Scottish government scraps named person scheme - what next?
|Education Secretary John Swinney|
(Photo: Sunday Post)
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.