Dani Garavelli: Scare tactics put children's lives at risk

THERE appears to be no rhetoric too overblown or emotive for those determined to stop the Scottish Government's Named Person policy in its tracks. OTT phrases such as 'a Snoopers' Charter', a 'Soviet-style assault' and 'an Orwellian plot' are being deployed as if they were carefully crafted arguments rather than hyperbolic soundbites which crumble under scrutiny.

Supporters of the campaign group NO2NP outside the Supreme Court in London last week. Picture: Andrey Shevchuk
Supporters of the campaign group NO2NP outside the Supreme Court in London last week. Picture: Andrey Shevchuk

I get that some people have qualms about GIRFEC (Getting it Right for Every Child) and the Named Person provision, even though it has been working fine in the Highlands. But its critics seem unconcerned that, by scaremongering, by throwing in red herrings about alleged diktats on the decorating of bedrooms, they may well be putting vulnerable young people at risk. As the No To Named Person (NO2NP) challenge against the legislation contained in the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act 2014 was heard by the Supreme Court last week, it appeared to be all about the rights of parents, and not at all about the rights of the child.

Let’s take the most recent faux controversy. At the hearing, Aidan O’Neill, the QC representing the NO2NP alliance, made great play of the fact that, under the new law, GPs would be required to inform the Named Person (but not necessarily the parents) if schoolgirls were asking to go on the pill. You don’t need the oratorical powers of Lincoln to whip people into a frenzy over something like that. You just need to know which buttons to press; how to trade on a Victoria Gillick-like panic that parental sovereignty will be ceded.

To understand the Named Person provision properly, though, you have to take into account the context in which it was conceived. It was first mooted in the wake of the Savile and other scandals in which evidence of abuse had been missed or ignored. I have written before about the litany of children – Baby P, Daniel Pelka, Declan Hainey – whose deaths might have been avoided if only doctors, teachers and/or social workers had expressed their concerns more vociferously or shared with each other all the information they had at their disposal. But a lack of collaboration and a disrespect for victims was also at the root of a succession of Child Sexual Exploitation cases such as those in Oxford, Rochdale and Rotherham. In her report into Rotherham, Professor Alexis Jay pointed out relevant agencies had failed to intervene in cases of underage sex often regarding it as a “lifestyle choice” rather than a possible indicator of orchestrated abuse.

Later, when I was writing about CSE in Glasgow, Barnardo’s told me some professionals were failing to act on repeated sexually transmitted infections. Viewed from this perspective, the demand for GPs to pass on information about teenage girls seeking contraception seems sensible; and it is no coincidence that Barnardo’s (along with Aberlour, Action for Children Scotland, Children 1st and other charities) sees the Named Person policy as “crucial to supporting our children and young people”.

As the CSE scandals unfolded, newspapers ran condemnatory pieces asking how this could have been going on in front of people’s eyes – yet nobody acted. They castigated the professionals and urged those involved in child protection to be more watchful and willing to intervene. Yet the minute the Scottish Government tried to formalise this vigilance they whined about a Big Brother society. They can’t have it both ways: either the authorities ought to be more proactive or they should get their noses out of private matters. And I know which one I’d choose.

I do have some concerns about the burden of responsibility the Named Person policy will place on teachers and health visitors; if the system isn’t properly resourced then it will be as good as useless.

And I concede there may have been some conflation of child protection and child well-being, though I’m not so sure what’s wrong with checking up on a child’s broader happiness. I know from experience it can be easier to pick up on signs of anxiety if you are detached from whatever situation is producing them and anything that helps tackle the country’s mental health crisis is OK by me.

GIRFEC is already up and running in several areas and strangely there have been no reports of parents being ordered to redecorate bedrooms so we can assume some of the fears raised are born of paranoia. At an earlier, unsuccessful challenge at the Court of Session, senior Scottish judges said the legislation “no more confuses or diminishes the legal role, duties and responsibilities of parents in relation to their children than the provision of social services or education generally”.

I hope people will continue to debate the policy. We know from the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act how pernicious bad law can be, so it is important to get it right. But I would like to see its critics adopting a more measured approach because some of the language being bandied about is downright dangerous. When you use the term “Snoopers’ charter”, you are implying that teachers and health visitors are nosy busybodies as opposed to professionals paid to keep an eye on your child. And when you use the adjective “Soviet-style” you are alluding to the Communist-era practice of encouraging children to spy on their parents which – as journalist David Leask has pointed out – is perilously close to calling those who make accusations of familial abuse “snitches”.

It was the habit of distrusting and demeaning young people which allowed scandals such as Rotherham or Savile to go unchecked for so long; if we perpetuate the idea that children who raise concerns with a Named Person – or indeed any third party – are being “disloyal”, then we play right into the perpetrators’ hands.