SNP Holyrood manifesto 2016
A year ago on 1 January 2017, a pilot distribution of baby boxes to test the SNP’s manifesto promise (above) began in Clackmannanshire and Orkney. Spontaneous joy, of a sort, erupted amongst SNP politicians including these examples, one an MP from Dundee, the other a councillor from Inverclyde:
My thanks to journalist @MrMcEnaney who retweeted those examples along with his own gloss on the subject:
Fast forward to 3 August 2017, when the SNP tweeted this message:
Note the date. It’s critical to what follows.
Bang on cue, the first minister’s special advisor Kate Higgins chipped in with her version of the claim:
Note, as well as the date, the statement, ‘I’ll find out if details have been put on SG website but I’ve seen the details [my emphasis].’ I cannot find that she ever replied but I can assure you the details were not on the government website that day or for some time after, because I checked.
As a result of the earlier, and disputed, ‘Proven to reduce infant mortality’ claim and the new assertion that the baby boxes had ‘British Safety Standard accreditation’, my interest in the subject was piqued. Were the baby boxes safe and what was the nature of the accreditation they had?
The capitalisation of ‘British Safety Standard’ suggested that there was an agreed set of national safety standards. People who knew better assured me that there is no such thing and my own web search found no evidence of their existence. The nearest anyone could come to the concept was the work of the British Standards Institution, of which safety (and then only some aspects) is just a small part. Sure enough, tucked away on their website was a document called British Standard BS EN 1130-1:1997 Furniture. Cribs and cradles for domestic use. Part 1. Safety requirements: Part 2 deals with ‘Test methods’. You won’t find either of these online since the text is only available to buy, or via an organisation like a library that subscribes to BSI publications. It was, however, suggested to me by someone with access to the document that there was no way any cardboard box could meet the BSI standard.
This raised the question of whether this was the standard that the baby boxes supposedly met.
Since the Scottish government continued to refer opaquely to ‘British safety standards’ the only way to find out what standards the boxes met, if any, was the inquisitive citizen’s stand-by, the Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Between 7 August and 1 October, I submitted three FOI requests to the government, receiving replies on 16 August, 15 September, and 27 October. Much of the material I was sent in reply had been redacted on the grounds of the commercial confidentiality of the government’s suppliers, most starkly in an e-mail that began like this:
and continued for two entirely redacted A4 pages. However, I was able to use the information I could see to answer four questions.
Does the box meet the standards of BS EN 1130-1:1997 in whole or in part?
It took some time to squeeze this information out of the civil service. Their answer was ‘yes’, but only in part, which is not really ‘yes’ at all. The first confirmation came in this statement:
the Baby Box meets all aspects of the standard applicable to it [BS EN 1130-1:1997 Furniture. Cribs and cradles for domestic use]
I queried the phrase ‘all aspects … applicable’ and was provided with this list of the parts of the standard that the box (supposedly) meets:
- 2 Construction
- 2.1 Exposed Edges and Protruding Parts
- 2.2 Holes and Assembly Holes
- 2.8 Small Parts
- 3 Bed Base
- 3.1 Apertures
- 3.2 Sustained Load
- 4 Sides And Ends
- 4.1 Internal Height
- 4.2 Holes and Distance Between Two Structural Members
- 4.6 Strength Testing
- 4.7 Static Load Testing
- 5 Stability Pass
- Instructions for Use
By reference to BS EN 1130-1:1997 itself I was able to see the parts of the standard the box doesn’t meet (as the FOI response did, I have summarised longer descriptions):
- 1 Materials
- 1.1 Wood and wood-based materials
- 1.2 Materials and surfaces
- 1.3 Metal [used in construction]
- 2 Construction
- 2.3 Connecting screws for direct fastening
- 2.4 Castors/wheels shall not be fitted except in [a specified] arrangement
- 2.5 Balancing system on cribs/cradles
- 2.6 Mechanism used for controlling any dropside
- 2.7 Adjustable bed bases
- 2.9 Distance between any frame and the body in a swinging crib/cradle
- 4 Sides And Ends
- 4.3 Mesh sides
- 4.4 Swinging cribs/cradles
- 4.5 Distance between dropside guide rods and crib/cradle posts
Lots of this is very technical and you really need to read the full document to even get half-way to understanding the details. I can see that some of the requirements may not apply, for example ‘4.4.3 Mesh sides’, since the box has no mesh sides. Others however, for example ‘4.1 Materials’, refer only to wood and metals and nowhere in either Part 1 or Part 2 of the standard is there any reference to ‘cardboard.’ Part 2 specifies which tests should be carried out but assumes that a crib has legs and a cradle a rocking mechanism. A cardboard box has neither and without a test certificate, of which more shortly, it is impossible to know whether the tests specified were carried out, for example bending and impact tests that should be applied to the sides of the crib (described in paras. 5.6 and 5.7 of Part 2), let alone what the results were.
