Holyrood brings in new laws for child protection

CONTROVERSIAL plans to create a state-appointed “guardian” for all children across Scotland were passed at Holyrood last night. It will create a new layer of protection to detect youngsters suffering in abusive families and follows a string of tragic toddler deaths in recent years.

Education secretary Michael Russell and minister for children and young people Aileen Campbell. Picture: Neil Hanna

The change is also aimed at helping to spot health and emotional problems in the country’s children and provide better support for families.

It means health visitors, midwives or school teachers will now take on the role of a “Named Person”, with a duty of support for every youngster up to the age of 18 across Scotland.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

But opponents say the move undermines the role of the family and that there are not enough resources, including the funding, to pay for the changes.

Nursing leaders have already warned the legislation will leave Scotland needing at least 450 additional health visitors to oversee the work involved. A legal challenge to the change by one Christian group, which branded it an “attack on the family”, has already been announced.

MSPs spent about five hours debating changes to the final version of the Children’s and Young People Bill at Holyrood before it was passed, with 103 votes in favour and 15 abstentions.

Supporters say it is aimed at making Scotland the best place in the world for children to grow up.

“Children aren’t born with an ‘at risk’ sign on their heads – we have to have a system that does its very best not to allow children to slip through the gaps,” children’s minister Aileen Campbell said.

“We want to ensure that children and families have somewhere to go if they need an extra bit of help and none are left without support.

“We want to promote an early intervention and prevention approach that is co-ordinated and prevents problems escalating into crisis. We want to ensure that no child slips through that net

“A named person for every child will help us achieve all of that. It has to be for every child because we don’t know where that extra bit of help will be needed. It is universal service.”

The legislation will also mean the amount of free childcare available to three and four-year-olds and vulnerable two-year-olds will be increased to 600 hours a year. This will save families an estimated £700 a year per child.

Previously announced plans to introduce free school meals for Primary 1-3 children are also enshrined in the Bill.

It will also allow teenagers in foster, kinship (family) or residential care to continue to receive this support up until the age of 21, and will strengthen the law on school closures, particularly in rural areas.

But it is the proposal to appoint a named person – such as a health worker or headteacher – to safeguard children’s welfare and liaise with their families that has proved most controversial.

The Law Society of Scotland, Faculty of Advocates, Free Church of Scotland and the Evangelical Alliance have all spoken out against the move.

But the Scottish Government last night rejected opposition moves to water down changes.

Labour’s education spokeswoman Kezia Dugdale said the bill was a “missed opportunity” and voiced concerns over resources.

She said: “This bill could and should have been better. It lacks a proper package of childcare improvements, it doesn’t support care leavers enough and kinship carers will be left unhappy that the SNP has failed to listen to their valid claims and concerns.

“This Bill has led to confusion and concerns across Scotland and that is the direct result of Aileen Campbell and the SNP being incapable of explaining the Bill and its effects. There are widespread concerns about the resources available to deliver this bill. The inability of the SNP to tell parliament just how much this bill will actually cost shows how incompetent the Scottish Government has become.”

Tory spokeswoman Liz Smith had lodged amendments that would have limited the Named Person to the under-16s. She also wanted to limit the function of the person to children’s rights issues and allow parents to contest the appointment of guardian, but these were rejected.

Ms Smith said: “This will tip the balance of family responsibility away from parents towards the state – something which most parents find completely unacceptable.”

Concerns had been raised in inquiries into recent tragic toddler deaths, including the case of Daniel Pelka who was beaten to death by his mother and her partner in Coventry two years ago, as well as 23-month-old Brandon Muir who was killed by his mother’s boyfriend in Dundee in 2008.

The reports set out weaknesses in the current information sharing regime between key agencies such as police, social work and health visitors.

The Scottish Government hope that by placing a duty of care for each child in a single Named Person could help address this.

From birth until the age of five, the health board is responsible for appointing and keeping a record of who every child’s person is. In many cases this will be a health visitor.

From the age of five, the education authority takes on the role and this continues until the child leaves education.

It will then be up to further education officials and or in conjunction with other local council staff.

Last night the Christian Institute charity said it will mount a challenge in defence of family life against state intrusion over bill.

Director Colin Hart said: “This is a dreadful extension of the state’s tentacles into family life. Churches, lawyers and parents opposed this. We have no option but to challenge this illegal law all the way.”

