Social Justice Begins With Babies


Written by Dr Jonathan Sher, on behalf of the Putting the Baby IN the Bathwater coalition


According to more than 100 of Scotland’s most respected organisations and distinguished individuals, the growing political momentum toward social justice has largely overlooked a crucial opportunity to achieve it. The ‘Putting the Baby IN the Bathwater’coalition has come together since autumn 2013 to convince Scottish policymakers to add what these experts in health, social welfare, and children’s issues see as a missing piece of the puzzle.


The title of the coalition’s first annual report reveals their core message: Social Justice Begins With Babies.From six Royal Colleges and the Scottish Directors of Public Health to an impressively diverse array of professionals, academics, faith groups, children’s organisations and parent groups, the coalition advocates for much more robust governmental action to prevent harm and promote wellbeing during the first 1,001 days of life (from pre-birth to pre-school). 


For example, while agreeing that ‘closing the gap’ in educational attainment is absolutely the right thing to do, they assert that ‘preventing the gap’ from opening in the first place is the urgently needed new priority. Although later interventions can be very helpful, this coalition underscores that “there is no second chance to make a good first impression on the brains, bodies and behaviours of babies and toddlers”. 


Building upon the findings of the Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services in Scotland and other relevant Scottish evidence, the coalition points out that “society pays a huge price for waiting until children have been harmed before rushing in to ‘clean up the mess’.” Its report makes the case that prevention is both less costly and more effective than reactive crisis management.


During its first year, the coalition focused on influencing the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill. Most of the goals the coalition spelled out in its collective evidence (called Putting the Baby IN the Bath Water were incorporated into the final legislation. The coalition worked with Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and the Scottish Government to ensure the final legislation included:

  • A requirement for a prevention element in all children’s services planning (so that “it is now the law; not just a good idea”); 
  • A duty for public bodies to provide (from pregnancy) more services and better support for mothers, fathers and carers of children at risk of becoming looked after; and, 
  • Funding for 500 new health visitors within Scotland’s early years workforce. 

The 100+ participants in this dynamic coalition have pledged to assist the public sector in turning these good intentions into equally good realities. They promise to remain active “until the intended beneficiaries are actually benefiting”

This coalition has also identified its five priorities for action over the next year:

  • Making the prevention duty in children’s services plans more than words on paper;
  • Helping public bodies to prepare well to deliver extra help to mothers, fathers and carers – with the intent to advance ‘primary prevention’;
  • Assisting in the preparation of the 500 new health visitors;
  • Encouraging MSPs to eliminate an existing Scots law (because they argue that “there is no such thing as a ‘justifiable assault’ on a baby by an adult”); and,
  • Seeking to amend the Additional Support for Learning (Scotland) Act, so that all children who could benefit from this law are fully eligible from birth (rather than it remaining limited to ‘disabled’ children, if under the age of three).

The coalition states that while prevention and the early years receive an increasing amount of favourable comment, this rhetorical support must be translated into much greater investment and more meaningful action. 


These experts point out that “overwhelming international evidence from all the relevant fields has brightly illuminated the path Scotland should travel.” They are convinced that primary prevention (i.e. keeping inequality and social injustice from happening in the first place) is one key. They are also united by their shared understanding that robust, effective support for babies and their mothers, fathers and carers during the first 1,001 days of life offers a uniquely valuable opportunity to break Scotland’s cycle of inequality. 


The coalition concedes that eliminating poverty and decreasing inequality throughout Scotland will be neither quick nor easy. It applauds the fact that the Scottish Government has identified increased ‘social justice’ and decreased ‘inequality’ as its priorities. There is, in fact, broad cross-party agreement at Holyrood in favour of making social justice real across Scotland. This coalition’s sees its special contribution as ensuring the reality that social justice begins with babies will not be forgotten or placed on the back burner.


Dr Jonathan Sher

Scotland Director, WAVE Trust

Informal coordinator of the Putting the Baby in the Bathwater (BinB) coalition


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