Snooper’s charter, or getting it right for every child?

The Scottish Government’s Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill, is set to go before parliament this month. Within it are plans to assign a “named person” to every child from birth up until the age of 18 years – a proposal which the Free Church has branded a “snooper’s charter”. KEITH MACKENZIE questions whether the legislation is as sinister as has been claimed…

It’s not exactly famed for its libertarianism, so it’s no surprise headlines were grabbed this week when the Free Church described impending Scottish legislation as being at home in a “fascist or marxist” state.

The subject under attack from past and current church moderators is the Scottish Government’s Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill, which is set to be debated again in parliament later this month.

The bill — now at its third stage —has a far-reaching remit covering issues such as children’s rights, adoption and child protection with the stated aim of improving the way various services work to support children, young people and families. Already the legislation has won widespread praise for its extension of help for those in the care system up to and beyond their 21st birthday.

Vexing the Free Church and others, however, is the directive that every Scottish child be assigned a “named person” from birth up until the age of 18 years.

That named person will almost always be a health visitor or head teacher — their role being to spot at the earliest possible stage when there are concens over a child’s wellbeing, and to prevent problems from escalating into circumstances where more serious intervention is required.

In essence the new law — under the maxim of “getting it right for every child” — is preventative, rather than responsive. Yet like any legislation intended to stop a small problem turning into a larger one, the Bill is inevitably accompanied by protests which label it as intrusive.

The Free Church, with their fears centring on the premise that the Bill paves the way for  secular state meddling in the lives of Christian families, branded the bill a “snooper’s charter”, and urged First Minister Alex Salmond to intervene.

“We want the very best for all Scotland’s children and are fully supportive of the Scottish Government’s intention to improve outcomes for our most vulnerable children, but this does not warrant such a gross intrusion into every home in the country, “ said Rev James MacIver, minister of Knock Free Church on Lewis.

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Rev James MacIver described the bill as a “gross intrusion into every home in the country”

“Given that the vast majority of Scotland’s million children do not require any state intervention, and the resulting costs of setting up such a scheme, surely the Scottish Government would be better investing in more community nurses and social workers to provide help at a grassroots level for those who are really struggling?”

Rev MacIver added: “The very concept of ‘corporate parents’ sets alarm bells ringing and is something becoming of a Big Brother state.”

WHAT THE Free Church protests haven’t mentioned, however, is that the directive has already been in operation throughout the Highlands for several years.

Tragedy prompted Highland Council to make changes to  their child protection procedures following the murder of Inverness toddler Danielle Reid in 2003. The five-year-old had been missing for two months, but no one had realised  because the primary school she had attended in the city had been told Danielle had been taken to live in Manchester.

Bill Alexander, Highland Council’s director of health and social care, said this week that critics had displayed a “total misunderstanding” of the legislation, and said the scheme had been a success in the north.

He said: “The named person role has been operating in Highland for a number of years. It was not introduced at first by the Scottish Government, but developed from practice — from the request from families to have a clear point of contact with services. It operates effectively, and enables agencies to respond more quickly to parents who raise concerns about their child’s wellbeing.”

As far as children in the Highlands were concerned, Mr Alexander said the adoption of the Bill would mean no change.

“The system has been operating formally for four years, and in that time not a single parent has raised any concerns [about it being intrusive],” he said. The legislation, he continued, simply  placed in statute a role “already expected” of teachers and health visitors within Highland communties.

In his evidence to the parliament’s cross-party committee scrutinising the bill, Mr Alexander said the “getting it right for every child” approach had led to greater information sharing between schools, social work and the police. As a result he felt problems were now being spotted at an earlier stage.

“We have great respect for the phrase child protection, but it suggests an awful black line. — either you are on this side or that side,” he told the committee. “That is not the real world. A child is not on one or the other side of that black line. Children live in families and communities, they have a range of circumstances, a range of protective factors and a range of risk factors, and you have to look at the whole picture. If you wait until you believe that someone is on the cusp of crossing that black line it will be very difficult to address some of the risk factors in the child’s life.”

Mr Alexander’s views were backed by children’s charity Bernardo’s Scotland.

Director Martin Crewe said: “Evidence has shown that the named person system, already implemented in Scotland in the Highland Council area, has been successful and welcomed by parents. Far from it hindering families, it has been welcomed as an asset.

“The named person will already have a relationship with the child. It is not a new person in a child’s life, but merely a stronger role for an existing member of staff.

“A single point of contact like this is something that families we have worked with have often asked for. Should the child have needs beyond those that are provided by universal services, then this will be dealt with in the individual child’s plan.”

However, Drumnadrochit minister Rev Dr John Ross accused the Scottish Government of “hijacking the legitimate rights and duties of parents to bring up their own children free of state interference”.

He added: “If this legislation is not amended, the Scottish Government will make itself the judge of every parent in this land.

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“The Scottish Government will make itself the judge of every parent,” warned the Rev Dr John Ross

“Historically, the Free Church of Scotland has always fought to be independent of state interference in all of its spiritual affairs — this does not stop at the church door on a Sunday, it goes right into the heart of the family home.

“Too much power will be given to the discretion of professionals, some of who have never raised a family of their own and many of whom are already stretched to the absolute limit.

“There is also a very real possibility that this legislation could be used as a back-door means to completely undermine parental values, judgement and discretion for their own children.

“It does not take a rocket scientist to foresee the potential for future conflict between Christian parents and the secular political correctness brigade.

“This is the sort of thing we would expect in a Fascist or Marxist regime, not in 21st century Scotland.

“We urge Mr Salmond to do everything in his power to get rid of this snooper’s charter and restore some common sense.”

ACCORDING TO the Scottish Government, the legislation has won favour among those consulted.

Of the 226 people who gave their views on the proposed “named person” as part of the Children and Young People Bill public consultation, nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) agreed with the proposal while 18 per cent disagreed.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We have been consistently clear that parents are the best people to bring up their children — but sadly not all children come from safe, secure and loving homes.

“These plans, backed by teachers, health workers and other childcare professionals, aim to promote the wellbeing of all of Scotland’s children, including protecting vulnerable young people who may be experiencing difficulties or at risk of neglect or abuse.

“To be clear, the named person cannot require parents to bring up children in a certain way. Professionals and parents may identify where concerns about a child’s wellbeing are emerging and the named person can offer initial help, but the parent is under no obligation to engage with the named person or the service offered.

“If a concern escalates then child protection or other procedures may have to be activated – as is the case currently.  But the aim – just as it is with existing schemes already running successfully in parts of Scotland – is to offer families early support, with a single point of contact, to help prevent emerging concerns becoming more acute.

“That contact will almost always be already known to the family, usually a health visitor in the child’s earliest years or most commonly a school head or senior teacher.”

MSPs will vote on stage three of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill next Wednesday (19th February).