But The Royal College of Nursing Scotland director Theresa Fyffe said the Named Person concept is a positive move, but said she did not believe the money was in place to cover the bill’s provisions. Ms Fyffe added: “While we agree with the principle ... that this role will be delivered by health visitors for all pre-school children, we are concerned there are not enough health visitors currently in place to meet even the needs of their existing caseloads.

But Ms Campbell told MSPs health visitors have increased by 14 per cent in Scotland since the SNP came to power in 2007. She insisted: “We have costed this and we are funding it.”

Meanwhile, Anne Houston, chief executive of Children 1st, said appointing a Named Person would mean parents and children could get additional support and advice when this was needed (see below).

The legislation includes a beefed up approach to school closures, which will include new requirements and improved transparency before any closures can take place.

There will also be new duties placed on government ministers and the wider public sector to promote children’s rights, with new powers being given to the Children’s Commissioner.

Scotland’s national adoption register will also be placed in statute, improving prospects of finding homes for vulnerable young children in need of short and long term care.

How it works

Every child in Scotland will have their own “Named Person” with a duty to support their needs, as part of the Children and Young People Bill.

Before school age, this is likely to be a health visitor or midwife, with the NHS having responsibility at this stage of child’s life. Once a child starts school it is likely to be a headteacher, deputy head or guidance teacher who takes on this role.

The named person will help families access services, provide information and support, as well as raising concerns with health and social work departments about signs of neglect.

For children in secure accommodation, the manager of that facility would take on the role.

Is it a good idea? Church and charity disagree

Anne Houston: It’s for all young people to access

For 130 years, as the RSSPCC and now as Children 1st, we have campaigned for every child in Scotland to enjoy a better start in life, from helping to shape the first legal “Children’s Charter” in 1889 to the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill passed just yesterday at Holyrood.

We strongly support the provision for Named Persons. This is about keeping children’s wellbeing at the centre of all that we do as a society. It is there for all children and parents to access whenever they might need additional support and advice.

Putting the service into law gives professionals already involved with children and families a level of authority to make things happen. At Children 1st, we know from our work with families that ensuring they get the right support at the right time is important to enabling more children to thrive safely within their families.

It has been suggested that the Named Person might take rights away from parents and carers. Actually, it does the opposite. The law now gives them rights to call on professionals when they need advice, information and support. There are issues still to be ironed out about how the service will work in practice. We know from our experience of listening to children that some would like to choose someone they know and trust to be their Named Person. It is also not clear what happens for children outwith the school day and term times. It is good that there will be guidance on these and other matters.

Ultimately, it is people, not procedures and policies which keep children safe.

If Scotland is to become the best place to grow up, children and their families must become active partners in decisions which affect them.

Creating Named Persons and investing in the people who will fill the role is vital in achieving this.

• Anne Houston is chief executive of Children 1st.

John Ross: It considers our children in isolation

AS ONE of the former Free Church of Scotland moderators who wrote to our First Minister last month expressing concern over the Named Person proposals, I am deeply disappointed that the legislation has not been amended by MSPs.

My chief objection is that the bill considers children in isolation rather than as part of a family unit.

A child’s values, wellbeing and development are primarily the responsibility of his or her parents, not state-appointed guardians, and it’s disappointing that the Scottish Government has not made clear what jurisdiction a named person has or how parents can engage in the process.

It is very risky rolling out a nationwide scheme based on a few pilot projects, when what is needed is not retrospection but foresight. The government needs to anticipate future abuses, such as when militant secularists accuse religious parents of intellectual indoctrination because they teach their children their faith.

The Isle of Man ran a similar scheme that had to be abandoned because it undermined the trust essential to the provision of social and health care. Astronomical increases in referrals put the social work system into meltdown. Staff turnover increased due to needless stress and families feared going to hospitals or doctors’ surgeries because they thought health professionals were snooping. As a result, those who really were in need suffered.

Instead of stubbornly pressing ahead with a scheme that may foster distrust and suspicion, the government would do better to encourage supportive vigilance, community cohesion and caring neighbourliness. Unless ignored by an overweening state, the Church is able to help with that kind of thing.

• The Rev Dr John Ross is a Free Church of Scotland minister and a former Free Church of Scotland moderator.