Christine Jardine: Children’s law seems a bit too Big Brotherish

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Every so often a piece of legislation is proposed that you want to like. You know that the individuals who originally conceived and developed the idea did so with the best of motives.

It could even be that you’re confident it could be successfully operated by councils who are able to work within communities to offer the support, local awareness and proximity to provide an appropriate solution.

But when the government seeks to impose its control and create a national, centrally operated framework you begin to doubt whether the development is being taken down the right path.

By vesting control centrally, could these good intentions and motives lead, in the wrong hands, to the worst kind of state interference in the lives of families and individuals?

That’s exactly how it is for me with the Scottish Government’s Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill.

I am not calling into question the motives of legislation, which sets out its aims as “putting children and young people at the heart of planning and services and ensuring their rights are respected across the public sector”.

Securing the best possible start in life for all children is at the heart of what I believe a modern society should do.

I also know from my knowledge of Highland Council that many of the bill’s policies on “Getting it right for every child” have already been put in place there and are working successfully.

Councillors are confident they can make a real difference to the lives of many young people in their communities.

But for me the key word there is “community”. I believe the strategy for our young people should be run by those as close to their communities as possible.

If a family is finding it difficult to cope, or a young person feels the need to reach out for extra support, there should be someone in their community who they know they can turn to with absolute confidence.

Our children’s services should ensure that person is easily identified and accessible.

And by all means encourage our local authorities to work together, build a way of co-operating and share best practice.

But if there are resources to be invested in “Getting it right for every child”, let’s make sure it is invested as close to the children as possible. Create a network from the bottom up. Place the responsibility and authority for children’s welfare in their own communities.

For me it should never mean the state having the right to interfere in individual families.

That is why there is a phrase in the bill with which I take particular issue: “The ‘Getting it right’ approach includes a Named Person for every child, from birth (or sometimes before), until they reach 18.”

Every liberal instinct I have is crying out against the state appointing its own “guardians” for each and every one of our children. Whether they need it or not. Whether we want it or not.

I will need substantial reassurance that every possible safeguard is in place so that this position can never be abused or corrupted into some sort of pseudo-Orwellian control mechanism. And before cyber-pests in a vast army take to their keyboards to accuse me of criticising the SNP for the sake of it, that’s not the point.

This is not about this Scottish Government. After all, the SNP will not always be in government. It is about allowing too much power to interfere in private lives in any central government.

I’m simply asking if ministers have thought it through? Have they taken every possible step to ensure that this position cannot be abused?

Can we be sure that, in the wrong hands, it won’t become a way of interfering in family life, of making all parents – no matter how responsible and capable, or how stable and supportive their own family network is – answerable to the state?

That is why I am finding it so hard to like this proposed legislation.

And I’m not the only one.

Some of the finest legal minds in our country, the Faculty of Advocates to name one establishment, have raised significant concerns over the proposals.

There is also an online petition of parents who are unhappy about the proposals.

Last week, the faculty warned that while the legislation’s intention was “benign” it had the potential to be “insidious”.

Specifically the bill’s proposal to provide a named person for every child in Scotland could, according to the faculty, place Scotland in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights .

The faculty has also described the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill as creating “indiscriminate provision for possible interference in the lives of all children”.

I find myself concerned about what the impact of that potential interference could be.

For example, what will be the impact if teenagers – including 18-year-olds – cannot go to health officials confident that they can talk openly and in confidence about issues like contraception, mental health problems, even exam stress without fearing that it will be part of some official report.

We have already seen too often in our society how the desire to nurture and protect our young can be misused or simply mismanaged by those in authority and large organisations.

Certainly, I remember as a new parent being grateful to have a network of health visitors I could have turned to if I hadn’t already had the support of my mother, sister and extended family with decades of experience in parenting.

But it was my choice to seek that advice if I thought appropriate.

I can think of few things more intimidating for new parents than the thought that some state-appointed person is watching to make sure they shape up; that there could be someone in authority who thinks they know better for a child than they do themselves, and is writing it down.

So rather than building some edifice of “child inspectors” employed by central government, let’s put the effort, and the money, into empowering local communities and councils to provide support for their youth.

The Children and Young People Bill has a lot to recommend it. Let’s hope the Scottish Government does not let that be undermined by over centralisation.

• Christine Jardine is a former special adviser to Liberal Democrat UK ministers