The Z-Listers

By Alison Preuss, first published in the Scottish Review, 5 September 2018

Even before the ink was dry on the Children and Young People (Information Sharing) Scotland bill – introduced by John Swinney last June after his original state guardian scheme was blocked by the Supreme Court – government officials were predicting a bumpy ride for the new legislation.

At a ‘GIRFEC engagement on information sharing’ meeting with named person service providers the very next day, a forward plan was drawn up to help smooth the bill’s passage through parliament in anticipation of implementation by the end of 2018. Released in note form as part of the response to a freedom of information request, the timeline covered the period ‘going forward’ from June 2017 to December 2018.

However, these unnamed crystal ball gazers all failed to predict the education and skills committee’s unprecedented decision to delay the legislation due to an inadequate accompanying code of practice; nor did they foresee the bitter rows over alleged witness tampering and complaints by parliamentary clerks of government interference. So much for the government’s blind faith in ‘prevention science’ and early intervention to avoid such poor outcomes. 

Among the more bizarre entries, for August 2018, was a proposal to recruit J K Rowling as a magic wand-waving champion for the flagging ‘getting it right for every child’ (GIRFEC) policy in order to ‘countermine the likes of Alexander McCall Smith’ and other unnamed ‘Z-listers’. The caustic reference to the celebrated ‘No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ author and lawyer, Sandy McCall Smith, was presumably prompted by the newspaper serialisation of his latest book, ’44 Scotland Street’, in which one character decried the named person legislation as grossly insulting to parents for ‘insisting that every child in Scotland should have an official guardian’.

Other notes and timeline entries revealed the ongoing concerns and confusion of those tasked with implementing the government’s new proposals after the original legislation was struck down in the landmark 2016 ruling, which crucially also rendered current information sharing guidance unlawful.

A ‘refresh’ of the GIRFEC framework was pencilled in for August 2017, along with an ‘interim code of practice on information sharing’, while greater emphasis was to be placed on the role of health visitors and teachers as discrete professionals rather than their named person job title.

Negative press coverage had been an ongoing concern for the timeline contributors, who noted that parents and families were ‘believing the press rather than reality’, and insisted that a concerted effort should be made to engage with the media and promote positive stories in order to change attitudes.

As part of a concerted charm offensive, video clips and animations were to be produced, including the adventures of GIRFEC cartoon characters Sid and Shanarri in the ‘wellbeing wood,’ a resource launched by former minister for childcare and early years, Mark McDonald, just days before his forced resignation in November 2017 for inappropriate conduct.


The ‘toolkit’ boasted a series of videos for young children based on the government’s wellbeing indicators and outcomes, which caused outrage among grandmothers who were negatively portrayed as encouraging unhealthy food choices. ‘Granny doesn’t know what’s good for you, but Sid and Shanarri do’, asserted the monkey and spider duo to their captive audiences of North Lanarkshire nursery children. Although the creepy creatures conceded it wasn’t ‘her fault’ because she did not know any better, it was yet another self-inflicted shot to the GIRFEC foot. And to add sexist insult to injury, grandads got off Scot free.

In another entry that is chillingly reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s ‘totalitarian’ reference, the forward planners had anticipated that, by December 2017, GIRFEC would be fully embedded in ‘the visuals/ learning/ teaching for our young children and young people because they are the next generation’. Tomorrow would indeed belong to them once they had got to ‘our’ children.

However, their crystal ball had by then already ‘crack’d from side to side’, and their timeline had veered off course due to the new bill hitting the parliamentary buffers.

Had the bill proceeded as envisaged, plans for February 2018 included the funding of ‘bridge builders at the highest levels’ to begin to engage with No to Named Person (NO2NP) campaigners, and a re-branding of the antenatal ‘pre-testing’ of parents to the marginally less toxic ‘Ready Steady Baby’ programme.

As well as plans for celebrity endorsement, August 2018 was earmarked for the addition of a dedicated wellbeing application to the SEEMiS pupil database so that information could be pulled from a range of data sets to generate wellbeing profiles for every child attending a nursery or school.

Little did the timeline creators realise that this would generate even more negative headlines when it emerged that school staff were being trained to override consent ‘by default’ in order to share intimate details of pupils’ and family members’ private lives. A teachers’ training video, uploaded to YouTube in February in anticipation of the application going live this August, was quickly removed from public vie,  but it was soon reported that a Stirling high school was already using confidential SEEMiS data, including sensitive pastoral notes, to covertly profile pupils and their families.

override consent still

Still from removed video tutorial – transcript of voiceover in red

Despite being in contravention of the 2016 Supreme Court ruling, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the general data protection regulation (GDPR), which came into force earlier this year, the Wallace High School pilot project had been lauded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for using sensitive personal data without consent ‘to help shape its proactive approach to preventing bullying and supporting pupils’ health and wellbeing.’

As the original forward plan fell apart, and the hand-picked ‘independent panel’ tasked with legalising the government’s patently unlawful plans asked for more time before reporting back to the deputy first minister, it was further revealed via a freedom of information response that an emergency ‘Plan B’ was being hatched to bring in the named person scheme by the back door, should the beleaguered information sharing legislation not make it onto the statute books.

Like the naked emperor, the deputy first minster cannot remain indefinitely in his safe space of denial. He needs to accept that the Supreme Court dealt a fatal blow, not only to his rights-breaching named person scheme, but to the overarching GIRFEC framework that requires the ‘unlocking’, i.e. stealing, of everyone’s personal information in order to facilitate the predictive policing of family life.

However, ‘putting it right for every child’ and family will not be straightforward. Although GIRFEC was said to have been operating on a non-statutory basis, the government had prematurely published guidance in 2013 that mandated the gathering and sharing of children’s and families’ confidential information without their consent on the basis of any subjective ‘wellbeing’ concern – a threshold later ruled unlawful as a gateway to unfettered data access.

A parliamentary petition has recently been lodged by two ‘lady detectives’ on behalf of their respective support group members. Armed with a raft of evidence from public records and FOI responses, along with victims’ testimony, they are calling for a public inquiry into the human rights impact of GIRFEC, in particular how unlawful data processing came to be embedded across services without the benefit of legal advice or reference to parliament.

As the negative headlines keep on coming and families categorically reject relentless state interference in their private lives, it is government ministers and officials who are in need of an urgent reality check. Even J K Rowling would not have been able to work her wizardry on the gaffe-ridden GIRFEC plot that has been turned into tragicomedy courtesy of John Swinney’s ‘Department for Accidents and Catastrophes.’

The above article was based on this timeline from a FOI response from the Scottish government.

It led to follow-up coverage in the national press:

Scottish Government ‘urged to use Harry Potter’ to boost named person policy (Scotsman)

Ask JK Rowling to promote controversial Named Person plan, SNP told (Herald)

‘Hogwarts can’t save SNP!’ Sturgeon MOCKED after JK Rowling scheme revealed(Express)

SNP told ‘to use JK Rowling to boost Named Person’ (TES Scotland)

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