The SNP’s named person initiative: storm in a teacup?

CUTS: the real issue is one of resources – government cuts in funding, stemming from Westminster austerity policy but passed on by the SNP in Scotland, have placed enormous pressures on services

by Colin Turbett, author of ‘Doing Radical Social Work’ • If we are going to judge the SNP’s performance in government in Scotland let’s do so on issues that really affect working people and not on peripheral areas of bureaucracy that are of importance to only a few.

The controversy over the government’s proposals to consolidate existing practice in relation to responsibility for the welfare of children is an example of a far right libertarian and Christian bandwagon being jumped on by many who should know better—including some on the left.

As a social worker in the front line of child protection practice for almost forty years I saw at first-hand what forces really impact on the lives of vulnerable children—poverty, inequality, unemployment and marginalisation for starters.

As local government functionaries with responsibility for ensuring that abused and neglected children got the help and support they needed, we were constantly frustrated by the tendency of large sections of society to hold us responsible for issues way beyond our remit and capacity—vilifying and punishing us if things went wrong.

At the same time we were regarded as a threat to recalcitrant families and a last resort—with little faith that we actually did anything useful. Workers who entered the profession after years of gaining experience, training and sacrifice, would hesitate before telling people they met socially what they did for a living.

One of the poorly scripted aspects of the current debate is the willingness of some progressive left voices to join with the Christian far right in characterising social workers as interfering, child snatching and heartless—with calls for dumping any model that might bring more children into the radar of Social Services because of the damage that might ensue.

That is not the way I and colleagues saw it: I could tell many stories of children who passed into adulthood with no one realising how damaged and awful their lives at home were—attention often only going to children who transgress society’s rules about school attendance and behaviour.

If you go to school, sit at the back of the class, hand in your homework and say little, the chances are you will be left alone to get on with it and no one will particularly care about anything else.

In contrast The Named Person (NP) proposals are an attempt to ensure that those who encounter most children—health and education professionals—take responsibility for ensuring that children’s basic needs are being met and if they are not, for doing something about it.

That is happening already in many localities and the legislation is designed to spread such practice. Most children will require little attention but those who do will hopefully get the help and support they need. In a sense it is mischievous to either praise or condemn the SNP for NP—it was something coming anyway and it is likely that any government would have enacted similar legislation in Scotland.

Alarmists on the political right and left have suggested that NP will increase the numbers of children being removed from their families and placed in local authority care. That is quite insulting to those whose task is to support the most vulnerable children and not too far from the tabloid press characterisation of social workers.

During my years in social work, what I generally experienced was workers who went far beyond the procedural and bureaucratic demands of their employers to ensure that children were happy and their vulnerable parents supported and not punished. That was never easy and involved careful use of available discretion and advocacy for resources in a shrinking financial environment—especially with austerity.

The best teams who developed this type of culture were those who took a broad perspective on the world and refused to blame the victims of societal inequality and injustice. Inevitably these were groups of workers who were well unionised and willing to support others in struggle i.e. those influenced by activists from the socialist left—the SSP.

The real issue is one of resources—government cuts in funding, stemming from Westminster austerity policy but passed on by the SNP in Scotland, have placed enormous pressures on services.

In Edinburgh for instance this has had very drastic consequences for the organisation and delivery of child protection.

Sadly, capitalist society is so sick by nature that it will continue to throw up victims, some of whom will require robust state interventions into their ‘private’ family lives. The NP ‘controversy’ is a complete distraction from the story about services for children and families that we should be talking about.

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