A new service for children contained in a bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament is causing some controversy north of the border. Whilst I wouldn’t normally pay too much attention to developments in family law in Scotland (after all, the Scots have an entirely separate family law system), this particular development is, I think, of interest on this side of the border. I can’t, for example, see off-hand why something similar could not be introduced in England and Wales, if it were found to be successful in Scotland.
The proposed new service is contained in Part 4 of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill, which is due to be debated by the Scottish Parliament at its final stage on Wednesday. Part 4 sets out a new “named persons service” for children and young people.
Under the service, every child under the age of 18 will have a specific ‘named person’ from the NHS or local authority appointed to look after their well-being. In practice, it is expected that the ‘named person’ will be a midwife, health visitor, or teacher depending on the age of the child.
The functions of the ‘named person’ are set out in section 19(5) of the Bill and specifically comprise three things:
(1) Advising, informing or supporting the child or young person, or a parent of the child or young person,
(2) Helping the child or young person, or a parent of the child or young person, to access a service or support, or
(3) Discussing, or raising, a matter about the child or young person with a service provider or relevant authority.
The service is part of Scotland’s approach to supporting children and young people entitled Getting it right for every child (‘GIRFEC’). The primary idea behind GIRFEC is, it seems, to ensure that those involved in the welfare of children and young people adopt a consistent approach. To this end, the Bill provides that certain public bodies must share any information they hold with the ‘named person’ if they consider that it might be relevant.
As I said at the beginning, the service is causing some controversy. Opponents are saying that it amounts to state interference with parenting, and even that it may breach the European Convention on Human Rights. The latter claim presumably refers to Article 8, which provides that there shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of the right to respect for private and family life, save in certain circumstances, such as the protection of health.
I must admit that it does, on the face of it, all sound a little like ‘Big Brother’. One can certainly imagine, for example, conflicts between the advice given by the ‘named person’ and the wishes of the parents – will the ‘named person’ just stand aside in such cases? Even if there is no conflict, the mere presence of a third party involved in your child’s upbringing may lead to insecurity and resentment.
In support of the policy, Scotland’s Children’s Minister Aileen Campbell has said that appointing a ‘named person’ for every child will help “provide a safety net for those who need one”. She points out that it does not amount to treating every child the same way as vulnerable children, or give the ‘named person’ a right to enter every house. On the contrary, she says, the named person’s responsibilities are “at the lower end of the scale of concern.”
“Their function will almost always be discharged through routine contact with the child either in health or in education. Not social work.”
She also points out that those parents who do not want to engage with the ‘named person’ are under no obligation to do so, which to me rather seems to defeat the object.
The Scottish government also insists that the policy is compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights.
So there we are. Whilst I accept that the opponents of this policy may think there is more to it than there really is, I can’t honestly say that I would be happy to see something similar on this side of the border.