The UK Supreme Court ruled last week that the Named Person Scheme, a key policy of the Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Scotland, breached the Human Rights Act.
The scheme, which was due to come into effect this month, could be seen as a well-intentioned piece of legislation. It would give all children and young people from birth to 18 years access to a “named person”– usually a midwife, health visitor or teacher. The named person is intended to be a single point of contact if a child or their parents want information or advice, or if they want to talk about any worries and seek support.
They would also be a point of contact for other services if they have any concerns about a child’s wellbeing.
On the surface, this seems very progressive, an impression helped by the fact that the main opposition has come from the Scottish Tories and from fundamentalist Christian groups concerned with protecting the “sanctity of the family”. But the scheme has also been opposed by leading left-wing commentators in Scotland, and for good reason.
Firstly, it has the potential to massively increase levels of state surveillance of predominantly poor families. As the Court pointed out in its ruling, in its present form the scheme would allow information, including confidential information concerning a child or young person’s state of health (for example, as to contraception, pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease) to be disclosed to a wide range of public authorities.
This could take place without either the child or young person or their parents being aware that this was going on or being given the opportunity to have their views heard.
The effect would be to increase fear and anxiety on the part of many caring parents, especially those struggling to make ends meet, that their parenting skills will be called into question even more than they are at present.
Secondly, it will place a huge burden on the teachers, health visitors and other Named Persons who are already struggling to cope with the demands of their jobs but who would be likely to be targetted if they failed to spot and address possible neglect and abuse, never mind lack of “well-being”.
Of course professionals should be encouraged to share information when there have concerns about a child’s welfare, as already happens under current policy. But as Maggie Mellon, Vice-President of the British Association of Social Workers has argued, the idea that the solution to the problem of child abuse lies in case-working every child in Scotland is a non-starter.
That said, there are things we could do to make children safer. One would be a return to a model of community social work where workers have the time and the resources to get to know communities and to work in a supportive way with local people and organisations. Too much current social work practice involves workers in remote offices spending vast chunks of time on computerized assessments rather than working directly with local families and community groups. The lack of trust between local people and social work agencies was identified by senior professionals as one contributory factor to the tragic death of toddler Brandon Muir in Dundee in 2009.
Secondly, we need to address the root causes of child harm and neglect. In the vast majority of cases, this does not take the horrific form seen in such highly publicized cases as those of Baby Peter Connolly in 2008 or the recent death of Liam Fee in Scotland. Much more often, it is about parents struggling to cope and taking their frustrations out on their children.
Dealing with that would require radical policies to challenge the kind of poverty that means that in Scotland 2016 more people use food banks than ever before.
And it would also mean both the SNP government and local councils – Labour and SNP – resisting Westminster cuts instead of simply passing them on, resulting in the closure of valuable preventive services and bigger caseloads for staff.
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