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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Information Sharing Index (England) Regulations 2006

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Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


John Bercow

†Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
†Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
†Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Curry, Mr. David (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
†Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Duncan Smith, Mr. Iain (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
†Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
†Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
†George, Mr. Bruce (Walsall, South) (Lab)
†Hughes, Beverley (Minister for Children and Families)
†Meacher, Mr. Michael (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab)
†Miller, Mrs. Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)
†Murphy, Mr. Denis (Wansbeck) (Lab)
†Shaw, Jonathan (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)
†Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)
Teather, Sarah (Brent, East) (LD)
†Trickett, Jon (Hemsworth) (Lab)
Frank Cranmer, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Monday 27 March 2006

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Draft Information Sharing Index (England) Regulations 2006

4.30 pm

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Information Sharing Index (England) Regulations 2006.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Bercow.

The regulations provide for data matching trials to take place, as essential initial work in the development and implementation of the information sharing index that is to be established under section 12 of the Children Act 2004. Section 12 provides that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills may make regulations on the establishment and operation of an index and, in a written parliamentary statement on 8 December, the Government announced plans to make an initial set of regulations. These are they. Later this year, the Government will consult publicly on more substantial draft regulations to govern the operation of the index, and will lay them before Parliament. At that stage, there will be further opportunity for debate.

We believe that better information sharing is essential for early and effective intervention to improve the five “Every Child Matters” outcomes for children: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being. The information sharing index is a key element of the “Every Child Matters” programme that is intended to make a fundamental change in children’s services. It will support more effective prevention and early intervention to ensure that children get the additional services that they need as early as possible. The aim is to help to improve the experience of public services for all children, young people and families.

The index will also provide a tool to support better communication among practitioners, and across the education, health, social care and youth offending sectors. It will allow them to contact one another more easily and quickly, so that they can share information about children who need services or about whose welfare they are concerned.

The index itself will hold basic identifying information on all children in England, and will
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contain the names and contact details of practitioners who provide specialist and targeted services to children. Practitioners will be able to indicate that they have information to share, that they have undertaken action, or that they have completed a common assessment framework.

It is important that members of the public and practitioners alike can be confident about both the accuracy and robustness of the index when it is fully developed. A number of concerns have been expressed—not least by the House during the passage of the Children Act—about accuracy, security and the feasibility of collecting and managing a large volume of data. I stress to hon. Members that we want to—we have to—get it right.

The regulations will provide us with the legal basis to undertake some key tests on the accuracy and quality of the data that will be used to populate the index. The fact that we are introducing the regulations at this time—well in advance of the work that will be done to create the index itself and to load a full set of data—is wholly consistent with the careful, step-by-step approach that we have adopted on the index project. The result of the trials will not only inform the final design of the index, but refine the statutory guidance and the full regulations that will support its operation.

I want to make it clear that the regulations will not be providing a means of trialling or piloting a working index. That is not their function. The data matching trials that we are discussing today will be more limited in scope.

We intend to produce a statistical analysis of the data that we may use for the index. The sample data that we shall collect from central Government and local authority sources will be tested in a closed, secure systems environment by a very small number of data analysts. No other systems or local government data administrators will be involved, and we will not be involving practitioners. In short, we will be trialling the data, not the systems.

To create a record on the index containing basic information for each child, it will be necessary to draw upon a number of existing sources for relevant data items. No single data source currently contains them all. To prepare for that, we need to examine a sample of records from a number of the main data sources, which will enable us to assess how comprehensively each source covers the population of children and determine which is the most reliable source of accurate and up-to-date information. It will also enable us to assess how disparities in the ways that data sources record each item can most efficiently be overcome, so that ultimately data from different sources concerning the same child can be brought together and matched accordingly.

The regulations provide a clear legal basis for those tests. They provide for the organisations that hold the data sources that are to be tested to supply data in order that the tests can take place. The regulations will require local authorities in England to comply with a
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request from the Secretary of State to supply basic child information from their existing source systems, which means—as hon. Members will know from the schedule—the child’s name, address, date of birth, gender, any number used to identify their record and the name and contact details of anyone with responsibility, or caring for the child, where that information exists.

