Children Bill [Lords]

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Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): My cause for concern is that the phrase ''any cause for concern'' is unclear and in danger of becoming a catch-all that is used as a minimum criterion—a way for a worker to feel that he or she is doing something, whereas there might in fact be no guarantee of service or duty to act.

''Every Child Matters'' stated:

    ''Technical solutions alone will not secure the changes that the Government is seeking to achieve.''

It argued rather that local authorities should lead a process of cultural change, including information sharing and developing a common understanding. Is the Minister confident that ''cause for concern'' is a term that is widely used and commonly understood among the professions concerned with child care? I am not certain that that is so.

I am also uncertain whether the subsection is likely to lead to a cultural change, as the Government wish. Hon. Members may know that I used to teach social workers. Conventionally, we would split the material that we taught into knowledge, skills and attitudes. Without a doubt, attitudes are the most difficult things to get at. Achieving cultural, attitudinal change is the most difficult thing to achieve. I wonder whether registering a cause for concern might be one of those technical details that would allow workers to avoid attitudinal or cultural change in the organization.

Tim Loughton: There are many amendments in the group. I shall talk in general terms about the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole , with which I have a good deal of sympathy, and touch on a couple of those tabled by our absent hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. I shall then concentrate on amendment No. 37, which is intended to be helpful.

The hon. Lady is right. The phrase ''cause for concern'' comes from nowhere. It is meaningless and highly subjective. It has no basis in law and no one understands what it means. That is not a good starting point for its role as a useful tool in making sure that a

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database works. We should be interested to hear where the phrase came from and what the Minister thinks it means.

We must be careful about subjective data being added to the database. That is the reason for all the points I made earlier. All the major children's organisations that have given us briefings, which are obviously very interested in the Bill, seem to share that concern. Barnardo's, the National Children's Bureau, the NSPCC and the Children's Society have voiced their concerns. They say:

    ''Cause for concern is not a recognised criteria and would include unclear and subjective information, of unproven worth which may lead to inappropriate interventions while leaving vulnerable children at risk . . . For information sharing to make a positive contribution to safeguarding children and promoting their welfare the information shared must be accurate, objective and comprehensible . . . The power to record 'any cause for concern' will create a system of information sharing that fails to meet all three standards.

    'Cause for concern' is not a standard used or understood by the caring professions, nor does it appear in any other child welfare or health legislation.''

If that is not right, will the Minister tell me where it is used?

The NSPCC's briefing also flagged up the Joint Committee on Human Rights report, which noted that

    '''any cause for concern' is a phrase which is open-ended and subjective and which is bound to include very sensitive information about a child.''

The report reminds the Government that

    ''article 8 of the European Convention'',

which I have already cited,

    ''requires that there be adequate procedural safeguards regulating the disclosure of sensitive personal information and these may require the participation of the subject of the information in decisions concerning the inclusion and disclosure of certain types of information''.

11.15 am

The NSPCC briefing states that

    ''there are risks that this approach will make children less safe. Firstly, there is the risk of information overload''—

a point that I have already cited.

    ''In such circumstances practitioners may be at a loss to know how to respond or how to prioritise the needs of an individual child. Secondly, there is a risk that in recording a concern in this way a practitioner may feel a false sense of security and as a result the child's needs may be less, rather than more, likely to be addressed. Thirdly, allowing subjective information of this type to be recorded in the database increases the likelihood that children and young people or their parents will challenge the accuracy of the database record''—

although I am not clear how they can challenge it given the lack of any recognised appeals procedure in the Bill.

We do not want to undermine the purpose of the database. The expert groups involved have concerns, either with the definition of ''cause for concern'' in subsection (4)(g), or with the Henry VIII style subsection (4)(h), which allows the Secretary of State to put any information of any detail from any area, other than the single opt-out of medical records, into the database. The Minister's assurances are entirely meaningless until we get a handle on what subsection (4)(h) means.

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We desperately need real examples of what ''cause for concern'' means and what it would entail. Is a cause for concern a child seeming upset at school? Is it a failure by a child to achieve the expected key stage level at school? Is it a child with a low birth weight? Is it the fact that a doctor has referred a 15-year-old girl to an obesity clinic—a point that I raised on Second Reading and that the Minister did not address?

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): The very fact that the hon. Gentleman is listing so many different and clear causes for concern shows that if we started to specify a definition, we would leave out appropriate or new causes for concern. Although it is important to discuss the issue, the hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that he is asking for an impossible list of definitions of the word ''concern''.

Tim Loughton: I do not agree with that because I am asking for examples of what could be included. All the examples that I quoted need not be any concern of the database. It is a matter between the GP and his 15-year-old patient whether he deems it medically suitable to refer her to an obesity clinic if she has a weight problem at the age of 15. That need not be part of the database, but as the Bill is worded, it could be.

The fact that a child is underperforming educationally at school is primarily a matter for the child's teacher, the school, and the parents—or the people with parental responsibility—to deal with in educational parameters. That need not be part of the database in isolation, only when factors interact. If a child is presenting too often at a GP's surgery and is the subject of bullying at school or clear emotional distress that results from out-of-school experiences, that is when those pieces of information need to be brought together. That is when somebody needs to put together the pieces of the jigsaw, and it is down to the jigsaw master—ultimately the director of children's services—to do that. The phraseology of the Bill is not clear about what should be included, when and how, and what responsibility there is.

Both the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and I made the point about the database providing an excuse for professionals not talking to each other, and that is a fair comment. I have said all along that we believe in the necessity of databases, but only those that operate properly. The database should be more of a fallback. Nothing in our amendments restrict professionals from picking up the phone and talking to each other, and surely that should be the first port of call. The trouble is that that is not happening at the moment, and it will not happen in future unless we establish some standard protocols.

The police do not speak as often as they might to social workers, and social workers do not speak as often as they might to teachers, GPs and others. That is why it is necessary that independently their information is filtered into a central source. If the cases are missed individually by the professionals, or if a doctor is unable to get hold of a social worker because they are busy on another case, sick leave or whatever, so does not pursue the cause for concern, or vice versa—I am not trying to pin blame on one group of

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professionals—registering it on a local database under the aegis of a director of children's services would ensure that it is not missed. That should not negate the requirement for professionals to deal with each other more closely than they have in the past, so the two points are not mutually exclusive.

Amendment No. 37 would lay down a new definition because, as I have said, many of us feel that ''cause for concern'' is inadequate. We would redefine subsection (4)(g) so that it referred instead to

    ''concern for his welfare, such basis for concern having been set out in national guidance''.

That comes to the heart of the problem. We need national protocols specifically aimed at different sets of professionals, and preferably agreed in co-operation with the representative bodies of the different professionals at a national level.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I see what the hon. Gentleman is getting at, but earlier he made a plea for professionals to be allowed to see for themselves.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) did earlier, I question whether it is practical to identify all the issues that might be a cause for concern in a way that professionals would find helpful. Professionals will know a cause for serious concern when they see it, and they will not necessarily feel that it is helpful for the Government to send them a checklist.

 
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