Children Bill [Lords]

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Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) rightly drew attention to the phrase ''one or more databases''.

9.15 am

The Chairman: Order. I ask the hon. Lady please to shout a little louder as the Hansard recording cannot pick up her voice.

Mrs. Brooke: I am surprised by that request, Dame Marion, as I was a teacher for many years. Perhaps I had the most effective control over my classes by speaking quietly. It is quite embarrassing for a teacher to be told that she is not speaking loudly enough. However, I will try to speak up, and I trust you will remind me if I let my voice drop.

We share the concern about the amount of power that is being placed in the hands of the Secretary of State without having full information about the limits on that power. I am not yet convinced of the case for a United Kingdom-wide database, but I assume that there will be a free and open debate on the subject this morning, which will be a learning exercise for us all.

One reason why I am not convinced is that I have differences with the Conservative Opposition inasmuch as I believe that the purpose of the measure is that there should be a preventative agenda. Therefore the proposal should not be confined to children who have been highlighted as being vulnerable at a particular time. My perspective is different: there is a strong case for a local authority database that contains simple details, some of which are specified in subsection (4), and which cover all children. However, that gives rise to the question about how information is to be shared when a child moves from one authority to another.

In my work as a local councillor, I witnessed many problems when children arrived at a place and there was no information about them, but the existence of a national database will not solve that problem. Local authorities are not notifying sufficiently now, and I am not convinced that they will set to and pass on the necessary data simply because there is a United Kingdom database. I want the Minister to tell me how data will be shared between different local authorities.

I support questioning the Secretary of State's huge power in respect of one or more databases, but at this stage I am not absolutely convinced about the case for a United Kingdom-wide database. How will the provision link to the NHS database for children? The police also have a considerable amount of information and I should be interested to know how they share information between police forces. I have been looking at their new system for sexual offenders and how it is flagged up. Has it been considered as a model for data sharing? That would perhaps allay some of our concerns.

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I do not want a full discussion of the matter, but I will flag up all the questions that the Joint Committee on Human Rights raised, some of which were answered in the interim by the Lords amendment, which we greatly welcome. However, at least half are still unanswered, as far as I can see. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that an answer had been given about how long data would be stored, but I cannot see that in the Bill. Perhaps I am missing something.

Tim Loughton: On the hon. Lady's point on how long information can be kept, the Bill now specifies that regulations must give details about that. We still do not have that information because we do not have any of the regulations, and we are unlikely to get it before the Bill passes through Parliament. However, at least we got a provision into the Bill that the information must be set out at some future stage. She is right to say that the information is not there.

Mrs. Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is exactly right; we just do not know the answer to the question. Is it right to store data beyond the age of 16 or 18 or after an issue in a family has long since been resolved? The problem is that we have seen no draft regulations. I understand that, for many other Bills, draft regulations are available at least before Report.

The Joint Committee's report states clearly that it has written to the Minister asking what the justification is for not dealing with the details of the proposed database—singular—in primary legislation and for answers to the questions that it lists above. I should very much like her to respond to all the outstanding questions during this morning's debate; otherwise, we cannot move on.

Finally, I echo the comments of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham on the concern about the success of Government IT systems generally. Interestingly, just this week we have had the Government response to a Select Committee report on IT and, in turn, the Select Committee's response. The Work and Pensions Committee published the Government response to its

    ''major report into why many IT projects in the public sector become defective, waste large sums of taxpayers' money and cause distress to thousands of clients.''

The potential for distress in the area that we are discussing is incredible, as the hon. Gentleman said.

The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), said:

    ''Overall, we are very dissatisfied with the Government's response. The Government's record on IT projects needs to get better. We produced a well-argued report into how the Government's record . . . could be improved. Our report was widely recognised throughout the media and industry . . . However, we have received a response from the Department that all too often does not fully engage with the letter or spirit of the report's recommendations.''

The feeling is that there is not a learning experience from past failures. Again, we must be very wary of the introduction of a complex system with which things

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could go badly wrong. I am not sure that we can support the amendment, but nevertheless an important point has been made by flagging up the phrase ''one or more databases''.

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Margaret Hodge): Many thanks, Dame Marion, for being prepared to wait until I arrived before starting the proceedings. I apologise for nearly being late.

The debate on the clause is one of the most important debates that we shall have on the Bill, and I am pleased that we have time to consider the issues properly. The measure is one of the most complex parts of the transformation agenda that we have set for ourselves and of the whole-system change that we want to achieve in children's services. We want to build all the services around the needs of the child, get multi-agency working going, and move to an agenda of prevention, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) referred.

Let us return to the reasons why we are going down this road. I think that all hon. Members accept this. When I read the report on Victoria Climbie's death and the other reports that we have had over the past 25 years on the tragic and often unnecessary deaths of children, I saw that something that always comes up is the failure of professionals, either within one agency or across agencies, to share information properly. We are trying to get people to work together and share information at an appropriate stage, and that is why we are moving down the road of providing a tool for professionals. It is no more than a tool. The creation of databases will support better information sharing between professionals within an agency and across agencies.

If we do not go down the database route, we will still have to introduce a set of new protocols, ways of working and regulations for professionals to ensure that information is shared better. The databases are one of many tools, but an important one. It is critical that we tackle some of the complex issues raised by hon. Members, face up to some of the tensions within those issues and try to resolve them in as open and collaborative a way as we can across the political parties, so that we can provide an effective tool that will enable professionals to share information and thereby perhaps prevent child deaths in the future. That is the whole purpose of the idea.

The Government's record—the public sector's record—on establishing new IT systems is dire. We all accept that. That was the case as much under the Conservative Government as under the Labour Government.

Tim Loughton: The Labour Government have spent a lot more—wasted a lot more.

Margaret Hodge: We have invested a lot more, because of changes in information technology. However, we are not good at establishing IT systems, and it is for that reason that we have two or three principles behind our approach. The first is that we should keep it as simple as possible—I hope that hon. Members agree with that. That has particular

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implications for the amendment. Secondly, we must go slowly, so that at every stage in the development, we check and re-check the feasibility and doability of the project, both in practical and financial terms. Thirdly, we must be as open as we can. We are, therefore, deliberately going slowly and deliberately trying to keep things as simple as possible. We shall also be open, and I am happy, in seminars or elsewhere, to share with hon. Members from both sides of the House the way in which our thinking is progressing. The last thing that we want to do in relation to the issue is to move in a way that does not build consensus.

There are many difficulties. One of the key issues is how one achieves the correct balance—to which the Joint Committee on Human Rights referred—between the rights of the individual to privacy, as enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998, and the need to protect children effectively and to prevent them from suffering harm or falling into danger. We are thinking through that difficult issue.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Minister and hear what she says. It is right that we should get things right. I started my comments by saying that the change is so radical that we must get it right. Does the Minister therefore not think that, rather than giving rise to scepticism and opposition because of the vagueness of the proposals, it might have been more sensible to omit the clause from the Bill and to return to the whole subject as part of the more comprehensive database regulations that will need to be drafted later in relation to police records because of the Bichard inquiry and Soham? If that work had been done, the Government would have been clear about the extent of what they were proposing. They are not at present.

 
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