House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
Publications on the internet
Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Children Act 2004 Information Database (England) Regulations 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Peter Atkinson
Allen, Mr. Graham (Nottingham, North) (Lab)
Brennan, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Dorrell, Mr. Stephen (Charnwood) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Dunne, Mr. Philip (Ludlow) (Con)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Hill, Keith (Streatham) (Lab)
Jackson, Mr. Stewart (Peterborough) (Con)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
MacShane, Mr. Denis (Rotherham) (Lab)
Miller, Mrs. Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)
Russell, Christine (City of Chester) (Lab)
Walley, Joan (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab)
Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Thirteenth Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 23 July 2007

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Draft Children Act 2004 Information Database (England) Regulations 2007

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Children Act 2004 Information Database (England) Regulations 2007.
Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I commend the regulations, which were laid before the House on 4 July, to the Committee. They make provision in respect of the establishment and operation of the database ContactPoint under section 12 of the Children Act 2004. They place a requirement on local authorities to participate in the operation of that database; and they specify what information will be held, who must or can provide the data, how long it can be retained, and who can be granted access to it. They also state how accuracy is to be maintained.
The Government have made a significant commitment, through the “Every Child Matters” programme, to transform the delivery of services to children, young people and families. The aim of the programme is to ensure that all children, regardless of background or circumstances, have the support that they need to be happy, to stay safe, to enjoy and achieve, to make a positive contribution, and to achieve economic well-being. ContactPoint will be central to delivering on that promise.
ContactPoint is a simple directory that will enable practitioners working with children and young people to find out who else is working with the same child. From there, service providers will be able to work together to deliver better co-ordinated support, as appropriate. We estimate that ContactPoint will save practitioners a minimum of 5 million hours a year. That time will be better spent helping children, young people and their families than in searching for the contact details of other practitioners.
If ContactPoint is to make children’s services more efficient and effective, it will be necessary and proportionate to hold a small amount of information for every child. A more selective system would provide support only for those children who have already been identified as having additional needs; it would also fail to identify those children who are missing out on universal services. ContactPoint will make early intervention easier, allowing practitioners to address problems before they escalate. However, I make it clear that the database will hold only basic identifying information on all children in England until their 18th birthday, and the name and contact details of practitioners working with those children. It is more like a telephone directory than some sort of parliamentary almanac. ContactPoint will not hold any subjective judgments or case information about the child or the family.
Consultation has been invaluable throughout the project. We sought the views of more than 1,100 children and young people. Those views played and will continue to play an important role in the development of ContactPoint. We also worked closely with a range of partners, including front-line practitioners, to ensure that the system meets their needs and addresses any concerns that they might have. We are delighted that Barnado’s, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the National Children’s Home, the Children’s Society, Kids, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and the Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service have agreed to become national partners in ContactPoint. Those organisations provide support to the most vulnerable in society, and their endorsement is testament to their confidence in ContactPoint.
The proposals rightly led many to stress the importance of maintaining accuracy and security, and of preventing the misuse of ContactPoint. It is right that we debate these issues today, and I look forward to a constructive discussion. The regulations provide for the operation of ContactPoint, which will be a vital tool in helping to improve outcomes for all children and their families. I commend them to the Committee.
4.34 pm
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I believe, Mr. Atkinson, that this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship. I am sure that it will be a pleasure.
We share the Government’s objective of improving the quality of decision making by professionals working with children, particularly in helping the most vulnerable. The key issue is how best to achieve that objective, and whether the database will assist or hinder us.
I should like to restate some of our fundamental concerns. The information sharing index, now called ContactPoint, was first debated before I became a Member, during the passage of the Children Act 2004. Regulations were laid down to set up a trial last year and I was a member of the Committee that considered them. Now, on this third occasion, we are discussing the regulations to set up a database. Our position has been consistent throughout. We need to ensure that time and money are focused most efficiently to support those who need that help, rather than spreading resources too thinly.
