Named persons controversy: How good intentions paved the way to a snooper state

A court halted the Scottish Government's plans in their tracks. 

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Andrew Smith is an academic at a respected Scottish university, and a dad. One of his sons, aged two years, took to sucking his thumb so much he developed a blister.  It was the kind of behaviour a family might laugh about in years to come. 

Except that someone was writing it all down.

Smith (not his real name) discovered that an official had compiled a 60-page document on his son, based on his interaction with health officials and other government representatives. One note read: “[Mr Smith] feels it is impossible to stop his youngest son from sucking his thumb as he needs it for comfort. Did not appear to take advice on board fully.”

Smith had encountered a trial of the Scottish Government’s controversial named persons scheme, which assigns every Scottish child a specific official designed to monitor their wellbeing. He told The Scotsman he felt “shocked and vulnerable” at this “constant surveillance of small things that are part of everyday parenting”. 

The law, it seems, agrees. On Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down the scheme in its present for. The judgement noted: 

Different upbringings produce different people. The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get at the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families, and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ view of the world. Within limits, families must be left to bring up their children in their own way. 

Opponents of ruling Scottish National Party often grumble about a “one-party state”. For once, are their suspicions justified?

A Highlands experiment

The Scottish Nationalists may be the face of the named persons scheme, but the idea can actually be traced back to an experiment in the remote Highlands, circa 2007, when Scotland was ruled by a Lib-Lab Coalition. 

“They had a number of different tests of what would make things better for children,” said Nicky MacCrimmon, a Perthshire community worker who knows the scheme well. “One thing was a single point of contact for families for any concerns about a child.”

After a trial period, the scheme was rolled out over the following years in Scottish cities like Dundee and Edinburgh. 

But policymakers did not just have convenience for parents in mind.

Like the rest of the UK, Scotland has been rocked by child abuse scandals. “If you look at where there has been tragedies with children in the past, the main thing that seems to come out of it is Agency A knows something but Agency B doesn’t,” said MacCrimmon.

But as the Scottish Government attempted to draw up a national version of the policy, opposition began to mount. And the cross-party support the idea had once enjoyed melted away. 

The road to paranoia

NO2NP was set up by a coalition of Christian groups, libertarians and parents’ bodies. As well as the story of Andrew Smith, the campaign gives voice to the concerns of parents fearing state intrusion, and a sociologist who warns this could lead to a “paranoid society”. 

The Scottish Government, in NO2NP's words, is an intrusive, aggressively secular state, determined to steamroll parenting into a PC uniformity. In particular, it points to a 2014 government leaflet on monitoring a child’s well-being. As well as ensuring a child has a “safe place to live” and “your child eats healthy food”, the leaflet tells parents they should make sure “your child gets a say in things like how their room is decorated and what to watch on TV”. 

It argues the named persons scheme “permits the state unlimited access to pry into the privacy of families in their homes”.

In 2015, NO2NP took the Scottish Government to court, arguing that the policy breached data protection and human rights laws. The campaigners lost. But they decided to appeal.

And so, one month before it was supposed to be rolled out, the Supreme Court froze the named person scheme in its tracks. 

The judges said the aim was “unquestionably legitimate and benign”, but that "the sharing of personal data between relevant public authorities is central to the role of the named person" and, as the legislation stands, this is “incompatible with the rights of children, young persons and parents” under the European Court of Human Rights.

Pressing on with Big Brother

NO2NP greeted the result with jubilation. Spokesman Simon Calvert declared: “The Big Brother scheme is history.”

“The court has taken sides with ordinary families and put the Scottish Government back in its place.”

The Scottish Government itself struck a defiant note. Deputy first minister John Swinney told The Courier: “The attempt to scrap the named person service has failed.”

Yet despite this bravado, the ruling effectively postpones a scheme due to be rolled out in August indefinitely. The Scottish Government must come up with a redraft that avoids the kind of data sharing condemned by the court, that is so central to the point of the scheme.

The biggest winner may be Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives (pictured), who is fast emerging as the most distinct opposition in Scotland. She backed the campaign against the legislation, even warning it could lead to more incidences of child abuse because of the pressure on resources.  

After the ruling, Davidson declared the Tories had consistently opposed the scheme, and added: “If the Scottish Government arrogantly tries to implement this anyway – as it has threatened to do – it will face a heavy reckoning from Scottish parents.”

Once again, Davidson has been able to expand on a Scottish brand of conservatism - libertarian, family-orientated and close to faith. A scheme designed to make life more convenient for parents could end up being most convenient of all for the opposition. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.