Common sense would suggest that if children at risk of abuse are going to be protected effectively, then the available resources should be targeted efficiently towards those who are most vulnerable.
The Scottish government has decided otherwise. From 2016 every child under the age of eighteen will have a ‘named person’ assigned to them. Over a million children and young people will be given a state guardian, regardless of whether there are welfare concerns, and regardless of whether they or their parents wish to have one. The named person will have legal power to advise children and speak to them about personal and family matters, without the consent or presence of parents (and even directly contrary to the parents’ wishes).
Up to the age of five, the NHS would appoint a health worker to be the named person. After that, responsibility would pass to local councils, with teachers likely to take over the role. A young person aged sixteen or seventeen may be able to marry and have a child themselves, but they would still need to have a named person – as would their own child.
The justification for this extraordinary measure? To ensure that no child is able to slip through the net of child protection services.
All it will do is stretch the net so thin that it is likely to burst. The authorities already possess all the powers they require to deal with genuine neglect or abuse. This will divert attention away from the truly appalling cases that, sadly, do exist. Medical and social work professionals have warned that the resources are not there to fund this huge expansion of state control. Instead of better protecting vulnerable children, this ill-thought-out measure will leave them more at risk.
Families with nothing to hide will worry that they may be dragged into the child welfare system. The unintended consequence will be to discourage them from engaging with the authorities, even when their children may need specialist support.
Worse, this scheme contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 8), which assures everybody the right to a private and family life, free from state interference. Personal information such as the political or religious views of family members, will be shared with the named person, who will also have access to the child’s health records. Sensitive personal details will be recorded, stored and shared on databases, without needing to inform parents.
A conference in Edinburgh on June 9th marked the launch of the No to Named Person Campaign. An impressive line-up of speakers: academics, medical experts, parents, and representatives of educational and religious groups voiced their concerns. Sociologist Dr Stuart Waiton of Abertay University has argued cogently that recent years have seen a creeping ‘state, institutional and professional micro-management of everyday life’ and that this dangerous scheme is yet another manifestation of such state control.
On Wednesday 9th July a formal legal challenge was launched against the named person scheme. Leading human rights QC Aidan O’Neill will argue the case in court. He warns that the scheme fails to provide proper protections against ‘arbitrary and oppressive’ powers which the Government may use.
Meanwhile, Liz Smith, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, has warned that this measure ‘will tip the balance of family responsibility away from parents towards the state’.
Pushing more and more children and young people into the arms of state professionals is unlikely to improve their chances of security or happiness. Such professionals may well overflow with good intentions and great theories. But they don’t, and never can, overflow with parental love.
Dr Sharon James is Social Policy Analyst at the Christian Institute, which is one of the organisations backing the no2np campaign. The website contains testimonies from parents who suffered shocking, frightening and unwarranted interference into family life during the named person pilot scheme run in the Highlands.