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A worthy policy has caught out ministers

It is more than possible nobody in the Scottish Government spotted the elephant trap in the path of its Children and Young People Bill.

The bill, likely to become law next week, contains the unexpectedly controversial proposal that every child in Scotland should be entitled to a "named person" who would be a first point of contact for any concerns about their welfare.

One of the key words here is "entitled". In fact, if you are a parent in the Highlands your child already has one. Their named person is almost certainly the health visitor if your child is pre-school, and your child's headteacher if older. Parents living in any other council area in Scotland will also have one soon, regardless of the passing of the law. It merely serves to guarantee an approach already seen by most people working in child welfare as best practice.

So it seems likely ministers didn't even imagine poachers lying in wait for a bill that covers several other policies such as extending childcare entitlements and better support for children in care. But the proposals have met with accusations of a nanny state and worse.

Certain newspapers, opposition politicians and lobby groups have accused First Minister Alex Salmond and Children's Minister Aileen Campbell of wanting a "state-sponsored snooper" in every home.

Having launched a petition against the bill, home education charity Schoolhouse said comments on its website were "a warning to all parents that their children's lives will be forcibly invaded by uninvited strangers on a mission to ensure they meet state-dictated outcomes."

The former moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, Rev Dr John Ross, said named persons were "the sort of thing we would expect in a fascist or Marxist regime, not in 21st Century Scotland". One London-based broadsheet paper said asking councils to "oversee every aspect of a child's life from birth onwards is a world first".

Perhaps it would be if that were the plan. But it isn't. Most charities working with children are bemused by the fuss. So are officials at Highland Council, which introduced named persons in 2010 as part of a national child protection policy Getting It Right for Every Child. This was introduced by the previous Labour administration in 2006. Scandals about child neglect and abuse frequently leave people asking what more could have been done to protect a vulnerable youngster. Girfec, as it is known, sought to address this.

At-risk children often come into contact with numerous professionals - nursery staff, health visitors, midwives and teachers, for instance. Yet some slip through the net. A named person is an attempt to create a reliable safety net; a single point of contact for any concerns about a child who is responsible for ensuring the child's needs are always prioritised. In particular, the aim is to intervene early when there are problems, before situations deteriorate.

Less lurid objections from the Law Society, which feels named persons could interfere with families' right to a private life, and the Scottish Conservatives who believe it will dilute resources from vulnerable families, have also been raised.

But Highland Council's director of social care, Bill Alexander, says early intervention works and not a single parent has complained about having a named person. Child protection registrations have dropped and the number of children being taken into care is falling, in defiance of national trends in the opposite direction. He even attributes fewer children taking up smoking to the Girfec approach.

Most families don't need a named person, very much, and if they do, problems are usually resolved with a chat. High-risk situations are still handled by the relevant agencies such as police or social work. Criticising the proposals is a massive misunderstanding, Mr Alexander says.

Perhaps so, but no government likes to be compared to Big Brother, as the Scottish Government has been over this policy. Even if the proposals have been misrepresented, they appear to have been caught on the hop.

One is inclined to wonder whether the Government needs a named person itself, to warn if ministers are at risk, intervene early, and look out for elephant traps.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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