Glasgow Baillieston NO2NP Roadshow – Alison Preuss, Scottish Home Ed Forum
I’m always getting told off by my Named Person Nigel for exceeding my time limit and I always promise at the beginning to stick to the rules, but I rarely manage it – sorry Nigel!
By way of introduction, my background is in home education and children’s rights, mainly in relation to privacy. I campaigned with colleagues against the ContactPoint database, which was part of the Every Child Matters agenda in England and later scrapped. Unfortunately the Scottish Government decided to copy its very worst bits and rebrand it as GIRFEC (Getting Information Recorded for Every Citizen), developing an even more intrusive scheme to impose a named person, with no opt-out, on every child, whose main role is to gather personal information from every possible source, often without our knowledge or consent.
As a minority group, home educators have a keen sense of impending threats as we tend to be at the sharp end of social policy initiatives that are invariably designed to get children into institutions as early as possible, rather than support family based care which is now treated with suspicion. Home educators were among the first to pick up on the govt’s databasing drive more than 15 years ago, which was rapidly demolishing every child’s right to privacy, and it’s how the children’s rights group ARCH came into being.
A blogger, Alice Through the Looking Glass, recently posted a speech given in London by a Swedish lawyer back in 1999 warning that his government had achieved its totalitarian power
“by using persons the ordinary citizen believes to be their friends. …To make the citizens obedient, the Swedish authorities use doctors, nurses, midwifes, teachers, pre-school teachers and child-care assistants to do their dirty work for them.”
Now Sweden was an enthusiastic supporter of early intervention, like Tony Blair who believed it could identify delinquents in the womb. Tony Benn famously disagreed, calling it “eugenics, the sort of thing Hitler talked about”, but here we are in Scotland careering down the same misguided road. You may also have seen Norway in the news last week for its draconian policy of removing children from families for trivial reasons because their parents hadn’t got it right according to the state’s strict guidelines.
Looking at the Scottish Govt’s risk framework, indicators and outcomes, how many of us would pass the parenting capacity tests set by middle class meddlers from Milngavie who reckon they know what’s best for the bairns of Baillieston?
It was a request by a local grandparent that led to this meeting so that the local community could hear more about the named person scheme and the information gathering that lies behind it. I for one am glad she called the NO2NP team as far too many families are still unaware of the existence of the scheme, never mind how it’s going to affect them once it is fully implemented in August. It’s best to be prepared for what is about to hit you as a parent, grandparent or anyone at all who is associated with a child because your personal information will be all up for grabs and may be used in evidence against you as soon as you disagree with a professional on what is right for your child..
I should say that some of the most amazing parents I know are from the east end of Glasgow, including a few in this audience who belong to the home education networks that inform and support families across Scotland. As if the anti home education prejudice isn’t bad enough, they have had to deal with postcode prejudice on top of that because the east end is an area of multiple deprivation according to the stats.
One mum in the audience is a veteran, like me, whose ‘child’ is now grown up. Many years ago, as a single parent, she was threatened with social work and even jail for daring to decide home education was in the best interests of her daughter who had special needs and had been relentlessly bullied in school. Battle royal ensued, which they eventually won with support from the home ed community, something they have repaid many times over by helping others in similar situations. What would a NP have done, considering he or she would have been the head teacher of the school that failed to investigate the parent’s complaints? I think we can guess.
Another parent I know from the east end has more recently had to do battle with an army of professionals, including several named persons for different aged children. The family was referred to the Children’s Reporter for deciding to withdraw the older boys from school where they were not thriving and for declining advice from a health visitor they found rude and overbearing. That family also came out on top, eventually, but dealing with social workers is a frightening experience when you have done nothing wrong and are just the victim of someone else’s prejudiced opinions of your parenting choices, based on your postcode and perceived socio-economic status.
You will probably all know that your former MSP John Mason has been a vocal supporter of the Named Person. Give him his due, he did come to a previous NO2NP roadshow on the south side, but what he heard didn’t change his mind at all. Also to give him his due, he still regularly pops up on social media, albeit with quite bizarre reasons for his stance on the NP, and he has made some derogatory remarks about families from this area and indeed anyone else who opposes the scheme.
