This is an edited version of Simon Calvert’s blog on Liberal England.
We don’t hear about it much in England, but north of the border, in the corridors of Holyrood, politicians are under pressure over plans to implement a controversial Named Person scheme.
Health visitors, teachers, children’s groups, social workers, Police Scotland and parents have all expressed serious reservations about the scheme. Yet the Scottish government is ploughing on regardless.
From August, every child in Scotland will be appointed a Named Person. These are state guardians who will be tasked with looking after a child’s “wellbeing” – that is, their “happiness“.
The scheme will be put in place regardless of whether or not children or parents want it, and regardless of whether there is any need for state intervention – over 34,000 Scots have signed a petition against the scheme.
One of the biggest reasons so many people are saying ‘No’ to Named Persons is the Scottish Government’s astonishing lack of clarity. Nearly every time ministers attempt to explain themselves, they end up sowing even more confusion.
The first minister Nicola Sturgeon says that Named Persons are “not compulsory”. Yet the Government’s own QC said that allowing an opt-out would “defeat the purpose of the scheme”.
In fact the phrase “opt out” appears absolutely nowhere in the legislation. If the scheme was voluntary, it would be fine. Parents who want help would know where to go to get it. But the Named Person law is universal.
Government guidance says Named Persons have “no new legal powers to compel parents… to accept advice, support or help”. In reality of course, if mums and dads refuse to engage with the scheme, they will inevitably find themselves under scrutiny.
Alan Small, one of the main cheerleaders of the policy, suggested parents won’t be able to hang up the phone on Named Persons. Separate Government guidance even lists “parental resistance” as a “risk indicator”.
We are told the policy is not, as many people feel, a ‘snoopers’ charter’. So why do the information-sharing provisions in the Act say nothing about telling parents what is being shared and why? If information is “likely to be relevant” to the Named Person and “ought to be provided” then it “must” be shared.
Government guidance to health visitors actively discourages them from seeking consent, saying sharing of information with or by a child’s Named Person “ill be a duty even where there is a duty of confidentiality”. It even says “consent to share relevant and proportionate information in this context will not be required and if sought and refused could potentially damage the HV/parental relationship”.
Kayley Hutton only discovered that her Named Person had compiled a 120-page dossier on her and her daughter Kaiya when she made a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act.
We are also told that a Named Person “isn’t there to monitor family life”. Yet official guidance for health visitors is explicit that a health visitor has “responsibility for overall monitoring of the child’s wellbeing and outcomes as their GIRFEC Named Person”.
The whole premise of the scheme is the idea that families will have a “single point of contact”. Deputy First Minister John Swinney seeks to reassure anxious parents by promising that the Named Person “will be someone already known to a family – usually a health visitor or teacher”.
But Scotland’s biggest teachers’ union had to explain to the Government that their members could not fulfil the Named Person duties at evenings, weekends and during school holidays. Moray Council, which is already piloting the scheme, recently relied on just eight council workers to cover for 80 Named Persons during school holidays. So when the child’s actual Named Person is not available, the role will be fulfilled by someone who is not named and not known to the family at all.
Former children’s minister Aileen Campbell was responsible for the Named Person policy. Defending it, she observed “that it is not always possible … to predict in advance which children might become vulnerable”.
Yet the new law says nothing about targeting help at those who are vulnerable. Rather, every one of Scotland’s one million children will have a Named Person to “promote” their “wellbeing”. This is a vague concept that’s likely to be far removed from vulnerability.
Ms Campbell also claimed that “the law already allows information sharing to prevent or tackle a risk to wellbeing”.
This simply isn’t true. The current law allows those in possession of personal information to breach their duty of confidentiality and share information (e.g. with police and social workers) when there is “risk of significant harm” to a child. But the Information Commissioner’s Office quite clearly explains that the Named Person law is “lowering that trigger down to wellbeing”.
As children’s charity Clan Childlaw says, the wellbeing threshold “involves a highly subjective judgment on the part of the Named Person and others as to whether to share information. It allows for the sharing of confidential information at that lower threshold even if the child does not consent. There is a serious risk that the overriding of confidentiality when there is no child protection concern will lead to children being reluctant to engage with confidential services”.
No one doubts the good intentions of those who promote Named Persons, but there is a terrible and dangerous confusion over the entire purpose of the policy.
Government ministers cite previous infant deaths and claim Named Persons will prevent future deaths. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, told The Times in April “if it saves the life of one child, I think it’s worth it”.
But practitioners like Bill Alexander, whose pilot scheme in Highland is held out by the Government as the model for Named Persons, say that is not what the scheme is about. Alistair Gaw, President of Social Work Scotland, a defender of the scheme, said “It is not about child protection.”
The Scottish Government has been trying to wriggle its way out of the endless contradictions as it ties itself in knots. People just don’t buy the spin.
NO2NP is the campaign against state-appointed Named Persons for every under 18-year-old in Scotland. It is backed by a broad range of people including politicians, journalists, academics, religious groups, educationalists and parents.