We remain concerned that information indicating a risk of abuse and neglect could become lost in a mountain of data. Many during the earlier debates cited the case of Victoria ClimbiĆ(c), where, according to one academic,
“there was no shortage of information but there was a shortage of wisdom of how to understand that information”
I and others have made our concerns clear to the Government, and we were pleased that consultations and trials have been put in place to assess the real impact of this new index. Today I should like to cover some of the concerns about these proposals that have been expressed not just by parents and children, but by professionals.
The debate in the other place last week, led by my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton, elicited clarifications on some of the issues that concern us, but others are still outstanding. When we debated these issues 16 months ago, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), said that the trials were a first step in checking the feasibility and that the consultation among those affected would guide the Government’s first steps. I should therefore like to cast the Committee’s mind back to some particular issues that the data index research has looked at, to see whether we are picking up as thoroughly as we need to on the concerns of those who are going to be most fundamentally affected by these proposals.
The first issue is the question of accuracy and updating, the second is security and access to data, and the third is the impact of information sharing. I hope that the Minister can respond in some detail to these issues, because they are important. The number of people in the Gallery today shows how many are interested in our discussion. Almost half of those who took part in the Government’s consultation felt that there could be a concern about the accuracy of the data on the database. Given that a great number of the consultees will be the people responsible for the accuracy of that data, it is somewhat concerning that there is a deep-seated uncertainty about whether the database can be as accurate as it needs to be to do its job.
I should like to look at two issues—I am sorry to have to go into such great detail, but this is a very complex and technical area—some of the data trials themselves, and the more general point about who will be responsible for updating. Extensive and very technical data trials were undertaken by a company called Atkins over the past 12 months. The trials reported last August. Their aim was to look at the index and its ability to transform children’s services by supporting more effective prevention and early intervention, in order to ensure that additional services are put in place for children as early as possible, and that practitioners in health, education, social care, youth justice and the voluntary sector can find out in detail who is working with which child. I was pleased, as the Government doubtless were, that there was a good match in the national data trials for the Department for Work and Pensions and the then Department for Education and Skills, and for the health data sets that were used.
However, I was concerned when I looked in more detail at a further addendum to the Atkins report, which was produced after the initial report. Some significant weaknesses were highlighted in getting good matches from some of the local practitioner data sets, especially those pertaining to some of the most vulnerable groups of children—those who might be known to youth offending teams, for example, or the children of Traveller communities.
The same can be said in respect of youth offending data. Information in a number of different data sets did not match up with the DWP national data set. I am keen to hear today what additional work has been done with local authorities since the report was published to find out how this significant problem can be resolved, because if it cannot be resolved we face some significant problems in our entire approach to building an index to contain the necessary information about children. I am particularly concerned that we could be creating a culture of over-reliance on an incomplete, if not flawed, database, which would create further problems when we try to give professionals more information about the children whom they are working with. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that issue.
The second issue is the accuracy and updating of that information. It is clear from what the Minister has said in the past that each local authority will be responsible for the quality and accuracy of the data. As the London borough of Southwark pointed out in the Government’s consultation paper, there is no sanction to enforce compliance on data sources supplying local authorities, so it is difficult for local authorities to ensure that they are being given accurate and timely data. As that is at the heart of whether the index will work, it would be useful if the Minister told the Committee what measures will be available to local authorities to ensure that the data they receive are as accurate as they need to be to ensure that local authorities fulfil their obligations under the new regulations.
As part of the consultation, there was an indication that practitioners will have a responsibility to update information when they are aware that it is necessary. Perhaps the Minister will tell the Committee whether that is a legal responsibility, or something that practitioners will do as part of their day job. Will there be any compulsion on them to update information, and to ensure that it is accurate according to the information records that they have?
I also want to mention security and access, an issue that caused great concern to those who participated in the consultation. I am sure that members of the Committee are aware that the consultation has covered a wide range of organisations, including those representing children, parents and professionals. Despite the obvious concern of all those groups about the sheer number of people—some 330,000 in total—who will have access to the proposed database, and the fact that more than half of those consulted said that no more should be added to that number, the Government decided to add yet another category: fire and rescue staff.
I am sure that the Minister can justify giving yet another category of people access to the database, but perhaps he will answer this more fundamental question: what will he do to allay the overwhelming concern among so many different people about allowing 330,000 people access to data on our children? That should not be causing the problem that it so clearly is causing.