Aside from insulting us as potential child abusers, John’s view is that the NP scheme is just like the ambulance service, there for everyone if they need it because you never know when you might have an accident. But seriously, how many of you would dial 999 for a stubbed toe? And would you expect your child’s teacher to call an ambulance to deal with a grazed knee? Ambulances really don’t need to be out looking for stubbed toes as they have enough to do dealing with emergencies, just as the fire and rescue service rightly prioritises burning buildings and RTAs over cats stuck up trees (or the Dundee woman who became trapped in a McDonald’s high chair the other weekend!)
Teachers need to spend time teaching, not recording the number and circumstances behind every grazed knee, especially when they may have truly vulnerable children to look out for in their schools. Time wasting and hoax calls are already a problem for the emergency services and the Named Person scheme is in danger of overloading an already stretched child protection system with false alarms in much the same way.
It’s quite true of course that services all have a role to play in educating people to prevent fires, accidents and damage to health (not to mention the possible consequences of adults climbing into highchairs in McDonald’s), but grown-ups are generally expected to take responsibility for themselves. Interventions only become compulsory in cases where a child or vulnerable adult is placed at risk of significant harm as a result of their own or someone else’s actions.
That’s why the threshold or trigger for state intervention is crucial and is protected under human rights law. The blurring of boundaries between emergencies and minor issues is also why many people are still so confused, including the professionals who are expected to interpret the new legislation and decide what information they can legally collect and share without obtaining consent from the parent or child.
Some of us believe the government has deliberately misled the public by stating that the NP will only ever be compulsorily involved where a child is at risk of neglect or abuse, but this is categorically not the case. Instead of taking action where a child is identified as being at risk of harm, the trigger point will be where a child is considered by a health visitor or teacher to be at risk of not meeting the wellbeing outcomes set by the government. Unlike welfare, wellbeing has no legal definition and will be assessed by a health visitor or teacher with a tick box and list of indicators.
I think what prompted the call from Granny Maureen may have been the publication of these risk indicators and questionnaires for parents starting in pregnancy. Even midwife booking-in appointments now take several hours as they go into the financial details, housing situation and health issues of all your family members, including any historical problems and previous relationships – information that will be used to measure what they call the ‘parental capacity to provide wellbeing’ for the child. All according to what the govt has decided is right for every child in Scotland, even if you don’t agree it’s right for your individual child.
We all know about the power of credit scores. If you don’t keep up repayments on a loan or are late paying your bills you will be marked down as a risky prospect and it could cause problems if you need credit in the future. The good news is that once you get your finances back on an even keel, the slate will eventually be wiped clean and you won’t have a permanently risky profile.
Now the GIRFEC NP policy operates a bit like a kind of a social credit scoring agency, where NPs gather details about you, your children and all associated adults to assess how well you are behaving as a parent and whether you deserve to get services or sanctions. The difference is that any black marks are never erased and even historical records of family members can be called up and fed into your risk assessment score.
In Haddington recently, we heard from a parent of five under-11s, two of whom were under five, all home births; the family don’t vaccinate, they home educate, and the dad was brought up in care. Alarmed by the long list of GIRFEC risk indicators and outcome signifiers, he wondered if his family should maybe consider getting a telly to improve their wellbehaving credit score, as the health visitor was becoming more persistent than a double glazing seller!
We are fast moving towards a parent licensing system. Too many penalty points on your licence and you’ll have to go on a course to learn about the dangers of parenting infringements (so try not to get caught speeding through Farm Foods with a trolley full of ready meals). Under the totting up procedure you might eventually lose your licence, and your kids.
So much for that helpful single point of contact that has been mis-sold to us, just like PPI! The reality is that everyone who works with children now has a duty to collect as much information as possible, including hearsay and gossip, on parents, siblings and others, to be added to databases that ‘speak’ to each other, including the one that holds your NHS records.
The GIRFEC Cluedo story reported last weekend shows just how low they will go to dig dirt on families. The aim of that game is to get professionals to determine parents’ capacity to provide ‘wellbeing’ by data mining without consent “at even the lowest level of concern”, as opposed to on child protection grounds.
If you thought the Data Protection Act was there to protect you, you’d be wrong as our own data protection “watchdog” rubber stamped a policy in 2013 that has left Scots citizens with less protection than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. Despite what the GIRFEC cheerleaders claim, this re-interpretation of current UK reserved legislation (which they have now been relying on for more than 3 years to share our data without our knowledge) is actually just one guy’s opinion. And it’s an opinion not shared by other data protection experts, including former UK ICO Richard Thomas and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide who is right.
