Ruth Davidson is leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, and MSP for Edinburgh Central.
I doubt there is much that surprises David Dimbleby. But during a filming of Question Time in Aberdeen the other week, he appeared momentarily flummoxed. The topic was the Scottish Government’s proposed ‘Named Persons’ scheme, due to come in across Scotland from this August. Attempting to explain the plans, he simply muttered: “It gets stranger and stranger”.
In the Scottish Parliament tomorrow, we will try to shed some light. The Scottish Conservative opposition has decided to bring forward a new debate on the policy. And we will attempt to press pause on the plans before they are implemented in two months’ time. It is a test for the new minority SNP Government: is it prepared to listen to genuine concerns about its proposals, or will it insist on pushing it through?
To explain to ConservativeHome readers – and to Mr Dimbleby – the Named Persons scheme is a new child protection measure which will apply to every child in Scotland from the age of 0 to 18. Typically, a “named person” will be a health visitor or a senior teacher whose job will be a new “point of contact” responsible for assessing a child’s “wellbeing”. It will be their job to decide whether to “reach out” to any other services if they believe it is necessary. Proponents argue that this interventionist approach mean that cases of abuse can be prevented from taking place. Get in early, the theory goes.
I do not, for a minute, doubt the motives of those who proposed the scheme. It is borne of an entirely laudable aim to try and tackle the dreadful cases of abuse that we see all too frequently, right across the United Kingdom. Good motivations, however, are no guarantee of good law-making. And it is here where the Named Persons scheme falls down. When we are talking about one of the most sensitive areas of public life – the right to family life – it is right to ask serious and fundamental questions.
Those questions are now being asked not just by the Scottish Conservatives – who have consistently been opposed to the principle of the scheme – but now by the very people who are supposed to implement it; health professionals, social workers and teachers. The core problem lies in the very effort to take a universal, interventionist approach. As part of their assessment of a child’s “wellbeing”, named persons will consider whether a child is “safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included”. Indeed, there is a bewildering array of “risk indicators” they will also have to examine. Potentially, this dragnet approach takes child protection into every home. And, as social workers who will be involved in the scheme have put it themselves, it is easy to imagine named persons covering their backs by passing everything up the chain. Who could blame them? Passing it on means covering your back against the potential, however remote, of missing a tell-tell sign.
This has a corrosive effect. One health visitor recently told a Unison survey: “The role of health visiting is based on a relationship with the family. That is the skill we develop. I am worried that, because of the legislation, that relationship will change and parents will become resentful and refuse the service, resulting in conflict.” It also has an impact on workload. Teachers have warned about the increasing demands it may make on their time. And worse – as senior police officers warned in evidence to Holyrood – it could take attention away from those children and cases that truly need targeted support. I have repeatedly raised this latter issue with the SNP Government and have been rewarded with the usual complaint that I am scaremongering.
Tomorrow’s debate will be a chance for the new Parliament to have its say. The Scottish Conservative position is to scrap the new scheme entirely. However, in an effort to find consensus, our motion will propose that the scheme be paused to ensure further debate. An option may be for it to return to the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee for fresh scrutiny.
Behind this row lies a salutary lesson. The proposals were pushed through by a majority Scottish Government which was convinced of its own case, and didn’t need to heed warnings about unintended consequences. Now, just weeks away from it coming into force, the result is that we are left with a scheme which is racked in controversy and mistrusted by the very people who are supposed to carry it out. As former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars wrote yesterday, its passage into law “raises serious questions about the Scottish Parliament’s legislative system, including the role of its committees”.
The chaos over the implementation of the Named Persons scheme is a direct result of a lack of scrutiny and challenge. Tomorrow we will try to put that right.