Trans-Party Group Think in Scotland is finally being challenged.
From 31 August every Scottish child from birth up to the age of 18 will have a Named Person (NP) appointed by the State. Its focus is not on abuse or neglect but on ‘wellbeing’. This is an elastic concept which is given a remarkably broad definition in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014.
The Act requires Named Persons – irrespective of the parents’ wishes—to report a ‘wellbeing indicator’ to a school, a local authority, the Scottish Government, the police or Skills Development Scotland, which represents a broad sweep of Scottish public services. Parents cannot challenge the appointment of this guardian and there’s no process to appeal a decision.
Adam Tomkins, a member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) raised these concerns in a debate tabled by the main Scottish opposition, the Conservatives, in Edinburgh on 8 June. He and his 30 colleagues were hoping that other parties would agree to a pause since the original Bill had been rushed through without serious appraisal of its effects.
His colleague Douglas Ross MSP pointed out that in his rural district, Moray, teachers were reluctant to discharge the role during vacations which meant that eight back office staff, with their own heavy workloads, were required to cover for 80 Named Persons.
Yet there was an indignant reaction from the SNP and it spilled over into fury with John Swinney, the new Scottish education minister, trying to drown out Tomkins in what appeared to be an orchestrated set of attacks.
The SNP lost its majority in last month’s election. Widespread public unease about the NP scheme was a big factor. In a ComRes poll published in late May, 64 per cent of respondents were against the new law (including a majority of SNP voters)
When he could be heard, Tomkins had warned in the debate: ‘‘This bureaucracy is supposed to ensure that no child slips through the net. The very opposite will happen. The net is being so stretched by this burden of box-ticking that our most vulnerable children are at an increased risk of falling through it.’
Unfortunately, the SNP prevailed since the other opposition parties rallied to its side. Labour and the Liberal democrats had been ruthlessly harried by the SNP for several years but they swung behind groupthink arguably because they wished to prevent the Tories eating further into their support base.
There was a common front of indignation that the Tories were challenging ‘the expert’ view and giving voice to grassroots concerns, which had been ably articulated by the No to NP campaign. Liz Smith was the Tory MSP who had campaigned longest and hardest against the law and she found herself being denounced by the SNP’s Jenny Gilruth for going on social media to criticise it. She was also slammed for daring to raise the case of Liam Fee, a young child murdered by his mothers in Fife, a region where a form of the NP system had already been in place.
George Adam MSP was angry because Liz Smith had incited ‘riotous behaviour’ and he called on colleagues across the chamber at Holyrood to get behind the new law – ‘we have to get the message out to the members of the public’.
Another SNP member Gillian Martin could not conceal her annoyance about her ‘bulging mail-bag’ on the subject. And the fact that people were prepared to doubt the motivation and competence of teachers who would play a key role in implementing the law.: ‘I look at the teachers I know and I do not recognise that picture’. One of them was her husband and she rounded on the Tories for daring to challenge his abilities as a guidance teacher.
Teachers and social workers are lauded . But it is no secret that a lot of front-line staff are afraid to express their concerns for fear of reprisals. They also know the finger of blame will be pointed at them if and when tragedies occur because of the supervisory role thrust upon them.
Bill Alexander, a social work boss on Highland council, is the best-known evangelist for the scheme and he was frequently quoted as a sage in the 8 June debate. But conditions in his lightly-populated part of Scotland are very different from the central belt where front line services have long been struggling to cope in post-industrial towns with numerous social problems.
Much of the third sector in Scotland has become an obedient poodle for the SNP government, which has been its chief source of finance since 2007. Nine charities, including Barnardos Scotland, Children in Scotland and the NSPCC Scotland, signed an open letter last March defending the NP scheme. Indeed Barnardos pioneered the proactive approach to child welfare from which the scheme emerged, known as Getting It Right For Every Child, or GIRFEC. Opponents of the scheme claim the support of such influential charities should be treated with caution as all of them stand to receive a share of more than £2m in government funding in the current financial year.
The contortions of the pro-guardian parties were striking this spring when they were forced to engage directly with the public as they searched for votes. Nicola Sturgeon even claimed that the scheme was optional, defenders later arguing that she meant it was optional for parents but not for their children. The beleaguered Labour Party’s role was particularly inglorious: its leader Kezia Dugdale called for a pause in order to remain in good standing with voters deserting her party.
Adam Tomkins observed: ‘I find it depressing that [Labour] members cannot bring themselves to support the motion, despite the fact that it is precisely what their leader called for during the election campaign. Then again, perhaps that is why they are sitting over there and we are sitting over here — their flip-flopping on child protection laws was every bit as off-putting to the electorate as their flip-flopping on the union’.
There is anger that Scottish Conservatives are successfully relegating memories of the Thatcher era and giving a voice to citizens fears about an over-mighty state. The other parties kept the voters at arms length and preferred to deal with corporate agencies on social matters, such as the third sector, a sprawling bureaucracy, and to a lesser degree trade-unions. The six Liberal Democrats at Holyrood appear lost but are willing to appear illiberal rather than boost the standing of their chief competitor. As for the six Green MSPs, they believe in micro-managing society and the party doesn’t hide its intention to erode traditional social pillars such as the family.
The five leaders of the main parties at Holyrood have only one child between them but the establishment insists on rolling out bold social engineering policies with scant consultation and no effort to address flaws when they are detected and raised. Struggling professionals are expected to make a blanket and highly intrusive initiative in child policy work even though it will inevitably draw attention and resources away from the most vulnerable children. There is apoplexy from much of the political class when voters challenge the judgment of their political masters.
The NP fiasco shows that the SNP may want a form of independence but, from Sturgeon down, it is terrified of independently-minded people. On this policy, Conservatives speak for Scotland and have punctured the deference and fatalism that has hung over Scottish politics for many years.
Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. His latest book Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published earlier this year.