Children Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 35, in

    clause 9, page 7, line 25, at end insert—

    '(2A) Any person or body establishing or operating a database under this section shall ensure that the database operates to safeguard and promote the welfare and best interests of every child whose personal information is held.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 36, in

    clause 9, page 8, line 31, at end insert—

    '(7A) The requirement to disclose information for agencies specified in subsection (6)(b) will not apply if disclosure would be detrimental to the child's welfare or safeguarding.'.

Tim Loughton: I am afraid, Dame Marion, that it is me again; I shall try not to speak for quite so long this time. I think that we have established a few principles on the clause.

I am sure that we can all agree with the spirit of proposed new subsection (2A). I fear that the Minister may come up with a technical explanation, given to her by her civil servants, of why it would not be appropriate or achieve what we want. However, the purpose is to impose on those responsible for establishing and operating the databases a clear duty to ensure that all databases operate to safeguard children and promote their best interests and welfare.

Column Number: 256

It is clear that databases can be established under clause 9 only when their purpose is to support co-operation to improve the well-being of children and young people under clause 7, to safeguard or promote the welfare of children and young people under clause 8, or to fulfil obligations under section 175 of the Education Act 2002. However, no corresponding duty is placed on those establishing or operating the databases to prioritise the safety and well-being of children.

Where a database is established and operated by another agency—a ''body corporate'', as it is referred to in clause 9(2)—it will not be subject to any duties in relation to safeguarding or promoting the welfare of children. That is the point at issue; we are trying to make that obligation clear. In the cases in question, there is no clear and unambiguous duty on persons and bodies that establish or operate databases to prioritise the safety and welfare of all children and young people whose records are kept.

Because of the range of people who would be accessing or inputting data in the system, the potential sensitivity of that information and the fact, as I have already pointed out, that the clause is something of a skeleton provision, surely accountability on the part of the people operating the databases is essential. They should work to safeguard children and promote their welfare, and they should be accountable on those points.

What are the guarantees on safety of access? I have already raised that point, and we still need more assurances from the Minister. Database management cannot be regarded as an administrative or technical role. It is surely essential to the safety and effectiveness of the system that everyone who accesses or records information is police checked and trained to work in line with best practice, and that their use of the database is monitored. Likewise, decisions about the recording, disclosure or analysis of information held on the system should always be taken in light of the need to safeguard children and promote their welfare.

We have already had a debate about the poor record of Government IT projects, and we need to get the one that we are debating right. There is a need for one named person who can be held clearly to account for the operation of each information-sharing and assessment database. We did not ascertain in our earlier deliberation who that person would be. I assumed that it would be the director of children's services, in a local role. Presumably that is the person with whom the buck should stop. We do not know that yet; perhaps the Minister would deal with the point.

If a breach of security occurs on a database, information on it turns out to be wrong, or information is not put on the database although it should be, where does the buck stop? Surely the whole point of joining up services under a children's services authority and appointing a clear head of that department, in a director of children's services, is that that is where the buck should stop. That should be the case just as much with IT and database matters as with

Column Number: 257

the management of the department as a whole, the structures and the joining up of professionals that we spoke about earlier.

10.30 am

Proposed new subsection (7A) in amendment No. 36 is self-explanatory, and I am sure that we would all agree with its intentions. However, I suspect that the Minister may again trot out an excuse for not including it in the Bill. It is important that it is included. The amendment's purpose is to ensure that agencies retain the discretion not to disclose information in situations in which to do so would be detrimental to the child. If they were forced to disclose such information, that would be self-defeating in what we are trying to achieve through the Bill—none of us would want that. The amendment would mean that sensitive services such as those dealing with drugs or sexual health would be permitted to make judgments about whether to disclose, in cases in which such disclosure might result in the disengagement of the child from that service. A blanket policy of required disclosure, for which the Bill appears to provide, might put some children at risk. I am concerned about the possible impact of automatic notification on children's access to essential but sensitive services.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, in paragraph 115 of its 19th report, flagged up concerns, stating:

    ''We remind the Government that Article 8 requires that there be adequate procedural safeguards regulating the disclosure of sensitive personal information, and these may require participation by the person who is the subject of the information in decisions concerning the inclusion and disclosure of certain types of information.''

Article 8 of the European convention on human rights states:

    ''Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.''

Unless we qualify the terms of the clause, we risk a challenge under that article.

There are particular areas where one might want greater safeguards. It has been pointed out by various women's organisations and organisations concerned with domestic violence that such safeguards should be in place for special agreements with child protection and social care agencies, and for children and spouses who are fleeing domestic abuse or forced marriage. In such situations, information about those concerned, including their whereabouts, must be tightly controlled. As the clause currently stands, blanket requirements to log the contact details of the service with which a child becomes engaged will automatically disclose that child's location. A birth parent, for example, could then readily access that database for information on their child under the Data Protection Act 1998. What safeguards are there when there is a risk of violence from a non-resident parent towards a child and the other parent?

Earlier this week, I had an interesting meeting with representatives from the Commission for Social Care Inspection, discussing the issue that I raised in the Committee and on Second Reading about responsibility for children placed in private children's homes away from their local authority area. I was

Column Number: 258

given the report on a recent inspection of one children's home in my constituency about which I had particular concerns.

I was not aware of the procedures for access to those reports. The results of inspections of elderly care homes are placed on the internet—on the website of the inspecting agency—and the responses by the care home owners to the inspection reports can also be placed on the website. Inspections of children's homes are exempt from that requirement, so one cannot go to a website and find out about them. However, any one of us—any member of the public—is fully entitled to go to a local social services department or to the CSCI and ask for a copy of the inspection report on a private children's home. All one has to do to get that report is to produce identification, such as a driving licence, passport or credit card. The CSCI then has a duty to present that person with the full report on that private children's home.

There is no requirement on the person at the CSCI to check the background of the person to whom they are presenting that report, who could be the non-resident parent of a child housed in a private children's home for whom there is no contact order because of a perceived threat of violence. There is no safeguard that would prevent the person requesting that report from getting it. He would not have to justify the grounds on which he required it. The CSCI has no means of checking the identity of the person to assess any risk that he might pose to somebody housed in that private children's home. I find that rather worrying, and the Minister is expressing a degree of astonishment that it is the case.

I do not wish to deny perfectly permissible data to responsible people. However, the fact is that anybody can access such information, without any checks as to whether they pose a risk to those housed in a private home. There have been instances in which data have been misused. The CSCI told me about cases in which, after reports have been published, there have been burglaries at certain homes. They tended to happen during changeover time, when the staff were involved in meetings about the changeover and were not necessarily keeping an eye on the rest of the home. Crooks got hold of the reports and, on a fairly slim reading, were able to identify when was a good time to go and rob those homes. The CSCI has responded to that; it acknowledges that there is a security angle to the information that it let out.

Nothing has been done with regard to the security of the children in those homes, the details about how they are looked after having been accessed by somebody who might want to do them harm. That might be a relative who has no right of access or a paedophile trying to inveigle his or her way into making contact with certain people. I was alarmed to hear that, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board. Until I raised the issue with the CSCI, it had not realised its importance. The people to whom I spoke will discuss it with colleagues come back to me about it. That is a good example showing why we should ensure that the information that we place in databases does not

Column Number: 259

compromise the welfare of the children whom we are seeking to help, for instance in relation to domestic violence.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 21 October 2004