Over the past year we have seen a great number of column inches, debate and discussion devoted to the “named person” legislation. When the policy was first mooted, as the bill went through parliament and more recently judicial review of the legislation, the media has been full of opinion and observation on what this policy means for families in Scotland.
Not all of it has been positive and not all of it has been well informed. Myths have grown up during this time and as the head of an organisation that is supportive of this legislation and the practice it will enable I would like to communicate the positive reality.
The biggest myth, which bemused me when I first heard it, was that the named person legislation means a social worker for every child. That would be tricky. The named person for school aged children will most likely be a teacher. That’s good because we have more than 50,000 teachers. There are only around 6,000 social workers practising in Scotland, so a “social worker for every child” would not happen, nor should it.
The main reason Social Work Scotland, the leadership body for social work, supports the policy is that it is designed to make sure social work is involved only when it is needed. Social work is a targeted service. Not all children need it and not all the children that need it need it forever. Education though is for all children. As the named person is an entitlement for everyone, health and education services are where they will be found. The named person role will reduce not increase the involvement of social work in the lives of families, protecting resources for our most vulnerable children.
Then there is the myth about this not being needed. Really? How often do we hear about children falling through the net: issues not picked up; early opportunities missed; families struggling on? Often in these situations lots of people know different things, but the information doesn’t come together, things get missed and children suffer. Children and families can get to crisis point before it is noticed that they need a bit of help. If we can prevent crisis by making one person responsible for ensuring people share information that will go a long way towards helping children and families early on, preventing sometimes devastating consequences.
Another concern is that this is about a nanny state and interference with families. This is simply not true. No-one new will be involved in a child’s life as a result, it just means that one person who is or would be already known to the child and their family has a designated role. It does not change privacy laws or infringe on human rights.
Existing law already permits information sharing when it is necessary to prevent or address a risk to a child. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 sets out that sharing information with, and by, a child’s named person should take place in line with current legislation as confirmed by the court ruling in September 2015. Lord Carloway, the Lord Justice Clerk, stated: “It has no effect whatsoever on the legal, moral or social relationships within the family.”
So the named person is not a universal application of child protection procedures. We already have child protection procedures and this does not change them.
Where the named person can really make a difference is perhaps in the case of a child with a disability and the myriad of services parents may need help to co-ordinate; or the child struggling to learn whose parents are not sure how to get help or a diagnosis for them; or the child who is a carer for their parent who might not realise that they could get a bit of extra help; or the child recently arrived from Syria, starting a new life in a new place after a traumatic journey.
These are the areas where positive outcomes can be achieved for children – where this legislation can make a real difference.
The BBC recently took an in-depth view at Highland where the named person has been piloted for some time. The programme showed how positive the pilot has been.
It is not about child protection or interference or the nanny state. It is about supporting children and families at the right time to prevent crisis and make sure they don’t struggle unnecessarily. Who could argue with that?
• Alistair Gaw is president of Social Work Scotland