THE Scottish government will have to work hard to persuade the public the scheme is valid, writes Lesley Riddoch
The row over a Named Person for every Scottish child ignited spectacularly on network TV last week during an edition of BBC Question Time.
A member of the Aberdeen audience asked if the Named Person scheme represented “an unacceptable intrusion into family life”.
David Dimbleby offered the mistaken explanation that; “By law every family will have to name someone outside the family to offer support or advice.”
A panellist sort of corrected him; “you don’t name them, the state gives you one,” after which Dimbleby said, “I didn’t know that, it gets stranger and stranger,” before stating (again mistakenly), “So every child until 18 will have a social worker attached to them.”
Scottish government minister Humza Yousaf tried to explain the system but finished with the alarmist claim that, “misconceptions could put children’s lives at risk”.
Kezia Dugdale got closer to the nub of things by pointing out Named Persons aim to protect the kid who comes to school hungry, dirty or sleepy every other day. Observing that most children’s charities back the plan she added; “No-one (at present) is tying all the threads together and understanding what that child might need.”
But is a Named Person the answer to inter-agency communication problems let alone poverty and cuts to council support services, are there enough resources to make the system work and are files containing relatively trivial problems being compiled on every child?
The answer to that last question is no – but long conversations with five child professionals didn’t result in consensus on other aspects of the scheme and that’s mostly down to a lack of government clarity.
Named Persons (NPs) are just one element in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act, which passed in 2014 with the backing of almost every political party (the Scottish Conservatives abstained). The Act puts children’s rights into law as a responsibility for all public bodies to uphold – even if that means going against the wishes of parents – and creates a new duty on councils and health boards to collaborate in how they deliver children’s services. Supporters say it’s a pioneering bit of legislation that creates universal rights for all kids (not just a few in desperate situations). Critics question that claim and ask how professionals can guarantee a system of universal rights doesn’t morph into a system of universal surveillance. Even supporters can see what’s worrying parents – why does every child need a Named Person when most will never need one? The answer seems to be that every child now has rights which someone in the system must be ready to champion.
Without a single, named advocate or champion, supporters fear, early signs of abuse or neglect may be missed through poor inter-agency communication – as unquestionably happened in the tragic case of Paisley toddler Declan Hainey.
Sheriff Ruth Anderson told the Fatal Accident Inquiry in 2012, “There was no system in place whereby one of the agencies responsible for Declan’s well-being was in overall charge and there was no system whereby one named individual was responsible for coordinating all available information. This defect resulted in no formal inter-agency meetings taking place, especially in the period from February 2009.” Declan’s mummified body was found in March 2010.
This case – the latest in a succession where authorities failed to co-ordinate information -- prompted the creation of the Named Person. The name was chosen by Highland Council, one of four pilot local authorities.
But though there is a Named Person for every child (midwives for babies, health visitors for pre-school, head-teachers for primary school and a clutch of teachers for secondary school-aged children) he or she should only create a file (a “child’s plan”) on really troubled children when some incident requires the involvement of two or more external agencies (like the police, social workers or GPs). With any less complex problem, the NP’s task is precisely to avoid such bureaucracy, meetings and delay by suggesting a common sense solution that involves parents – if they agree -- and maybe one other professional.
Actually this is what should already happen. If there is evidence of risk, headteachers/GPs etc should intervene and try to discover more about the wider context of the child. If there is a lower level problem, friendly advice should be offered. The Named Person scheme simply guarantees that one clearly designated person who already knows the child and parent(s) acts and – if necessary – coordinates other professionals to act.
Over eight years of operating the pilot scheme in Highland Council, director of care Bill Alexander says;
“Formalising the Named Person role [means] other professionals respond promptly to any request for assistance. Also, if other professionals have concerns about a child’s wellbeing, rather than rushing to Social Work or the Police, the concern can be passed to the Named Person, who can [consider it] in the context of what she already knows about the child. So information about the child is always passed to the right person – not passed almost haphazardly to a range of people, which is what happened in the past. That means far, far less information about children and families is going round the system.” The Highland pilot also found fewer “looked after” children and “massively fewer” referred to the Children’s Reporter for compulsory measures.
For supporters, it’s simple. If you believe children have rights, and early intervention is the best way to tackle problems, an effective early warning system is vital, and what better than a Named Person?
But will early warnings be heeded by agencies with poor track records in communication? Are five hundred new health visitors sufficient to plug resource gaps – and is there enough public confidence for a nationwide rollout of the new system in August?
Veteran voices from children’s charities are certainly frustrated that they’ve been left to explain a system they don’t control. Some suggest the Scottish Government was too scared of a heated Clause 2A-style pre-election rammy to champion its own legislation. They can understand why parents have become wary, want more clear explanation from the Scottish Government and agree Named Persons cannot end the inequality and poverty which blight so many children’s lives.
But critics like ex-social worker Maggie Mellon say the NP scheme and the wider “Getting it Right for Every Child” (GIRFEC) framework are a futile attempt to resolve deeper problems of inequality by casework and parent blaming. She also believes that since the GIRFEC pilots began, more children have been put into care (the worst solution in the eyes of most experts) because the threshold for intervention has been lowered to include hard–to-measure “emotional neglect”.
Nonetheless it seems the system will be rolled out this August – perhaps with a review in a few years to check on failings and unintended consequences.
But public fears won’t melt away overnight – so the Scottish Government must stop relying on charitable proxies, own its legislation and get out this summer to persuade the public.