Draft Information Sharing Index (England) Regulations 2006

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Beverley Hughes: The project is important and has significant implications, so it is understandable that hon. Members have not only spoken about the scope of the regulations, but addressed the principles, along with some operational issues on the index itself. Although those issues have been debated before and will be again, as I said, when the full regulations on operation and implementation come before the House, perhaps I can give some reassurance on them.

I must reiterate the reason for the regulations. I reassure the Committee that we are proceeding carefully with limited data trials, because we want to ensure that we deal with the questions about accuracy, scope, security of information and updating, which hon. Members have rightly raised. It is a measure of our commitment to getting it right that the regulations allow us to proceed with trials. We want to ensure that the index provides accurate and robust information.

I was asked why we want to include all children and not simply those who are at risk or on the child protection register. I am glad that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) agrees with the Government. First, it will allow the index to be comprehensive. Secondly, in order to achieve a feasible scheme, we need to include all children. It will not be possible to predict which children will have additional needs, about which practitioners may need to communicate. Any child could have such needs at any time, and if they were not on the index, they could not be located by practitioners.

Children are entitled to a number of universal services. As the hon. Lady pointed out, sometimes, children go missing—for instance, they may not appear at school—and people will not know where they are. The index is important as it will make it easier to keep track of children who do not appear for those universal services.

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Mrs. Miller: The Minister said that the index was important in helping to predict the needs of children. How can it predict what children’s needs will be? Surely, it is there as a reference point and not a predictive tool.

Beverley Hughes: With respect, I was making precisely the opposite point. I said that an index that included selected children—children who fit one criterion or another—would include only those who already received or were likely to need additional services and those in whom practitioners were interested. As it is not possible to predict which children will fall into that category, it is necessary to include them all.

That brings me to the question of feasibility. If it were a partial index, who would decide, and how would they decide that a child should go on the list? Would it be only those children on the child protection register? That is a high threshold of need, and practitioners are likely to know about them already. Would it be only those children who meet a definition of being at risk? As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) said from a sedentary position, would that include the brothers and sisters of those children, even though there was no definable or evidential risk in relation to those children?

What about children who miss the threshold of being at risk, but who none the less are a cause for concern because of one or two problems—perhaps they are truanting, or are on the cusp of offending? Who would decide where the line should be drawn? What would that line be? Would it be sensible? Would it make sensible inclusions?

We have come to the conclusion, as did the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, that that would not be a sensible way forward. There would not be much potential gain from a partial list. Our sole objective is to ensure that the index aids practitioners and so helps to prevent the kind of tragedies—Victoria Climbié was the last major incident—that have occurred over the past few decades. Every one of the public inquiries following those tragedies identified, to a greater or lesser extent, both the difficulty of sharing information and the difficulty of finding out who else was involved with the child, which often led to a failure to act, resulting in the serious injury or death of the child. If we are going down this route, we are convinced that the only sensible way forward is a comprehensive index that captures every child.

Some other questions were raised about the sort of details that will be included in the index. The data we are capturing for the trials mirror the basic details recorded in section 12 of the Children Act.

On the specific point raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, we consulted on all aspects of index population during consideration of the Children Bill. Some of my hon. Friends made it clear at that time that we should recognise that consent will be required for practitioners in targeted or
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specialist health services, where there is a strong practitioner culture and public expectation that information can only be shared where informed explicit consent has been secured. We take those views seriously and we are still working with counterparts in the Department of Health, but I expect that we shall define sensitive health issues, including sexual health, when we have produced the wider regulations that deal with such operational issues. If practitioners wish to include their names on the index, they will need the consent of the person concerned in such interventions.

There was also a question about whether children and parents will be allowed, under the Data Protection Act, to access the records held on them in the index. The rights of children and parents under that Act will not be affected; proper procedures will be allowed to ensure that access. Of course, we have to safeguard against inappropriate access, but it will certainly be procedurally possible for parents and children to access their own information and to check it.

Some issues of accuracy were raised, and the feeling was expressed that the database is too big for any computer to deal with. I am sure that the hon. Member for Basingstoke knows from her business experience that, although we are dealing with a large data set—the final index, not the trials we have talked about today—it is not large by business standards, and the information we propose to hold in the data set is not particularly complex compared with many of the systems already used well in business.

