WHEN leaders of the three main parties at Westminster announced in early August that there would be more powers for the Scottish Parliament they hoped their “unequivocal” statement would slow – if not halt altogether – the advance of the Yes campaign.
It signally failed to do so. The notable inability to agree details of the extra powers promised “in the areas of fiscal responsibility and social security” led some to question the commitment. The Yes campaign only had to remind voters of the failure of the Conservative government in 1979 to deliver on a similar promise to cast doubt on its sincerity. ICM opinion polling for Scotland on Sunday has shown the No campaign has conspicuously failed to convince Scots on this issue.
For four critical weeks the Better Together campaign has failed to address these charges to their good faith. Now, with less than a fortnight to the referendum vote, and with opinion polls showing a swelling in support for Yes, former prime minister Gordon Brown has asked the Commons Speaker John Bercow to allow him to lead a debate when the Commons resumes business in October, to secure an early timetable on the delivery of these further devolution proposals.
So perilously late in the day has this initiative been left that it cannot but invite the charge of panic. And on that alone, its effectiveness must be questioned. Why has it taken so long to elicit such a response? And why could not an all-party agreement to an early timetable have been indicated earlier?
If the referendum results in a Yes vote, there is little doubt that the Westminster party leaders’ failings on “more powers” will be identified as one the campaign’s key weaknesses.
Before the independence referendum campaign began it was clear that most Scots wanted to see an improved powerhouse parliament for Scotland within the UK.
Indeed, had a “more powers” option been retained on the ballot paper, this would in all likelihood have been the preferred option. Now, as both sides converge on traditional Labour voters as the key “swing” group in the referendum, Better Together is struggling to make up lost ground.
The big question now is whether this move by Gordon Brown will convince Scots that more devolution powers really will emerge in the event of a No vote. It will face searching examination.
Would an early Commons debate, if granted by the Speaker, lead to specific measures agreed upon by MPs? Will this reassure voters in the absence of detail on exactly what new powers may be on offer? What certainty is there that the Commons as a whole will commit to them as a priority?
Better Together should have spent the past two years assuaging these concerns. Instead it has less than two weeks.
Toddler who deserved better
Finally, five years after the body of Paisley toddler Declan Hainey was found, a fatal accident inquiry has concluded that “on a balance of probabilities, neglect was a contributory factor”. Defects in the system contributed to his death. The written determination of Sheriff Ruth Anderson is an all-too familiar litany of child welfare failure and missed opportunities.
Declan Hainey’s mother had well-documented drug and alcohol problems. Had this documentation been passed to all social work and health staff with responsibility for the youngster, the case, Sheriff Anderson concluded, might have been handled differently. Had the agencies involved in the information-gathering process assessed the risk factors realistically, there would have been “continued monitoring over a longer period of time”. If only health visitors had been provided with all information available on the boy and his mother, this would have resulted in the case being categorised as one needing “intensive” support.
These are surely basic functions of a child support system.
Prime responsibility for the care of children must rest with parents. When parents are absent or incapacitated, there is – or should be – a professional and efficiently run child welfare system to lend support. But the shortcomings were so basic as to beggar belief.
What was glaringly absent in this tragic case was not a lack of staff or “resources” but a competent and co-ordinated support network. The failures in the Declan Hainey case were abject. Renfrewshire Council, its child protection committee and the Care Inspectorate all now express their regrets. As well they should. But for one little boy they are too late.