You might well ask why I even need to write this article, because this week’s political machinations around the UK Government’s two child policy and the infamous rape clause make it abundantly clear the answer is Yes. But many of us have detected some interesting parallels in the attitudes of people and politicians to this particularly heinous piece of welfare reform and their attitudes to other policies that concern children and families.
Take the “SNP’s controversial named person policy” for example (to coin an overused phrase). There’s a vocal minority in Scotland, including the Scottish Conservatives, who believe that elements of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 (derived from the Getting It Right For Every Child or GIRFEC practice model) are an unacceptable intrusion into family life. They object to the concept of “wellbeing” that is defined in the Act, believing it’s unreasonable to attempt to legislate to ensure that the wellbeing of every child is protected. This is, we are told, too low a bar for the State to be concerned about. Furthermore the provision of a named person for every child, that single point of contact that parents were asking for, has been misrepresented as a “State guardian”, someone who will see fit to interfere with the most trivial aspects of family life. (At the same time, those same people complain that the named person role is an unacceptable addition to the workload of already overworked professionals, so why the colour of a child’s wallpaper – an unfortunate example contained in one leaflet explaining wellbeing – would concern them is not entirely clear). A small number of parents are up in arms at the very idea of somebody outside their family having any insights or support to offer in relation to their children.
Every child is equal in the eyes of the Children and Young People Act. Most children and most families will need no extra support and they may have no contact at all with the relevant professional in their named person role. But they are there if needed, and they are looking out for every child in their care. If a child often goes to school in unwashed clothes, regularly has no packed lunch, maybe has the odd unexplained bruise, it is the named person’s responsibility to notice this and take the necessary steps, talking to the parents and liaising with other agencies as necessary to help them get any support they need.
Ah well, say some middle class families, those cases are obvious. The named person isn’t needed for children like mine. I have a little experience in this respect which I won’t go into here, but I can say that the support we have received has been second to none, and the presence of a single point of contact has been a godsend. Nevertheless, the aforementioned view is quite widely held. I’ve been told by people who don’t know me that I’m just lazy and can’t be bothered to do all the legwork myself with the various agencies. I obviously take issue with this, but it’s water off a duck’s back. What these people fail to acknowledge is that the entire point of the GIRFEC approach is to pick up problems before they become obvious enough for the State to identify which children do and do not need targeted support. In the case of older children and teenagers, it’s entirely feasible that the child has worries and concerns that their parents simply don’t know about, but which are apparent at school or in other settings, and it’s hard not to see a certain possessive attitude at play with the campaigners who care so deeply about their family’s privacy that they would deny that alternative source of support to their children.
You see, what the Children and Young People Act is saying, to every child and every young person in Scotland, is that the Government cares about you. Not, god forbid, because they think you’re at risk of serious harm, not because they think there’s a risk you’ll end up in prison and a burden on the State, not just because they need to keep you in mainstream schooling because they can’t afford to run special schools, not just because they need to keep the attainment and exam pass figures up, but because you are growing up in Scotland and we as a society have a collective responsibility for your wellbeing. As a mother with concerns about how my son will cope when he goes to secondary school this knowledge is extremely comforting.
As outlined above, some parents don’t see it this way and dislike the implication that their children are equally vulnerable, seeing it as a reflection on their own parenting. Fair enough, lots of people are uncomfortable with what they see as the “Nanny State”. But surely they couldn’t object if the same Government decided to give a gift to every newborn child to ensure they get the best possible start in life? Oh you bet they could.
Bring on baby boxes, a really lovely idea that originated in Finland. From this summer every mother of a newborn baby in Scotland will be given a box of essentials including clothes, bedding, useful items such as a thermometer, reusable nappies, breast pads, etc., and the really ingenious part is that the box itself comes with a mattress so that it can be used as baby’s first bed. The box is intended to be an incentive for the mother to engage with antenatal services, thus boosting maternal health, as well as providing a cheap, safe place for the baby to sleep and avoid the need for an expensive Moses basket or crib. The cost is estimated at £6 million a year, although there are suggestions this may now have risen a little.
What better symbol could there be that in Scotland every child is born equal? Obviously we know that’s not the case in reality, no one is that naive, but it’s a signal of intent on the part of the Government that you’d imagine would be welcomed by everyone. Not so. Again, among a minority of the Scottish public and the Scottish Conservatives, there was outrage. “What a waste of public money?”, they cried. “If people can’t afford to clothe their baby then what are they doing giving birth to one?” Conversely, “I can afford to clothe my baby perfectly well thank you, why would I need a gift from the Government?” “The Government expects my baby to sleep in a box!”. And so on. So poor people who would welcome this gift have no right having babies to begin with, and wealthy people who can afford these things themselves are outraged at money being “wasted” by the Government on their children. So much for all children being born equal.
And so we come back to the UK Government’s two child policy. The argument goes that if you can’t afford to support your children then you shouldn’t have had them, and you certainly should not have more than two. It was belatedly realised that this couldn’t hold in all circumstances, which is how the morally indefensible “rape clause” came into being, but the principle stands firm. I’ve had a number of robust discussions over the past few days with other women who are adamant that parents should be made to “take personal responsibility” for their decisions. There are all sorts of rebuttals to be made, reminding people that circumstances change, parents re-marry or sadly die, jobs are lost, and so on. But there’s a weak link in the “take personal responsibility” argument that is rarely openly acknowledged by its proponents. Children do not ask to be born. What this policy is more or less overtly saying is that if a child has more than one older sibling then the UK State washes its hands of them. They are less worthy of support, and their wellbeing – in bitter contrast to the Scottish GIRFEC model – is irrelevant to the UK Government.
The advocates of the two child policy are quite obviously saying that some children are more equal than others. But so are the opponents of the baby box, who think there is no case for giving every child an equal start, and so are the opponents of the Children and Young People Act, who think that only children from obviously “problem” backgrounds should have people looking out for their wellbeing. And this is why I am so passionate about the policies of universalism advanced by our Scottish Government. The measures I’ve talked about here merely scratch the surface, but they show a government moving in the right direction. Every child, no matter their family background, deserves the very best chance in life that we as a society can give them.