Unjustly treated – Named Persons

For Scotland’s Children: Better Integrated Children’s Services was published under a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition in 2001. It described a fragmented landscape for services, with children and families confused about who they could turn to for help and lack of cooperation between professionals. It called for integrated, child-centred services and recommended ‘… that every child should have a named individual who can function as the main point of information/reference for the child, and who can coordinate arrangements for considering whether other, more specialist services are required for the small proportion of children who will need these.’ Later in 2004, the Children’s Charter, which had been developed on the basis of extensive consultation with children, included the pledge that ‘you will have … a named person to help you.’ A review of the Scottish Children’s Hearing System was also underway. Hearings should be reserved for circumstances where there is a need for a compulsory supervision order – but the system was over-loaded with referrals from professionals seeking support for children and families that could have been provided earlier without compulsion.

These strands contributed to the development of Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) in 2005. The ‘named person’ is one part of what was conceived as an integrated system whereby support is offered as far as possible on a voluntary basis by universal services with targeted services reserved for situations where they are absolutely necessary. A ‘pathfinder’ trial of GIRFEC was positively evaluated and all was set for the implementation of a potentially innovative and comprehensive system of support and protection for children more akin to Northern European universal welfare-based models than the residual risk driven investigative systems of the Britain and North America.

So what went wrong? Why has the ‘named person’ become the target for such anger, costly legal challenge and media frenzy? It was used by both the right and left during the UK parliamentary elections as a line of attack on the SNP. It has been simultaneously castigated by the right as the manifestation of overbearing state intrusion into the sanctity of family life and by the left as sinister state control of families. The media have taken advantage of the death of Liam Fee to link the named person role with child protection and all has contributed to a climate of fear and suspicion. The discourse of support has been trumped by the discourse of surveillance.

Undoubtedly, there was a lack of leadership from the Scottish Government after the Highland pathfinder and momentum slowed. Local authorities and health boards began to roll out GIRFEC in different ways and with varying levels of enthusiasm. However, implementation was patchy and, in some places, slow. This limbo continued under the SNP regime, but ultimately, perhaps because of the inconsistent implementation, GIRFEC was built into legislation.

One concern is that there are not enough health visitors in place to deliver on the promise of a named person for every child. Some teachers are anxious about the implications of yet another demand on their time– although it endorses the kind of pastoral support many have always provided. Some have highlighted the danger of spreading resources too thinly and losing sight of those who most need help – but these are resource issues. Why don’t they lead to a clamour for more, not fewer, resources for children? Or perhaps this is actually the ‘othering’ process – only certain ‘types’ of parents need support, and they must be obvious to spot.

And the conflation of the named person with child protection is a red herring, for many years now all professionals working with children, whether ‘named persons’ or not, have been very clear about the need to protect children from harm.

The legislation is not compelling parents to seek help. Rather, it is compelling professionals to provide it where required. Perhaps, it may never be possible for children’s services to shake off the stigma resulting from years as a residual rather than a universal service. It isn’t the same with other universal services – parents are not compelled to take healthy children to hospital, but society certainly expects all sick children to be treated. Why are we so unwilling to accept the same principle for child wellbeing?

Brigid Daniel is professor of social work at the University of Stirling and Director of the Centre for Child Wellbeing and Protection