It’s time to put SNP’s zombie plan out of its misery for good
By Graham Grant
IN the late Sixties, a low-budget horror film branded ‘gruesomely terrifying’ by one critic was unleashed on unsuspecting cinema-goers.
Set in western Pennsylvania, it followed a group of young people trying to fend off waves of killer zombies while holed up in a rural farmhouse.
Night of the Living Dead, directed by George A Romero, is now a cult classic, and sparked a series of follow-ups – predictably of greatly varying quality.
It’s unlikely that John Swinney is a devotee of the franchise, and yet he might well reflect that one of his formerly flagship policies has attained zombie status.
In fact, Named Person has been staggering on lifelessly, just like one of Romero’s reanimated corpses, since Britain’s highest court ruled the scheme was largely illegal, back in 2016.
You might dimly recall that at the time the Nationalists attempted to present this humiliating defeat as a minor setback, and Mr Swinney refused to accept the game was up.
Named Person was, and technically remains, a ‘gruesomely terrifying’ example of officialdom’s relentless desire to extend the limits of its power ever-further into family life.
It effectively proposed mass surveillance of children up to the age of 18, assigning to each of them a state-sanctioned mentor to monitor their development and ‘wellbeing’.
Three years ago, five top judges at the Supreme Court in London blocked the initiative in a devastating judgment, backing campaigners who had raised £300,000 to fight a lengthy legal battle.
Key parts of the scheme 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 didn’t mince words, and 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’.
Mr Swinney, who inherited the policy when he moved to the education brief from finance, had become something of an evangelist for it, or at least publicly appeared to speak up for it with genuine passion.
Undeterred, he set up an independent panel in November 2017 after the Holyrood education committee called for an ‘authoritative’ code of practice on information-sharing.
But in minutes published last week, relating to a meeting of the panel in March this year, members found ‘a statutory code of practice that must be applied in all situations is not the right thing to do at this time’.
It was noted that the panel chairman ‘wants to ensure the report is clear that although a code of practice could be produced to support the legislation, it would not be desirable as the complexity of this would mean it would not be easy to understand or apply in practice’.
This isn’t so much a setback as a hammer-blow, as it demonstrates that the committee – after a long period of reflection – has disavowed its own mission, rubbishing the task it was given as, basically, a no-go.
Mr Swinney had been keen on launching a ‘positive’ awareness-raising exercise – a euphemism for ‘propaganda’ – to try and rectify the damage that had been done, and more public funds were directed towards keeping it alive.
There was even a barmy plan to rope JK Rowling into being a cheerleader for the idea, though ultimately she wasn’t approached, in a bid to ‘countermine [sic] the likes of Alexander McCall Smith’ and other unnamed ‘Z-listers’.
McCall Smith’s crime was to speak out against the policy in the context of a newspaper serialisation of one of his books.
Now the committee reporting to Mr Swinney has told him unequivocally that the escape hatch for Named Person, allowing its continued survival, should be sealed off.
Like Colonel Kurtz in the Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now – about a rogue soldier who turns against his masters – the committee members were handed a specific task, and then veered dramatically off-script.
How many more nails this particular coffin can withstand is anyone’s guess, and yet for now ministers insist they are ‘currently considering the advice and recommendations of the expert panel’.
They apparently remain ‘committed to promoting good information-sharing practice in the best interests of Scotland’s children and families’; but how much longer will this take, and how much more will it cost?
In some schools, the terminology of Named Person persists, despite the Supreme Court judgment, but these are merely ‘identified points of contact’, and there’s nothing unlawful about it, or so we’re told.
We are entitled to be more than a little sceptical about these assertions after the incredible spin that has characterised the government’s presentation of Named Person since its inception.
It’s worth remembering why Named Person remains quite so contentious, given that the policy has been in temporary cold storage since its savaging by the five judges.
The idea was born amid a welter of New Age rhetoric, with one senior civil servant warning that parents who do not show enough ‘love, hope and spirituality’ to their children should be targeted by the state guardians – a network of teachers and health visitors.
Named Persons, in their pursuit of compliance with ‘wellbeing indicators’, were to have been able to request access to confidential and sensitive medical records, while – chillingly – children would have been allocated their very own snooper while still in the womb.
More than 600 taxi drivers in the Borders who take young people to school were instructed to pass on information about their welfare, while senior teachers – struggling to cope with large class sizes and acute staff shortages – were left in no doubt their role would change, and that they would take on a social work function.
Some of the most invidious weasel words ever deployed by the SNP (and it is a crowded field) came in the wake of the case of Liam Fee, the Fife two-year-old murdered by his mother and her partner.
Liam had a Named Person under an early version of the scheme, but a series of tell-tale signs of horrific abuse and neglect he had suffered were missed by health visitors, social workers and medics.
After Liam’s mother Rachel Trelfa and her civil partner Nyomi Fee were jailed for the toddler’s neglect and murder, Mr Swinney and other Nationalist MSPs tried to deny that Liam ever had a Named Person in the first place.
But this claim was quickly rubbished by official documents showing that the so-called success of the Fife pilot scheme was repeatedly hailed as proof that the initiative should be extended nationwide.
Somehow we are now meant to be reassured that whatever plot Mr Swinney is cooking up to save Named Person – one that has now come off the rails in spectacular style – would be enough to iron out all of the major flaws.
Pride prevents the SNP from admitting what we have all known for years, but with his own advisers telling him it’s a hopeless case, isn’t it about time Mr Swinney put this zombie policy out of its misery?
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on August 20, 2019.