Is the named person policy set to be the first casualty of Nicola Sturgeon’s minority government?
At Highland Council HQ Bill Alexander is running his hands across his closely cropped hair in exasperation as he fends off criticism of the Scottish Government’s named person provision.
The director of care and learning at the local authority which pioneered Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC), the wider policy of which named person is part, has seen it operate effectively for the best part of a decade. So he is bewildered by its portrayal as a ‘snoopers’ charter’ and is concerned about the impact the negative publicity is having on staff morale.
After its successful pilot in the Highlands, the named person was rolled out to South and North Lanarkshire, Edinburgh and other local authorities, again with minimal fuss. Indeed, it was only after it was enshrined in law, as part 4 of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, that public opinion began to turn against it.
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Then, several organisations operating under the banner of the NO2NP campaign unsuccessfully challenged the policy at the Court of Session before taking their objections to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has yet to pass judgement.
For 18 months now, Alexander has been fighting a rearguard action, debunking some of the wilder claims about the policy while highlighting the benefits he believes it has wrought. He has repeatedly pointed out that the named person was only added to the GIRFEC pathway project because parents asked for it and that it is supported by the majority of children’s charities, including Barnardo’s and the Aberlour Trust.
But he must feel as if he is whistling in the wind; far from subsiding, antipathy towards the policy is growing daily. The campaign gathered pace in the run-up to the Holyrood elections as opponents identified it as a chink in the SNP’s armour and Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale – who had previously supported the policy – called on the party to “press the pause button”.
Now the SNP has lost its majority, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson is making the repeal of the policy a priority, this despite the fact South Ayrshire, a Tory-led administration in coalition with Labour, has been implementing the named person policy since 2011. All local authorities which are not already implementing it have been laying the groundwork for when it becomes mandatory in three months’ time.
Though David Dimbleby appeared to find it hard to get his head round it on a recent Question Time broadcast from Aberdeen, the policy is relatively straightforward: from August, every child will have a named person – generally, a health visitor or teacher/head teacher – who will act as a single point of contact and make sure all concerns are recorded and acted on.
The provision is aimed at helping parents access services and identifying those children in need of protection. Its critics, however, see it as an erosion of parental rights. Some worry the named persons will pry into every aspect of their lives; others that making the service universal will lead to those children in greatest need of protection falling through the net.
Alexander says such fears are misplaced. In the Highlands, the policy has neither lowered the threshold at which children are considered at risk nor resulted in an overload in the system.
In fact, it has cut down on bureaucracy and empowered health visitors and teachers; now if a named person asks for a service, such as access to a children’s support worker, they must be responded to. And because they have the confidence to deal with low-level concerns themselves, rather than referring them on, social workers have been freed up to focus on the most serious cases.
Alexander claims the introduction of a single child’s plan – to replace myriad plans from myriad agencies – has also made life easier for both parents and practitioners.
“If you go back 10 years, it was chaotic,” he says. “Firstly, it was difficult for children and families to get into the system and to access services, but the way services would be allocated would be very ad hoc. Quite often, concerned practitioners would be knocking on all sorts of doors, while people like me would be putting in bureaucratic systems to gatekeep resources.
“Every time someone wanted a new service, there would be different reports, different forms and different meetings and, for children where there were issues in terms of the children’s hearing system, there was a totally delinquent model.”
In the past, Alexander says, any concern about a child, however minor, would lead to a referral to the Children’s Reporter, so they were inundated and took weeks to request and read reports from a variety of agencies before taking a decision on whether or not action was required. “The children who actually needed compulsory measures were somewhere in that morass,” he says.
Post-GIRFEC, the number of referrals to the reporter has gone down, as has the number of children ‘looked after’ at home, although the number being looked after outside the home – i.e. in foster or local authority care – has gone up slightly.
“The reduction in referrals has come about because we don’t communicate with each other through the reporter and people don’t scattergun their concerns around. They go straight to the appropriate person: if it’s a low-level intervention it will be the named person, if it’s a high-level intervention it will be a social worker – and it works,” Alexander says.
“What it means is that social workers have fewer cases, there are fewer meetings, the children’s hearing system is taking compulsory measures on fewer children and we are more confident the right children are in the system. How people can justify the chaos that went before, I don’t know.”
Of course, a cynic would say Alexander has a vested interest in trumpeting the benefits of the system, so I spent a day in Inverness talking to social workers, health visitors, teachers and parents’ organisations. Though none thought GIRFEC and named person were flawless, all agreed it was an improvement on what had gone before.
One senior social worker described how the policies had lightened her load. “I used to have two piles of cases on my desk: there would be the urgent ones, which I’d deal with, and the less urgent ones, which I would never get round to. Now the less urgent cases are being handled by other people, making them less likely to escalate, and we can concentrate on those that most require our attention.”
This is good news for social workers, but doesn’t it just shift the burden on to health visitors and teachers/head teachers? Unison and the EIS – both of whom support the policy in principle – have expressed concerns about resources, although Unison has been reassured by the Scottish Government’s pledge to recruit 500 new health visitors over four years.
