The Scottish Government’s controversial Named Person scheme comes into force in August. It was agreed by the Scottish Parliament in 2014 with the support of most of the political parties. Now politicians of all parties (except the SNP and the Greens) are falling over themselves to criticise the scheme and are calling for it to be either delayed and amended or scrapped.
There are three aspects of the legislation which give cause for concern.
First is the appointment of a Named Person for every child and young person in the country. The Named Person is appointed on a universal basis and without the consent of parents or children and young people. Despite the First Minister’s claims, there is no opt-ou.
Second, the scheme conflates child protection issues, which are important, with the general wellbeing of children. It lowers the threshold for state intervention in family life from welfare, where there is a significant risk of harm or neglect, to the much more general concept of wellbeing. Wellbeing is not defined in the legislation and is open to subjective interpretation by the Named Person. In essence, almost any matter which prevents a child from meeting Government-set aspirations can be the basis of a wellbeing concern.
Third, the legislation allows the sharing of confidential information without the consent of parents or the children or young people concerned. The information shared may relate to the child or young person involved or to any other member of their wider family. The Named Person is empowered to ask all relevant professionals (doctors, educational psychologists, police officers, social workers etc) to provide information relating to the wellbeing of children and young people. Other professionals have a legal duty to provide this information. Confidential information, such as health records, can be shared without the consent, or even the knowledge, of parents or the child or young person concerned.
The Government’s rationale for passing this legislation is that early intervention can prevent the escalation of problems leading to more serious child protection concerns. However, the legislation does not just apply to those children and families where there is a risk of significant harm, but rather to all children and young people. Parents and the wider family are sidelined. If parents refuse to cooperate with the Named Person, that will be flagged up as a risk factor which merits further investigation. Health visitors will be expected to inquire not only into the health of the child, but also into the physical and mental health of the wider family and their financial situation.
All this information will be recorded for every family in the country, passed on in due course to schools and will follow children and young people throughout their school education. Such information sharing may be justifiable if there is a threat of serious harm or neglect to the child, but it cannot be justified on grounds of promoting the much more nebulous concept of wellbeing.
The Scottish Government’s approach is wholly disproportionate to their stated aim of early intervention in those few cases which fall into the child protection system. We are seeing the rolling out of an ideology in which the state assumes a direct relationship with, and responsibility for the upbringing, of every child. This conflation by the Scottish Government of child protection with its wider aspirations for societal well-being, is both dangerous and unworkable. Children who are genuinely at risk are likely to be overlooked, while others’ families will be subject to unwarranted and burdensome interventions by state officials.
The Named Person scheme is an attempt to address the social disintegration which has occurred as a result of family breakdown. Unwilling to single out marriage as a relationship which is essential for social stability and the benefits of children being brought up by their natural parents, the Government instead seeks to avoid the poor health and educational outcomes arising from family breakdown by acquiring sweeping new powers to intervene in family life. Determined not to make any moral judgements about different family types, it seeks to tackle the symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem. This issue is one of competing worldviews. Does the state bear the ultimate responsibility for the wellbeing of children or is it the responsibility of parents? Parents don’t always get everything right, but they generally provide a loving and secure context for children to grow up. This is by far the most important factor in creating well-adjusted citizens who will fulfil their vocation in life. If the Named Person scheme was truly voluntary, it could be helpful for parents. In practice it is compulsory, intrusive and will undermine the authority of parents. The Government should be supporting parents, not creating schemes to spy on them.
• Dr Gordon Macdonald is Parliamentary Officer for CARE for Scotland, a charity looking at matters of public policy from a Christian perspective, www.care.org.uk