When Ungagged asked me if I’d like to write something about the baby box stooshie my initial reaction was to think it might be too depressing. But then I thought no, that’s how the Tories want us to feel. So here goes.
It all started with a Guardian story based on two pillars: one, that that a cot death expert had questioned the use of baby boxes as safe sleeping spaces and two, that the baby box does not have safety accreditation.
On the first point, there’s no reason to doubt the expertise of the person making the comments. But, as the Guardian itself reported, he is but one of a large panel of experts advising the Scottish Government on the baby box. Experts don’t always agree but the norm is to go with majority opinion.
On the second point, yes there is no single safety accreditation for the baby box for the simple reason that no such thing exists yet, though it is reported to be in development. But the baby box and its contents meet all relevant safety standards currently in place and the Scottish Government has given a commitment to ensure it complies with any new standard that is introduced.
The story was continued the next day, with suggestions that the SNP had exaggerated the impact of the baby box in reducing child mortality in Finland. This was based on a close analysis of websites, speeches and years-old tweets.
Let’s be absolutely, scrupulously fair and say that you could make a case for this. It’s possible that some claims which were made about the baby box could be interpreted as being overstated. Fair cop. But if you subject claims made by any human beings to a close analysis you will find parts that are overstated. Including in the Guardian’s story.
On the key point, the Scottish Government has never claimed that the baby box will reduce cot death and the Guardian had to amend its article to reflect this reality. The case for the baby box in Scotland is exactly the same as it is in Finland – it is part of a wider range of supports for parents and children to encourage engagement with maternity and ante-natal services and give all children the best start in life.
Now all of this might have been fine – journalists are perfectly entitled to subject government policies to close scrutiny – were it not for the toxic interaction between newspaper stories and political opportunism that characterises much of Scottish politics.
Because the story was not only picked up by other newspapers but exploited by the Conservatives (and, shamefully, a few Labour voices) via an outbreak of concern-trolling on twitter and in the Scottish Parliament itself. Calls were made for information on safety accreditation to be published, even though it already was.
This led to an interesting diversion caused by the First Minister who questioned why the Tories were so dead set against the baby box. Was it simply because it was SNP policy? Was it because they preferred to take state support away from families rather than provide it? Or was it because there was no rape clause defining eligibility to receive it?
The latter comment was, apparently, beyond the pale. The rape clause is far too obscene to be mentioned in polite society, you see. It spoils the discourse. Now, I quite agree the rape clause is obscene. That is precisely why it should be raised in polite society at every single opportunity until the Tories finally acknowledge its obscenity, get their discourse together and do something about it.
But back to the baby box. At the end of it all we’re left with the question, are baby boxes safe? Yes, they are.
We all bring our own experience to bear when reading stories like this and my own experience, as someone whose job regularly brings me into contact with health professionals, is that the NHS tends to be pretty risk averse. For me, the idea that the Chief Medical Officer and the serried ranks of health professionals behind her would support anything that potentially places babies at risk is ludicrous. This is just a personal opinion, of course, but one which I suspect would be shared by most people with experience of how the NHS operates.
I’ve talked to health visitors who think the baby box is a fantastic initiative, not only because it ensures that every parent can have a box of essential items ready for bringing baby home but because it provides a simple and effective way to work with and support new mums and dads, especially those who don’t have the help of other experienced parents around them to draw on. This includes talking about safe sleep. If I’m asked to choose between the opinion of health visitors and the opinion of Tory MSPs, I’m going with the health visitors every time.
So what have we learned from all of this? Apart from the fact that the Sun never knows when to stop, the main thing, I think, is that the politicians who made hay with these various stories did so because they were against the baby box to begin with. And maybe we need to ask the same question as Nicola Sturgeon. What is it about the baby box that makes Tories so very angry?
I think I know the answer. It’s because people like it.
My view, to be fair, is largely based on anecdotal evidence. I don’t know what polling has been done on the subject but the large uptake of baby boxes suggests that parents like it. And so do other people.
What do people like about it? It’s not necessarily the specific policy imperatives it is designed to support. I suspect it is much simpler than that.
They just like the idea of the government providing – on our behalf – a gift for every newborn child. They like what that says – welcome to the world, little one, we care about you, we want you to have a good life and we want to help. They like the fairness of treating every baby equally. They like the generosity which, even in tough times, can find a helpful way to welcome each little miracle of life. They like it because it’s a lovely thing to do and they have no time for mean-spirited penny pinchers who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
That’s what makes the Tories angry but they’re just going to have to get used to it. The baby box is here to stay and I for one am delighted about that.