Could the Scottish Government’s flagship named person scheme become the SNP’s equivalent of the poll tax? That is the question which may be on the minds of SNP supporters following the Scottish Parliament’s recent debate on the issue. After all, the decade’s long decline in the Scottish Conservative brand was attributed by many to Margaret Thatcher’s controversial tax, which she stubbornly persisted with despite how unpopular it was with the public. The comparison seems eerily appropriate as the opposition to the Named Person scheme continues to grow. No matter how much Government ministers give assurances that the scheme is simply an ‘entitlement’, the Scottish public remains unconvinced and sceptical about the aims of the scheme.
The recent case of Liam Fee highlights the Scottish Government’s dilemma. Keen to sell the Named Person scheme to the Scottish public, Government ministers have repeatedly cited child protection as one of the main reasons why the scheme is necessary. However, faced with the tragic death of a child in one of the areas where the scheme was piloted, SNP politicians were quick to condemn opponents of the scheme for daring to point out that it had failed to prevent that tragedy from occurring.
The fact that the Named Person scheme cannot prevent every tragic death of an abused child is not hugely surprising. No system will be 100 per cent effective when there are wicked individuals who wish to harm children. However, the legitimate question which cannot be avoided is: did the emphasis on implementing the Named Person scheme divert attention and resources away from children who were in need of protection? The fact that an ‘amber warning’ had been flagged up about the effect of staff shortages in Fife Social Work Department and the associated dangers posed to child safety in the months prior to Liam Fee’s death, is surely relevant and should be thoroughly investigated. Rather than discussing this staffing crisis, the relevant child protection committee seems to have been preoccupied by the roll out of the Named Person scheme and the wider GIRFEC (Getting It Right for Every Child) agenda.
When some opponents of the Named Person scheme pointed out that Fife was one of the areas where the scheme was piloted, John Swinney aggressively accused them of ‘point scoring’. It may indeed be that the failing of the Fife Social Work Department was due to other factors. The likelihood is that it was a department working under severe pressure with staff being asked to take on increasing workloads. Mr Swinney, who has presided over nine years of Council Tax freezes, placing unprecedented financial pressure on local government, cannot wash his hands of all responsibility for this situation.
The claim that the Named Person scheme is designed as an early warning scheme may be true in relation to child protection, but the scheme has a much broader purpose. Underpinning the scheme is a particular child rights ideology which sidelines parental rights and promotes the false premise that children and young people are fully autonomous. The wellbeing of children and young people is viewed not as the primary responsibility and duty of parents, but as that of the State.
That explains the universal nature of the scheme which applies to every child and young person in Scotland, the legal duty on professionals to share information regardless of consent and the conflation of general wellbeing with child welfare concerns and the need to protect those who are at significant risk of harm or neglect.
John Swinney should consider how the Named Person scheme might be revised to meets its legitimate aspirations without becoming overly burdensome on ordinary families and marginalising parental rights in the process. For example why must the scheme be compulsory for every family? Might not a voluntary scheme work well for those who wish to have a single point of contact and where there is no issue of child protection at stake? Why could the Lead Professional not provide that single point of contact, thus avoiding the need for the Named Person altogether? In cases where there are concerns that a child may be at risk of serious harm or neglect, there are already extensive powers available for intervention and compulsion if parents and carers and unwilling to engage with statutory services. What is needed is the proper targeting of existing powers and more resources for overstretched social work departments. A recent poll showed that 64% of the Scottish public are opposed to the Named Person scheme. Clearly the Scottish Government has lost the public relations battle. Most people see that such an overbearing scheme is wholly unnecessary in order to ensure effective child protection interventions in those few cases where they are needed. As the Scottish Government settles down for trench warfare on this issue and digs a deeper and deeper hole for itself, it is time to ask: is there a different approach which should be considered?
• Dr Gordon Macdonald is Parliamentary Officer for the Christian charity CARE for Scotland