There has been concern about the amount of time it takes to prepare a child’s plan. But, says Alexander, health visitors and teachers have always had to write reports and make referrals, albeit in a less systematic way.
Health visitors in the Highlands did struggle at first. The service was already under-resourced and some employees took early retirement in the face of the upheaval. Now new health visitors are being recruited, but the shift means the service is operating with a novice workforce.
“The named person has not changed the way we work with [the majority of] families because the health visitor has always been the main point of contact,” says Toni Barker, Practice Lead, Early Years, with Inverness West Family team.
“However, GIRFEC brings new responsibilities. Health visitors now take on the role of ‘lead professional’ where appropriate and that’s been a challenge. We have had to learn new skills such as writing the child’s plan and chairing children’s planning meetings. And we have to balance the universal service – the support we give to all new mothers – with our new GIRFEC responsibilities.”
Still, Barker believes the approach has been beneficial, particularly for parents and children with special needs.
“People phone us and say: ‘We are stuck. We have these concerns’. We know who to speak to and families tell us that’s very helpful. I think, in the past, we would have signposted them and then left them there rather than following through. We wouldn’t have seen it as our role to take things further.”
Barker says the named person provision has also helped health visitors understand that – where there are child protection concerns – they should be focusing on the needs of the child. “It’s very easy to get drawn into the parents’ problems whether it is depression, addiction, or whatever, but we are there for the child – to look at their health and wellbeing.”
At St Joseph’s Primary School, which has 166 pupils, head teacher Christine Cameron says the policy has helped her do her job more effectively.
“Being the named person has made things easier. Before, I would want to point someone in the right direction, but maybe the support wasn’t so readily available.
“Also, I think we have got better at contingency. Before, I would have been looking for someone to come in from outside. I would think: ‘This is the person that has the magic bullet.’ Now, quite often, the work will be done within school.”
Cameron says one of the most positive developments has been the fact the police now tell her straight away if they have been called to a pupil’s home to deal with a domestic incident, allowing her to offer support or just cut them a bit of slack.
Children in the Highlands Information Point (CHIP+), an organisation which helps parents of children with additional support needs, was asked to sign a petition against the named person but refused.
“It’s quite odd listening to the arguments elsewhere in Scotland because it’s not our experience,” says chief officer Christian MacLean. “The policy is so embedded here, the only complaints we get is when it isn’t working, so we might hear someone say: ‘Our named person hasn’t done what they’re supposed to do’, but we haven’t had anyone suggest they’ve been interfering or intrusive.”
Of course, just because it is effective in the Highlands, doesn’t necessarily mean it is working everywhere. The Care Inspectorate’s inspection of services for children and young people in South Lanarkshire, published last February, reported that health and education staff “did not feel they were facilitated or sufficiently equipped to be able to respond confidently to lower level concerns within a staged intervention framework”.
However, it does appear to be working in South Ayrshire. Asked why her party opposed a policy which had been adopted by a Tory-led local authority, the Scottish Conservative young people spokesperson, Liz Smith, said there were aspects of GIRFEC that were positive.
“The question most parents have is: ‘What evidence is there that the named person itself has been delivering benefits?’” she says. “What’s made parents feel so strongly about it is the implication -– and maybe this is the Scottish Government’s fault for not selling it better – that parents can’t be trusted to do their job.”
The SNP has struggled to adequately communicate the policy; some would argue politicians and the NO2NP campaign have been able to exploit this failure to whip up unfounded fears.
One example of miscommunication has been the party’s claim that parents can opt out of the policy, which has served only to confuse. It is true no one can be forced to access their child’s named person, nor to act on their advice, but failing to engage with a welfare concern could, in certain circumstances, raise the perception of risk.
The party has also failed to adequately reassure the public over the issue of data protection. Will trivial information be recorded, stored and passed round willy-nilly? In particular, will GPs be obliged to pass on confidential information – such as a teenage girl asking to go on the pill – without telling parents, as Aidan O’Neill QC suggested to the Supreme Court?
The answer appears to be that information-sharing will take place in much the same way as before, with decisions about how much ought to be passed on taken on a case-by-case basis in keeping with existing UK and EU data protection laws.
“It’s about the right information going to the right person in a proportionate way,” says Bernadette Cairns, head of additional support services at Highland Council. The problem is it’s difficult to codify such nuanced assessments in the statutory guidance.
Perhaps, in retrospect, the Scottish Government’s mistake was to include the named person provision in the Children and Young People’s (Scotland) Act, but it wanted to put the policy on a legal footing and force local authorities to comply. Last year, Court of Session judges dismissed campaigners’ fears over the erosion of parents’ rights and data protection as “hyperbole”. What the Supreme Court makes of it remains to be seen.
Alexander believes the named person provision is neither a panacea to protect all children nor an Orwellian plot; rather, it is a well-intentioned attempt to cut out bureaucracy and promote good practice.
Nevertheless, it is destined to be the first big test of the new Holyrood administration. Given all the emotive rhetoric, will the SNP be able to turn public opinion back in its favour? Or will the work done in the Highlands and elsewhere turn out to have been a waste of time and energy?