Kenny MacAskill: We need to protect most vulnerable children

Protecting the most innocent and vulnerable is essential and Named Person Legislation will help. Picture: John Devlin
Protecting the most innocent and vulnerable is essential and Named Person Legislation will help. Picture: John Devlin
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Named Person Legislation isn’t about a Nanny State and it most certainly isn’t about a state-imposed nanny, writes Kenny MacAskill

I’m one of those folks who think that Christmas is for kids. With my own family grown up and in the absence of grandchildren, it’s far quieter and lacks the joy and excitement they once created.

However, I still know that it can be a bleak time for many a bairn in a household where not just presents but love and affection can be missing.

As a lawyer before I entered parliament I recall dealing with many children’s cases and met families where stimulation for their children was strapping them into their buggy and leaving them for hours in front of the TV where dog faeces were in every room. Tragically, there were even worse cases.

It’s for that reason that I am gobsmacked at the furore over the Named Person Legislation. It post-dates my tenure in office and even sojourn in parliament and I therefore can’t comment in detail on the intricacies. But, children do get hurt and face neglect and it’s most often from those in whose care they are, whether mum and dad or mum’s new partner. Protecting the most innocent and vulnerable is essential.

For harm does befall them and more often than not the failure of the state to protect them, at whatever level, came about not through a conscious decision to ignore it but an oversight or assumption that someone else was dealing with it. They simply fall through the gaps between under-pressure offices or officials. When in government I’ve been involved in the aftermath as understandable public outrage demands an investigation, which invariably shows hard-pressed agencies simply failing to record or presuming that another agency was on the case.

Rather than hanging an overworked but remorseful official out to dry, surely trying to establish a system that would minimise though could never entirely eliminate the risk of a child falling from the care radar, is a good thing? Now it’s evident that there have been flaws in the legislation as court challenges have disclosed. But, both child protection and data protection are hugely complex areas of law and I sense the errors came about more through drafting mistakes or a lack of consciousness about possible breaches. It’s for that reason that the spirit of the legislation has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Moreover, it’s why the legislation is supported almost universally by agencies and charities that work with and provide for such vulnerable and at-risk children.

I can therefore understand why objections would be made to potential data breaches and other specifics in the detail and working of the legislation. My own concerns have been about pressures on staff, whether health visitors or others, and ensuring sufficient time and resource for them. It needs to be got right as it’s vitally important, and MSPs are right to insist upon that. However, I cannot fathom the objection that a few have to the general principles of the proposed law. This isn’t about a Nanny State and most certainly isn’t about a state-imposed nanny.

There simply aren’t the resources for that as I know both as a former lawyer and elected representative. I recall a constituent coming in to see me many years ago. She was an elderly lady with the care of her grandchild, as the mother had drug and mental health issues. The child had simply been placed with her following a crisis episode and she’d been left to get on with it. Social work wasn’t in touch with her but the lad was growing and she was struggling to buy football boots for him from her modest pension. She was looking for financial help.

Seeking to console her I said I’d contact the social work department who I was sure would help, mentioning that in many ways she should take it as a compliment that they’d not been in touch. They knew she was a good-hearted woman and the child was safe which was why she’d never heard further. The social worker confirmed that, apologising and explaining that he had more than 300 children on his books in just the one area of the city, and it wasn’t the most deprived. He’d known the child was safe and well looked-after and simply left alone. Funding was obtained and all was well. There was no interference, that social worker just hadn’t the time and a named person for that child won’t see it invoked either.

I also recall a distressing case many years before I entered parliament. Clients of mine had a child. She though had learning difficulties and he was blind. Childcare was problematic not through wilful actions but ignorance. Social work instructed the council lawyers to seek parental control orders and ultimately freeing for adoption. Those parents loved that child despite the dangers that occasionally they could expose it to. I recall the heart-wrenching pleas made by them that drug addicts and alcoholics got to keep their children, but not them. It still distresses me now thinking of it.

Thankfully, an Emeritus Professor of Child Care and a learned Sheriff refused the adoption request and though parental rights were given to another family, contact was retained by the birth parents.

In the ideal world support would have been given so that child could have stayed with its birth parents. But resources there weren’t and officials were too busy going from house to house checking on parents who could normally cope but were capable of neglect and the calamity that could follow. That’s why I cannot understand the suggestion of unbridled state interference. It’s neither sought nor practicable. Just as councils can’t take every child into care nor can they monitor every home.

Moreover, the state isn’t a very good parent and supporting at home’s more often a better solution than a children’s home. But that resource is limited and doubtless diminishing.

It’s the season of goodwill. Let’s hope that agreement can be reached to protect our most vulnerable children this coming year.