Clearly, training will be provided, which is to be welcomed. I am sure that the Minister is aware that there are too many examples of security lapses. We see them almost daily in our papers, and they relate to similar databases operating in sensitive areas. He is aware of the case involving Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, in which 70,000 instances of inappropriate access were recorded in one month alone. Does he feel that that level of inappropriate access will be replicated in the children’s index? If not, why not? In what way will it differ from the case that I mentioned? If that level of inappropriate access is replicated, what resources will local authorities be given to enable them to cope with that huge demand on their time?
Such concerns will be particularly acute in relation to any temporary or contract staff who are given access to the database, and who might not have the same commitment to security as other users. The Minister is aware of the problems that the Child Support Agency had with temporary staff who were given unrestricted access to credit reference agency data, enabling them to make unauthorised checks on individuals. Ministers have given assurances that those with access to the database will be checked by the Criminal Records Bureau, and quite rightly, too. That will come under the remit of the vetting and barring scheme once it is set up. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and I are aware of that scheme, because we did a lot of work on it last year.
Members might recall from debates on the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill last year that CRB checks cover only known criminals. They do little to give further information about overseas workers, who make up a significant and increasing proportion of the health and social care work force. Effectively, one could say that overseas workers are simply not covered by the scheme, due to the lack of an effective network to feed in previous criminal convictions from the countries of origin of many of those who come to work here in health and social care.
Who will be responsible for ensuring that any security breaches are acted on? Will the information be available to Parliament, to ensure that we are aware of any issues that arise locally from the index being put in place, so that we know whether the system works quite as perfectly as the Minister and his hon. Friends before him have said it will?
In the Government’s consultation, many organisations expressed a great deal of concern. The children’s rights director at the Commission for Social Care Inspection undertook research among children. Of the children it spoke to, an important minority of 18 per cent., who were perhaps some of the most vulnerable children, did not want social workers to be able to access the index. There was concern about the high rates of turnover among social workers, and it was unclear to the children whether practitioners formerly involved in their cases would still be able to access their records in future.
Mrs. Miller: The hon. Lady makes a strong point. However, the only problem with the index is that, as the Minister has outlined, it will simply keep very sketchy data, so although it will alleviate the problem of a child repeating their name, the name of their GP, their address or the name and address of their parents, it will not hold any further data. I think that that is what the Minister said, anyway. The problem that the hon. Lady is alluding to should be dealt with by social services departments. I know that my social services department in Hampshire deals with that issue regularly, and it has looked into putting its own in-house systems in place so that that does not become a problem. I am unsure that the index will alleviate the problem outlined by the hon. Lady, but the Minister can correct me later if I am wrong.
Let me return to the research by CSCI, because it is important that we understand children’s attitudes. Some 23 per cent. of children were against Connexions workers and careers advisers being able to access the index. They felt that it was not appropriate for careers advisers to know such a broad spectrum of information about them. I am sure that the Minister will say that there will be professional use, training and an ability to view the database on a selective level, but we find from CSCI that children had a negative attitude towards the database from the start. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what plans he has, if the index goes ahead, to help ease the communication block that clearly exists before the index has even started.
I am concerned that the index could work in quite a harmful way to undermine the confidence between children and professionals, so I shall move on to a little more evidence about that from the Government’s consultation. It is not only children and parents who are concerned about the way in which the index will work. Professionals who work with children and who would be responsible for inputting and running the database also have concerns and seek reassurance. The consultation stated that the Nursing and Midwifery Council will need to see that the new index is within the NMC code of professional conduct as regards how it will affect nurses, midwives and community health nurses. Will the Minister confirm whether that will be the case?
Has the Minister had any representations from the National Union of Teachers? In the recent consultation, it said that it did not feel that the database has been established as a necessary and appropriate means of dealing with child protection issues. Those references are not exactly glowing. The Independent Schools Council believes that there is a lack of evidence that it is technically possible to put adequate security measures in place to safeguard such a system. Can the Minister give the Committee a categorical assurance that it is technically possible to put in place security to ensure that there are no security breaches? Such breaches are clearly causing great concern in the minds of parents and children.