The authorities will also be required to provide the name and contact details of any practitioner providing a specialist or targeted service to the child. We are, however, requiring the participation of only nine authorities, chosen to represent geographical spread and different sizes and types of area. We have secured their agreement to take part in the trial, and we shall be meeting their reasonable costs.

We shall also collect a sample of basic child information from Government data sources under powers provided by section 12(9) of the Children Act 2004. That permits any of Her Majesty’s principal Secretaries of State to provide information for the index. The Department for Work and Pensions has data control of the child benefit records that it holds and will provide basic child information from those records, including the name and address of child benefit claimants as proxy for parental details. The Department of Health will provide basic child information and GP practice contact details. My Department will provide basic child information and contact details of any educational establishment the child attends.

I remind hon. Members that, under section 12 of the 2004 Act, no personal or medical records can be included in the index. Therefore, there will be no collection of that type of information during the data matching trials. I also want to make it clear that the draft regulations provide safeguards against the collection and processing of disproportionate amounts of information. We shall be taking only a small sample of data records and the sample size will be no greater than is sufficient for statistically valid testing of data accuracy. The information will not be used in any operational sense.

The output of the trial will be a summary report on the outcome of the tests and it will not include any personal data that could identify any individual. Additionally, we will ensure that stringent security measures control the physical security of the hardware and the systems used to transmit and to hold the data for testing. I have already said that the data will be tested in a closed secure environment. Only a limited number of authorised staff from my Department and its contractor will have access to it.

The draft regulations provide that the information supplied for the tests will be retained for no more than three years, and I assure hon. Members that we shall ensure that it is securely destroyed once our use for it
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has ended. In conclusion, the regulations are a prudent and necessary first step in establishing an accurate and up-to-date information sharing index. At this stage, however, they will simply test accuracy and the ability to match data. I commend them to the Committee.

4.40 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve on this Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the regulations in more detail, because they deserve it. This statutory instrument is important and has many ramifications. Although the Minister says, rightly, that it is connected with the trials for creating the initial records, it is important that we also consider the broader information sharing index before we in any way give the go ahead for the trial. The two are inextricably linked.

I reiterate the comments of Baroness Morris of Bolton, when this instrument was discussed in the other place. She stated our party’s full support for the aims behind the Green Paper, “Every Child Matters”. I am sure that everyone in Committee believes that, in our various roles, we must do all we can to protect children, particularly those at risk. The information sharing index was one of the most controversial aspects of the “Every Child Matters” reforms. I hope that today’s discussions will provide us with the opportunity to flesh out some of the details, which many parties felt were not debated enough during earlier proceedings.

Today’s discussions must be about more than just information sharing; they must also be about how we can ensure more effective support for the professionals who work to improve the welfare of our children. That is important. Whatever aspect of Government policy we talk about, in whatever Department, we must ensure that resources in terms of time and money are focused and used effectively to support those who need them most. That is our duty.

I look forward today to discussing both the data matching trials and the detail about the operation of the index itself. We cannot be expected to support the trials without knowing how the data will eventually be used, or whether the Government’s proposal is even possible in terms of security, safety, logistics and all other concerns not only in government but in business. We must ensure that the detail about any database that is put in place is thought through. Those two issues are linked.

Although it is important that we share information between professional groups, we must do so proportionately and in a way that reflects the needs of children in our communities. We question whether creating a database that includes every child in the country is the right answer and the right way forward. I shall not go through the arguments about article 8 of
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the European convention on human rights and the Data Protection Act 1998. They have been rehearsed on many occasions. There has been a lot of debate on those matters. I am sure that the Minister knows people’s concerns about the data sharing index in relation to those two pieces of legislation.

I shall concentrate my discussions on the logistics and the practicality of what is proposed. The entire House should be concerned about the feasibility of collecting and managing a database of 11 million children accurately and securely. The data matching trials will investigate some of the issues, but the concern remains about the benefits of a database of 11d ¤million children versus one that focuses more rigidly on those who are more at risk, vulnerable and require more support. They include children on child protection registers, children in care homes and children who may have been subjected to domestic violence.

