So far this Scottish election campaign has been more suited to accountants than thrill-seekers. But the Scottish Government’s introduction of a “named person” scheme for all Scottish children under the age of 18 has proved highly contentious and appears to be acting as an unsightly pothole on the otherwise smooth path towards Nicola Sturgeon’s victory on 5 May.
The legislation has already been passed by the Scottish Parliament, but what seems to be grabbing the public’s attention is that August will see the scheme, which has already been in operation in some parts of the country for some time, rolled out across Scotland.
It has been Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives who have made the most decisive attempt to seize the initiative on this. Speaking to Tory strategists, it is clear they feel they have found an issue which is playing poorly for the SNP on the doorsteps.
The named person scheme – or state guardian scheme as it has been christened by its opponents – was set up with the best of intentions: to ensure children are treated properly and to prevent tragedies of the most appalling kind.
Under the scheme, the named person –usually a health visitor or headteacher – will look after a child’s welfare by acting as a single point of contact with the ability to share information with social and other services if there is cause for concern about the way a child is behaving or being brought up.
But allocating every child a named person is seen by many as an unnecessarily intrusive and simplistic answer to complex problems.
Many parents fear it will undermine their role – not to mention angry that the state should interfere in family life in such a manner.
Ms Davidson has been quick to pick up on this. Hence her party’s promise to battle to repeal the proposal contained in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014.
At her manifesto launch yesterday Ms Davidson also spelled out her own plans to protect the most vulnerable children – a £10 million fund targeted only at those youngsters with the most complex needs.
While the Conservatives have been pushing their opposition to the scheme, there are growing signs that it is causing unease among those who have been SNP supporters. “What worries me is what is going to be the reaction of good parenting families, who say they don’t want to have an outsider nosing into my house and interfering and asking questions about my child,” was how one long-standing SNP supporter put it during an informal conversation recently.
“Everyone ought to be concerned about the issue of child protection,” he said. “There is an issue, but will the issue be addressed by someone who is a ‘named person’? Or would it be better addressed by educating the public to the risks and encouraging police and social work to be more proactive in certain circumstances where they feel there may be risks?”
He then added: “We are beginning to think that Nicola Sturgeon is getting the point that it is going to be a vote loser.”
That may be true, but the best the SNP leader has so far been able to offer in terms of reassurance to parents have been some muddled statements suggesting that parents would be able to “opt out” of the scheme – not something that makes much sense when the legislation is compulsory for all children.
The sense of confusion appears to have percolated down to the SNP candidates on the ground.
There exists YouTube footage of a hustings meeting held in the Northfield area of Edinburgh. When put under pressure by a member of the public concerned about the named person scheme, the SNP candidate Lloyd Quinan appeared to indulge in some pretty spectacular policy-making on the hoof.
Mr Quinan, it has to be admitted, is one of the SNP’s looser cannons. (A former SNP MSP and STV weatherman, Mr Quinan was castigated during the referendum for suggesting that No voters were bad parents.)
Questioned on the named person scheme, Quinan suggested that the SNP would take the legal steps required to make the legislation optional.
“I am firmly of the belief that the planned alteration, which makes the provision non-mandatory will be part of the programme for government,” Mr Quinan told the hustings audience.
When asked if that proposal would be in the SNP manifesto, Mr Quinan answered: “Yes.”
Mr Quinan may have been well known as a forecaster when he appeared on STV, but it would be interesting to know what Ms Sturgeon and her SNP manifesto writers happen to make of his assertion.
There is certainly a feeling amongst the Tories that they may be able to force Ms Sturgeon into making some kind of concession on this legislation.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen. But at the very least the mixed messages being sent by the SNP at both leadership and hustings levels suggests that the party is feeling the heat on this most contentious of topics.