‘Named persons’: child protection at its most dystopian

Stuart Waiton

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About 10 years ago, I decided to write a dystopian novel about a future where the idea of privacy had completely collapsed; where each child born was given a live-in ‘support worker’ who helped the parent manage while ensuring the child was safe from the parent’s problematic behaviour. The very ideas of private intimacy and personal responsibility no longer existed in this futuristic dystopia; safety had become society’s only guiding principle, and all relationships were now mediated through a state-paid professional.

Of course, the book was never written, and now, following the passing of the new Children and Young People (Scotland) Act, it has become almost obsolete. It is no longer a futuristic fantasy that every child will have their own ‘support worker’ assigned at birth. It is soon to become a reality.

The new act will mean that, from birth, each child in Scotland will have a specific state-appointed professional, a ‘named person’, to oversee their interests, and, in particular, to oversee their safety. Initially, this named person is likely to be a health visitor or midwife, the role later being taken over by school teachers who will have the ‘duty’ and responsibility to act as the child’s guardian. The regulation of data-sharing between professionals is also to be loosened, giving the guardians new legal authority to access data from the police, local councils, NHS files and even, potentially, information accessed from Young Scot leisure cards.

The children’s minister, Aileen Campbell, has been dismissive of those people who have criticised the act as state snooping, or, as many Christian groups have put it, an ‘attack on the family’. For Campbell, the new powers and duties being given to the state guardians are simply another service to help families in trouble and further ensure that children are protected in society. Indeed, Aileen Campbell at times appears to be nonplussed by her critics, incapable of seeing why her caring approach is not instantly celebrated. The claims of state snoops undermining the family, she argues, are simply ‘misunderstandings’ and ‘misrepresentations’ of the new law. When someone raised the point that this act undermined the role of parents in child-rearing, Campbell, somewhat comically, replied, ‘we recognise that parents also have a role’.

However, given the increasing ways in which all children are being categorised as ‘vulnerable’, the way in which all professionals are being educated to put child safety at the top of their agenda, and at time in which ‘early intervention’ is promoted as the only rational approach to solving social problems, there is a serious risk that the relationship between the ‘named person’ and parents will become one predicated on suspicion. Given that the red line for when it is appropriate to intervene in a child’s life is also being downgraded, from the child being seen as at serious risk of harm to mere concerns about their ‘wellbeing’, the potential for unnecessary and potentially destructive state intrusion into family life with this law is significant.

The Scottish government appears to be blind to the potential this new act has for transforming the relationship between parents and the state, and for degrading the very meaning of privacy. Likewise, the potential this approach has for sullying relationships between teachers (who will make up the majority of named persons) and parents is ignored. There is also a great danger here that by incorporating every single child in the child-safety rubric, the few children who need state intervention in their lives will get lost in this vast system and not get the support they need. As one concerned parent has noted, when you are looking for a needle in a haystack, why make the haystack bigger?

Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee. He is organising the No To Named Persons Conference in Edinburgh on Monday 9 June. For more information, and to reserve your place, click here.

Watch a video of Stuart introducing the conference below:

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