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Children Bill [Lords]

Children Bill [Lords]

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Standing Committee B

Thursday 21 October 2004

(Morning)

[Dame Marion Roe in the Chair]

Children Bill [Lords]

Clause 9

Information databases

8.55 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 34, in

    clause 9, page 7, line 21, leave out 'one or more databases' and insert 'a United Kingdom-wide database'.

Welcome back to the Chair, Dame Marion. In the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), let me say how appropriate it is that your return is accompanied by the sun's rays tripping through the autumn sky, across an azure-blue background poking fun at the gun-grey clouds of despair that haunted our proceedings earlier in the week. My hon. Friend extends his apologies that he will not be joining us this morning. I am sure that the Committee will wax less lyrical as a consequence, but I shall try my best to fill in for him.

The clause is very important and I anticipate that the Committee will take a fair amount of time to discuss it. I shall talk in fairly general terms about the whole clause, unless you indicate that we shall have a clause stand part debate, Dame Marion. I would be happy to defer a more general discussion until that stage.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible suggestion. Also, as it is very warm in this Room, hon. Members may remove their jackets if they so wish.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful, Dame Marion.

Information databases are an important aspect of the Bill. We agree with the proposal in principle, but there are still enormous gaps in what the Government have set out in the clause, despite the amendments made to it in the upper House, and it remains little short of Horlicks, if that is a parliamentary term. We need far greater clarification from the Minister this morning before we can support the clause, because we do not know what we would be supporting. She admitted that the consultation documents are not available yet anyway, so we do not know what we will be consulting on.

The point of the database is clearly to fulfil Herbert Laming's strong suggestion in the Climbie report that there should be more joined-up working between all professionals involved in child protection. To facilitate that, we need joined-up information sharing, as I am sure the entire Committee would agree. What is proposed is quite radical and drastic, but it probably

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needs to be so to avert in future the sort of tragedies that happened with Victoria Climbie and all the others, whom we do not hear so much about.

In effect, however, the clause gives the Government the powers to institute what can only be described as a surrogate identity card scheme for young people. That sets off an awful lot of alarm bells with people who are already sceptical about more databases and ID cards for the population in general, so it is essential that we get the clause right. Amendment No. 34, to subsection (1), would limit the Secretary of State to one database—we need to get one database right. The clause gives him the power to set up any number of databases, and we need to question seriously what he intends to do.

As I said, improvements were made to the clause in the upper House, largely at the suggestion of my noble Friend Earl Howe. We were able to persuade the Government to add a number of conditions about the content of the regulations, such as the sort of information that could be kept on such databases and the time for which it could be kept. We also sought an assurance that medical records would not be kept on the database. I shall return to that issue on a later amendment, as we want to know whether that could still happen under some of the catch-all subsections in the clause.

The Government launched some 14 trailblazer authorities. I am not sure whether there are still 14; I think that about a dozen are still going. They included my own local authority, West Sussex county council, which has done a lot of work in this area and, in many respects, is in the lead. I have had many conversations with people at the council who are playing a leading role, and I pay tribute to them for what they have done. I disagree with the approach that they are taking, but they are doing a comprehensive job.

The point is that those trailblazers are only halfway through. It is only recently that they have applied for second-wave funding to complete their research. We are therefore being asked to write a blank cheque both for local authorities to set up a database, about which I am less concerned, and for the Secretary of State to set up any number of databases, the conditions for which are exceedingly vague, the purposes of which are not determined, and the operation of which has not yet been decided. Their operation cannot yet have been decided because the Government's own trailblazers have not yet reported. A still greater concern is that the trailblazing teams are not all talking to each other. They are doing a lot on their own but, they tell me, there has been no joined-up working between them. We could end up with a host of different suggestions being made.

We must know what we are committing ourselves to in a clause that gives the Secretary of State enormous powers over information held on 11.5 million children throughout the country. We need many more assurances from the Minister before we can support the sort of proposals that are being made.

Great concern is being expressed by many professionals about how many of those databases there will be. There is particular concern among the

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medical profession about a number of issues. The British Medical Association asked a number of questions:

    ''How do Ministers envisage collating information required under Clause 9(4)?

    Will they use the route of the automated Exeter Registration System which is run by PCOs to collate the information?

    Whose responsibility will it be to provide the information -primary care organisations or individual GP practices?

    What impact will the requirements have on GP practices and primary care?

    Some children are not eligible for NHS treatment, such as those who come to this country with their parents who are working here short term. How will these children be identified?''

We need to give assurances to the medical profession in particular, because it is an important player; otherwise, it will not contribute as the other contributors to, and monitors of, the database would want it to.

Currently, professionals can break confidentiality rules in cases in which they are concerned about abuse or neglect of children. However, the Bill appears to extend that power further, so we need to clarify and spell out exactly who can breach confidentiality, who can be informed of the facts resulting from that breach, and in what circumstances. My reading of the clause is that it fails to do that.

On security, there are also fears about who will be able to access the databases. Will the sort of people from whom we are trying to protect children be able to gain access to the data under the accessibility regulations of the Data Protection Act 1998? We need assurances from the Minister on that matter. I know that it is not her intention that such people should be able to gain access to the data, but we must make the provisions watertight.

