Children Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Dawson: I suspect that I know the young man whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned; he is indeed an excellent young chap. However, does the hon. Gentleman not place too much responsibility on his

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shoulders in asking him to speak for every young person in the country? Has he, for instance, consulted A National Voice, the national organisation for young people in care? Has he sought its views on the matter?

Tim Loughton: I started off by saying that I had consulted a number of people. I have not consulted A National Voice but, of course, I have not based my views entirely on those of one individual. I have been to see a number of care action teams, which are made up of young people who have been through care in various counties and I have brought them to seminars and summits here. I have not detected the fear that if vulnerable children only—however we want to define them—were put on a register, enormous stigma would go with that. I have found that such children have been rather relaxed about that. We can have a debate on the subject but I do not think that it should be such an overriding concern that we need put every one of our 11.5 million children on the database.

Margaret Hodge: As I said before, the database's purpose is to strengthen prevention and protection. From what the hon. Gentleman has said, he should have no concern about the indication of causes of concern on the database. They will just ensure that vulnerable children are given the services and the protection to which they are entitled. We think that we ought to be able to flag up on the system the concerns that professionals may have about such children's well-being and welfare.

Tim Loughton: We shall come on to ''causes for concern''—a notorious phrase—later. I would hope that there would be no reason to flag up causes for concern about my or any other Committee member's children. I could not guarantee that, but one would hope so—certainly in the case of my children, however much they like to make out otherwise when things are not going well. The point is that I have not heard the Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) or anyone else make a case as to why placing my children on the database would enhance the service and support that we need to focus on children who have needs, are on the child protection register, are looked after and have had problems. I do not see that cut-across.

I should like to take up a few other points. Quite rightly, the Minister said that the point of getting the database to work properly is to cut down on a lot of time wasted as a result of professionals chasing one other around. That is absolutely right. It is why we support the database. I am not saying that we do not need the database; I started off by saying that I agreed that we need databases and local databases. I particularly agree that we need localised databases that can talk to other databases. I still have concerns that we are not nearly far enough down that road and that a lot of investment has gone in the wrong direction. I agree that we need a national database to link up the 150 localised databases.

The Liberal Democrats take a different view, but they have to explain how all the children who move—there are an awful lot of them—will be protected in the absence of a national database. Many children fall

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through the gaps. Even a national database will not catch those anonymous children who, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said, are in the country even though we do not know about them. Those children are kept away from being presented to professionals, because they are more vulnerable. We need to do as much as possible for them. Even a national database will not pick those cases up, but it will fill in some of the gaps.

10.15 am

There are also data protection principles to consider. There are a number of questions that the Minister needs to answer, if not now, then later in the discussions on the clause. Principles established in the Data Protection Act 1998 are germane to what is being set up. The fourth principle of data protection states:

    ''Personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date.''

We have heard nothing about the veracity of the information, about how and by whom it will be checked, or about how wrong or vexatious information will be challenged. We have no details of how that information will be kept up to date. We do not want just a series of snapshots of odd instances. We need a dynamic database that brings together different strands of information. The analogy that I like to use is of a jigsaw: we need a jigsaw master to piece the bits together to create a picture that shows whether intervention should be launched on behalf of a vulnerable child. Whether the jigsaw master is, ultimately, the director of children's services or someone else remains to be seen.

The fifth principle of data protection states:

    ''Personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes.''

The Minister has acknowledged that that is at least a requirement of the regulations, but we need an indication of how that requirement will be defined when those regulations are eventually produced. We need constantly to review the worth of the information on the system. We have heard nothing from the Minister about how that will be achieved.

We also do not know how individuals can access those data. Will children have a right to do so when they are under the age of 18? Will they have that right when they reach 18? Is it appropriate that those data are kept on the system only when the child is still a child? Is there a case for its being kept after the child is 18 or, as in the requirement for children coming out of care or children with disabilities, up to the age of 22? Do such arrangements cease to be appropriate when children reach seniority?

Is the Children's Commissioner empowered to run the national database? We do not know who will be in charge of it. We know that the Secretary of State can write the cheques—we are giving him a large book of blank cheques.

An awful lot has gone unanswered. However, after an hour and 20 minutes I shall return to the amendment, as I know you wish I had done earlier, Dame Marion. The amendment seeks only to

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constrain the Secretary of State to the establishment of one national database. I have elaborated on our concerns about how that database will operate. The proposals say nothing about constraining local databases. The Minister tried to suggest that I was in favour of just one database and nothing else, but I am not. I am favour of the 150 or so local databases under the aegis of directors of children's services in local authorities. I am also in favour of a national database, run, ultimately, by the Secretary of State, although his powers to run it will, I hope, be defined.

The Minister has signally failed to deal with the amendment by telling us why the Secretary of State needs more than one database. What would the other national databases do? If there is to be no more than one national database, the Minister must accept the amendment, as we are giving the Secretary of State all the necessary powers for a single database. If we are to consider withdrawing the amendment, surely the Minister must say why the Secretary of State may want more than one national database, and what purposes the additional databases would serve. If she cannot do so, she will obviously have to support the amendment.

Margaret Hodge: I think that we shall want to move to a Division. I shall deal with only two issues, or we will end up going round the houses.

First, the information on the databases will be covered by the Data Protection Act 1998. All the rights that ensue from that Act will be appropriate to the Bill's provision. We need authority to go further than the amendment would allow. For instance, we may decide to go for 150 databases or for some other number—and a case may be made for London having a regional or sub-regional database. We need flexibility in order to make the best decision. We do not want to be constrained by an amendment that will allow us only one choice.

Secondly, whichever way we go, and although we must set national rules, we shall also want interoperability between the databases, so that they can talk to each other. Even with a national system that supports children moving across boundaries, local systems could talk to each other and operate against the rules. We do not want 10 trailblazers doing different things; we want to include authorities throughout the country. Much as I would like to help Opposition Members by agreeing to the amendment, it would not give us the required flexibility.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will debate the matter fully. I would love to debate children's issues more often on the Floor of the House. I shall use my best endeavours to find time for further debates. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who is responsible for community care, led a good debate yesterday, in Government time, on the national service framework for children. I hope that Opposition Members will show the same interest in debates on children that they show in debates on other issues.

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Tim Loughton: I am terribly sorry, but the Minister has not addressed the point. She mentioned London. I entirely agree that a good case can be made for a London-wide database. That was clearly shown in the case of Victoria Climbie; she was moved a short distance from one authority to another, but the information was not linked up. Nothing in the amendment would prevent a London-wide database being established, because powers elsewhere in the Bill allow children's services authorities to co-operate London-wide, either singly, doubly or with many others. That would not be ruled out by the amendment. It could still be achieved under subsection (1)(a) on individual databases.

The Minister's case falls completely. She has not told us what the additional databases would achieve, or what would be their purpose. In the absence of her addressing the object of the amendment, I fear that I shall have to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 12.

Division No. 8]

AYES
Clappison, Mr. James
Loughton, Tim

NOES
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Dawson, Mr. Hilton
Hodge, Margaret
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
McDonagh, Siobhain
Mole, Chris
Morgan, Julie
Munn, Ms Meg
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Ms Dari

Question accordingly negatived.

 
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