The GIRF-X Factor: Rage Against the Named Person

A full programme of NO2NP roadshows is scheduled for April, starting with St Andrews on 4th and Haddington on 5th. Alison from the Scottish Home Ed Forum will be speaking at them all and shares the first of her presentations, with links, drawing on her experience as an erstwhile member of the John Otway tribute band.

Just a drummer in a rock’n’roll band…

This NO2NP roadshow programme is a bit like being in a rock’n’roll band on tour, with Nigel as our hard working roadie who sets up the kit and merchandise at every gig. Like the great John Otway (What do you mean you’ve never heard of him? That’s what some folk are still saying about the named person scheme!), our set remains the same as we play to audiences across the country. But we’ve had more hits than Otway, especially these last few weeks – probably because we can hold a tune, people are now remembering the words and even starting to sing along. And despite the metal heads trying to rubbish our act by calling us right wing religious fundamentalist nutters (and that was just one Named Person on Twitter the other day!) we’re just as much punk rock as Onward Christian Soldiers. The point I’m making is that with regular airplay, media attention and support from a growing fan base, NO2NP is on course to do what Rage Against the Machine did to Simon Cowell, with the sovereign people’s choice taking on the might of the manufactured state sponsored GIRF-X Factor.

My own background is in elective home education and children’s rights, mainly in relation to privacy. I campaigned with colleagues against the ContactPoint and eCAF databases, which were part of the Every Child Matters agenda in England . Unfortunately the Scottish Govt decided to copy ECM (aka Every Citizen Monitored) and rebrand it as GIRFEC (Getting Info Recorded for Every Citizen), developing an even more intrusive scheme to force a data collecting state guardian on every child. The First Minister was being disingenuous when she  said parents and children could decline the NP ‘entitlement’ when there is actually no opt out from the data mining on which the scheme relies. I’ve had some heated exchanges with people who truly believe the FM’s version, but the legislation and guidance tell a different story, and so did the govt’s own lawyer in the Court of Session

But first some good news. The Supreme Court  hearing last month went well and those who were there, or watched the live stream, were impressed with the judges’ interrogation of counsel, showing that they really had done their homework – unlike the govt’s QC who was sent home the first day with homework of his own after being unable to answer a number of points. Aidan O’Neill stormed though our legal arguments, followed by counsel for Clan Childlaw who reinforced the arguments we have long made against non consensual data processing and breaching confidentiality without any safeguards being in place.

In my opinion, it went from a car crash on day one to a motorway pile up on day two for the government, whose QC had to try and make the case for the legislation being necessary and proportionate, while hurried notes were passed to him by a desperate looking back up team. To add insult to injury, the easy-read leaflet for parents (the one about bedroom decor and TV programme choices) was met with howls of laughter, the legislative drafting was criticised as imprecise, the wellbeing indicators were described as woolly and the accompanying guidance was said to be incomprehensible.

Returning to the rock’n’roll analogy, Aidan’s closing remarks resembled a Wilko Johnson ‘machine gun’ guitar solo as he owned the stage and struck all the right chords with powerful precision.

His parting shot was a reminder of the cost of judicial review – 15 grand – if parents and children wanted to exercise the right to complain to an independent tribunal. As we all know, the government’s complaints guidance in relation to a Named Person is like the road to nowhere – a choice between a dead end street or the circular route back to where you started.

All in all, I believe that the evidence received significantly greater scrutiny at the Supreme Court than was the case in the Scottish courts. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the legal team and those who came forward with affidavits detailing their own experiences of Named Persons already misusing powers that aren’t yet statutory.

Now we wait, and while I hope our dream of victory will be realised, I also have a recurring nightmare where the Named Person is struck from the statute books and everyone is celebrating except me – because the real danger lies in the collection of personal data which may be used against you at any point you decide you know better than a professional (or what passes for a professional these days – a point not lost on the judges).

We’ve just seen Maureen Falconer from the ICO urging trainees to gather and share personal data covertly as the lab rats might object (and they might even think they have a choice, ha ha). Most of us will also have heard the recording of Jim ‘Taxi’ Terras, encouraging the reporting of any ‘concerns’, no matter how trivial, about a child – even conversations in taxis.  Everyone who works with children is being instructed 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. Privacy is being demolished on the basis of mere suspicion, allowing the state to call up a single view of any citizen at the click of a mouse.

If you thought the Data Protection Act was there to protect you, you’d be wrong as the Scottish Government pulled what they thought was a clever stunt by passing their Children and Young People Act to circumvent reserved UK legislation, i.e. they have legalised data theft north of the border, where children are apparently at disproportionate risk from their parents. In order to fool the public, they conflated ‘wellbeing’ risks (which can mean anything and everything in their all encompassing SHANARRI risk framework) with ‘welfare’ risks (which are about significant harm as defined in the Children Act).

They also got our independent data protection “watchdog” to rubber stamp a policy that has left Scots citizens with less protection than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. Despite what GIRFEC cheerleaders claim, this re-interpretation of current UK legislation (which they have been relying on for more than 3 years as justification to share our data) is actually just one guy’s opinion.

Moreover, it is an opinion not shared by former UK ICO Richard Thomas, who said of ContactPoint in England:

There are reasons why we need to promote better information sharing where children are at risk of harm, but whether the answer is to database every child in the country should be seriously questioned.

