we must also spare a thought for front-line workers north of the border.
In Scotland, 14 out of every 1,000 children are looked after by local authorities, with the majority coming from the most deprived areas. This is more than double the proportion looked after in England, which stands at 6 in every 1,000 children. Scottish social workers, more than others in the UK, have a massive challenge on their hands.
So what is the Scottish Government proposing to alleviate some of the pressure? Not very much, it would seem.
In recent years, we’ve had two bouts of legislation which seem sure to compound, rather than relieve, the problems. First, there was the hated Named Person scheme, the Government’s plan to appoint a state guardian for every child in Scotland regardless of need. The more sinister elements of this scheme were challenged in the courts and eventually declared unlawful by the UK Supreme Court in 2016. But the Government still hopes to foist Named Person requirements on thousands of teachers and social workers who will be tasked with monitoring the ‘wellbeing’ – effectively the happiness – of children. Critics have consistently warned that this added bureaucracy will use up valuable resources which should be used to identify genuine cases of abuse.
As if Named Person wasn’t enough, the Scottish Government now supports plans to criminalise parents who smack their kids. Ministers are backing Green MSP John Finnie’s Bill to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement from law.
This defence allows parents to administer mild physical discipline without being labelled abusers. It does this by carefully defining what is and is not acceptable in terms of physical punishment. In Scotland, a smack which leaves more than a ‘temporary reddening of the skin’ is illegal. Using an implement of any kind is also against the law.
If reasonable chastisement is removed altogether, the effect will be to make all physical contact for the purpose of correcting a child potentially criminal. Under Finnie’s proposal, loving parents face the threat of social services intervention – and perhaps even prosecution – simply for using the kind of mild discipline most of us will have experienced ourselves as kids.
Looking to countries such as Norway and New Zealand, where similar changes have been made, this is exactly the kind of thing that has occurred. This outcome is undesirable both for families and for social workers who must be free to focus their attention on children who genuinely need their help.
All of this raises the question: ‘Why is the Scottish Government so determined to meddle in family life?’
A comment by the First Minister recently may offer some explanation. At an event for young people in the care system, Nicola Sturgeon described herself as the ‘corporate Mammy’. This somewhat creepy title is emblematic of a wider attitude towards parenting which exists in the Scottish Government. Ministers seem to think they know best about how families should raise their own children.
Legislating for state snoopers and supporting a smacking ban shows us that they are happy to impose their own parenting penchants on the entire electorate, regardless of what the public thinks. Polls on smacking consistently show that three-quarters of Scottish adults do not support John Finnie’s Bill. What ‘Mammy Sturgeon’ and her colleagues don’t seem to realise is that people don’t want this meddling.
Parents and professionals are against the Named Person scheme. Parents and professionals are against a smacking ban. They know that in the vast majority of cases, parents – the real, bleary-eyed, school-run types – know more about raising their children than any corporate figure ever could.
These policies won’t help anyone and in fact, they could make matters worse. It’s time for ‘Mammy Sturgeon’ to listen to her corporate bairns (the Scottish public).
The message they’re sending is this: ‘Nicola, geez peace’.