Tiffany Jenkins: Named person law is troubling

Lumping parental responsibilities on state agencies will mitigate against children’s interests being served, writes Tiffany Jenkins

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 sticks its nose in where few want it, into the relationships between parents and their children
The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 sticks its nose in where few want it, into the relationships between parents and their children

Most parents raise their children the same way: according to their own beliefs, hopes and dreams, with all the idiosyncrasies that accompany them, under the pressured, day-to-day realities of their busy lives – but they all do it with love. The nature of domestic life is that it is messy, but even when people get things a little wrong, and that’s not hard, everyone is trying to do their best. And mostly, the kids turn out all right, if determined to do everything differently from mum and dad. Some things never change.

What everyone needs is to be allowed to get on with it. To be trusted to do a reasonable job, and not blamed for problems that are nothing, or not much, to do with childrearing. But that, it would seem, is impossible. The trouble is, in the last few decades, the family and the early years of a child’s life have been identified, in political circles, as the breeding ground for social problems. The family is fingered as the place where everything goes wrong: poor educational attainment, obesity, joblessness, stress, addiction, criminality, if not intentionally so, then accidentally so, according to policymakers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to get rid of it altogether.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Policymakers pose early intervention into a child’s life as the solution to any problem that might arise later. It is a flawed approach that has negative consequences: social solutions to such problems are neglected – structural issues are ignored; and the family has become the focus of intervention, intervention that seems to know no end. The state is sent into the heart of the family, at conception – almost at the point of foreplay – with the intention of creating a peaceful and prosperous society, where there are no tears before bedtime and everyone lives happily ever after. The problem is that such intervention – and the assumptions behind it – will cause more harm than good.

It is an approach that explains the disastrous “named person” scheme, which is shaping up to be a unpopular and discredited policy, even before it is even fully implemented. Thankfully, maybe just in time, the initiative is the focus for growing concern and critical scrutiny. Maybe the Scottish Government will rethink. I hope so.

The named person scheme is part of the Children’s and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, which has been passed by the Scottish Parliament, which takes effect from August 2016. It means that every child from birth until the age of 18 years will have a named person overseeing their welfare. The aim is to shift public services towards early intervention whenever a family, child or young person “needs help”, instead of responding to a crisis.

So every single child will have a named person – someone who is not their mum or dad, a member of their extended family, or in their circle of friends – to watch over them, and watch over their parents. Up until this scheme, professionals involved in children’s lives had to have a reason to be there: education, health or serious concerns about abuse. Up until this law, state intervention required justification – no longer is this the case.

And few are happy about it. First came a trickle of questions from parents, who felt uneasy; that they were being undermined, pushed aside, considered unfit. Some are pursing a legal challenge, arguing the scheme breaches the human rights of parents. Now the initiative is being attacked from professional quarters: charities and even the police. A consultation on draft guidance for the scheme has revealed that many of the bodies and charities, which are to be involved, are unsure of what they are meant to do, what their responsibilities are. A recently published government paper has revealed that many organisations believe a consultation document on the Named Person plans, published in February, is unclear.

This is to be expected, because the scheme is unclear – inevitably, because the scope of the named person is so broad.

The legislation says that the named person has a duty to “promote, support or safeguard the development and wellbeing of the child or young person”, and that the named person will have a statutory role to look after the child’s “wellbeing”. But what does that mean? The Scottish Government breaks down well-being as having eight “indicators”: healthy, nurtured, safe, achieving, active, respected, responsible and included. All desirable of course, but vague and subjective – how active is active, for example? Most important of all, these indicators should not be subject to outside intervention.

Concerns about the scheme expressed by Police Scotland have been set out in a briefing paper prepared by Chief Superintendent Alan Waddell for the Scottish Police Authority (SPA). He explained there was “a lack of clarity as to the expectations, roles and responsibilities” of the police. Mr Waddell also highlighted what could be a very serious problem: that this scheme could “impact on our ability to accurately assess vulnerability”. In other words, the initiative will pull much needed attention and resources away from those most in need, and direct it towards every single child. This will be not only wasteful and confusing for everyone – the authorities included – but families in need of help, who are at risk, will be overlooked.

Only when there is a very serious problem facing a child should the state agencies step in. They will be less able to act in these cases, if paying attention to the “well-being indicators” of every young person.

Sensibly, Ken Macintosh, the Labour MSP and a candidate for the leadership in Scotland, has pointed out that the scheme would not make children safer. He has called on the Scottish Parliament to “revisit the legislation and to fully scrutinise the SNP’s plans to interfere in family life”.

It’s about time. The named person scheme is an unprecedented and damaging intervention into family life that will direct help away from those most in need. It should be scrapped.