The Opposition are still concerned that disincentives might be created that will keep young people from consulting some services. When we debated regulations on testing in Committee last year, we discussed the possibility that if reference was included on the database to the fact that a child had consulted certain services—perhaps sexual health or drug advisory services—although no information would be stored on the database, it would be clearly flagged to anybody who saw it that the child had been referred to, or had referred themselves to, that service.
The Government’s own consultation indicates that although only 9 per cent. of children and young people might be deterred from accessing services, they might well be the 9 per cent. who need those services’ support the most. Is the Minister confident that that problem has been overcome? The research and consultation suggest that it still exists. Perhaps he could reassure the Committee further about that important issue, which caused a great deal of concern to Members from all parties last time round.
I remind the Minister of the words of the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, when we discussed the index before:
“Our sole objective is to ensure that the index aids practitioners and so helps to prevent the kind of tragedies...that have occurred over the past few decades.”—[Official Report, Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 27 March 2006; c. 14.]
She then cited the case of Victoria ClimbiĆ(c) as the latest such tragedy.
The Minister will also be aware of the fact that in 2005, the Select Committee on Education and Skills questioned whether the index was the best use of resources, whether issues of security and confidentiality would be resolved and whether it would improve outcomes for children. I fear that the Government’s own research in the past year suggests residual concerns about those matters.
The policy intention behind the database is to improve the quality of decisions made by professionals dealing with children. Will the database, in this form, achieve that aim? We believe not. Users could see it as a disincentive to use important professional resources. We also believe that the database might not be complete and accurate enough to provide professionals with the support that they need. The Government’s own trials indicate a potential high failure rate in matching local with national data sets.
The Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee in the other place concluded that ContactPoint was not compatible with article 8 with the European convention on human rights, which guarantees the right to privacy and confidentiality of personal information. That Committee’s arguments were compelling; I am sure that the Minister has considered them in full. It is a shame that the Government have not listened to its recommendations and guidance on the database. It is an oversight on their part not to have done more about it.
On balance, we feel that there are simply too many outstanding concerns, too many unanswered questions and too many children, parents and professionals who are deeply concerned about how the index will work in reality. We shall not support the draft regulations, and we hope that by raising these issues, we can gain the support of other Members who share our concerns. They might be looking at the regulations afresh and questioning whether the Government should go back and reconsider them again before approval.
4.59 pm
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I believe that it is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I welcome the opportunity to do so, and I welcome the new Minister to his position.
We all want the strongest possible system of child protection, and there can be no disagreement about the need for effective multi-agency working and communication between professionals involved, in the child’s best interests. The question is, how do we best achieve that? Members of both Opposition parties have expressed reservations about the information-sharing index, now ContactPoint, throughout the passage of the Children Act 2004 and beyond. The Liberal Democrats supported the 2006 regulations on the data matching trials, because it seemed only fair and reasonable to conduct trials. However, we have much greater concerns now that we have reached this stage.
I shall refer to the stage before the data trials, because I spoke about the results from the trailblazers evaluation last time we debated these issues. I am not convinced that the trailblazers results have been sufficiently analysed, or that they provide an adequate basis for proceeding with this enormous national project—the biggest Government database yet. Will the Minister tell me whether any evaluation of the trailblazers shows quantitative or empirical evidence of the way in which the trials improved outcomes for children? How did they impact on the lives of vulnerable children? When I analysed the information, it seemed to comprise mainly anecdotal accounts, not hard evidence, so I should be grateful if the Minister will provide some more information.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke covered the data trials extremely well. I endorse her points, so I shall move on. It has taken a long time to reach this stage of the process, but I congratulate the Government on keeping to what was said right from the beginning: it would be a step-by-step process, which would not be rushed into. I welcome the consultation that took place, including that with children and parents. Approximately one third of the formal responses came directly from young people and parents. Will the Minister confirm that the majority of respondents from that group expressed their opposition to the establishment of ContactPoint, raising concerns about the impact on their privacy? That brings us to the human rights issue, illustrating the heart of the matter for the people who were consulted.