Concern has been expressed by many people, including members of the Education and Skills Committee when it considered the measure, about the risk of abuse and neglect being lost in a mountain of data. It is important that we consider that today.

An overall concern that we continue to have about the database is that it may distract from improving front-line services. As Dr. Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics said about the Victoria Climbié case, there was no shortage of information, but there was a shortage of wisdom as to how to understand the information. I am sure that the Minister agrees that we must ensure that the database in no way eclipses the need to improve the front-line professional services that our most vulnerable children need. I am also concerned that, in the world in which we live, resources are limited. We must use resources in the best way possible for the benefit of vulnerable children.

I would like to deal a little more fully than the Minister did with some of the detail that we must understand before we agree to this important statutory instrument. The role of this Committee is to tease out the detail. She stressed that basic information will be contained in the information sharing index, but I believe that there is an awful lot associated with that basic information, and a little more explanation is required from the Government.

The Minister correctly said that the stored information will not include case information, but paragraph 4(a) of the schedule states that the name and contact details of the targeted service must be included in the database. That is an interesting starting point for our discussion. She rightly said that basic information will be stored, but such information can be somewhat loaded. We must take care that neither
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the confidentiality of that information nor the standing of the professionals who are involved are in any way compromised. Perhaps I can explain that point by way of an example.

If a child who is included in the database were to attend a sexual health clinic, the name of the clinic would be included for reference, completely in accordance with the Minister’s desire to include basic information for the use of other professionals. One could rightly infer from such information that the child was consulting a professional in that area.

We must carefully consider the confidentiality of such information. How many youngsters would be more reluctant to seek the advice of a sexual health professional if they knew that information would be made available more widely than to the professional from whom the child sought help? Remembering that access to the database will be wide—up to 400,000 people eventually will gain access to it—we must ensure that we fully understand the Government’s plans and that sensitive basic information is in some way protected to avoid creating a counter-productive situation for the children who need to access important services. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that point.

The data trials will assess the accuracy of the data, which, obviously, is important. I read recently some data that suggested that 85 per cent. of the Metropolitan police records were in some way wrong. If an august body such as the Metropolitan police, which has held databases for many years, finds it difficult to get the details right, it is reassuring to know that the Government will investigate in more detail how they can ensure that the accuracy of the data on this database is robust.

I was interested to hear the Minister’s comments about assessing the ease of updating information sources, as that is not detailed in the information that we have been given so far. There are many different ways in which the name, age and address of a child can be obtained. Trials are being undertaken. When she is looking at the different ways in which the information can be gathered, will she detail what importance will be attached to the ease of updating the information? As all hon. Members are aware, up to 20 per cent. of an electoral register can change in a year, even in the most sleepy shire constituencies. In some constituencies, I am sure that the rate of change is significantly higher. It is important to have a robust way of updating data, not least because the Data Protection Act requires that. It also requires that databases that are continually in use do not have outdated information.

Perhaps the Minister will clarify whose responsibility it is to ensure that data are accurate. Going back to the data trials, when we have decided where to obtain the information, someone will have to update it. If our local authorities manage the database, and if it will be their responsibility to ensure that the data remain up to date, it will be important to know that the source of data can be readily accessed by local
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authority computer systems that are already in place. I presume that that will be the responsibility of local authorities, or is it in the Minister’s mind that the supplier of information—perhaps GPs or social workers—will have responsibility for keeping the database up to date? Alternatively, will the onus be on parents to ensure that it is kept up to date? What penalties will there be if the data are inaccurate? If there is no penalty, what is the incentive to ensure that the database is accurate? At the moment, there is a dearth of detail about that in the regulations and I would appreciate it if the Minister took the opportunity to update us.

I have talked about the sensitivity of some of the data on the database, and access to the data is another concern that springs to mind. Some of the trailblazer projects that have rightly been put in place to assess some of the issues that could arise as a result of the database being put in place have highlighted the time constraints on professionals in particular—for example, GPs when they talk to people who come along to their surgeries. They have asked whether others in their organisation could be given access to the database information. There are serious concerns about security and accessing information. There seems to be little information or detail on that at the moment.

