Why we must get it right for every child in Scotland

Does the Scottish Government's proposed Children and Young People Bill represent an "unacceptable intrusion on liberty" that "could actually harm the state's ability to track genuinely at risk children", as Mel Kelly argued on OurKingdom last week? Barnardo’s Scotland argues that the proposals in fact represent a progressive model of universal services and early intervention.

Mark Ballard
6 February 2014

Upholding the rights of children is central to everything Barnardo’s Scotland does, including  protecting a child’s right to privacy, so we take any threat to this right very seriously. Yet protecting the rights of children is the very reason we spent so long working to promote, in the Scottish Parliament, the very proposal that Mel Kelly sees as so dangerous. We feel this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of universal state services, and what preventative work means in practice.

So what is the Scottish Government planning? The Scottish Government’s proposals for a new legal framework for children's services in Scotland, which aims to 'get it right for every child', has three main elements. At the moment a wide range of different public bodies work with children and young people in Scotland, including education, health, social work and the police. Too often these services are not properly co-ordinated and designed principally to respond to crisis, rather than support children and families at an early stage. The bill proposals would require all public bodies to work together to produce a local joint Children's Services Plan, with a focus on improving children's wellbeing and preventative work. These different bodies, when they are working in a focused way with individual children, often each have their own plan and records for that child. The bill will require all these plans to be brought together into a single child's plan. Finally a staff member in a universal service that is already working with a child will become a single point of contact, both for the child and their parents, and for other public bodies. For children under five this will normally be the child's health visitor, and for children of school age a teacher. This role will be called the 'named person'.

The named person will already have a relationship with the child. It is not a new person in a child’s life, but merely a stronger role for an existing member of staff. A single point of contact like this is something that families we have worked with have often asked for. Should the child have needs beyond those that are provided by universals services, then this will be dealt with in the child plan mentioned above.

Mel sets out two main pillars for her case against these proposals, and in particular the named person. Firstly she argues that "no state government is fit to be the over-riding guardian of every child in any country" and secondly that while "when children are identified as at risk and social work departments are involved it is vital there is a “named person”, but that checking on all our children's wellbeing will lead to a system that is "overzealous and overburdened by tracking every child in Scotland – whether they are at risk or not".

However, children are not born with an ‘at risk’ label on their forehead. If it was this easy to spot the children who were in danger social work would be a much easier job. The reality is children do not come simply divided into those that can be identified as at risk and those we need not worry about. In many ways, the child at most risk is the one who has not yet been identified as being at risk. All the risk signals may be there, but no-one has put all the pieces of the jigsaw together. Making a member of staff of a universal service that is already in contact with the child responsible for collating information is a key part of the early warning system we need to make sure every child in Scotland is protected. If we want a universal child protection system, if we want to intervene as early as possible when things start to go wrong and support parents and children when issues first appear then this is the system we need.

This brings us to Mel's substantial point. Is it the role of government to take responsibility for the wellbeing of every child? It is clear that when something goes wrong in the life of a child that people do actually expect this to be the case. Whether it is the high-profile death, or the lower profile cases of abuse and neglect - each tragic in their own way - the public, legitimately, ask "why didn't somebody do something". Making a child's health visitor or teacher the single point of contact will mean every child has a ‘somebody’. It will make it explicit that for children - people who by definition do not have the capacity to be fully responsible for their own welfare - the state must ultimately have a role. Of course, for most children and families this will not be relevant. For most children their parents will always be the people with responsibility for their lives. But if we want a universal system of child protection it must be there to protect every child.

As part of this we do need to see a bias towards sharing information about children with the named person. Ensuring that the named person is passed concerns by GPs, police or even members of the public will ensure that they have the information they need to properly assess the wellbeing of a child, and spot any early signs of trouble. Of course, all this needs to be done within the existing data protection rules and with information only passed on when it is in the best interests of the child. When this process has been tested, especially in the Highland Council area it has been found effective at filtering out concerns that are in fact unfounded at an early stage. So a member of the public may have a concern about a child which they pass on, but the named person knows this is already being dealt with by the GP, so there is no need for the police or social work to get involved.

Therefore, I believe the Scottish Government should be praised for trying to make universal services a reality for children in Scotland. Shifting spending to prevention rather than crisis management always sounds good in theory, but is notoriously difficult in practice. I hope that putting the whole of the 'getting it right for every child' framework into law will start to do that. If we want to see a Scotland that is truly the best place for every child to grow up then these are precisely the sort of changes we need.

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