By Georgina Farron (first published in Highland Perthshire News, April 2014)
‘Every child will have a designated Named Person whose job is to be a first point of contact for you and any other concerns about your child or young person.’
‘The Named Person will take action to address concerns.’
‘You will be listened to and involved in the decisions made about your child or your family.’
This is how Perth and Kinross Council explain the delivery of ‘GIRFEC’ (Getting It Right For Every Child), the Scottish Government’s approach to child welfare and the new legislation that threatens to enshrine it in the bones of Bonny Scotland. The compulsory and wholesale demotion of parents to the role of shop floor assistants in the State’s big project to raise Scotland’s children via the agency of ‘Named Persons’ was confirmed by Aileen Campbell MSP, Minister for Children and Families saying that “parents also have a role” in bringing up children. No kidding. For Scotland is to be, according to The Dear and Glorious Leadership, ‘the best place in the world to grow up’. Still no kidding…but then grandiosity is a notably humourless condition.
As Scotland stands on the brink of possible independence, human rights are not the hottest topic in town. There is, however, quite a fight brewing between parents, churches and lawyers (ranged in opposition) and the Scottish Government over the controversial measures in its flagship bill, which seeks to introduce a compulsory state ‘wellbeing’ guardian for every single child in Scotland from birth to eighteen years old.
In this there is no opt-out. For parents there is no say over who will be their child’s ‘Named Person’ – nor are they allowed to perform this function in relation to their own child. The nominated person will have a duty to oversee their child’s ‘wellbeing’ according to statutory indicators known as ‘Shanarri’ – Safe, Healthy, Active, Nurtured, Achieving, Respected, Responsible and Included. Where there is a ‘concern’ over any aspect of these indicators – current or anticipated – then the Named Person has a duty to step in.
A trial of the named person provision and children’s planning in Highland Council area commenced in 2010, when there were only 64 children on the ‘at risk’ register there. Now, nearly 8000 children in this area – that’s one in five – have a ‘Child’s Plan’.
The threshold for state inquiry and intervention in the family has been lowered through a major reconfiguration of child welfare in professional practice. In fact, ‘welfare’ as a sociolegal concept has all but disappeared from view, in favour of the leitmotif ‘wellbeing’. In a policy memorandum on the proposals, Alex Neill MSP revealed: ‘…the role of the named person is based on the idea that information on less critical concerns about a child’s wellbeing must be shared if…action is to be taken to prevent those concerns developing into more serious issues.’
This ubiquitous emphasis on early intervention and crisis aversion by the state has been creeping into mainstream ideology in children’s services for well over a decade. By having all of those involved in the care, education and health of children welded together in one ‘workforce’ and using their own ‘language of wellbeing’, the parent is effectively marginalised in the upbringing of the child.
The ScotGov website boasts a ‘National Framework for Assessment’ in which it lists ‘generic risk factors’ for parent and child. It tells us that ‘risk and need are two sides of the same coin.’ Here, genuine causes for alarm, such as having parents on drugs, are intermingled with everything from the commonplace, like ‘conflict within the extended family’ and being bottlefed – to the potentially discriminatory, for instance: ‘More than four children in the family’. According to these indices, no child is safe from harm; no family from state intrusion.
In the creation of a ‘Child’s Plan’, the practitioner has much to consider and a great deal of information to gather. All of this has to be stored somewhere ‘safe’ – and where better than a giant database in the sky?
Perhaps the strongest clues to the heart of the agenda here lie in an article written in Comment a few years ago on the subject of SEEMiS Group LLP, a school data management system provided by (and largely owned by) Scottish local authorities.
A visit to the Seemis website and entering it into Google reveals at a startling glimpse the massive scale of Girfec across the public sector. Few children will be without a ‘profile’. SEEMiS is set up as a national purveyor of behavioural monitoring, records analysis, academic pupil tracking, child’s plans and of course, data storage facilities for every schoolchild.
Financial details of family are also gathered and placed here where the child has received any education-related benefits involving means-testing, such as uniform allowance, EMA, or free school meals. A photograph of the child could well be on the system.
Every nursery or primary school child has, according to Seemis, a ‘Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire’ performed – a tool that after trials, has been recommended for use every three years or so through a child’s life so that any psychological or behavioural issues can be ‘scored’ and tracked by multiple agencies.
The data it generates could not be more sensitive and yet there is a portal on the website of the company who owns this questionnaire (YouthinMind) allowing anyone to log in and check the SDQ score for individual children. Seemis training guidance on this matter advises that the SDQ is ‘completed by establishments through the internet or SEEMiS launcher. The completed questionnaire is then transferred to the NHS.’