Turning to the controversial area of flags of concern, I would appreciate the Minister considering that matter further. For members of the Committee who have not looked at the regulations in as much detail as I have, any professional can put a flag of concern on the database for an unspecified reason—it may be just that they have a concern. The child may have gone along to a surgery. The GP may have a concern, for whatever reason, perhaps abuse or neglect, and flag that up on the database. Equally, a teaching professional could flag up a concern about academic performance. Very little guidance—in fact, no guidance—is given on how flags of concern will be used and that is of particular concern to many professionals. I would appreciate hearing the Minister’s thoughts today on the protocols that will be used to trigger a flag of concern to ensure that professionals are well equipped and to ensure consistency. The use of a flag of concern risks breaking the confidentiality between a child and a professional and overriding existing protocols on conduct. It is important to understand when the flag of concern will be used because, again, we could deter youngsters from accessing services. That is an important area to look at.

If the data include potentially controversial records, or records that could be questioned by those on the database, it will be interesting to know what appeals process will be put in place to rectify mistakes. Mistakes can happen; that is a fact of life. Children have similar names, and things happen that professionals do not perhaps anticipate. I presume that we will want an appeals process in place.

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I realise that we are not discussing the computer system in detail today, as I understand that no current system can handle the database that the Government envisage. However, it is anticipated that the system will be available and ready to run the required database by the end of 2008. It would be useful for all concerned to receive an update from the Minister about how confident she is that the database will be available on time and that the system will be able to deal with the complexities of the information.

Others have been concerned about security. I am sure we all know from information from our own banks that there is no such thing as a 100 per cent. secure database in this day and age. Will the Government outline what level of risk will be acceptable when the database is running? I am sure that the answer will be that no risk is acceptable, but when it comes to banking, banks accept that some infringements will be made. It would be useful to understand from the Minister how they will be handled.

The role of the local authority will be pivotal in delivering the system. I have touched on the importance within the trials of involving local authorities in considering the ways of updating the databases. Again, I seek further information from the Minister about the money that will be made available to ensure that the databases are accurate and that they can be updated in a timely fashion, so that they do not fall foul of the Data Protection Act. Will local authorities be responsible for auditing access to the database in their areas, picking up any security lapses and training the 400,000 people—on current estimates—who will have access to the system if and when it comes on line?

This project is an immense undertaking. Having worked in business for 17 years and seen the difficulty of keeping databases of much smaller magnitude up to date and accurate, I feel that the Minister owes it to the Committee and the House to furnish us with more details about how the database will work. I hope that her response will show that the work has been done, and that we are not being asked to authorise such a sensitive and important data trial in a vacuum of knowledge about how the information will be used and handled.

4.58 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): It is also my pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow—for the first time, in fact. I had the honour of serving in Committee on the Children Act 2004, so I have spent many hours in this or another room discussing clause 12 and our great concerns about it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) on her comprehensive review of the issues that concern us.

I, too, welcome the step-by-step approach that the Government are taking before they launch into that enormous task. I also crave your indulgence,
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Mr.d ¤Bercow, to range outside this statutory instrument’s limited framework. Owing to the Government’s step-by-step approach, we must bear in mind the concerns flagged up at the beginning and the concerns about where we shall end up. I shall not speak at great length, however, so I do not ask for too much indulgence.

There is one point of difference between myself and the hon. Member for Basingstoke: I do not think that the database can be limited to children identified as vulnerable, because dreadful things happen to children who are not identified. Although 11 million children sounds like an enormous amount to collect data on, none of us would want to choose where to draw the line about who was included and who was not. Once we are on the route of establishing a database, we must cover every child. We are taking enormous risks otherwise.