I also welcome the attempts to address some of the concerns that have been discussed throughout. The Minister has already confirmed that the database will not flag up any causes of concern. We spent a great deal of time discussing that issue in Committee, on Report—indeed, throughout the passage of the Children Act. I should like the reassurance that the database will not include any subjective assessments whatever, either on its face or behind the shield. How will indications be made in other ways? What will trigger people to start talking to one another? Indeed, will there be any triggers? I am not quite sure about that.
Mrs. Miller: The hon. Lady raised the issue of information stored on the database. Does she have any thoughts about the issue that Action on Rights for Children raised, concerning the law about circumstances in which children under 16 can give informed consent to information sharing? Action on Rights for Children feels that that may have been misinterpreted, and it questions whether children will be able to withdraw or give their consent to have information held on the database.
Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Lady for that point, which I shall cover in part at least when I discuss sensitive services.
I reinforce the point that the national partnerships, being formed with organisations such as Barnardo’s, are of great interest. If the index goes ahead, they will be helpful. However, we must bear in mind that many organisations still have deep concerns that simply have not been addressed. I concur with the hon. Member for Basingstoke that the communications strategy and how we explain matters to children, parents and practitioners will be of great importance. During the passage of the Safeguarding of Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, we discussed how on earth people would understand it. How much money is being allocated to the communications strategy?
Whom and what should be covered by the index? Let us consider the size of the database. Logically, I have always felt that, if a national database were to exist, all children would need to be included because we would never know where to draw the line about whom to include and whom to leave out. I have expressed the view that a simple, local objective database might be more acceptable, but then there is the problem of children moving between authorities. Now that we are discussing the details of implementation, it seems that the problem of children moving between authorities will still exist. I do not know how it will be picked up that a child has moved from A to B or, indeed, when splitting time between parents, that a child spends part of the time in one area and part in another authority area.
A calculation was made by a speaker in the debate in another place. That suggested, certainly in London boroughs, that people updating the database might be having to handle between 1,000 and 3,000 changes of address each day, simply because of the massive movements taking place. Poole authority, the main authority in my constituency, is very small, and we would start wondering why on earth the database was needed. A unitary authority with a total population of 140,000 people would have a pretty good grip on matters.
The measure is very much oriented towards the large cities, but that is where it is most difficult to capture the data. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering points out that only those children who are ordinarily resident in England will have their details on the database and that many highly vulnerable children, victims of child trafficking and unaccompanied asylum seekers might not fall within the definition. I should be grateful for clarification on that matter. It is also questionable whether Victoria ClimbiĆ(c), with her particular status, would have been captured within the index.
Members of the Committee might be aware that I have raised the issue of privately fostered children a number of times. We still have only a voluntary notification system to local authorities in respect of such children who come into the country. If notification has not taken place because the Government have delayed setting up a compulsory registration scheme, I cannot see how those children—many of whom are very vulnerable—could be included on the database.
Kevin Brennan: Perhaps it would be best to deal with the point made about Victoria ClimbiĆ(c) now rather than later. We understand that her aunt had registered her for child benefit and with two GPs, so she would have appeared on the index.
Annette Brooke: I also want to mention name changes. It is a complex issue. In today’s society, a child often prefers to be called something different from their official name at school. There is also the problem of how that is correctly inputted to all the different agencies. When we started debating such issues way back in 2003, I did not realise that we would not be retaining child protection registers. That has gradually come as quite a shock, as they are important. I accept that we now have individual child protection plans and the common assessment framework, but real worries have been expressed to me that we are losing some of the important investigative processes that took place under the old system. In other words, we might have fears about abuse but, without everyone working together and tracking back, we might not know the main causes of certain issues. I am deeply concerned about the point that several professionals have made to me that not as many full investigations are taking place as there used to be. I would like to think that that is because there are fewer child protection problems, but that is certainly not the case.
The regulations say that the details of those providing specialist or targeted services will be included. I am not sure what is meant by specialist or targeted services. It is fairly clear that sexual health, mental health and substance abuse services may be added only with the explicit consent of the young person, but I do not know what the other section includes. Presumably, it includes things such as speech therapy, but could it include other services that the young person would be concerned about if everybody knew about them?