It is important to ensure accuracy, which is why we have suggested the trials. They are part of the process of identifying the scope of the task in matching data from different sources to ensure that they are accurate. It is also important that the data are regularly updated. We envisage that regular updates will be available directly from existing systems to ensure that practitioners do not have to put information in twice, thus minimising the necessary processes involved and ensuring that we can get updates if not in real time, as quickly as possible after they are made to the data set.

Mrs. Miller: May I ask for some clarification? The Minister refers to regular updates. Is she going to specify how often they would take place, keeping in mind the requirements of the Data Protection Act that any data sets still in use be as accurate as they can be? How often will the updates take place?

Beverley Hughes: We are still considering that issue. The trials, particularly the contact with data source agencies, will help us, but we envisage that the frequency of updates to the index will depend on the source organisation. It could be in real time, or nearly in real time. It may be daily, weekly or monthly, depending on how frequently the data in the source system change. Whatever the pattern is, we will want to ensure that the data are updated in accordance with the frequency and regularity of the information. By matching records from a range of sources, we can also verify the accuracy of each record.

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I was asked who would be responsible for the index. As the hon. Member for Basingstoke anticipated, accountability for a child’s record will lie with the local authority in whose area the child is ordinarily resident. That will include responsibility for ensuring that the index is operated in line with the regulations and the statutory guidance, and that all the data are up to date.

Mrs. Miller: I also raised the issue of penalties. As everyone knows, things often work more fluidly if one is aware of the penalty one will face if one does not do a job properly. Does the Minister envisage a penalty being levied either on the local authority or on those providing the local authority with information, to ensure that the database is as accurate as it can be?

Beverley Hughes: We are not necessarily thinking in terms of penalties, but we would have systems in place to monitor very carefully the way in which a local authority is performing these duties and meeting the necessary standards required of it. We will consider that matter further as we develop the detail of the regulations that I envisage we will bring forward later this year.

Access will be granted according to the role of the practitioner but, in all circumstances and in all organisations, it will be granted to a small number of designated, named staff. In a school, it might be granted to a special needs co-ordinator, an education welfare officer or the deputy head. It will not be the case—in a school, for instance—that all staff will have access.

All practitioners with access will have to have had relevant training, and to have undergone the appropriate Criminal Records Bureau checks. As hon. Members know, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, which is currently before the House of Lords, provides that administrators or operators of the index will be included in the top category of regulated activity under the Bill’s proposed barring scheme. That means not only that they will be subject to mandatory checks, but that, if that led to inclusion in the children’s barred list, they would be barred from employment in these capacities.

The hon. Members for Basingstoke and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole both asked about flags of concern. As a result of the consultation that we undertook in preparation for the regulations, we define that as, on the basis of factual or evidence-based indicators, letting other practitioners know that there is important information to share, where action has been undertaken or is under way in relation to a child, and/or where a common assessment has been completed. Those are the three definitions of the kinds of circumstances, based on factual and evidence-based indicators, in which a practitioner can record on an index a flag of concern—not the nature of the concern, but simply a flag that one of those three criteria applies in relation to a particular child. That is a clear threshold. Therefore, the need for subjective decisions to be made about when a flag should be included is avoided.

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Mrs. Miller: The Minister stated that a clear threshold has been established by those three criteria. Having important information is not a clear threshold; it seems that a wide range of issues could fall within that category. However, perhaps I missed the point. Can she elaborate on why that constitutes a clear threshold?

Beverley Hughes: It is important to put that in the context of the phrase I used earlier about practitioners having factual and evidence-based indicators about the important information they have to share. I accept the hon. Lady’s point to a degree. We shall define what the threshold means in practice as we introduce the wider regulations but, clearly, actions that are taken or common assessments that are completed are based on fact and evidence.

There were several questions about security. The whole of the index has been designed with that as a primary consideration. Robust security measures will be introduced in respect of access and the potential misuse of data, and those issues will be dealt with in the guidance, regulations and staff training.

Several points are worth making here. There is no blanket access to the index—it will be controlled—and the designated people will be trained. As I said, they will all be checked for barred status. Unauthorised access will be prevented by a two factor authentication—people will be able to access the index only if they can input two separate factors. Also, all use will be monitored, and there will be an audit trail of the use made of the index. All users will have to state why they want to access the index, and that will be recorded.

