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Mrs. Brooke: Many of the comments that the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) made underline our feeling that we are being asked to sign a blank cheque. Many questions remain unanswered. Despite last week's publication of the consultation document, I still believe that we have more questions than answers. We are not trying to be obstructive but it is difficult to vote on such an important issue without more details.

There is a problem of being out of synch when we hear on Report that some matters will not be concluded until January. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) but I want to place it firmly on record that I do not agree with his general stance. We need local databases with objective data and I cannot believe that they should be restricted to those identified as vulnerable. I therefore distance Liberal Democrat Members from that viewpoint. If we are genuinely to move towards a preventive agenda, we must have basic, simple information on everybody.

I repeat the anxieties that I raised in Committee. Once one moves away from objective data into the subjective realm, my concerns increase. Let us consider the term, "cause for concern". I have just used the word "concern"; everyone else uses it. There is no definition and I am not sure that I want anyone to start defining it. If we ask different professionals from different backgrounds to flag up a cause for concern on a database that will become available for other people to see, we must worry about the use to which it might be put.

The consultation document suggested that the intention was for a flag to be attached if one professional wanted to talk to another. I do not want to belittle that because I should like the Minister to respond to the point. I do not understand how the proposal will make it any more likely that people will communicate with each other. For example, one either looks at one's e-mails or one does not. Someone either opens the database and
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knows which children they need to look up to find the flag or they do not. I do not understand how it will work. It sounds simple: an indication that someone wants to talk to someone else. However, I cannot understand how it will work when there are so many children and when other systems of communication are far more direct. We all say that our professionals need to communicate directly with one another if we are genuinely to protect our children and intervene at the earliest possible stage.

I found the consultation document easier to follow on sensitive services. The Minister had picked up the points that many organisations raised but it is important to note that the NSPCC remained concerned about the Bill. It might be fairly content about subjects for consultation but the measure permits the disclosure that someone has accessed sensitive services. I fear that that will put off young people and parents from using the services. I am not assured about that matter.

I have tried to make it clear that I agree with some provisions and take a different approach from Conservative Front-Bench Members to others. Overall, we have more questions than answers and we must vote to express that opinion. It must be rare to have so many unanswered questions about a major Bill at this stage in the proceedings. I hope that I am making clear our support for the some provisions but despite that, we must vote to express our anxiety, which centres especially around the subjective nature of any data on the database.

Although we support the local databases, I should have liked some suggestion of the options for passing on data when the child moves. I do not perceive the necessity for a national database per se, but mechanisms must exist. There must be different methods and we need to be able to assess them and have an opinion. The proposal will not work if it is viewed as a massive intrusion into one's life by a national database that has masses of information about everybody. However, some of the most vulnerable children are those who are moved around for various reasons and I would be distraught if I believed that we had a system that allowed the children who need protecting the most to fall through the gap.

I am sorry that we do not have a range of options. I do not have a full grasp of how the system could work. I simply have an image of the principles that I want the Bill to retain. We cannot be confident that those principles are retained because of the lack of detail in the measure.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): It is obviously necessary to take every measure that we can to protect vulnerable children. Our ability to collect data more effectively and efficiently than in the past does not necessarily mean that it would be sensible to act on it. We should therefore consider the proposals carefully. I support my hon. Friends in their quest for a great deal more information from the Minister.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) made a powerful case. His description of the way in which the Bill runs counter to the proper protection of the individual was impressive. The trouble is that the Minister does not have a good reputation for willingness to listen or for use of data. I am therefore not
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prepared to leave in her hands the decision about the information that goes on to the lists, especially when the provisions are remarkably imprecise. In many years in the House of Commons, I have never known an occasion on which the relevant professional bodies have criticised a Government Bill in such detail for lack of precision. I cannot recall circumstances in which a Minister's hon. Friend made such a devastating attack about data protection.

I was interested that the Brook Advisory Centre, an organisation of which I largely disapprove, singled out a fascinating matter. Information that cannot be given to parents could be given to the state under the Bill. That is a new system. The centres will be asked to put on a database information that they have spent all their time—in my view, wrongly—trying to remove from parents. That is amazing.

Margaret Hodge indicated dissent.

Mr. Gummer: If the Minister claims that that is not correct, why does the Brook Advisory Centre, which is close to her, appear to believe that it may be asked to do things of which it disapproves and that, in its view, would undermine its activities?

Apart from that, I want to discuss the phrase "cause for concern". I am amazed by the causes for concern that people manage to produce. If the phrase is not defined more effectively, I fear that many people in all sorts of areas will have causes for concern that involve their own views and attitudes rather than children. The Minister must free us from our cause for concern, which is lack of precision in the keeping of data about young people, who have the right to be protected in the same way as adults—we live in a world in which far too many people think it satisfactory to keep information about adults.

Lastly, I want to underline something that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said on holding data about those who are vulnerable. The idea that every child should be recorded in that way is immensely illiberal. Indeed, I was very surprised to hear the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), once again underline the illiberality of the new Liberal party.

It is not acceptable to keep data on people for no reason and I cannot see why children should be put on a database unless there is a reason for it. I am perfectly prepared to protect people, even for the smallest of reasons, but the idea that data must be kept on every child in order to protect the vulnerable is the reverse of the truth, because the more data kept, the more likely it is that the data that one needs will be obscured.

The Minister has not proved her case either here or in Committee, and the House of Commons needs a better explanation than the one that she has given. The professional bodies are all as confused as the House.

Margaret Hodge indicated dissent.

Mr. Gummer: It is no good the Minister shaking her head, because the professional bodies have said that they are confused. The Minister may think that those bodies are all stupid, which is an attitude that she often takes towards people outside this House, but the fact of
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the matter is that they are confused. Unless she can remove the confusion of this House and the professional organisations, she will go down as a Minister who wants the power to do things as she thinks fit, and this House does not have confidence in her to do things as she thinks fit, because we have had too much experience of her.

Margaret Hodge: I regret that final contribution. When the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) comes to the House to discuss a serious matter such as this, he should read himself into it so that he can make a more informed contribution. He would do better to return to the Herbert Laming inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié and the many other inquiries into the deaths of children.

Time and time again, such inquiries find that the same features went wrong. One thing that every inquiry into an unnecessary child death finds is that people failed to share information effectively. Our attempt to establish a system—a tool—that professionals can use better to protect and safeguard children and better to promote children's well-being should command respect and support from both sides of the House and should not be pushed around like a political football, as in the case of the remarks made by the right hon. Gentleman.

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