Tiffany Jenkins: ‘Named person’ a sinister new law

Having a 'named person' suggests that parents cannot be left to look after their own children. Picture: Getty

Having a 'named person' suggests that parents cannot be left to look after their own children. Picture: Getty

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THE ‘named person’ legislation undermines the authority of Mum and Dad in the eyes of their kids, writes Tiffany Jenkins.

What is so wrong with having a designated person for every child in Scotland, someone who will look out for them as they grow up? That was the cry that went out this week after a leader column in Scotland on Sunday criticised the part of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act that mandates the appointment of a “named person” for every child from birth to the age of 18, now law. Wouldn’t it be a good thing, some asked in response, to have a special person to talk to about coping with your kids, someone your kids could talk to and who would attend to their needs? What could possibly be wrong with such legislation?

Sensible questions. Ones that demand answers.

The named person is supported by the main opposition and many children’s welfare organisations. But it has met widespread and vocal opposition from parents and some teachers. They are right to be critical. This is an unprecedented and damaging intervention into family life. But it is one that has not really been discussed. The arguments have not been aired and they need to be.

The intention behind the act is to shift public services towards early intervention whenever a family, child or young person needs help, instead of responding to a crisis.

The named person is part of that. Every child will have one – someone who is not their mum or dad, a member of their extended family, or in their circle of friends. The named person will have a statutory role to look after the child’s “wellbeing” and they will have to draw up a plan for the child. It’s a kind of pre-emptive strike. And it’s hardly sinister, some say, if you are not a problem family. It will just be an extra pair of hands. An expert adviser.

The named-person scheme may not be thought through – it’s bound to be cumbersome and costly – but it is sinister.

The legislation says that the named person has a duty to “promote, support or safeguard the development and wellbeing of the child or young person”. What does this mean? The Scottish Government breaks down wellbeing as having eight “indicators”: safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included. These “indicators” may each have something good about them – who wants an irresponsible and failing child who has no mates? – but most are a little subjective, and, importantly, not subject to outside intervention.

Yet the named person has a duty to ensure wellbeing. So what happens if your child achieves only a D in maths (not achieving), or bunks off games or eats too many chips (not active and not healthy) or feels disrespected when told to go to bed before he or she wants to, as every child does.

These wellbeing indicators are not evidence of problem families. Most will be found in normal families every day and should not be the concern of an outside official. Only when a there is a very serious problem facing the child should state agencies step in, and they do so already.

The context for all of this is the widespread thinking in political circles that identifies the family and the early years as the source of all sorts of social problems: poor educational attainment, bad behaviour, joblessness, obesity, drinking, drugs and so on — you will be familiar with the list of problems.

It’s an explanation for social problems that became influential in the early years of New Labour, epitomised in the policy paper Supporting Families, written by Jack Straw, which argued that all parents needed greater “support” – in other words, they need some kind of intervention – in order to create a successful and orderly society.

The private sphere has since been targeted as the cause of social problems. It is an approach that suits politicians, for it is one that eschews social and political solutions to real problems. Forget improving education or growing the economy, ignore structural issues; if you haven’t hugged your son or daughter often enough before they turn three, you have caused untold damage.

Up until this legislation, professionals involved in children’s lives had to have a particular professional reason to be there – education or health or concerns about abuse. Now they are present full-time because they have been officially appointed by the state. Up until this law, state intervention required justification. That is no longer the case.

Being generous, you could say it is well-meaning. But even here, there are problems: the scheme will pull attention and resources away from those most in need of it and direct it towards every single child. That is not only wasteful and confusing for everyone – the authorities included – it is likely that families facing serious problems get lost amongst everyone else.

Increasing bureaucracy together with the expansion of who is targeted (everyone) and what for (wellbeing) could lead to the overlooking of those with urgent issues. That’s the best spin on it.

The named person shows that the authorities see all those with children as problem families, regardless of what anyone does. And it is this message: that parents are the threat, that no-one can be left to look after their own kids without supervision, because they are, well, just Mum and Dad, that is the most damaging aspect of this legislation.

What are children to think? Does the named person encourage them to trust their mum and dad, or the rest of their family, or their friends? No, it does not. Children are told instead only a state official can care for them. And what about the impact of this on parents? Recently, people have become less confident as parents and it’s not hard to see why, with “support” like this. That uncertainty about their role and capabilities is likely to increase, as it is made clear to them that only the named person can look out for their kids.

This legislation destroys trust and authority in the family. It is the named person scheme that poses the threat to children.

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