Like Michael, I am sure that those supporting the legislation including the Scottish Government genuinely want to do more to protect vulnerable children but on the other hand the clunking statist approach to this issue understandably provokes concern and suspicion. I don’t agree with Beth that social workers are too eager to remove children from their homes but I do agree that we need a proper debate on why so many children are in care and how we as a community can reduce that number.
I don’t pretend to be a specialist on child care although having spoken to a few practitioners in the field(admittedly not on any scientific basis) I didn’t find any who thought the legislation would address the problems they face. Accordingly I am confining my remarks to the process that was adopted and what lessons we need to learn if Labour wants to take a different approach.
The first and most obvious question is why do we need primary legislation in the first place. Such a method does provide an immediate status and priority to the measures but it is also inflexible and difficult to amend. I agree with Michael that each child should consistently have someone at school who knows them personally and in some depth but there are many ways that this can be implemented without an Act of Parliament – this is at heart a management and professional standards issue. If teachers, health care workers or social workers don’t perform their jobs to the appropriate standard there are well established mechanisms and professional bodies to hold them to account – would primary legislation actually add anything?
There are many examples involving those who hold high levels of responsibility where there is a requirement to have a named person with responsibility for a certain task but most are dealt with by professional codes of conduct or employment contracts. Even where there is primary legislation there needs to be considered whether you have struck the proper balance between statutory clauses on one side and nonstatutory codes on the other so you can retain sufficient flexibility as and when practice requires. If you wish this to be enshrined in legislation then you should be able to produce evidence that the less bureaucratic alternatives do not work as effectively. Nothing in the public debate to date appears to add much clarity.
The second question is whether there any other international comparators to test the measure against. The Scottish Government unfortunately has a poor record taking external evidence – it has withdrawn Scotland from two of the three major international school standards in recent years in an effort to avoid embarrassment but it fails Scotland and our children as a consequence. In this issue there appears to be no near equivalent which would suggest that a precautionary approach should be used. A substantial pilot exercise over a one to two year timeline would have been an obvious way to provide actual evidence of how the scheme may operate and address the genuine concerns of parents and the questions raised by the professionals tasked with implementation. Even better would have been to pilot more than one alternative to find which may operate more easily.
The third question is what risk assessment was carried out and what methodology was utilised to ascertain risk levels. It may be a statement of the obvious but there will always be a finite amount of public money and human resources to provide protection to vulnerable children. If the vast majority of children do not require any state intervention then there is an obvious danger that resources are swallowed up in providing protection to those with nil to low risk at the expense of those with much higher risk levels. How many children are harmed in situations where there was little or no prior warning signs and is there any pattern that should alert public authorities?
Michael points out the tragic cases where signs were missed but in almost every case these were children who were already on the care radar. Modern policing in recent years has successfully used data evidence to predict where crimes are most likely to occur and to target their resources on high incidence areas. Why do we think that a blanket coverage is better? Again, no scientific evidence has been produced.
Finally, how do we avoid tick box bureaucracy which wastes valuable time and resources (as well as lowering morale of hard pressed public servants). Primary legislation of this kind risks placing more barriers between professionals and those they serve and Beth’s comments reflect that frustration with Scotland’s cultural history of patriarchal deference. Perhaps we need to look a bit harder as to how we support and retain talent and experience in those on the front line of providing essential care rather than rushing to fill a parliamentary calendar.
Good motives are important, but we need to take a much more evidence-based approach to any new substantive legislative change.