He went on:

We live in a free society. We value our freedoms. Sometimes it is a step too far if people err on the side of the collection of data for the sake of collecting data, rather than on the ones we need to watch.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights was even more scathing, pointing out that, while it may be justifiable for children at risk of harm, a system designed to include every child (like GIRFEC):

constitutes a serious interference with children’s right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

They went as far as to say of the UK Government’s proposals which were the blueprint for GIRFEC:

Parliament is being asked to authorise in advance a major interference with Article 8 rights without the evidence demonstrating its necessity being available.

“We are concerned that, if the justification for information-sharing about children is that it is always proportionate where the purpose is to identify children who need welfare services, there is no meaningful content left to a child’s Article 8 right to privacy and confidentiality in their personal information.

That’s a complete trashing of the Scottish Government’s copy cat plans for every child, where parents are demoted to the status of prime suspects in their game of GIRFEC Cluedo. Only Scotland has the brass neck to override human rights and pretend it’s getting it right.

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 leaky and unstable databases that will be joined up  – probably because they can’t afford anything else. The Deloitte data security assessment of ContactPoint was so damning it took us 2 years to get it released under the FOI Act, but we suspect the Scottish Government hasn’t even bothered to commission a report.

Ross Anderson and Ian Brown, both top data security experts (and even my own son, who is an ethical hacker), have sounded loud 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 even before considering cyber-attacks and criminal hacking which are becoming ever more sophisticated and can quickly compromise entire systems – think TalkTalk and Lincs Council which lost access to its electronic child protection records for more than a week. 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 the social work profession including our own Maggie Mellon  and Liz Davies who blew the whistle on the Islington child abuse scandal. Liz maintains that non specialists with template questionnaires are highly likely to compromise child protection investigations and leave vulnerable children at greater risk. Similar sentiments have been expressed by Police Scotland who have cited examples of SHANARRI  box ticking impeding child protection.

We already know that child protection social work works when adequately resourced, so why is such an essential public service so over-stretched and chronically under-funded when there seems to be a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money to implement a scheme most families neither need nor want? As my former colleague Terri Dowty observed: “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 from sometimes desperate parents and children (think CAMHS waiting times); yet at the same time the threshold for data sharing, reporting and intervention in relation to alleged ‘risk’ have 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 who were subjected to unnecessary investigations.

The background to GIRFEC is quite different from the fairy story told by the govt and is easily traceable back to Tony Blair’s e-government agenda whereby a central record was to be created for every citizen through which all services would be provided: basically a national ID register by the back door. Children were seen as a handy starting point, so the public were deceived into believing it was about child protection, thus the cynical use of Victoria Climbie and Danielle Reid’s deaths to mis-sell a surveillance project that was already in progress. What they didn’t say was that “at risk” was no longer to mean risk of harm, but risk of not meeting the state’s pre-defined wellbeing (or more accurately well-behaving) outcomes.

The GIRFEC narrative 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’ (starting in the womb) and calculate risk using statistical probability so that intervention can be offered (or imposed on refuseniks) at the earliest stage. The evidence for this approach, as we have heard from Dr Jenny Cunningham at previous roadshows, is purely policy based, but in the brave new world of GIRFEC, toddler tantrums and teenage truculence can no longer be considered just part of growing up and will be plotted as wellbeing risks by anyone with a SHANARRI wheel. At the same time, some of the most vulnerable children, who really need to be noticed, are in grave danger of being overlooked.

The sad reality is we have seen several deaths in areas where the NP scheme has already been rolled out. In Edinburgh, there was Mikaeel Kular, a child known to be at risk of significant harm and Chloe Sutherland, whose mother was refused help for post natal depression. In Highland, where the Named Person has been in place since 2009, two year old Clyde Campbell died after being left home alone. And in Aberdeen, Bailey Gwynne was stabbed to death at school by a classmate who probably shared the same named person, despite numerous neon signs being flagged up about him. Scapegoating individuals is not my intention, but conscripted amateurs spinning wellbeing wheels are in danger of getting it tragically wrong when it comes to the deadly serious business of child protection.

You should also know that your children’s most personal thoughts and feelings are now being interrogated in classrooms in the guise of ‘resilience testing’, often without your knowledge. Messing with young minds should not be the remit of teachers, but has become routine with the introduction of the CfE which, not very coincidentally, shares the same well-behaving outcomes as GIRFEC. Children are being moulded into compliant citizens who can be more easily micro managed. Any dissent will be identified and interventions applied to get them back on to their state approved path of ‘getting it righteousness’. That might include sending their parents to the naughty step in the form of compulsory parenting classes and assorted sanctions, usually provided by ‘leading’ children’s charities in exchange for large fees.

Having heard from lots of parents who have had their personal information gathered, shared, twisted and later used as evidence against them, I know that many are now exercising their right to remain silent, or providing minimal information about themselves and none at all about third parties (including partners and other family members) who have not consented to their data being disclosed. Parents are now all guilty until they prove their innocence, turning natural justice on its head, so from a self preservation point of view, “getting it right” now means always “getting it in writing” and recording every meeting and communication on a smart phone for future reference. It’s also a good idea to submit regular subject access requests to obtain all your records, some of which may contain nasty surprises.

I’ll finish with a 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.”

No such examination was ever undertaken on the Named Person surveillance scheme and the Government just carried on regardless, ignoring mounting evidence of things going badly wrong for families and papering over the ever widening cracks by telling whoppers so big they put Pinocchio to shame.

As the saying goes, it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings and she is currently warming up her vocal chords for the grand finale.  Let’s hope that the pre-meditated outcomes planned for us by the GIRF-X Factor judges will be roundly defeated by a strong public vote for ‘Rage Against the Named Person’ and we can kill their social engineering scheme stone dead in the name of freedom alone.



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