Scottish government scraps named person scheme - what next?

Education Secretary John Swinney
(Photo: Sunday Post)
The controversial named person scheme, designed to ensure that every child in Scotland had a clear point of contact from birth until the age of 18, has sensationally been scrapped by the Scottish government.

Education Secretary John Swinney made the surprise announcement today, telling parliament that the "mandatory named persons scheme for every child, underpinned by law, will now not happen. We will withdraw our Bill and repeal the relevant legislation."

While the proposals have met with many difficulties, the surprise is not only that the government has climbed down - but that the climbdown is so complete. There will be no further attempts to revisit the legislation: it is being abandoned entirely.

In a classic example of the road to political embarrassment being paved with good intentions, part of the Scottish government's difficulty was a dismissive attitude towards the scheme's critics. Of course, it was always easy to characterise the Christian Institute, one of the lead backers of the No2NP campaign, as shrill and out of touch - they were (rightly) accused of peddling myths about the nature of the scheme. However, there were other - more sober-minded criticisms - that were simply either ignored or overlooked.

A little over three years ago, shortly after the Supreme Court had ruled the plans unlawful, Willie Rennie argued that "implementation of the ‘named person’ may now be over-reaching the spirit of the legislation, with those assigned as named persons undertaking roles and sharing information to a degree which goes beyond what the Act intended and for which they have not received the appropriate training." He also recommended "an independent review to consider the threshold for intervention, the power and duty of the named person, resources, training and the data-sharing arrangements. Without such a review the loss of public support and confidence will have wider consequences."

At the time I was unsure of the named person scheme. After all, the intentions behind it were so obviously and inherently good. Naturally, I am disinclined to support anything the Christian Institute champions and had little time for the No2NP "coalition". But while I could see the merit in the proposals, they never sat comfortably with me. The devil - as always - is in the detail rather than the intention, and it was the detail that was all wrong. The Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the Conservatives each made reasonable arguments against the scheme as it stood. Accusations that it amounted to a "snoopers' charter" were not adequately addressed. My own view was shaped largely by the considered objections of an LGBT youth organisation. The determination by Swinney, and others, to obstinately press on irrespective of these contributed to the overall mess that the attempted implementation became.

I don't think any of us can argue with the SNP's desire to see Scotland become "the best place in the world for children to grow up". I will certainly not gloat about the government's failures on the named person scheme, but make no mistake: the wasted time and money on something that should have been shelved and reconsidered at least three years ago represents a significant failure. 

Today Swinney, while admitting defeat, was eager to defend the government's objectives. Unfortunately politics is the art of the possible, and it was never going to be possible for this troubled illiberal legislation to work in the way intended, however "unquestioningly benign" its aims. That it has taken so long to recognise and accept this is deeply regrettable.  As Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said today, the unfortunate reality is that “the Scottish Government has wasted years of time and the goodwill of the people from the children’s sector involved in the policy. It lost the confidence of parents and frontline professionals. We all want to see mechanisms to help keep children safe but this SNP plan was impossible to implement.”

While there are questions for Swinney and the Scottish government to answer, our focus should instead be elsewhere. After the abandonment of the named person scheme, our attentions should not be on apportioning blame but on devising an alternative strategy. For five years the SNP-led government has told us that the named person proposals were the way forward; today, belatedly it has changed its mind. That is welcome but the problems surrounding child wellbeing remain and they must be addressed.

There will be inevitably be political ramifications to the government's admission of defeat, but there will also be social consequences and Scotland's young people deserve better than political squabbling. They deserve - and need - a workable alternative that delivers on the intentions of the named person scheme without making the same mistakes.

Now that the named person proposals have not only been shelved but shredded, what next? What is required is an evidence-based, cross-party approach that can manage to "get it right for every child" without resorting to ham-fisted, authoritarian solutions. Is there an appetite for such collaboration in Holyrood? Can John Swinney forge a parliamentary consensus on a new approach, without which any proposals will inevitably run into the same difficulties? Could Willie Rennie's previous suggestion of an independent review provide the way forward?

I honestly don't know, but I am far more concerned with how we move on that by arguing about how we got here. That's not to absolve the government of blame for its shambolic handling of the issue - far from it - but this failure is a timely reminder of the need to adopt the right legislation to effectively serve Scotland's young people and their families. 


East Neuker said…
Did any of the opposition parties, particularly the LD, ever propose any kind of coherent alternative strategies to address the issues that the named person policy was attempting to address? Willie Rennie's answer to everything is to have a "review". He is my constituency MSP, andI find him deeply unimpressive.

I agree that the Scottish government has failed to carry through policy in a much needed area, but cannot see what others have had to offer beyond criticism and political point scoring, at which Alex Cole-Hamilton spends most of his time, often risibly, on this issue and most others.
Frankly, no one else wanted to burn their hands on this hot potato.

You say your position was formed by discussion with LGBT young people, which is good, but does this position go beyond criticism and offer an alternative approach to coherent child protection?

I look forward to discussion of this issue.
Andrew said…
The opposition parties made clear their objections, for different reasons than the toxic No2NP campaign. They made clear why the scheme, as then designed, was unworkable. They have been proven correct. My first point is that they were as right three years ago as they are now, and that the stubborn refusal to rethink the "named person" at the time was misguided.

It was and is right to point out that something is doomed to failure, even when all are agreed on the fundamental intention. But it is of course for governments to propose such plans and win support for them.

I am not an expert in this field, and it would be absurd if someone with as little professional interest in this issue as myself were able to put forward in a few minutes a detailed, coherent and cogent proposal that would form the basis of an alternative to what the government has pursued for five years. As I stated in the post, what I hope will happen next is for all involved - and all with a serious interest in the pertinent issue of child protection - find a way of listening to each other and working collaboratively. I know the LGBT youth group I refer to felt rather powerless in their opposition, and one cannot accuse them of political cynicism. We all deserve better than the obstinacy and what has passed for political discussion on this in the last few years.

We need to not only "touch this hot potato" but embrace the opportunity to find innovative solutions that actually work. I don't know quite what form that solution might take, but I know it can only be discovered through collaborative approaches - not only cross-party but in conjunction with relevant agencies and professional bodies. We can learn from failure, and I hope we will do. What I am absolutely convinced of is that authoritarian, centralising approaches will not work and will only create further problems.

I was astonished by the government's climbdown, not least because its persistent unwillingness to concede defeat resulted in three further years of inertia - but the more I think about it, the more I believe it represents a real chance to go back to square one and get the process right.

As for Willie Rennie, I'm not always in agreement but if there is one issue on which a review might find an overdue way forward it's this. We've had five years in which no progress has been made, with the various parties agreed on the broader objectives but split on the key detail.