I am afraid that Governments—not just this Government—do not have a good record on setting up IT systems. The recent revelations about the rocketing IT bill for the NHS are not great cause for comfort in our attempts to get this database right, to make sure that it is set up and to make sure that it is affordable. That is why I want to limit the Secretary of State to one national database, which is clearly set out, aside from the ones that may operate locally. That is the point of the amendment, to which I keep trying to return to stay in order.

The big concern of many of the children's groups is that we will have information overload. The NSPCC has said that information sharing alone is not a substitute for critical understanding and reasoned decision making. It points out that those dealing with the concerns about Victoria Climbie were in possession of information indicating that she was at risk, but failed to understand its significance. It concludes that too much poor-quality information will not aid decision making about children; instead it will make it more difficult. That is an important point.

I asked the Minister on Second Reading how putting details of my children and those of other Members, whom I hope are not at risk, on to a national database with 11.5 million other children will improve

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protection for, and promote the welfare of, vulnerable children. That groups includes both those already on child protection registers and those who need to go on a register for enhanced monitoring and protection.

In Children Now magazine, Lisa Harker from the Daycare Trust mentioned comments from the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who warned in an article in The Times about

    ''sleepwalking into a surveillance society''.

This will be another database that, as I said at the outset, will be a radical change in giving the Government Big Brother-style powers in their crudest sense. Those powers must be justified. Having information for the sake of it will not necessarily help the children. Lisa Harker herself says:

    ''We need to avoid making professionals slaves to technology by placing undue burdens on them to record information. And we should question whether the benefits of storing copious information about children are offset by the disadvantages of information overload and creeping surveillance.''

Barnardo's has said that

    ''the lack of clarity and the duty imposed on a wide range of professionals . . . to disclose information for inclusion in the database may lead to a culture where recording concerns becomes an automatic response; a 'form filling' exercise rather than a reasoned process of professional assessment with a direct connection to the provision of services. We fear that professionals may be drawn into recording masses of concerns without any one person taking responsibility for acting and being accountable for the outcomes experienced by the many children, young people and families in need of support.''

Even one database, to which we are trying, through the amendment, to limit the Secretary of State, may contain just an enormous mass of low-grade information that does not contribute one iota to helping vulnerable children.

A lack of clarity in the establishment of the database could seriously damage relationships among children, their families and professionals. If children think that confidential information about them is being passed to people to whom they would not want it passed, and it cannot be described as in their best interests because they are vulnerable, they are less likely to come forward to professionals for help with their problem, medical or otherwise.

We will come on to the phrase ''cause for concern'' in subsection (4)(g), which is particularly contentious. I know that other hon. Members will join in that debate, so I will not go into that.

We also have serious concerns about the complete absence of any appeals procedure, and I may come back to that later. We are setting up a national database and several local databases, putting potentially very damaging and damning information about certain individuals—parents or other professionals—in connection with children who are deemed to be vulnerable or at risk. Nowhere in the Bill, certainly in the clause and especially in subsection (1), to which the amendment pertains, is there any mention of an appeals procedure whereby parents or other professionals can challenge information about them that may not be justified.

I have looked back at a couple of other Acts, which I considered as Bills in Committee, to see what procedures were put in place that are pertinent in this

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case. In the Adoption and Children Act 2002 there is a clear safety net in the form of a review of determinations concerning children going into care and, ultimately, adoption. In the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, in which we set up a leviathan structure of powers concerning the financial services community and protection for its customers, there are clear sections about setting up tribunals and having reviews of contestable decisions. There are no such provisions anywhere in this Bill.

If a database is to be set up—whether a national one established by the Secretary of State or a local one—there will be scope for vexatious information to be put on it by certain professionals who do not like certain parents. Vexatious information about professionals could also be added, and information about a one-off incident that is never likely to be repeated could be kept. However, there is no way for the target or victim of that information to challenge its veracity or the fact that it will be kept on a national or local database for an indeterminate length of time. We need checks and safeguards for databases containing large amounts of information.

Giving the Secretary of State enormous powers to set up a multitude of databases—not just the one that we are trying to limit him to—with all sorts of Henry VIII-style, catch-all powers under regulation, causes great concern. We need to strike a far better balance; it is only fair for those people at which the finger of blame is pointed because they are seen to be a risk to children in some way. There must be a right of appeal in certain circumstances.

I could go on, but several amendments to this important clause have been tabled. If we are to give the Secretary of State the powers outlined in the clause, we must know exactly how he will use them, how people can relate to them, and how people can be protected against them being used in ways that we do not intend. The amendment would tie the Secretary of State down to a national database, which would not contain lots of information but act as signposting, across local authority boundaries, between certain professionals who have had contact with vulnerable children.

Experience has shown that transient children are the most vulnerable. They may be in the care of Newcastle authority one minute and appear in Brighton or Norfolk the next. A proper national database is essential so that when a child comes into contact with an authority, it can check whether the child has any form and whether concerns have been expressed by professionals in other authorities. Under the rules of the child protection register, when a child leaves one authority, another authority must be notified. If only it were that simple. Too many children disappear off the radar, and they tend to be the most vulnerable.

Setting up a national database that can cross-reference as much information as possible about who knows best about a child, so that the professional in Brighton knows to talk to the director of children's services, or whoever, in Newcastle, where the child was last recorded, is the best way to try to keep tabs on vulnerable children. We need to tie down the purposes and mechanisms of that national database much more

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tightly than the clause does. The amendment would initiate some strict definitions of what the databases will achieve and how they will operate. I apologise for being so long-winded.

 
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