The SNP’s plan to assign every child a state guardian is to be delayed a year while the powers of the role are watered down significantly to make them lawful, under a major climbdown announced by John Swinney.
The Deputy First Minister said the named person scheme will start in August 2017 following an overhaul of the threshold at which the guardians are allowed to interfere in family life and the information they are allowed to share without parents’ consent.
He said there would be an intense three-month consultation with teachers, parents, charities and children following a damning UK Supreme Court ruling that parts of the original plan breached parents’ human rights.
In an attempt to put a brave face the judgement, he told MSPs that they had been vindicated because the named person concept had been found to be lawful and urged councils to press ahead with their preparations for its introduction.
But the No To Named Persons campaign, which pursued the successful legal action, said the named person’s ability to share private information with a wide range of public bodies was central to the role and it would now bear little resemblance to the SNP’s original intention.
Simon Calvert, its spokesman, said that Mr Swinney should have apologised to parents for ignoring their human rights rather than attempting to save face.
Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservatives’ Shadow Education Minister, questioned how local authorities were supposed continue developing the named person post when they did not know what powers it would have.
SNP ministers plan to introduce a named person for every child under 18, with health visitors assuming the role for pre-school children and teachers and councils for older youngsters.
They argued the scheme was needed to identify at-risk children earlier but the UK Supreme Court ruled that elements breached the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects parents’ ability to raise their children as they see fit.
In particular, the UK’s highest court objected to the ability of named persons to share confidential information with a wide range of public bodies without having to obtain the consent of children or parents.
The judges ruled it was disproportionate that the state guardians could do this merely if they thought it would help them to monitor the child’s needs.
They also questioned giving state guardians the power to intervene to protect children’s wellbeing, which has a much wider definition than defending them from abuse or neglect.
Although they found the policy’s intentions were benign, they also noted that the first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is get at the children.
In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, Mr Swinney said he remains absolutely committed to the scheme but the Supreme Court judgement means it has to be revised.
He said his ambition was for the plan to be rolled out in August 2017, a year later than the original start date, after the information-sharing powers in the original legislation are overhauled to reassure parents and the wider public.
The Deputy First Minister attacked the debilitating impact that the peddling of misinformation had wrought on the scheme.
However, in a stark admission of its shortcomings, he said that the essential principle of consent from parents and children must be enshrined in the legislation with exceptions limited to rare occasions.
Mr Swinney also admitted under pressure from Ms Smith that the ability of the named person to intervene if a child’s wellbeing is deemed to be at risk – the keystone of the entire policy – is also under review.
There has to be an appropriate threshold and that is the issue that has to be examined as part of the analysis that I undertake, he said.
He reiterated that he would consider a Labour plan to omit 16 and 17-year-olds from the scheme but noted that 30 per cent of callers to Childline were aged between 16 and 18.
Mr Calvert said the minister’s claim that Holyrood had been vindicated by the court ruling would be laughable if it were not so offensive to the parents whose human rights were so cavalierly ignored.
He said: The Supreme Court said the kind of widespread, routine sharing of sensitive personal data that the Government wanted is unlawful and a breach of human rights and cannot go ahead. It said this data sharing was ‘central’ to the named person policy and its ruling blew it out of the water.
So whatever the Deputy First Minister may claim, the named person scheme he ends up with in a year’s time will be very different from the policy he wanted.
Ms Smith demanded the scheme be scrapped altogether, saying: Councils already running the named person scheme are being told to keep on with it – even though elements of it have been ruled unlawful. How can the SNP expect local authorities to continue operating in that way?
The Royal College of Nursing in Scotland said that health visitors and other practitioners involved in the scheme cannot be simply left in limbo while the problems are fixed and warned SNP ministers they have to get it right this time, so there can be no further legal challenges later.
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