Superficially, it sounds fine to say, “Only with the child’s consent,” but the word will get around among children that if they are asked for permission and they say no, people will start asking even more questions. I agree with the hon. Member for Basingstoke that there is so much involved here, including the question of whether we are talking about the children or their parents. We are dealing with very sensitive matters, and with children under 16. We must work for the best interests of the child, and sometimes that means keeping some information confidential. I sincerely believe that, although I recognise that the decision to keep information confidential must be made by a professional, and that there must be strong guidance from the Government on those matters that should be kept confidential. I fear that the regulations are almost the opposite of the decisions that had been reached on the basis of the careful working of professionals.
Obviously, security must be one of our greatest concerns, because everything comes back to it. If there were not a worry about security, we might say that it does not matter if the database does not work very well, but security is the real crunch. I share the concern about the lack of CRB checks on overseas workers. The case was made to me in a different context recently. If a CRB check is done on someone who has been abroad for a couple of years, that period is not covered in the check unless the specific question, “Have you been abroad for several years?”, is asked somewhere along the line. I ask the Minister to consider that aspect carefully.
User numbers have been estimated at 330,000—an enormous number—and I wonder whether there are any limits on the numbers. I can envisage access growing like Topsy. We must take into account the number of people who leave the caring professions. Sadly, there is huge staff turnover and high rates of temporary employment in social services, particularly in our big cities where all the problems are thrown together. What provision is there for ensuring that former staff no longer have access to the records when they do not need it? Does such access end? We know that passes in this place carry on for some while after their holders have left.
When it first hit the headlines that the children of famous people might not be included in the index, I thought that that said it all. There must be questions about security, or why should we need to make special provisions? Now, we hear that the provision applies only to shielding—I understand that that refers just to the address—but even the name of the carer might trigger something if domestic violence is involved. Is there a process for appeal, so that people can ask to be shielded? That could be very important in a domestic violence case in which the parent did not want the perpetrator of the domestic violence to track down the children.
On security, the 27th report of the Select Committee on Merits of Statutory Instruments says:
“The Department have gone to a great deal of trouble to devise a scheme which is as nearly perfect as is humanly possible. We are however mindful of human error.”
It goes on to say:
“The enormous size of the database and the huge number of probable users inevitably increase the risks of accidental or inadvertent breaches of security and of deliberate misuse of the data which would be likely to bring the whole scheme into disrepute.”
On costs and savings, I find it difficult to accept the figure of £88 million a year in savings. Were the 24 to 30 workers, given as examples in trailblazers, administrators or front-line professionals? We could be talking about different sets of people. Most people are concerned that we should have as many front-line, well-trained professionals as possible, so how many could be employed with the money that will be required annually for the index and for the set-up fees?
There must be a full cost-benefit assessment of whether the outcomes for vulnerable children will be improved by the scheme. The Minister outlined that there are potential benefits, and I do not think that anybody can deny that. However, I cannot believe the statistics given in support of the argument that the effort to track down GPs and so on will save a huge amount of money. Is the universal database with simple data on it really going to provide proactive protection? I guess that that could be argued, but I am not sure that it will do so. There will, however, be opportunity costs: we could use the money to reduce social workers’ case loads and improve retention by providing them with more colleagues, so that they have time to communicate meaningfully with the other professionals who work with their clients and can therefore do their jobs better. If we spent all that money on more professional staff, including health visitors, we would know earlier when children needed help.
I am not sure that the index will aid really early, pre-school intervention, which is all important. Given the risks, which must be seen as costs—in terms of accuracy, security, the danger of over-reliance on the index, and the great concern that people will not be able to see the wood for the trees—I cannot at this stage see that the benefits outweigh the costs.
5.19 pm
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I do not wish to delay the Committee for long, given that my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has covered a number of points, but I rise to seek clarification on two issues.
First, can the Minister allay my concerns about Government IT projects? In my modest experience, they do not tend to be particularly good at delivering the fine detail. I have had constituency cases that have involved engaging with the Rural Payments Agency, tax credits, the Child Support Agency and the health service, but I have yet to find a Government IT project that has delivered on time. I would be grateful if the Minister would say that he has a degree of confidence in the delivery time scale and costing.