Did the government prove the box met the applicable aspects of the standard?
No, it has only asserted that it meets those aspects. Proof would only come with the provision of more documentation. In order for any organisation to claim it meets a British Standard it has to have an independent accreditation agency test a sample of its product (the baby box in this case) against the criteria (described above) of that standard. That agency will then provide a certificate confirming that the product complies with the standard as well as a detailed report of the tests carried out.
I know in principle that such an agency was involved in the government’s baby box scheme because their supplier, the APS Group, confirmed this in an e-mail dated 15 August 2017 and supplied to me in the response received on 27 October to my final FOI request:
Five pages of text each headed with the SGS logo follow this e-mail, almost entirely redacted. Not even their address is visible although it is widely-available and they are a reputable company. My assumption was that the redacted text comprised the test certificate for the baby box and the associated test results, an assumption supported by the only relevant part of the surviving text that reads:
However, in their response to my first FOI request, received on 16 August, the Scottish government wrote:
With regard to your request for copies of certificates relating to compliance with the relevant British safety standards … [t]his information is held by APS Group (Scotland) Limited who has been contracted by Scottish Government to supply the Baby Box. This is a formal notice under section 17(1) of FOISA that the Scottish Government does not have the information you have requested.
This suggests to me:
- either the response of 16 August was incorrect, because the government did have the relevant information attached to APS’ e-mail of 15 August
- or the accreditation agency SGS had sent APS a five page document that despite the text I cite above did not deal with accreditation or its associated tests.
In an e-mail of 13 September, APS Group explained their reticence to someone un-named within the Scottish government:
[I assume ‘cannot not’ is a typo that should just read ‘cannot’]
Four aspects of this statement are of interest.
- I assume IP means ‘intellectual property’ as in intellectual property rights; in this case, the intellectual property rights residing in the construction of a cardboard box.
- As an example of an entirely transparent approach to the (I believe spurious) problem that APS set out, you may wish to see how another commercial organisation, The Baby Box Co., deals with safety standards, a page on their web site linking to both an accreditation certificate and a full test report. If they can do it, why not APS?
- Note APS’s slightly disingenuous statement that ‘individual safety standards and accreditations are widely available on-line’. But not for their box.
- The response illustrates a wider problem related to public sector transparency. Although the scheme is the government’s and funded from our taxes, a contractor provides the box and its contents, which in turn may be sourced from suppliers unknown to the public. So FOI is sometimes of only limited use in answering legitimate enquiries.
Was safety uppermost in the government’s mind throughout the process of commissioning and acquiring the boxes?
As you can see above, the baby box scheme was in the SNP’s manifesto for the (May) 2016 Holyrood election. Once returned to government, they must have treated it as a matter of priority because a three-month pilot ran from January to March 2017. When I put in my final FOI request on the subject, I was careful to ask for:
A copy of all communications between the Scottish Government and its contractor that refer to BS EN 1130-1:1997 explicitly or safety generally (of the box itself, not the contents), to include references in any contract, letters, e-mails, minutes or notes of meetings, and notes of conversations.
I have no reason to doubt the thoroughness and honesty of the response I received to that request so was surprised that all the material I received in return was only in the form of e-mails and attachments, the earliest dated 17 May 2017 from someone in government headed ‘Subject: The Baby Wrap [sic] – the questions. Importance: High’. Most of it has been redacted (fair enough, it probably did not relate to questions I had asked about the box itself). But it includes this paragraph:
So, two and a half months after the pilot ended and only a month before registration for the main scheme began (16 June) reassurances were still being sought about ‘what the box is made of, is it “safe”, flammable etc etc.’
None of this suggests that safety loomed large in the government’s mind throughout the process of commissioning and acquiring the boxes. The answer to my final question confirmed this.
Were the SNP and the first minister’s special advisor being honest in the statements they made on 3 August?
This is where you need to remember the date of 3 August, when the first minister’s special advisor and the SNP (but not as far as I can see the government) tweeted so confidently about the baby box having ‘British Safety Standard accreditation’.
