Philip Patrick

Has the SNP failed to learn from its ‘snoopers’ charter’ debacle?

Has the SNP failed to learn from its 'snoopers' charter' debacle?
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In the run-up to the French vote on the European Constitution in 2005, Jean-Claude Juncker said ‘If it’s a Yes, we will say ‘on we go’, and if it’s a No we will say ‘we continue’’. Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP government are clearly of a similar mind. Not perturbed by the backlash that greeted the party's most notorious rejected policy, the Named Person Scheme, the SNP appears to be attempting its luck again, albeit in a subtly disguised and rebadged form.

The Named Person Scheme was originally introduced as part of the Children and Young People Act (2014). It proposed that a ‘named person’ would be appointed for every child in Scotland up to the age of 18. The chosen individual, usually a GP, though it could theoretically have been anyone, would have been available to children or parents in need of information, advice or support. The named person would also be a point of contact if social services had particular concerns.

The scheme was intended to be rolled out in 2016, but met with fierce opposition from a coalition of Christian and family orientated groups working under the banner NO2NP (No to Named Person). This umbrella organisation argued the scheme would lead to unjustifiable interference in family life, undermine the authority of parents, and could lead to the disclosure of confidential information to public authorities without the consent of the young person or their parents.

In July 2016 the Supreme Court ruled that parts of the plan breached the rights to privacy and family life enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Attempts were made to salvage it. But in a major embarrassment to the SNP – and at the cost of millions spent over five years on developing the scheme – it was finally withdrawn in September 2019.

The ‘snooper’s charter’, as its critics dubbed it, appeared to have reached the end of the road. But the SNP are nothing if not determined, and a new pathway appears to have opened up for the general aims of the scheme, in the form of the grandly named but little publicised ‘Health and Wellbeing Census’, originally planned for roll out in Scottish high schools last year, until Covid set back the timetable.

When the questionnaire is fully implemented it will see pupils asked about, amongst many other things, their relationship with their parents or guardians, and their mental health. Putting aside whether these matters are in any way the business of the state, it raises the disturbing prospect of a situation where an overzealous or unwise official picks up on minor family difficulties or a lack of zest in a child and reports them as potential abuse or mental illness.

As Richard Lucas of the Scottish Family party, who calls the scheme ‘Named Person 2.0’ points out, there are a few disturbing details in the small print of the scheme’s documentation. You can opt out, but this is not made obvious. And nor is the fact that though ostensibly for ‘research’ purposes, information gleaned from the questionnaire can be passed on to 'other approved organisations and researchers'. This seems to suggest that a gripe from a disgruntled teen could potentially lead to a knock on the door.

It could of course be argued that anything that brought to light evidence of potential abuse should be recorded and if necessary acted upon. But it is worth bearing in mind here that the SNP has proposed widening the definition of child abuse to potentially include such acts as making a child feel ‘their opinions...are worthless’. Is there any teenager alive who hasn’t experienced that emotion at some point and been more than happy to share it with a sympathetic listener?

Taken alongside the recently passed Hate Crime bill, which makes possible criminal prosecution for comments made within the house between family members, a pattern is emerging of a Scottish government absolutely determined to expand its remit, forcing its way into the domestic realm, and challenging the traditional authority of parents. At the very least this direction of travel ought to be clearly signposted and open to scrutiny and debate, not concealed within obscure documents and bland sounding ‘research’ initiatives.

It might be hyperbolic to speculate that if the SNP’s obsession with children’s rights continues unchecked we face the prospect of one day seeing a statue of a Scottish version of Pavel Morozov unveiled outside Holyrood; but where such tampering with the foundational structure of society could lead is disturbingly hard to predict.