Those are important measures for deterring anyone who might think of using the index in an untoward way. A robust and detailed audit trail will be recorded and made available if it is necessary to check why someone accessed the index and what they did with the data.

Mrs. Miller: The Minister said that all access will be monitored and recorded. As we are discussing a database of 11 million children, that will be a hefty task. Who will undertake the monitoring and recording?

Beverley Hughes: The local authority for whom practitioners work. It will be within the ambit of the local authority to have a system in place for recording such information. It will be part of their role and responsibility, which, of course, we will fund from resources that will be put aside for the activity.

There were questions about whether the computer system would be delivered on time. So far, we are on course for the index to be available by the end of 2008, as anticipated.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked whether children and young people, as well as parents, would be able to access the data. Children and young people were specifically engaged in the consultation. Indeed, parents had to give permission in respect of the trailblazing pilots. Unlike the data
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matching trial that we are discussing, the pilots tested the operation of an index in one form or another. Children knew what was happening through their parents.

The hon. Lady asked about how information from the trailblazers was brought together to inform the further steps that we are taking today. When we announced in December that we had decided, on thed ¤basis of the pilot research, to go ahead with the index,d ¤we published a document, “Learning from Information Sharing and Assessment Trailblazers”, and placed it in the Library. If she has not seen it, I will be happy to send her a copy, or she can get one from the Library.

If I have omitted anything from the long list of questions, perhaps hon. Members would like to intervene on me now, or I shall follow up with a letter.

Annette Brooke: Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes: I had one more point to answer from the hon. Lady, but I shall give way in case her question is not the one that I was thinking of.

Annette Brooke: The one question that I would liked answered is: who in the local authority will be responsible for looking at the database of each child?

Beverley Hughes: I am not sure that it will work quite in that way, with a centralised person being able to look at every record and know if something is missing. The local authority will employ people to ensure that the record is complete as regards the categories of information that the Children Act specifies. However, I thought that the hon. Lady was asking earlier who would check if, say, a child on the index who was supposed to be attending a specific school did not turn up. Clearly, there will not be a centralised person responsible for doing that.

The designated people in the school and other agencies will be able to go to a child’s record and know what school they are supposed to be at. The school itself will know that a child is supposed to be there—strange as it may seem, that is not always the case, precisely because there is no comprehensive list in every local authority of every child and what school that they should be going to. I was surprised to discover that last year, when I got this ministerial post. That is one concrete example of where the index, because it will contain a comprehensive list of every child and the basic information, including their school, will enable schools and other practitioners to check whether the child is not receiving a universal service that they should be receiving, such as education.

However, the Government do not regard the index as a panacea. It is certainly not a replacement for good practice and for action when action is needed. However, it will be a practical tool to support better communication between practitioners and, through that communication, the identification of children about whom practitioners need to have a conversation. The index enables that conversation among the relevant practitioners to take place earlier. Without such an index, those practitioners have difficulties finding out who else might be involved with a child about whom they have a concern. The index
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therefore helps that first step. It is not a replacement for the action and the protection of children that must follow, but it provides no excuse for the identification and the conversation not to take place.

You have been very understanding, Mr. Bercow, in allowing this debate to range more widely than the regulations that we are debating, but I understand—as clearly you do, too—that the issue is sensitive. I also understand the argument that, as we rightly take such incremental steps, hon. Members want to unpack some of the implications for the direction of travel. That is what we have been doing today. I hope that hon. Members will also understand that this first step in checking the feasibility and the task involved in bringing together data from different sources, matching them and ensuring their accuracy, is essential. I therefore hope that hon. Members will agree to the regulations.

The Chairman: I have sought to take account of issues of questioning, probing and interpretation of the draft regulations. That consideration informed my approach this afternoon.

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Question put:

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 3.

[Division No. 1]


Brooke, Annette
Brown, Lyn
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Ennis, Jeff
George, rh Mr. Bruce
Hughes, rh Beverley
Meacher, rh Mr. Michael
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Smith, Ms Angela C.
      (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Trickett, Jon


Duddridge, James
Evennett, Mr. David
Miller, Mrs. Maria

Question accordingly agreed to.


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

Committee rose at twenty-four minutes to Six o’clock.

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