I want to ask the Minister a few questions. It may be that I have slightly missed the plot; I have looked at the Department for Education and Skills website, but I am not absolutely clear in my mind about how all the information from the trailblazers has been brought together to bring us to the point where we are now. There is a lot of interesting reading about the individual projects, but I have not quite seen the link. It may be that I am at fault, but I think that it is rather important for us to see how we have gone from A to B, if we regard today as B. Are children involved with the trailblazers and the pilot? What information is held, what are their views and what input can they have in the whole project? That seems vital, as they are at the centre and it is their protection that we seek.

From our discussions on the Children Act 2004, it was clear to all that an information base alone would not save any child. The issues of prime importance would be multi-agency working, good communication and adequate training of everybody. Clearly, collecting information can be a catalyst to make some of that happen, but it is not a sufficient condition. The Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee in the Lords cited the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which made this point:

    “Costly information systems in themselves will not protect children.”

We must bear that in mind throughout.

To look at the specifics of the regulations—the Minister covered this point—the explanatory memorandum makes the point that the index will allow practitioners across education, health, social care and youth offending to contact one another easily and quickly. I am not convinced that the index alone is a vehicle for instant communication. Who will look at the pilots to observe whether a vital piece of information is missing? In the case of Victoria Climbié, for example, she had not been attending school. Anybody looking across an objective database would have noticed that school had not been input. Who will look at it to pull out that information?

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In the Committee that considered the Children Bill, I supported having objective data on the database and therefore felt fairly comfortable with details such as the child’s name, address, GP and where the child attended school. Somebody should be responsible for picking out the missing information. We should use the pilots to ensure that that happens. A great concern that we all had was that practitioners would put information on the database and then it would be a case of saying “Job done, go home.” The job cannot be regarded as complete.

The explanatory memorandum also makes it clear that

    “Practitioners will also be able to indicate that they have information to share”.

That brings me to the issue of “flagging up as a cause of concern”, which we debated at great length. Indeed, all Opposition Members opposed it, as the concern was that we were dealing with subjective data. How would we know that the practitioners, from their different backgrounds, would have the same interpretation of a particular flag? Some of the information is very sensitive, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned. A child might rightly seek sexual health assistance. How is such a child going to have the confidence to use that service if it is felt that that information may be passed on to somebody else or flagged up as a cause of concern? It may be difficult for the Minister to grapple with that issue, particularly regarding younger children who obviously need such help and support often. Should that information be passed on? How are we going to handle what is almost an ethical issue around use of the database?

My greatest concern, however, is whether a flag of concern could impact on how others react to a child, simply because there is no common basis. That brings me to the common assessment framework, which is mentioned in the explanatory notes and on which I have a few questions. The notes say that the framework

    “is a nationally standardised approach to conducting an initial assessment of the needs of a child and for deciding on action to meet those needs.”

So far as I recall, concern arose during debate on the Children Bill from meetings with local authorities that were participating either in the pathfinder or the trailblazer projects. The concern was whether there would indeed be a nationally standardised approach, given that one can set criteria, but that there are different interpretations and there is the possibility of variation between local authorities. That brings me in turn to the tricky issue of how to cope with children who are moving between authorities. I hope that that will be monitored throughout any pilot, because many of the most vulnerable children are those who are moved around a lot—it is easiest for them to fall through a gap.

We opposed flagging up at the Committee stage of the Children Act 2004. We were reassured that it was being tested with some of the trailblazer projects, but
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I have not seen the evidence to say that it is much better and more thorough, and delivers a better outcome, than a simple objective database. It would be useful if we could have that information. We are also concerned about the accuracy of the data. That would be true for any database, but the whole project will be dependent on getting that issue right, and that is a great strength of the pilots. The security aspect is something about which we shall also have great concerns, but a report back from the project will be useful.

I am also still not entirely sure whether children or their parents can look at the database to see what is in it. Will parents be able to look at the pilot databases? Will children know what is on them? It would be helpful to know.

This area is always going to raise a lot of questions. There is, I think, a united desire to give the greatest possible protection to children, yet when we move down this route there are many pitfalls. We could spend a lot of money without improving the situation much, unless we have the confidence, accuracy and security that we have all been talking about.

5.9 pm

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