Secondly, the Minister said that the database was not subjective. We can draw a parallel to the consumer reference agencies: quite often, inferences are drawn simply from the fact that there has been a database inquiry. Such inquiries could provide an indication, for example, that people are making lots of applications for credit. Will the Minister indicate who will be able to analyse how many times the database is referenced? Such information could provide an indication that a child is at risk, which would be a positive interaction in terms of identifying problems, but it could equally cause security problems, because people not permitted to access information might be able to do so.
Furthermore, I am concerned about malicious references to the database. There are examples of people maliciously making inquiries to the credit reference agency to reduce a person’s creditworthiness. Obviously, in the case of children, that would be a much more serious issue. Drawing further on that parallel, will there be any blight on houses? We have all heard about houses that have been blighted by poor credit references. Will the identification with a particular house of a child who has had a child protection issue—I am thinking especially of houses in multiple occupation—cause problems for future occupants with whom authorities do not associate a risk?
5.22 pm
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I would like to ask the Minister a specific question in respect of the EU 27 migrant workers, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole alluded. Post May 2004, they are able to work in the United Kingdom under the free movement directive. This country specifically absented itself from responsibilities related to data sharing on criminal records. Given that many will come to the United Kingdom as temporary or agency workers to work, for instance, in national partnerships, how confident is the Minister that those people will be covered by regulation 10(b) and the measure relating to the enhanced criminal record certificate?
5.23 pm
Kevin Brennan: Perhaps you will forgive me, Mr. Atkinson—it was remiss of me not to say that this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship and that it is a great pleasure to do so.
I thank hon. Members who have contributed for both the content and tone of the debate. The points made have been serious and detailed. As hon. Members have pointed out, this is an important issue and plank of Government policy, and we are talking about children and about ensuring that they have the best possible services available to them, so it is right that I respond in some detail. I may move back and forth slightly between the contributions of the hon. Members for Basingstoke and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, because they covered some of the same ground.
The hon. Member for Mid-Poole; I am sorry, she is the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. We have served together on Select Committees before, but the names of constituencies change—
Mr. Jackson: They do not get any shorter.
Kevin Brennan: As the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, the names do not get any shorter.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said that an opportunity cost is involved. There would be an opportunity cost involved in not doing this, because we would be allowing practitioners to carry on wasting time trying to search for information that could be readily available through the provision of this database.
We will have to persuade Parliament—if and when the Committee passes these regulations and they come into operation—that the system is cost-efficient. We shall attempt to do so by showing that the benefits of the appropriate information sharing and integrated working in terms of improving the quality of the service provided to children and families are clear. We will do that by surveying the people involved in this work and the experience of the trailblazing authorities, which she has also mentioned. They have already developed local systems and the work has confirmed that these benefits can be realised by the introduction of ContactPoint.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke asked how we would ensure that the information would be accurate and up to date. The data that will be contained in ContactPoint will come from a range of national and local organisations that currently hold this information. By taking data from a number of different sources, ContactPoint will be updated as soon as one of those organisations receives new data about a child.
Much of the data will be supplied by automated and regular data uploads that do not require practitioners to carry out any additional work, so there need not necessarily be an additional burden, because the system will be able to access those data in an automatic way. As soon as a source system has the new data, they will be sent to ContactPoint on the next scheduled data upload. Where technically possible, the data will be provided in real time. Practitioners who do not have systems that automatically update ContactPoint will be able to enter new data directly on to the system through a simple web interface. The local authority ContactPoint management team will also be able to update or correct information on a child record directly where necessary.
Mrs. Miller: The Minister might be coming on to this point, but in case he is not, may I say that his own research suggests that even where databases for local practitioner activity exist—I am thinking for example about databases on children of Traveller families or on children who receive special educational needs support—there are big gaps in terms of the way that they “talk” to the other national databases? Does he share my concern that that might mean that significant numbers of children may not have accurate database entries because the systems simply do not work together? How will local authorities ascertain the facts?
