Scottish Parliament passed the wide-ranging Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill earlier this year. The bill passed with a massive majority; out of 129 MSPs, 103 voted for the bill and 15 abstained. Despite such parliamentary approval, the bill has continued to court controversy.
The majority of the bill’s reforms are uncontroversial and were largely welcomed. One of the most notable changes was to extend free childcare provision from 475 to 600 hours from this August. The only criticism this faced was from Labour and Lib Dem MSPs who claimed it should have been brought in sooner. Many more will welcome two other major extensions giving free school meals to all children in the first three years of primary school and granting teenagers a few extra years in residential, foster, or kinship care.
The criticism has arisen largely out of two elements: the meagre financial support for kinship carers and plans to assign a state guardian to every child in Scotland.
Spearheaded by the Scottish Kinship Care Alliance, kinship carers (that is, those who care for relatives who aren’t their own children) from across Scotland loudly demonstrated against the passing of the bill outside Holyrood on the 19th February 2014 and will stage further protests this coming June 20th. They maintain that the bill does not go far enough in giving them the help they need and fails to recognise the importance of kinship care, which, they claim saves the Scottish government £600m every year.
Under the new legislation, a ‘named person’, likely a NHS health-worker, will monitor a young person’s well-being until the age of five, with teachers and councillors taking over responsibility until the young person reaches the age of 18.The introduction of so-called ‘state guardians’ has elicited an outraged reactions from a number of – mostly Christian – religious organisations, including the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church. They worry that this state-interference will supersede the authority of the parents. Some online commentators have gone so far as to call the legislation totalitarian.
These religious organisations have been bolstered with support from Scottish Tories, the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates, as well as a number of prominent human rights lawyers. Scottish Tory Liz Smith, whose rejected amendments to the bill would have limited the scope of the state guardians, said: “This will tip the balance of family responsibility away from parents towards the state – something which most parents find completely unacceptable.’
Aside from the moral considerations, some have questioned the logistics. A spokesman for the Free Church of Scotland doubted the government’s ability ‘to apply the plans universally’. The Royal College of Nursing, meanwhile, pointed out that if all under-fives are to receive an allocated ‘named person’, this would require an estimated 450 extra health visitors.
Although the bill is not to come into effect until August 2016, it seems that some are jumping the gun. The NHS has already used the bill to justify sharing data on children with schools and some paediatricians have issued letters informing parents that their child now has a ‘named person’.
The Christian Institute has now issued a legal challenge to the bill and intends to ‘drag’ the Scottish government through the courts, arguing that the legislation contravenes the European Convention of Human Rights. They have drummed up £30,000 to support their cause and have recruited Aidan O’Neill, a senior human rights lawyers, as well as a number of tops QCs. The charity’s director, Colin Hart, called the bill: ‘Big Brother politics writ large,’ saying, ‘ordinary Scots should be very afraid’.
In response to mounting controversy, Children’s Minister Aileen Campbell claimed that the named person scheme would ‘provide a safety net for those who need one’. The idea is that having a single point of contact will make sure ‘parents don’t have to repeat the same old stories to different services’. It will make childcare more efficient, and it will be easier for people to ‘join the dots’, if a child is being serially abused or neglected. Ms Campbell assures concerned commentators that the bill has ‘the best interests of Scotland’s children at heart’.
We will follow any legal action with interest. In the meantime, the big test is how the general public will react when the reality of these ‘state guardians’ hits home.