As far as my FOIs are concerned, the day began with an urgent e-mail from the government to APS Group, timed at 09:01:
[‘Mr McD’ was Mark McDonald, the then minister charged with progressing the baby box scheme. He resigned his ministerial post almost three months to the day after this e-mail but because of another matter]
Presumably spotting the urgency in this request, APS replied promptly at 09:19:
A further A4 page and a half of this e-mail has been redacted and no further e-mails on the subject passed between the two parties that day. I have not traced the ministerial interview referred to but there are five specific implications of this last-minute exchange before that interview:
- with baby boxes due to be despatched in twelve days’ time, from 15 August (source here), at least part of government was not sure of the full facts about the safety of the box
- that ‘part of government’ was not a political special advisor or member of the government’s communication team but someone within the precise part of the civil service responsible for implementing the scheme
- notwithstanding the rushed nature of their response, APS were fairly precise (at least in that part of their e-mail that was not redacted) about the nature of the accreditation
- within a matter of hours that day, both the SNP as a political party and the first minister’s special advisor (but not the government itself) were tweeting the misleading generalisation that the box had ‘British Safety Standard accreditation’
- also that day the first minister’s special advisor, Kate Higgins, tweeted in response to an online query that she had ‘seen the details’ of the accreditation. Apart from the redacted text in the APS e-mail, her information can only have come from the material released to me under FOI. One might ask what information she had access to that the professionals didn’t. Or, to put it delicately, was she gilding the lily deliberately?
Two final thoughts about BS EN 1130-1:1997.
First, the box itself comes with this printed on the side:
There is no explanation anywhere of what ‘BSEN1130-1:1997’ means. It is a requirement of accreditation that it be printed on the product but without some explanation it might as well not be there. It also fails to tell the whole story. The standard quoted by the government’s (eventual) admission is met only in part, and not in full as a reasonable reader might assume. The knowledge of which parts are met, and which parts are not, was only obtained through three separate FOI requests. The proof – the test certificates, including the reasoning for dispensing with some of the standard – is entirely obfuscated. This is not good enough. These things are called ‘standards’ because they are precisely that, standards. Any deviation from the standard should be made crystal clear if faith in the certification is to be maintained.
Second, the government have also set up a website called Parent Club that includes a lot of information about the baby box and its contents. When I checked today, it still includes this statement:
There’s still that misleading use of the phrase ‘British Safety Standards’, now ambiguously suggesting an organisation and including an unqualified and untestable (see ‘Did the government prove …’ above) statement that it ‘meets all safety requirements’.
In mitigation it has to be said that the box includes this safety information, also printed on the inside of the lid:
In the course of preparing this article I received information from a number of people, some of whom had just taken delivery of a baby box. Two in particular responded in a way that I suspect many new parents will:
Baby box now received (not that baby will sleep in it!)
Got to say, the baby box is ok. [Partner] thinks it’s a nice gesture, but noted that – on balance – she’d rather have the extra free nursery time she’d get in England. That would be worth many, many times more.
In other words, we’ll not use the box itself for the purpose it was intended, and we’d find extra nursery care much more useful.
The central issue is this. The government say the box is safe. They choose to prove this by asserting it’s accredited to a ‘safety standard’. Only when pressed do they say (in response to my FOI) that means BS EN 1130-1:1997. Only when pressed further do they qualify that statement by saying the accreditation is ‘in part’. Even then, it takes a further FOI request to establish which parts of the standard that means. And they still haven’t, and say they won’t or can’t, produce the documentation that proves their claim.
My own layman’s guess is that the box is probably safe to use for a sleeping baby provided you follow the safety advice and don’t do daft things with it. But to use a legal analogy, the case is pending, the evidence not yet all available. The ball is really in the government’s court: publish the accreditation certificate and test report or remain subject to the doubts that many have expressed.
There are many other aspects of the baby box scheme worthy of examination – some of the claims originally made for the box (see Messrs Law and McEnaney at the beginning of this article); whether it’s enough in tough times to spend that money on a ‘nice gesture’; whether yet another universal benefit is the best way to improve the health of babies or whether it would be better to spend the same money on fewer people who really need help; whether the success of the scheme will be honestly and objectively monitored; and much more. Others have already written effectively about some of these aspects. I may return to others.
My thanks to a number of contacts who helped me with information and suggestions for this article.
As I finalised this article I became aware of a forensic examination of the cost of the baby box scheme, The price of meeting political timetables: baby boxes as a case study. Well worth a read for its conclusion that ‘the baby box policy continues to be a fascinating case study in the operation and scrutiny of government policy-making in contemporary Scotland.’