THE charge of being illiberal has been levelled at the SNP administration a number of times in recent years, notably over the heavily criticised legislation outlawing certain behaviour deemed to be offensive at football matches.
The charge has encompassed Scottish Government plans to use NHS medical records to help the taxman identify Scottish taxpayers, and the hands-off approach by former justice minister Kenny MacAskill to Police Scotland’s more authoritarian instincts.
But these controversies are as nothing compared to the public outrage at ministers’ plans to have a ‘named person’ allocated to every single child in Scotland, with the aim of protecting that child’s wellbeing. The move, while backed by the main opposition as well as children’s welfare organisations, has met enormous opposition from parents. No one would argue against the state’s right to step in when it can be shown there is the potential for harm being done to a child. We have all seen enough tragedies cross our newspaper pages – from Baby P to Mikaeel Kular – to know how important it is to have proper social work scrutiny when children are believed to be vulnerable.
But what alarms parents is the idea that the state should scrutinise every child, regardless of circumstances. Many see it as a the state overstepping a line into family life, with undue cause; in fact, with no cause at all other than the theory that any child could, in theory, one day be at risk.
The legislation – pushed though Holyrood with the benefit of the SNP’s majority – became law before anyone, not even its authors, had a clear idea of how it would work in practice. Now that the detail in becoming clear – helpfully, the Scottish Government last week issued an 111-page draft statutory guidance document – the alarm is even greater. As we reveal today, teachers are expressing concern about the role they are apparently going to be handed, and are asking what the consequences will be if something awful befalls one of ‘their’ children. How much of a reliable handle can a teacher have on the home life of every one of their pupils? Won’t some teachers over-report, and others under-report?
As we also reveal today, the legislation may be applicable to a child only from the moment of its birth, but the guidance makes clear a range of circumstances where the ‘named person’ has responsibilities concerning a child as yet unborn. Many parents, on learning about the named person legislation, thought they could safely ignore it, regardless of their opinion of it.
But it now seems every single woman who is eight months pregnant will be “offered” a meeting with their child’s named person. Can a parent safely refuse a meeting without red-flagging their family in the eyes of social workers? It seems this legislation will touch every Scottish family, whether they like it or not.
Nicola Sturgeon, in her short time as first minister, has shown herself willing to change the administration’s direction when it becomes clear the route travelled under Alex Salmond was one she took issue with. She has demonstrated this by embracing Blairite education reforms and calling Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House to heel over the use of stop and search powers. Salmond was not known for his keen interest in social policy, and it is unclear whether Sturgeon’s view differs from the one by which she was bound by collective cabinet responsibility before last November. But it did not go unnoticed by Yes campaigners during the independence referendum many Scots were starting to perceive this SNP government as authoritarian and illiberal.
Does Sturgeon accept these fears are not unreasonable? If so, the time to act is now. The named person revolution is law, but how it operates is still a matter of ministerial discretion.
Murphy’s thoroughly modern matrons
IN POLITICS there are some magic words and phrases. They are triggers for a certain kind of voter response. “Hard-working families” is one such phrase – has any politician ever stuck up for “laid-back and moderately lazy families”? “Bobbies on the beat” is another. Bobbies tracking the proceeds of drug crime by computer are far less politically appealing. And then there are “matrons”. Politicians love promising us matrons. The NHS would be a better place, they tell us, if only we had matrons. This is despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that few of us have any idea what a matron is and what she – or he, one assumes matrons can be male – actually does. We may have a vague memory of Hattie Jacques bustling around in a stern manner in Carry on Doctor, but that is about it. Which is why Jim Murphy may be on to a winner with his latest policy pronouncement on the NHS. As part of a five-point plan for improving the NHS, he is proposing 32 new matrons to work in Scotland’s busiest accident & emergency departments. Studies have shown that the presence of a “modern matron” on a ward can make for a better “patient experience”, with visiting relatives also having more confidence that their loved ones are being well looked after. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon reintroduced them to Scotland when she was health minister in 2008.
Usually, the work of matrons is focused on general wards, where their responsibilities include ensuring cleanliness and tidiness, ensuring patients are well fed and comfortable, that supplies are well stocked, and that rules are followed. But it is not hard to see how useful such a person would be in an A&E department or the high-dependency unit to which they are sometimes attached. This is especially true given some recent scandals in the Scottish NHS, such as inspectors’ concerns about cleanliness in the A&E unit at Kirkcaldy’s Victoria Hospital.
A&E units are likely to be a primary focus of general election campaigning in coming months – despite the fact that the election is to send MPs to Westminster, which has no control of the NHS north of the Border. The NHS is such a powerful political issue, however, it is likely to dominate political debate in any election or referendum. Matrons, Jim Murphy believes, will help win Scottish Labour votes on 7 May.