Do all parents know that this is happening or about to happen?
Are parents authorising this data-gathering and transfer?
Are they aware of the full implications?
There is a bewildering array of data-mining procedures at large. Practitioners are even encouraged to draw ‘genograms’ and ‘ecographs’ for children, detailing their aunts and uncles, siblings and grannies on both sides and mapping any associations they and their families have in their communities. The Shanarri wellbeing indicators and the ‘four capacities’ have been plotted onto a ‘Wellbeing Wheel’. Then there is the ‘Girfec Dashboard’, the ‘Resilience Matrix’, the ‘My World Triangle’ and flow charts galore.
More disturbing still are the ‘chronologies’ which chart life events for all children and move with them from school to school by dint of being attached to their records. SEEMiS has a handy ‘module’ for this, called a ‘Pastoral Notes Application’. The website enthuses: ‘As well as the ability to record minor events a chronology can be created for any event which could have a significant impact on a pupil.’
Between this and the Behaviour Tracking module where ‘class teachers, principal teachers and management can record and track instances of poor behaviour in real time’, the chances are that our pupils are already having highly sensitive personal data routinely recorded, tracked, analysed and profiled.
Where does this leave us in terms of explicit informed consent? New EU directives on data protection are set to be introduced shortly in the UK and include a ‘right to deletion’. It will be interesting to see how this plays in regard to pupil data.
What if parents disagree with the Named Person’s analyses, refuse to support a ‘Child’s Plan’ and refuse consent at every possible opportunity? Again, the literature at local authority level suggests some disturbing answers.
In January this year, a multi-agency training day was held in P&K council premises, entitled: ‘Hostile and non-engaged parents and carers training’. In other published P&K guidance, there is a footnote about what might happen if parents persisted with their non-engagement or hostility and that is the deployment of emergency procedures to have the child ‘assessed’.
The risk indicators on the Scottish Government generic list echo an underlying institutional intolerance of parental dissent, citing as ‘resistance indicators’: (parental) ‘lack of trust towards workers’, ‘different perception of the problems/risks’, ‘says right things – not backed by behaviour/actions’ and ‘past negative relationships with professionals’. You get the picture.
It is the wholesale application of this integrated authoritarian approach that is so threatening to pluralistic, autonomous parenting. The technological capacity to integrate practice and information between discrete database systems in the NHS, social work and education is in place, and the long finger of government is hovering impatiently over the ‘activate’ button. Hitherto, the only impediment is the law.
A recent landmark ruling in Haringey found that, in order to comply with data protection law, even where a child is at risk of significant harm (the long-established child protection threshold), it would still have to be shown that the child is at risk of increased harm to forgo parental consent before exchanging information.
In blatant contrast, the Information Commissioner decided about a year ago to issue new guidance on the Data Protection Act and how it should not be seen as a ‘barrier’ to information sharing. Official reassurance from no less than Ken Mcdonald, Assistant Information Commissioner for Scotland has since been hardwired into council guidance, with a missive stating that where concerns exist about a child, ‘there is no reason not to share’.
Additionally, throughout all manner of toolkits and guidance dossiers, P&K staff are exhorted: ‘Doing nothing is not an option.’ One document even tags in bold onto an already emboldened excerpt from Dr Mcdonald’s ruminations: ‘In such cases where information will be shared, consent should not be sought, as to do so would give the subject (child or young person and/or their parents/carers) a false belief that they can control the decision, which they cannot.’
The P&K ‘Guide to Information Sharing for Parents and Carers’ contains the refrain: ‘If people working with you and your child are worried or concerned about the wellbeing of your child they do not need to seek consent to share information about you and your child.’
Lowering the child protection threshold to a bunch of ‘Shanarri’ indicators will not do, as Haringey confirmed and the Isle of Man Data Protection Supervisor has been at pains to point out. Since the Data Protection Act applies to the whole UK, Assistant Information Commissioner Ken McDonald’s ‘advice’ – and its further interpretations at local authority level – represents a profoundly worrying departure from that of human rights, data protection and internet security experts across the UK.
Are our children becoming creatures of the state?
Scotland is arguably one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. 60% of the land is concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of landowners. We have less democratic power at community level than almost all other European countries. The Scottish Government has introduced and further proposed judicial reforms that could well undermine or weaken the mechanisms currently available to ordinary Scots to hold public services to account. If the legal challenges to this Children and Young People Bill are unsuccessful, even the Scottish family will no longer be a properly free, autonomous unit, respected to run its own affairs. As Stanley Milgram observed, in The Perils of Obedience (1974): ‘Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.’