After years of rancour the Named Persons scheme has changed and is back to where it started, writes Tom Peterkin
No-one has ever seriously doubted that the Scottish Government’s plans to give every child in Scotland a named person were introduced with anything other than the best of intentions.
What could be more laudable than trying to protect vulnerable youngsters from the sort of fate that befell 11-week-old Caleb Ness, the Edinburgh baby killed by his father despite the involvement of social work and health staff?
It was tragic cases like that which persuaded the Scottish Government that something had to be done.
The problem with the named person scheme has not been with the motivation behind it. Rather, the outcry has been over the way that ministers proposed to prevent such tragedies.
From the outset, critics detected an Orwellian whiff about the idea that every child should have a named person. Pejorative phrases like “state guardians” and “state snoopers” sprang up to describe what was seen as an unwarranted intrusion into private family life.
The jargon-laden and impenetrable approach adopted by the government made for another perception problem.
But, as the courts demonstrated last year, the problem was not simply one of perception. Anti-named person campaigners successfully took the Scottish Government to the Supreme Court, which found that aspects of the legislation breached the European Convention on Human Rights.
It was in order to bring the scheme into line with the law that John Swinney stood up in parliament this week and announced changes to the legislation. To make his named person legislation legally watertight, the education secretary delayed its introduction yet again until next year and unveiled new legislation.
Some five years after the idea was first mooted, the scheme – although piloted in some areas – has yet to be rolled out across the country. Moreover, the alterations that have been forced on Mr Swinney mean that the scheme, as now proposed, is significantly different from the government’s original vision.
In particular, Mr Swinney has been forced to water down his proposals on named persons – typically a headteacher or health visitor – sharing information about children across agencies.
When consultation began on the Scottish Government’s Children and Young People Bill in 2012, it was proposed that sharing information would be done within “existing frameworks”.
That meant information about a child should only be shared without parental permission if it was necessary to do so to avert a risk of significant harm to that child.
In March 2013, the government suggested a change of approach which would have had the effect of lowering the threshold for sharing information without the knowledge of parents.
Rather than intervening when a child was at risk of harm, the new proposal was based on named persons sharing information about a child when there were concerns about the youngster’s well-being.
It was this lowering of the information sharing threshold that led to so many of the concerns expressed by anti-named persons campaigners and the general public.
The notion that named persons could interfere in family life by passing on details about children without parents being in the loop was also highlighted by the Supreme Court judges.
In their judgment they said: “The sharing of personal data between relevant public authorities is central to the role of the named person … the operation of the information-sharing provisions of Part 4… will result in interferences with the rights protected by article 8 of the ECHR.”
It went on to say: “It is thus perfectly possible that information, including confidential information concerning a child or a young person’s state of health (for example, as to contraception, pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease), could be disclosed… to a wide range of public authorities without either the child or young person or her parents being aware of the interference with their article 8 rights.”
This week, Mr Swinney acknowledged that the issue of parental consent and information sharing has created a difficulty. In his revised proposals, he said families would be consulted about information-sharing except in “exceptional circumstances” when a child was at risk of harm.
In other words, we are back where we started before the named person polava began.
The threshold for information sharing without parental permission is only crossed when a child is at risk.
The named person concept may still be alive in terms of every child getting one, but arguably its key feature – to lower the threshold for intervention – is now no more.
Aside from the rancour, ill-will and parental anxiety caused by the scheme, it has not been inexpensive.
It has been estimated that the Scottish Government’s ‘Getting it right for every child’ policy – which includes the named person – has cost the taxpayer more than £60 million.
On top of that is the estimated £500,000 that the government has had to fork out in court costs.
All of which begs the question: what exactly has been the point of persisting with this poorly thought out idea?