Scotland's named person scheme rides roughshod over parents' rights
The named person scheme, part of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, will undermine the therapeutic relationship between community practitioners and parents, says Brid Hehir
Community practitioners, or health visitors as they were known, have been a valuable source of support for UK families with children for many years.
I used to be one, and our aim was to contribute to the health and wellbeing of parents and families, who generally seemed to appreciate the services we offered.
Guiding our practice was a belief that parents had their children’s best interests at heart, and an appreciation that they would do the best they could for them. We trusted them to bring up their children as they saw fit, and supported their efforts in this regard. That they largely succeeded in being ‘good enough’ parents rewarded that trust.
But the universal service that we used to offer has not really been available to families for some time now. This used to encompass providing support during the antenatal period; monitoring and assessing the development, health and wellbeing of all under-fives; the early detection of issues requiring further action, and acting as the first point of contact for all health and child protection issues for relevant children.
That general workload has now been replaced with one that is predominantly related to child protection. The threshold for what constitutes child abuse has been lowered and trust in parents has lessened. If feedback from colleagues around the country is anything to go by, this leaves many practitioners deeply unhappy in their work. They are also struggling to cope with huge workloads, and not enough new recruits are being attracted to the role as practitioners age.
It is therefore disappointing that a new Scottish government measure - the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act - is likely to use community practitioners in a way that will not change their role or relationships with families for the better. Yet is still being supported by community practitioner representatives.
The named person scheme is part of the Act, which has been passed by the Scottish Parliament and takes effect from August 2016. Under the scheme, every child is to be assigned a ‘state guardian’ from birth to 18 years. This named person, we are told, will have a privileged insight into the life of the child in their care, and have a general interest in their wellbeing. Surely that sounds like a role for parents? Apparently not – it is going to be another person with presumably amazing powers of perception. Likely to be a community practitioner for the under-fives, and a teacher for children over age five, this new role will be state appointed. Not only will the person in this role watch over the children, but they will also be watching over the parents.
During the consultation on the Children and Young People Bill, I can understand why community practitioner representatives responded as they did. They want the Scottish government to value health visitors, to appreciate their early intervention role with families and realise more are needed so that a universal service can be provided again.
Although these points were forcefully made, the representatives did not appear to understand how much this proposal undermines parents or how unpopular it is. Community practitioners who adopt this role will certainly not win any new friends. Instead, they will turn into family spies, where the state rather than the parents will become the mother and father to all children.
Writing in The Scotsman, sociologist Tiffany Jenkins explained why this measure was considered necessary: ‘In the last few decades, the family and the early years of a child’s life have been identified, in political circles, as the breeding ground for social problems. The family is fingered as the place where everything goes wrong: poor educational attainment, obesity, joblessness, stress, addiction, criminality, if not intentionally so, then accidentally…’
So the measure is designed to ensure any potential cases of abuse or developmental difficulties are spotted and acted upon at an early stage. Scottish government guidance says: ‘Sometimes children can be in a position of risk or harm without their parents or others being aware until it is too late. The named person is the single point of contact for every child so that no one is left without support.’ The suggestion that a named person should hold a privileged insight into the life of a child that the child’s parents do not, undermines parents who are considered untrustworthy in recognising a problem or acting upon it when they do.
The named person will be expected to assess a child’s ‘wellbeing’ against eight key subjective indicators: healthy, nurtured, safe, achieving, active, respected, responsible and included. They will act as the central point of contact and develop a ‘child’s plan’ for those who need one, to ensure services are coordinated to help and support a child or young person.
Some believe that the views of the named person will be privileged over those of the parents and child - and these concerns appear justified. The law says that when drawing up interventions, local authorities must ‘consult the named person’, but only ‘so far as is reasonably practicable to ascertain and have regard to the views of (i) the child, (ii) the child’s parents’.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, there has been lots of opposition to this in Scotland. A legal challenge and a campaign - No to Named Persons (No2NP) - have been launched. The gist of the opposition is around unjustified interference in family life, and undermining parents’ rights to enjoy a private life in their own homes with their own children.
Parents worry that the scheme rides roughshod over their rights to raise their children as they see fit. They think the state is appointing ‘shadow parents’ and undermining their authority over their children.
Parents, former teachers and community practitioners have expressed serious concerns about the named person, with one saying she had left the profession because of the measure. The police also have reservations about the scheme's lack of clarity as to what is expected of them, believing it could impact on their ability to accurately assess vulnerability.
Most opponents worry that the initiative is likely to take much needed attention and resources away from children who need it most. They argue that this new scheme will be wasteful and confusing for everyone, including the authorities, and that the families at risk, who are in need of help, will be overlooked.
The Scottish government is now under intense pressure to revisit its controversial plan. Hopefully, the representatives of community practitioners will do the same. Surely they do not want to collude in undermining parents and the trust that is fundamental to how community practitioners work with families?
About the author
Brid Hehir is a writer, researcher and a retired nurse. She worked in the NHS for more than 30 years as a nurse, midwife, specialist health visitor and senior manager. She has also worked as a charity fundraiser and retains a keen interest in the politics of health and illness in both the developing and developed world. She is a regular contributor to spiked and is a Battle of Ideas committee member. She blogs at bridhehir.blogspot.co.uk and writes about female genital mutilation and cutting matters at www.shiftingsands.org.uk
- Scotland's Commissioner for Children & Young People - Children and Young People (Scotland) Act
- The Scottish Government - Focus on the named person scheme, the Children and Young People Bill consultation and Scottish government guidance
- Response to the Bill - Community practitioner representatives response
- The Scotsman article - Tiffany Jenkins: Named person law is troubling
- Legislation.co.uk - Children and Young People (Scotland) Act legislation
- Petition opposing the named person scheme - No to Named Person campaign