The GIRFEC narrative of course maintains that it’s possible to identify problems and intervene at an early stage to prevent bad outcomes, like teenage pregnancy, poor educational attainment, drug use or criminal activity (ironically the same bad outcomes that disproportionately affect children in the care system). The idea is to look for ‘signs’ and calculate risk on a statistical probability basis so that interventions can be offered (or imposed) at the earliest stage. In the brave new world of GIRFEC, toddler tantrums and teenage truculence can no longer be considered just part of growing up as they’ll all be plotted as wellbeing risks by anyone with a SHANARRI wheel.
Forget Mystic Meg! We’ve now got wellbeing assessments, school surveys and ‘circle time’ to extract information from young children so that future problems can be predicted and ‘timely’ interventions can be applied to get families back on the path of ‘getting it righteousness’. That might include the naughty step of compulsory parenting classes, usually provided by ‘leading’ children’s charities in exchange for large fees.
Putting the jackboot on the other foot, parents are now starting to play detective themselves. We know the vast majority of professionals do good job, but how can we tell which Named Person might do a Dayna Dickson-Boath unless we check up on their private lives? Who could possibly object?
As for getting I.T. right, you can forget any state of the art secure system as there is just going to be a wellbeing app added on to existing databases that will be joined up – probably because they can’t afford anything else. The data security assessment for ContactPoint in England was so damning it took us two years to get it released under the FOI Act, and we strongly suspect the Scottish Govt hasn’t even bothered to commission a report.
Top security experts Ian Brown and Ross Anderson (even my own son, who is an ethical hacker), have sounded alarm bells about the vulnerability of databases accessible by multiple users, at least some of whom will be prone to bribery, blackmail, scamming or plain carelessness. That’s before considering cyber-attacks and criminal hacking which are becoming ever more sophisticated and can quickly compromise entire systems – remember TalkTalk, and Lincs Council which recently lost access to electronic child protection records. Children’s data is especially highly sought after by those with malicious intent, and Contact Point had become known as the paedophiles’ address book before it was finally scrapped.
We’re probably all familiar with the haystack analogy first used by child protection expert Eileen Munro, who warned that adding more hay would make finding a few small needles much more difficult – a view shared by others in social work. We already know that child protection social work works well when adequately resourced, so why is it so badly over-stretched and under-funded when there’s a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money to implement a scheme most families neither need nor want? As my former colleague Terri Dowty said:
“It’s a bit like the parent who tells their child, ‘Sorry you haven’t got any shoes, but I really need this new laptop’.”
We are already seeing much higher thresholds for access to services as there are nowhere near enough practitioners to meet demand (think CAMHS waiting times); yet at the same time the threshold for data sharing, reporting and intervention in relation to supposed ‘risk’ has been significantly lowered. It is a recipe for meltdown, which is exactly what happened in the Isle of Man where a public inquiry is underway into the damage caused to innocent families subjected to unnecessary investigations.
We have also seen several deaths in areas where the Named Person scheme has already been rolled out. In Edinburgh, there was Mikaeel Kular, known to be at risk of significant harm, and Chloe Sutherland, whose mother was refused help for post natal depression. In Highland, where the NP has been running for years, two-year old Clyde Campbell died after being left home alone. And in Aberdeen, Bailey Gwynne was stabbed at school by a classmate who probably shared the same named person, despite neon signs having been flagged up about him.
Scapegoating individuals is not my intention, but conscripted amateurs ticking boxes are in danger of getting it tragically wrong when it comes to the deadly serious business of child protection.
I’ll finish with my favourite quote from Lyndon B. Johnson which our elected representatives would have done well to heed:
“You do not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it would do and the harms it would cause if improperly administered.”
Our MSPs never properly examined the NP surveillance scheme, even the ones who have loudly protested against ID cards and the Westminster snoopers’ charter, so the Government just carried on regardless, ignoring mounting evidence of things going badly wrong for families and papering over the widening cracks.
There is a saying in home education circles that “parents make difficult and dangerous prey”. I reckon the govt has seriously underestimated the power of love, which “conquers everything” yet appears nowhere on their SHANARRI wheel. It’s time to admit they got it badly wrong – or else we’ll have to make them!