Big Brother Scotland

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• Every child on a mass database

• Every child monitored from the womb

• Every child’s file available for ‘sharing’

Part I of an SR investigation by Kenneth Roy

On the few occasions when it has attracted the attention of the Scottish press, invariably as a result of some Scottish Government-inspired media release, the scheme has been hailed as ‘a new approach to helping troubled children’ or ‘a new initiative for vulnerable youngsters’. It is indeed difficult to find a bad word spoken or written against GIRFEC (‘Getting It Right For Every Child’), which is now being piloted in five Scottish local authorities before it is rolled out across the country.
     GIRFEC has been marketed to compliant journalists – and, more generally, to the unsuspecting public – as a benevolent information-sharing project, enabling social work and education professionals, the police, doctors and health workers to co-operate more closely in identifying children at risk. Parroting the mantra ‘early intervention’ and invoking one or two notorious cases, GIRFEC’s promoters assure us that the project is ‘cutting bureaucracy’ and ‘achieving results’. These assurances have been swallowed whole without proper scrutiny of the claims or, more generally, of the underlying agenda.
     For reasons known only to the Scottish government and its partners, we have not been told the whole truth about GIRFEC: that, although it is ostensibly a child protection scheme concerned to help a tiny minority, it is actually the basis for the eventual profiling and surveillance of every child in Scotland.


It seems that, potentially at least, there is nothing in a child’s life which is outside the orbit of the all-seeing, all-noting, all-sharing GIRFEC.


     This profoundly disturbing fact is, of course, nowhere to be found in those masterpieces of obfuscation, the official guidelines. Highland Council, organiser of the first of the pilots, has issued a briefing so vague about GIRFEC’s intentions and methods that it is virtually meaningless. The document fails to explain the nature of the information being gathered about children, how the information is gathered, and how many children are involved. Instead, there is the usual resort to cloudy official-speak.
     We need your child’s information in order to deliver services in an integrated manner. this [no capital letter] is sometimes known as integrated assessment. We share your child’s information so that neither you nor your child will be asked the same basic questions over and over again.
     What basic questions? There is not a single example given.
     Other councils’ guidelines – perhaps significantly these tend to be councils not yet involved in the scheme – are more forthcoming. One local authority, referring to the recommended ‘practice model’, states that information about children should be recorded initially around ‘Events, Observations, Concerns and other relevant information’. What does this impressive succession of capital letters signify? How much personal data does it amount to? Is it as worryingly comprehensive as it sounds? Apart from events, observations and concerns what is left that could possibly qualify as ‘other relevant information’?
     According to one vigilant parent who has been monitoring GIRFEC, children are asked whether they have pets and, if so, the names of these pets. The ‘relevance’ of such information is not immediately obvious, unless having pets counts as a concern. It seems that, potentially at least, there is nothing in a child’s life which is outside the orbit of the all-seeing, all-noting, all-sharing GIRFEC.
     The information-gathering (and sharing) ends when a child reaches adulthood at the age of 18. When it begins is a matter of some dispute. Some guidelines say at birth when the ‘Named Person’ (a phrase worthy of Orwell) responsible for the record-keeping is a health visitor, who turns the file over to a head teacher, and possibly a social worker, and possibly a doctor and a nurse, and possibly even the police, when the child goes to school. Other guidelines insist that the process starts pre-birth with a midwife as the ‘Named Person’: it seems that GIRFEC’s scope extends even to the womb.
     Let us then disabuse ourselves of any lingering notion that this is a simple, old fashioned health record. It is obviously very much more. But at least we are still talking about children, including babies, including the pre-born, considered at risk. Or are we?


What we are witnessing in Scotland, piece by piece, local authority by local authority, is the establishment of a vast database of personal information about our children.


     To get at the full story about GIRFEC, it is necessary to access an obscure document issued in 2008 by the ‘Transformational Technologies Division’ of the Scottish government. This emphatically disposes of the theory assiduously put about by the Scottish government and its friends in the media that GIRFEC’s sole concern is the protection of vulnerable children. Here is the relevant paragraph (we have not attempted to correct the grammar or punctuation: it is as published):
     It is important that this Model [the model for GIRFEC’s information-sharing] is designed to take account of all children and their needs. The Model can be applied to children who require no additional support to children with complex needs. It is relevant for all children, since information recorded in universal agency systems, could become critical in understanding a child’s journey may help to aid decision making when they require inter-agency support. This information may be important when viewed alongside another agencies’ information when decisions need to be made on what support a child needs within a single agency (i.e. the recording of day to day information about any child around indicators of well-being; e.g. Healthy – Immunisations, Achieving – Academic attainment etc. This information may appear to have little value when initially recorded but may be of immense value later when pooled together to aid in decision making or where additional support is required and other elements of the Model come into play.
     The abuse of language within that passage is so bad that it should be shared as widely as possible as an outstanding example of bureaucracy at its worst. But let that pass: the message is clear enough even if the method of communicating it is execrable.
     What we are witnessing in Scotland, piece by piece, local authority by local authority, is the establishment of a vast database of personal information about our children. This intrusion into privacy – in effect surveillance of the population – is unknown to most parents, yet is being actively encouraged, indeed sponsored, by successive Holyrood administrations. This largely hidden scheme raises not only practical issues about the use and security of the data, but deeply troubling ethical questions. It is time they were addressed.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permisison of Mr Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.