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Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged Lord Laming's recommendation that information sharing is absolutely vital. He clearly welcomed the amendments to the provisions proposed by the Lords. He was complimentary about some of the information that is coming from his own trailblazer. He has asked for details about the consultation process throughout the passage of the Bill, and he now has them. Is he not just grandstanding when we should be getting on with cracking these thorny issues and making information sharing a reality for the safety of all our children?

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady is absolutely right that it is essential to make information sharing a reality, but although we are told that the method in the Bill is the only way of doing that, we do not know exactly how it will work. Information sharing is a sensitive subject, as I shall illustrate with comments made by the British Medical Association and sexual health clinics. We need to get the system right or it could be entirely counter-productive. People will not present themselves if they do not want information to be shared by others, so although the principle of information sharing is right, we need a proper system. We have said all along that we do not understand how putting the names of 11.5 million children on a database—we do not yet know the extent of the other details that might be included—will benefit the tens of thousands of children who could realistically be described as children at risk or vulnerable children.

Mr. Dawson: The hon. Gentleman is entirely missing the point, which is surely that it is difficult to define the children who are at risk. The Government's proposal would flag up causes of concern among professionals, which would help to identify the children who are missed under existing systems—they will certainly be missed under any of his proposals.

Tim Loughton: We will come on to the definition of "cause for concern" in a moment because that is another worry. I still cannot understand how overloading a system with the details of 11.5 million children would help those who are most at risk. Many of the missing children to whom the hon. Gentleman rightly often refers—we debated them in Committee—will remain missing if such databases are in place because their parents, carers or private fosterers often want them to remain missing, but that is an entirely separate issue.

I want to pose some more questions to the Minister, although I want other hon. Members to have the opportunity to speak. She has said:

We do not know how close we are to having available for the database information technology that would be interoperable with other services. We have received no assurances about security of access. We do not know which identifying marks will be used—will they be NHS or national insurance numbers? Clause 12(4)(h) is a catch-all provision that states that

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may be included on the databases. What does that mean? What could be included? How long will the information be kept on the system? How will the system address the Soham loophole? Will information on children be kept after they reach 18?

Several problems have emerged due to conflicts in the proposals since the publication of the consultation document. A range of listed persons or bodies will be compelled to disclose information. There will be no caveats or exceptions to that requirement, except for the medical ones that I mentioned. When the Minister was asked in Committee about professional judgment, which we support, she said that permitting it would

That effectively overrides the essential need for professional judgment to be applied, although we were promised that throughout the passage of the Bill. What will be the penalties for non-disclosure? Who will judge whether a case of non-disclosure was intentional or accidental? What will happen following a case of non-disclosure?

It is interesting to note that paragraph 2.19 of the consultation document states that a practitioner can override a professional duty of confidentiality to place a flag on the database. However, paragraphs 2.22 and 3.25 say that a practitioner may not be able to share information because of a duty of confidentiality. That raises the amusing possibility that two practitioners could flag the database and contact each other, yet be unable to discuss their reasons for doing so—such is the craziness of the consultation document and the Minister's proposals.

We have received strong expressions of concern from many professionals. The BMA asked:

It understands that

how the logistics and any extra work load requirements will be addressed.

I recently received a letter from Brook Advisory Centres saying:

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As one user of the service said:

Brook and many children's charities are worried about how the database system will work.

Given that the Government are proposing such an important step change to the way in which we put information about each of our children on systems, they need to be better prepared and further down the road than they are at present. If they do not give us the real assurances that we need, they should consider removing the clause from the Bill. They could then do the work on it that is required and bring it back as a part of a criminal justice Bill. Such legislation could address the Soham loophole and related problems with databases that we have at the moment.

New clause 4, which we did not get to discuss in Committee, would set up an appeals procedure. There is no appeals procedure in the Bill that relates to any of the databases. There is therefore no defence against wrong information being placed on a database—wrong information that may be vexatious, which has been placed there as a result of a complaint made by a child against a teacher or a parent. Those records—we do not know the extent of what may be kept—may be kept for an indeterminate period and if used may count against the person mentioned. Surely, as with any other such database, there should be a mechanism by which people who want to challenge the veracity and relevance of the information stored about them can do so. There are no safeguards in the Bill, and that is a deep worry. Wrong information about people could be placed on the database either accidentally or intentionally, and their lives and records could be unjustifiably blighted as a result.

None of that detracts from the requirement, the necessity and the desirability of placing on the database worrying information about those who might be dangerous to vulnerable people. That is what databases should be about. However, we need proper checks and balances. At no point during the passage of the Bill have the Government provided reassurances on how an appeals mechanism could work and how long the information will be kept.

Amendment No. 17 would limit the Secretary of State to setting up one database. We now know why the Government resisted a similar amendment in Committee, saying that it might be appropriate for other databases to be set up. We are to have databases coming out of our ears, it would appear. The Minister claimed that accepting the amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from setting up a regional or a London-wide database, for example. There is a strong case for a London-wide database because of the nature of and interaction between all the boroughs in London, and the Climbié case clearly underlined that. I have no problem with that, but the Bill as it stands could facilitate it through co-operation between authorities.
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In order to allay the Minister's objections to the amendment that we moved in Committee, we have slightly changed the wording so that it refers to facilitating "regional databases where appropriate". As we have gone that far to accommodate the Minister's concerns, perhaps she will tell us which other databases, about which we do not yet know, she envisages the Secretary of State will need to set up and which the amendment would prevent.

Amendment No. 18 is about the definition of "cause for concern". Hon. Members have mentioned the reference to it in clause 12(4)(g). This strange phrase has come out of the blue. To what types of concern does it refer? It would appear that it is intended to be all-encompassing: any concern about a child's behaviour, circumstances or developmental progress. By what standards are children and parents to be measured and a judgment on concern to be made?

As the Barnardo's briefing said:

It certainly does not appear in the Children Act 1989. That contains

We need qualification of what the phrase really means. If we do not know what it means, practitioners in the field who will have to put the legislation into practice daily—GPs, social workers, teachers, the school nurse, the police—will be confused. They need to operate under one standard—hence the amendment suggests that we identify "cause for concern" and that a basis for it should be set out in national guidance. As I said in Committee, that guidance should be distributed among the professional bodies concerned, to ensure that all professionals sing from the same song sheet and operate under similar thresholds.

Amendment No. 38, which we have co-signed with the Liberals, and amendment No. 19, which we have tabled alone, are about not disclosing information if it would be detrimental to the child's welfare. That is self-explanatory, and we went into it at length in Committee. Extraordinarily, the Minister again did not take the point on board, although it is clearly in the interests of vulnerable children that such a provision should be in the Bill. We hope that the slight re-wording will make it more acceptable.

3.15 pm

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