Children Bill [Lords]

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Margaret Hodge: I am sure that this is parliamentary counsel's drafting. I am receiving nods from my officials. This is parliamentary drafting to describe the information that we require on the database, which is the institution that the child attends. It could be a child who is educated at home. An amendment has been tabled in relation to home education. [Interruption.] I have got it right.

Subsection (4)(d), as currently drafted, is drawn widely to allow the database to record where a child or young person is receiving education, whether that be at home or in other institutions, such as pupil referral units or hospitals, as well as in schools or colleges. That is why it is drafted in that way.

The hon. Gentleman said that we were asking for a blank cheque. We are not, which is why any regulations that we implement in relation to the clause will be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses. I hope that the assurances that I am trying to give hon. Members this morning will convince them that we are in no way trying to do anything behind closed doors. We want to be as open and as consultative as possible.

9.45 am

The BMA asked us several questions, and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is right to refer to them. There are questions to be asked by a whole range of professionals, and we look forward to working with the BMA in formulating the regulations in a way that will benefit the practicalities to which it refers and that will ensure that we take advantage of its expertise.

The hon. Gentleman says that we have at least 10 trailblazers.

Tim Loughton: There are fewer all the time.

Margaret Hodge: I do not know how many there were before, but there were 10 by the time the document arrived on my desk. Those trailblazers are meeting and discussing particular issues and, of course, we are taking advantage of the experience that they are accumulating in thinking through some of the regulations and protocols. Therefore, they are meeting and discussing issues together and with us.

This is an iterative process, which is why we need affirmative resolutions. We want to build on what we learn from the trailblazers. On the other hand, we would let down the memory of Victoria Climbie and would not fulfil Lord Laming's recommendations if we waited for three, four or five years until the trailblazers were firmly embedded before we even started to make progress on information sharing and on developing a tool that can promote better information sharing.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): The Minister says that discussions are being held with the trailblazers. Will she say whether there has been any discussion about the issue of access to the confidential services for young people that the Family Planning Association raised and that we are obviously very keen for them to take advantage of? We all know that young people are sometimes reluctant to seek advice unless they can be sure that it is confidential.

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Margaret Hodge: This is one of the very difficult issues that we must think through, and I hope that the consultation paper, which we will have ready before Report, will start to address that sort of issue.

There are three aspects to confidentiality. The first is the sensitivity of the information, to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred. When information is sensitive, we want as far as possible to work with consent, particularly of young people. Another aspect, on which trailblazers are helping and showing us the way, is that technology is such that we can make certain pieces of information visible only to certain people. So one can hide information. The point is not that information is being hidden, but that the fact that a particular professional is working with a child can be hidden from other professionals. My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health will know much about that as an expert in the field. We believe that we have found the way through on that issue.

Domestic violence is another area in which confidentiality is important, so the consultation document deals not only with advice on sexual health or contraception given to young people, but with all abuse, including alcohol and drug abuse. We do not want addresses to be released widely.

Julie Morgan: Under the clause, if a young person in such a situation were unwilling to give consent for the information to be released, would the information that the young person had used this service automatically be released? What sort of work has been done on that?

Margaret Hodge: I ask my hon. Friend to wait for the consultation document. There are two issues. The first is open to debate, but my view is that if a professional is working with a child, they should indicate that. The second question is whether others should have access to the knowledge that a professional is working with a child when that information is particularly sensitive. That arena allows flexibility in creating a system that operates to ensure that where the professional judgment is such that it would not be in the child's interest for others to know that a professional was working with the child, the information could be hidden except for in those exceptional circumstances where it becomes relevant. That sounds a little tautologous, but it is a difficult issue.

We should not say to professionals, ''You can choose whether or not you put on to the information database that you are working with a child.'' All professionals need to show that, but whether their work is visible to other professionals working with the child is another issue. The technology enables us to give the confidentiality that is necessary in some circumstances.

That deals, I hope, with some of the confidentiality and security issues talked about by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

Tim Loughton indicated dissent.

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Margaret Hodge: The hon. Gentleman does not agree. However, I want to deal with the issue of why one database, not more.

I agree with hon. Members that we need to find a system whereby if children move across local authority boundaries, they can be traced. At the moment, we are carrying out a feasibility study on whether we should have one national database or 150 different local databases, with perhaps a 151st database. The databases would have to be interoperable, which is why it is important for the system to be developed nationally. Information about where a child's record is could be kept on the 151st national database. I am told that the technology allows that, so that if I rang up and needed to track Joan Smith, the 151st database would enable us to find where that record was kept and would also hold children's records if they are not located in one local authority.

I have been told that the technology enables such a system, and if that is right, it will deal with many of our concerns about how information is properly held as children transfer over local authority boundaries.

Tim Loughton: Is it not right to say, as I have been told by some of the trailblazers, that they are operating different IT systems at the moment and that a national standard has not been set to make them interoperable? What the Minister is trying to achieve will not be achieved at the moment.

Margaret Hodge: The trailblazers have different systems, which we will have to develop. That is part of the process that we will go through over the coming years as we develop one national standard to ensure interoperability.

One could argue that some of the investment in the local authority trailblazers will not be used over time, but it was important to get the trailblazers up and running so that we can use the knowledge that they acquire. They are doing it in very different ways; the Sussex example is interesting and rather a good one. It is kept incredibly simple and I am impressed by it. Others are using causes of concern, for example, in a different way across the country. We are having to learn from that. I hope that all hon. Members will talk to the trailblazers as they develop their expertise.

Tim Loughton: I am delighted to hear that the Minister is impressed with West Sussex council's system, and one would expect that of a three-star rated, Conservative-run authority. Would it not have been more sensible if, as part of the conditions for the operation of the trailblazers and the grants of about £1 million to put them in place, there had been a central, uniform system that they all used to get them off to a good start? The absence of that will only delay the process yet further, and, as the Minister said, it has wasted investment on promoting different computer systems that do not ''talk'' to each other.

Margaret Hodge: I wish that it had been that easy, but we have to decide what to design and we are learning from the trailblazers and from experts. If we

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could have designed a system first we would have done so. We are using the trailblazers to build the expertise needed to design a prototype.

Mr. Mole: Does my right hon. Friend agree that to take a national position on the form of a database at the pilot stage would completely undermine the purpose of piloting to generate best practice in innovation in local areas?

Margaret Hodge: If we had known what we needed to design, we would not have needed trailblazers. We needed the pilots in order to understand where to go from here. One needs to design to a purpose.

Tim Loughton: The Minister is talking about something completely different. Trailblazers are needed to decide how they gain, use and share the information. That is quite separate from having a computer system that is compatible with other computer systems, whereby when they have decided what information is relevant, it can be shared. We are talking about two different things.

Margaret Hodge: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is a more IT, techie sort of person than I am. I am not the world's greatest in that regard and I look to my hon. Friends to help me. However, as I understand it, one has to know what information one wants before one can design the appropriate system, which can then be interoperable. Am I correct?

 
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