Children Bill [Lords]

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Margaret Hodge: I would have agreed with that, but for three reasons. The first is that we must make progress on the issue and we need the legislative framework to enable us to do so. Secondly, we have said openly that we will use the affirmative procedure in both Houses as we develop the regulations, and we stand by that. I hope that engaging in debate with hon. Members on both sides of the House will lead to intensive discussion on the regulations as we make progress on phasing them in. Thirdly, we also needed to clarify in law the powers of professionals to share information and how they can operate. The database is only part of the system that we will establish to achieve better information sharing. Much of clause 9 clarifies the rights of professionals to share information about children and their families where that is appropriate to safeguard and protect them and to promote their well-being. Those are the three reasons for proceeding in this way.

9.30 am

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the current difficulties is that many professional agencies are not confident about what information they can legitimately exchange? The case of the Soham murders and Ian Huntley was a stark example of agencies arguing among themselves about whether provisions of the Data Protection Act

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1998 applied. Therefore, it is vital to clarify the legal framework in which data can be exchanged between agencies.

Margaret Hodge: I completely agree with my hon. Friend's extremely helpful intervention. It is partly to respond to fears expressed by many professionals at the front line about whether they can share information that we have clarified in law their existing powers and authority.

Mrs. Brooke: We have had this conversation before, and the question that arises is why is it necessary to include these provisions in the Bill, if that work can be done anyway? Why is the problem not tackled by investing heavily in training the work force? The fact that people are allowed to do things but do not understand the law and how it applies makes one feel that there is another motive behind the regulations that we have not yet seen.

Margaret Hodge: The hon. Lady is right that training is equally important. There is not one answer to ensuring that professionals share information more effectively. Part of the answer is clarifying professionals' powers and duties, which we are doing in the Bill, part of it is providing them with the tools to do so, hence the establishment of the database, and part of it is training them so that they understand when and how it is appropriate to share information. We are not saying that training is not important—of course it is—but we hope that those solutions will provide a stronger infrastructure to support the sharing of information.

We have talked a lot about recruiting and retaining social workers. I am not a social worker, but some hon. Members have been. They tell me that they spent far too much time chasing up and ringing various people, seeing who else was involved in a case, going down a lot of dead ends—thinking that perhaps it was X or Y, but finding that it was not—and often being unable to trace other professionals involved in a case. I hope that we can use the best information technology as an effective tool to support professionals so that they do not waste their time trying to track down who else they should talk to but do what they ought to be doing: promoting the well-being of children and protecting them.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): My confidence in the proposal has been greatly increased by my discussions with experienced social work professionals involved in some of the pilot projects. They have made it clear that the proposals are developing out of good professional practice and are not being imposed on them by geeky adolescents with a penchant for IT. The serious point of my question is whether my right hon. Friend believes such a system will encourage and require individual workers to take more personal responsibility for the information that they have and for sharing it with fellow professionals?

Margaret Hodge: That is one of the objectives, so I hope that it will occur. Equally, it is important to put on record that holding, recording and even sharing information with other professionals is not an excuse

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for or an alternative to inaction. During the training process, we will ensure that professionals do not think that simply because they have indicated on a database that they are concerned about a particular individual, they do not have to act. That is important.

We hope that the database will enable professionals to focus more on protecting the child. We also hope that it will be a tool that gives the professionals a fuller picture of the child, so that they can take better-informed decisions about them. We hope that the databases will support us in identifying much more quickly the children with whom others have contact and whether they are getting the universal services to which they are entitled. We also hope that it will help us make a much earlier identification of need and provide more effective action because the professionals know who else is involved. Those are the purposes behind what we are doing.

Mrs. Brooke: An amendment in the other place, which I believe was suggested by Liberty, proposed to scrap the whole idea of the database and simply to include a duty to co-operate on all the people involved. Why is that not a satisfactory solution? At the end of the day, we need people to co-operate, rather than just rely on the database.

Margaret Hodge: With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, that is to misconceive the database. The duty to co-operate is included in clause 7. Clause 9 makes clear the powers to share information and establishes a process in which information is a tool to support better co-operation. The database is nothing other than an effective tool, taking advantage of modern technology.

I want to move on to the issues raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. He said first that the consultation documents are not yet out, and I apologise for that. I had said that we hoped to have them out in time for debate in Committee, but I have to discuss them with colleagues and we need consensus across Government on these difficult issues. However, I am making best endeavours to ensure that the first of our consultation documents will be out before Report, which is in a couple of weeks, so that Members will have been able to have at least an initial look at it. I put that in the context that we are not going to rush anything or curtail the consultation or debate in any way.

The hon. Gentleman's second point was that the database was a surrogate ID card. It is not a card and children will not carry anything around with them. It is not the same at all and has a completely different purpose. The concept of ID cards is more about supporting us in tackling international crime and terrorism. A record will not appear anywhere. As we made it clear in the other place, the database will not include any detailed information on the child in terms of the case details. To return to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, there will be no NHS health or police records on the database. We may discuss this in greater detail when we talk about causes

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of concern. The database will simply have the name of the GP or the doctor and the details of any other health service professional who is working with that child.

Tim Loughton: I appreciate that no one is talking about a physical card that children will carry around, but the Minister is trying to minimise what will be on the database. Subsection (4) sets out that it is not just

    ''(a) his name, address, gender and date of birth;''

    ''(b) a number identifying him;

    (c) the name and contact details of any person with parental responsibility . . .

    (d) details of any education being received . . .

    (e) the name and contact details of any person providing primary medical services . . .

    (f) the name and contact details of any person providing to him services . . .

    (g) information as to the existence of any cause for concern in relation to him;''

and any other information that the Secretary of State cares to include. That could be vast. The Minister is underplaying the extent of what can be held on this database.

Margaret Hodge: The wording in clause 9(4)(h) puts it beyond all doubt that medical case records can never be included on the database. The hon. Member quoted paragraphs (d) onwards which refer to the names either of the institutions or the professionals working with the child. There are no details about the child itself. For example, the educational details will be just the details of the child's school, not whether the child is a non-attender or has special educational needs. It will simply be the details of the educational establishment if the child attends one or not if the child is receiving education at home.

Let me give an example of where that is quite important. It relates to the universality and whether it should be a smaller database just of those children who are at risk of harm and abuse. Having a universal database is one way we can ensure that all children access the universal services to which they are entitled. We know that some children are missing school. If we have details of the education being received by the children on that universal database it will be much easier. As the hon. Gentleman knows we have huge difficulties in trying to keep track of children who are missing education. This will make it much easier to trace those children who are not in school and thereby to ensure that they get the education that will enable them to contribute in adult life.

Tim Loughton: I do not disagree with what the Minister says, but she has just completely contradicted herself. She said that the database will have details only of the school or educational institution that provides an education because we need to know about those children who are not receiving education. She then referred to the details of that education. Subsection (4)(d) refers to ''details of any education''. It does not say details of any establishment providing the education. We will come to this in a later amendment but she has clearly contradicted herself.

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