The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 is due to come into force in August this year, and will require every young person under 18 to have a “named person” who will be a single point of contact for the young person or their parents.
The act will require each local authority and health authority to provide a “named person” for every child. For those below school age it will normally be the health visitor; for those of school age either the head teacher or deputy head from the school they attend.
A coalition of organisations representing parents, people with ME, libertarian activists and conservative Christians have already appealed to the UK Supreme Court, claiming the act breaches the European Convention of Human Rights.
Many who oppose the introduction of named persons believe it intrudes on the rights of parents to raise their children, that it breaches a family’s right to privacy, allows the state to intrude into every aspect of family life or breaches the child’s right to privacy. Many are understandably concerned about implications for confidentiality. There is some fear that the “named person” scheme could lead to families being forced to conform to the expectations of the state.
Among those objecting is Drumnadrochit Free Church minister Rev Dr John Ross, who told the West Highland Free Press: “Too much power will be given to the discretion of professionals, some of who have never raised a family of their own…There is also a possibility that this legislation could be used as a back-door means to undermine parental values, judgement and discretion.” He also claimed it could lead to conflict between Christian parents and “the secular political correctness brigade.” He went so far as to compare the introduction of named persons to acts of fascist and communist regimes.
The reaction of conservative Christians is perhaps to be expected, but they are far from the only group to be opposed. The Scottish Parent Teacher Council also objects to it. Its Executive Director, Eileen Prior, told Holyrood Magazine: “Named person is a red herring which will undermine trust and cause issues between families, schools or other professionals, divert resources from those families most in need, add to professionals’ workload and lead to more families being drawn into the system unnecessarily.”
Journalist and commentator Iain MacWhirter, who rarely finds himself in the same camp as the Free Church, also has serious reservations. In his Herald column he suggested some of the terms being used are vague, may in any case be unworkable and may not even be necessary. He distances himself from the more vocal opponents of named person: he does not believe it to constitute “a Soviet-style assault on the family” and he is convinced the intentions of proponents of the new law are honourable. He is concerned that it could increase the burden on already overworked teachers, particularly as they are not social workers. He also believes it amounts to a “needless intrusion into privacy” and that it is effectively a “snoopers’ charter” that “risks creating yet another official database of unreliable and subjective information wide open to misuse”.
LGBTI groups have also raised concerns. In its submission to the Scottish government in 2013, LGBT Youth Scotland – while welcoming and supporting the intention of the act – was concerned about possible areas of conflict between United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and possible interpretations of the act. In particular, the charity focused its concerns on Article 12 (which gives children and young people the right to have a say in decisions that affect them and the right for their opinions to be taken into account), Article 13 (which gives them the right to obtain and share information) and Article 16 (which provides a right to privacy).
In its submission LGBT Youth Scotland also expressed concern about confidentiality, particularly in the light of named persons and relevant authorities having a duty to share information with each other. It made the point that children and young people often have good reason for not wanting their sexuality or gender identity shared with others, and it gave examples from its own work where disclosure had damaged the well being of young people. NSPCC Scotland also made similar observations.
Supporters of the act have attempted to reassure all these concerns. Alistair Gaw, President of Social Work Scotland, wrote in The Scotsman: “The named person role will reduce [rather than] increase the involvement of social work in the lives of families, protecting resources for our most vulnerable children.”
He also refuted concerns about confidentiality, arguing that the law already permits the sharing of information when a child is considered at risk, and the new legislation would not change that. He gave some examples of children who would be helped by the new law, highlighting those with disabilities, those having difficulties learning, children who are also carers and the children of refugees.
Barnado’s Scotland, Children 1st, One Parent Families Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament, Action for Children, Royal College of Nursing and the Scottish Childminding Association are among those who also support the proposals.
The Scottish Government argues that most parents will not notice any difference and claims 72% of those who responded to the public consultation supported the proposals. So how do we decide between these competing claims? A good place to start might be to look at an area of Scotland where a similar system is already in force.
In 2003 after the death of Inverness toddler Danielle Reid, Highland Council decided to make changes to its child protection procedures. Long before the Scottish government proposals, the Highland Council instigated a system of having a named person for every child and young person, the named persons being midwives, health visitors and primary and secondary head or deputy head teachers.
In 2014, Bill Alexander, Highland Council’s Director of Care and Learning, told the Inverness Courier that as a result of the introduction of named persons “We have fewer children being reported to the Children’s Reporter, we have fewer children offending.” He said that after inspections by the Care Inspectorate “we got the highest grades out of any local authority in Scotland.”
Jean Urquhart, an independent list MSP for the Highlands and Islands, stated in her blog that she supported the Scottish government’s scheme. She claimed the Highland Council had already demonstrated how successful the introduction of named persons could be. She wrote: “This is a roll out of a tied and tested system…it is not a step in the dark.” She added: “As a Highland Councillor until 2012 and an MSP for the area since 2011 I’ve yet to receive any casework or correspondence from parents who feel the authorities have over-reached or that liberties have been taken.”
We won’t know the outcome of the appeal to the UK Supreme Court for some time, and the concerns about the role of named persons comes from across the political spectrum. That the scheme appears, in some way, to already have a successful precedent in the Highlands is encouraging – but the very real concerns raised by LGBT Youth Scotland and others, especially in relation to disclosure of sexuality or gender identity, must be taken on board if the scheme is to work in the interests of those it is intended to serve.