Euan McColm: Don't let Liam Fee tragedy silence debate
It was a crime so dreadful that any response to it can only sound trite. Of course it was shocking, of course it was heartbreaking, of course we find it hard to comprehend such cruelty. Of course our instinctive response is to hold our own children closer.
The murder of two-year-old Liam Fee by his mother, Rachel Trelfa, and her civil partner, Nyomi Fee, was an act of such horror that no punishment will seem enough. Anyone who has read the distressing details of the case will find it impossible to forget them.
Quite rightly, attention has now turned to what can be learned from the toddler’s murder. Could more have been done to save him? What were the failings in the current system that allowed the torture of this little boy to carry on until his body could stand no more?
A significant case review into the circumstances of Liam’s death must provide answers.
Those answers may be difficult for politicians, but concern over that must not be a factor in ensuring that this uncomfortable process is carried out.
Unfortunately, the early signs are that SNP politicians are worried about the implications of the review for one of the flagship policies of the Scottish Government, the Named Person scheme which will give every child in Scotland a “state guardian”.
Within hours of the jury at the High Court in Livingston finding Trelfa and Fee guilty, nationalist MSP Rona Mackay condemned what she described as an attempt to “politicise the tragic murder of a young child”.
In an SNP press release, which pointed out she is a former Children’s Panel member, Mackay said a bid to use Liam’s death to score political points was “insensitive and disrespectful”.
You might find it difficult to disagree with those points – I certainly do – but Mackay’s remarks tell only half the story.
The SNP’s press release was issued after comments made by a spokesman for the NO2NP group, which is campaigning against Named Person legislation. The group’s spokesman wondered, since the Scottish Government had previously said a Named Person pilot scheme pilot was “working well” in Fife, whether targeted intervention might have helped.
Now, you may think the timing of these remarks insensitive and my instinct would be to agree with you. But this does not mean the campaign group doesn’t raise a legitimate point. Nor does it mean that the SNP should swat that point away under the pretence of moral outrage.
All we can say for certain at this stage is that the current system – and remember, he was well known to social workers – failed Liam. It may be that the review of his case finds that proper application of the proposals of the Named Person scheme could have prevented this murder. It may be that the investigation finds, as many of those oppose the scheme believe, that the version of the Named Person scheme being piloted in Fife meant resources were spread too thinly.
Or – and we should not be surprised if this is so – that no amount of schemes could have prevented the actions of these murderers.
What is certain at this stage is that using Liam Fee’s murder to prevent discussion of Named Person legislation is as wrong as any perceived exploitation of the case.
The Scottish Government has been under considerable pressure over “state guardians” for the past couple of years. This is no flash-in-the-pan issue, but a plan which faces deep and sincere opposition from politicians and parents, alike.
Privately, even some SNP members will admit to grave reservations about the legislation which, from August, will see every Scot given a “state guardian” from birth until the age of 18. This individual – a teacher or health professional – will act as a point of contact for the child and will have responsibility for ensuring that any issues of concerns are identified and acted upon.
Should there be a shred of doubt about the Scottish Government’s realisation that the Named Person scheme might be unpopular, you might wish to look back over an interview First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave in March when she said that participation was not mandatory. In fact, it is. One may choose not to contact the Named Person assigned to one’s child but that Named Person exists. His or her imposition may not be refused.
Liam Fee’s murder, rather than being a reason not to examine more closely the “state guardian” laws, shows just how important it is that we discuss them.
Friends of mine within the SNP tell me that the legislation was driven by civil servants, with ministers simply complying. As one put it: “It sounded like a good idea and nobody asked difficult questions. Now we’re defending a policy that some of us have genuine concerns about.”
For what it is worth, I remain unconvinced of the merits of this new legislation. Social work departments are already desperately overstretched, with funding cuts and staff under often intolerable pressure. I fail to see how Named Persons adding more young people to the system– the majority of whom may require no intervention by the state – will help those in real need of assistance.
Furthermore, there remains the question of whether the state has any right, as a matter of course, to involve itself in family life. The right to privacy is an important one and though it may be tempting – even understandable – to argue that Liam’s fate makes the case for child protection superseding that right, we should be cautious about any erosion of personal freedom.
Soon enough, we will have a fuller picture of what went wrong in Liam’s case. We will know where blame lies, if any is to be apportioned, and we will know what might be done to ensure that children like him are better protected in future.
Until then, it is right that we continue to ask tough questions about Named Persons. The murder of Liam Fee should focus our minds on this subject rather then inhibiting debate.