Social workers give voice to people at the margins – Scotland plans to take it away

All together now. Syda Productions

Who is best placed to help with a child’s welfare? That’s the question at the heart of one of the Scottish government’s most controversial plans, to give every child a “named person” to support them from birth to the age of 18.

Professionals like health visitors, teachers and youth workers already play this role in Scotland for children with specific needs, such as physical disabilities. They help the child and their parents access public services and offer them advice and support. They are the first point of contact for anyone with concerns about the child’s welfare, and can access confidential information like medical records if they think the child’s welfare is at risk.

The Scottish government’s plan to extend this to all children is part of a package of legislation called Getting It Right For Every Child. It aims to make Scotland “the best place in the world for children to grow up”. England, Wales and Northern Ireland have passed similar legislation aimed at supporting children, but having a named person for everyone is a purely Scottish invention.

A coalition of pressure groups branded NO2NP argue the plan intrudes too much on family privacy and will waste resources. In July they won a legal challenge against the plan at the Supreme Court in London on the grounds it breached the European Convention on Human Rights and exceeded Scotland’s devolved powers.

They hoped the Scottish government would scrap the plan but instead it is redrafting the legislation. A battle is brewing in Holyrood when the redraft emerges in the coming weeks: the Conservatives are bitterly opposed while Labour wants the policy restricted to under 16s. Since the ruling SNP don’t have a majority, things could get interesting.

As a former social worker, I also oppose the plan but for different reasons. My concern is children with difficult family backgrounds. Part of the proposal is that social workers will lose their current role in helping these children before they get too deep into social services or the criminal justice system.

Instead it will go to the named person – a professional already with plenty on their plate and no experience in handling such problems. At a time when social work in Scotland is being seriously curtailed, this looks like another step in the wrong direction.

‘Named person’ opponents outside Supreme Court ahead of judgment. Lauren Hurley/PA

Talk time

To explore these issues, we held a public debate at Glasgow Caledonian University in partnership with the London-based Institute of Ideas. Opposing the legislation were Stuart Waiton, a sociologist and criminologist from Abertay University, in Scotland, and Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP. Waiton argued that the proposal reflected a belief that family life shouldn’t fall under the purview of the state. He said this removed a family’s ability to handle problems in its own way.

Martin Crewe, director of the children’s charity Barnardo’s Scotland, countered that named person was a natural extension of current practice and should not be seen as an encroachment into family life. He argued it merely offered families a professional who would act as a direct point of contact and guide them through the often confusing and complex world of health, education and social work.

Crewe was supported by Mary Glasgow from charity Children 1st and Jane McCallum, a health visitor for Greater Glasgow Health Board, who said that in her role as a named person, she had supported families with all kinds of challenges. These included accessing speech and language therapy for a child and securing a boiler repair for a grandmother looking after her grandchildren.

While I agreed with the supporters of the legislation that the state needs some involvement in family life, I raised two major concerns. First, the proposed legislation would enable the named person to intervene in family life in the name of “well-being” – as opposed to social workers’ existing test of “risk of significant harm or injury”.

“Well-being” is woollier and looks like a state-imposed framework for parenting. Here I agree with the legislation’s opponents. The powers of named persons to intervene should require a test of something more like “significant risk” to the child. Otherwise, they should always need parents’ consent.

Who best to prevent the downward spiral? ChameleonsEye

Then we come to the effect of the proposals on social workers. If a nursery on a housing estate is worried about a child not turning up, they currently call a social worker. If a child is excluded from school and gets referred to a children’s hearing for assessment, a social work investigates. Social workers have the time and expertise to look into the situation and make recommendations that can stop a problem from spiralling out of control.

Now this preventative role will go to the named person. But this teacher or health visitor will probably have neither the time nor expertise to play the same role: more likely they will instigate a formal process. The nursery child will end up in care; the excluded pupil will stay excluded. Those on the margins will no longer have someone speaking up for them, and society will potentially be damaged in the process.

Social workers will only work on harder, more challenging cases like child protection and persistent offenders. Making a difference in this area is almost impossible, so it removes one of the main attractions of the job.

There’s a chance with named person to create something that supports all Scottish children but particularly those most in need. It could become a template for the rest of the UK and further afield. But first the Scottish government needs to listen to concerns about state intervention and where it is taking social work. Get this wrong and it could create a real mess further down the line.

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