Grotesque intrusion into family life was doomed

By Graham Grant

THE greatest mystery of the Named Person saga is how such a blatantly Stalinist scheme was ever allowed to get out of the starting-blocks.

After all, it proposed nothing less than mass state surveillance of all under-18s – and amounted to a gross intrusion into the sanctity of family life.

The likeliest explanation is a kind of ‘mission creep’: ministers and their officials were seduced by New Age rhetoric about child ‘well-being’ that slowly morphed into an Orwellian nightmare.

Children would be assigned a Named Person, a point of contact to monitor their development, and ensure that key yardsticks were met.

If these ‘well-being indicators’, such as the child’s emotional health, were deemed to be lacking, intervention from the Named Person was threatened.

These state guardians would be allocated even to foetuses, in perhaps the most terrifying example of the planned scope of the project.

One senior civil servant warned that parents who do not show enough ‘love, hope and spirituality’ to their children should be targeted by Named Persons.

An official handbook revealed the guardians would be expected to grill families on topics such as money worries, sun cream – and TV-watching habits.

Other guidance stipulated children must be consulted about the choice of wallpaper in their bedrooms.

Training for prospective Named Persons included a working knowledge of the 221 ‘risk indicators’ and the 308-item list of ‘well-being indicators’.

These contained questions about whether or not a child ‘smiles a lot’.

Teachers were to be ordered to tell the Named Person if a pupil confides in them about having an abortion, rather than passing the information to the parents.

In a series of workshops, children as young as five were encouraged to think of themselves as ‘plants’, with the Named Person as ‘head gardeners’, in an echo of the kind of brain-washing found in totalitarianstates.

Named Persons, in their pursuit of compliance with ‘well-being indicators’, would be able to request access to confidential and sensitive medical records.

More than 600 taxi drivers in the Borders who take young people to school were instructed to pass on information about their welfare.

Senior teachers – while trying to tackle a literacy and numeracy crisis in crowded classrooms – were left in no doubt their role would change.

As much of ‘civic Scotland’ turned on the scheme – with critics including the Faculty of Advocates, the Law Society and indeed Police Scotland – ministers had their fingers firmly in their ears.

In reality, the fate of Named Person should have been sealed in 2016, when five judges at the Supreme Court in London blocked the initiative in a devastating judgment, backing campaigners who had raised £300,000to fight a lengthy legal battle.

Pivotal parts of the initiative, allowing information about children to be shared between public bodies without parental consent, were ruled ‘defective’, as they fell foul of European human rights law.

The ruling memorably warned that the ‘first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is get at the children’ – and ‘within limits, families must be left to bring up their children in their own way’.

Minutes after the judgment was published, John Swinney’s officials had issued a press release headlined: ‘Swinney commits to roll out service as legal bid to scrap NP [Named Person] scheme fails.’

It still ranks as one of the starkest examples of SNP doublethink, which also saw Nicola Sturgeon berating individual journalists on social media for characterising the decision as a defeat for the ScottishGovernment.

Rather like Monty Python’s Black Knight, who insists the heavy sword blows lopping off his limbs are ‘but a flesh wound’, the SNP continued to insist there was no major flaw, and the problem detected by thejudges was superficial, and easily fixed.

This was wishful thinking on a grand scale, and ministers were to stay trapped in a state of denial for the next three years.

In one of the shabbiest episodes in Holyrood history, Mr Swinney denied that a little boy in Fife who was neglected and murdered by his lesbian carers had been subject to an early version of Named Person.

Mr Swinney and other Nationalist MSPs, in a display of righteous indignation, tried to deny that Liam Fee ever had a Named Person.

But this claim was quickly rubbished by official documents showing that the so-called success of the Fife pilot was repeatedly hailed as proof that the initiative should be extended nationwide.

The mortal blow for what had become the ultimate zombie policy came last month, after minutes emerged of a meeting of Mr Swinney’s advisers, in which they discussed how to salvage Named Person.

They concluded that the proposed rescue plan – devising a statutory code of practice on information-sharing – was unworkable.

It then took a further month for Mr Swinney to accept the inevitable and consign Named Person to the dustbin of political history.

In the end, its demise was entirely in keeping with its troubled evolution.

An ill-conceived enterprise that was hated from its inception was chaotically managed by a government blinded to its myriad faults.

So it was no real surprise that – when the axe finally fell – ministers appeared to make a complete mess of sending it into rightful oblivion.

News that it was finally to be put out of its misery was leaked to a friendly newspaper on social media, in a bid to ensure the ensuing row at Holyrood focused on why MSPs weren’t told first.

But it’s fitting that parliamentarians – who, let’s not forget, approved this basket-case of an idea – should have missed the point in such spectacular style.

In time-honoured fashion, the leak was a deflection strategy to play down the extent of the humiliation the SNP now faces, in jettisoning a formerly flagship initiative.

A government that was wedded to a disaster-prone plan it knew was failing, and indeed was unlawful, refused to contemplate scrapping it because it feared the resulting furore would prove highly damaging for an administration with a long track record of legislative blunders.

What remains unknown, for now, is how many vulnerable children were failed by the state while the Named Person farce unfolded.

But what is certain is that the row has irrevocably shattered the faith of parents in hubristic politicians who never understood their legitimate concerns – or never cared about them in the first place.

*This commentary appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 20, 2019.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper