Politicians are usually loathe to apologise, even when they should, so John Swinney should be given credit for an expression of contrition over his handling of the named persons policy.
However, the Deputy First Minister could hardly have chosen to blunder over a more controversial and sensitive policy.
Fears have been expressed about the full implications of putting an individual teacher, health visitor or other public sector worker in charge of the welfare of each child since the idea was first floated. The Supreme Court’s finding that the original policy was incompatible with human rights laws on privacy and family life only added to existing concerns. The prospect of “state snoopers” – as some have described the idea – raises Orwelliann fears that the SNP needs to allay.
A new code of practice on sharing information about children was meant to ensure everyone’s human rights were respected, but Mr Swinney accepted that his decision to share a draft version with Holyrood’s education committee had actually caused further “confusion and uncertainty”.
Experts are now to be tasked with ensuring the code will be “workable”, he added. The policy, already a tough sell, appears to be in some disarray. Scenting blood, the Conservatives’ Oliver Mundell suggested Mr Swinney might have to consider resignation if “this legislation falls apart”.
The SNP should have learned its lesson about attempting to roll out complex legislation too quickly from the Curriculum for Excellence affair, which dumped a mountain of paperwork on teachers.
Mr Swinney, seen as Nicola Sturgeon’s most competent minister, was appointed education secretary partly because of the need to sort out the resulting mess and has introduced reforms that The Scotsman, among others, has praised.
However, if his reputedly safe pair of hands are having difficulty handling the named persons policy, that will cause reputational damage not only to him but to the SNP government. And, if a flawed scheme is actually introduced, this could cause more harm than its intended good.
So Mr Swinney needs to proceed carefully. Apologise once and people may praise his candour, but if a minister has to apologise twice, they will lose faith in both the policy and the politician.