Yesterday, the Supreme Court sent seemingly welcome news to liberals, by ruling against the Named Person scheme. An essential part of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, and the Scottish government’s GIRFEC policy bundle, the scheme’s aim is to provide every child in the country — regardless of their family situation — with a state-sanctioned guardian. Usually a health visitor or teacher, the Named Person will be ‘the person anyone can approach if they have concerns about a child or young person’s well-being, or if they think they require some help or support.’
As Mark Wallace has written here, the proposed legislation is a ‘gross intrusion into family life and the privacy of the home’, which would ‘imbue [the Scottish government] with powers of oversight over the child and his or her parents.’ It has been widely challenged, not least by Ruth Davidson: in response to yesterday’s ruling, she reiterated her view that the scheme is ‘illiberal, invasive, and deeply flawed’.
However, it is important to note that it is not a fundamental problem with the scheme’s overall concept that has blocked its progress: the Supreme Court called its aims ‘unquestionably legitimate and benign’. It also ruled that it was indeed within the Scottish government’s purview to legislate in this area — the scheme having been contested before the court on the grounds of needing Westminster approval. That remains a contentious and significant issue, as post-referendum questions persist around the competence of the devolved nations. Rather, the scheme was found to breach ECHR rulings on privacy and family life, particularly in relation to certain data sharing provisions. Therefore, as it stands, Named Person is unlawful but not impossible. The court suggested that the scheme needs adjusting; it has been reported that the Scottish government still hopes to implement it by the end of the year.
There are few lesser — and more conflicting — current obsessions than privacy and transparency. We want everyone to know everything about everyone, except for people wanting to know things about us. Wikileaks, Whittingdale, Whitewater — and that’s just a quick single-letter review. Of course, this feeds into age-old arguments about the ideal size of the state, and its justification for authority. And it’s unsurprising that members of the SNP have different views on this from, say, libertarian-leaning Conservatives.
Not all libertarian-leaning Conservatives agree on these issues, either. Some of us aren’t opposed to the security services accessing or storing private information, for instance — agreeing that, today, that constitutes a crucial part of the protection we should expect from the state. It’s hard to see why that kind of privilege should extend to other institutions, however. The obvious example is local government, but it’s even harder to see — no matter how big you think the state should be — quite why it should extend to some ‘Person’, chosen through convenience, whose only cause for involvement in an unrelated child’s life is that they have been preemptively ‘Named’ to do so.
It would be easy now to go into practical reasons why the scheme is insidious: the potential obviation of personal responsibility, the dilution of a focus on real instances of vulnerable children in need, and on. But it all just seems like a ridiculous straw man from an amusingly overblown political sketch.
And that’s why it’s terrifying. How have we come to the point at which we need to take this sort of proposal seriously?