Kevin Brennan: I thank the hon. Lady for making that point; I was coming to it. Some of the matching problems that she talked about and that have been identified from local data sources are due to the fact that children are not always known to national data sources, so it is right that that data did not match—there would be something wrong if it did. Other sorts of problem are due to the need to establish how to handle the addresses and other details of Traveller children. That will be difficult, but we are committed to working with local authorities and others to establish the best possible procedures. It is a fact of life when dealing with Traveller children that it will be more difficult to identify some of these pieces of information.
Mrs. Miller: I want to press the point further. We are not just dealing with Traveller children. The Minister will be well aware that DWP data are 98 per cent. accurate. The majority of people in this country register for child benefit, so DWP data are very accurate and robust from the point of view of providing a complete database of children. The Minister rightly says that that might not include Traveller children. However, the data from the data trials, on which he is relying, suggest very clearly that the problem goes well beyond Traveller children and that it impinges on every single practitioner data set that has been examined. They suggest that there was a sometimes very significant gap between the national data set and the local data set. I cannot accept his explanation.
Kevin Brennan: I am sorry that the hon. Lady cannot accept my explanation, but the evidence shows too that, in the vast majority of cases, the data matching is accurate. There are some small elements where that is not the case but, in the vast majority of cases, the date of birth, the name of the child, and the address are sufficient to produce a good match. In the small minority of cases in which there is difficulty with data matching, we need to work with local authorities.
It is important to recognise that failure to find a matching record across all data sets does not necessarily mean that there has been an error in the matching process. In many cases, it means simply that the child is known to one database but not to others. For example, a child might be registered with a GP but, in a small number of cases, might not be the subject of a child benefit claim. That can happen.
James Duddridge: Will there be two people for each authority? I ask that question because I come from a unitary authority area, which may very well have a larger number to deal with than a district authority.
Kevin Brennan: I might have to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question later, when I have pondered it a little further. Children and young people, or those acting on their behalf, have the right under the Data Protection Act to see what is being held on their records, and to have inaccuracies corrected when they are found.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke asked about the position whereby local authorities are responsible for ensuring accuracy but cannot force data sources to put their house in order, and about how they ensure that the information they receive is accurate. Under the Data Protection Act, local authorities are required to take reasonable steps to ensure that data supplied to ContactPoint are accurate. They will inform a data supplier if supplied data conflict with data held by ContactPoint. That should prompt action to verify the data held by the data supplier. There are two possible outcomes in that situation: either the data are found to be wrong and are corrected for future supply to ContactPoint; or the data are found to be new information, such as a newly notified address, in which case the local authority can be informed and, once it is satisfied, the local authority will be able to include the data in the child record.
The hon. Lady asked also about practitioner responsibility for updating data to ContactPoint. As I mentioned earlier, ContactPoint will take data from case management systems used by practitioners, so in feeding in data they will not need to do anything more than their regular day job. Once they have updated their own systems, the supply of data to ContactPoint will become automatic.
The hon. Lady mentioned also the case of the Leeds NHS trust and the report that 14,000 staff logged 70,000 incidents of inappropriate access. I must say that it is misleading to use that particular statistic—it featured, I think, in the report of the Independent Schools Council—to support an accusation regarding the potential for misuse of ContactPoint. Drawing parallels with the Leeds system and ContactPoint without clear references to the detail of the recorded incidents will alarm people unnecessarily and could undermine confidence in ContactPoint.
Such misuse will be detected in ContactPoint by the automatic and regular checking of access audit trails, which will be followed up by disciplinary action in the event of any misuse. The hon. Lady quoted what the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee of the House of Lords said. That Committee, despite reservations, said that
“The Department have gone to a great deal of trouble to devise a scheme which is as nearly perfect as is humanly possible.”
I do not know what more one could do.
The hon. Lady also asked whether enhanced CRB checks could be undertaken on practitioners who come from overseas to work here. I understand those concerns. The CRB does not have access to overseas criminal records at present. It provides information to employers seeking certificates of good conduct or criminal records from a number of countries, and we are determined to work with the CRB to ensure that ContactPoint guidance is clear about the requirements for checks on overseas staff who are granted access to the database.
The hon. Lady also asked about the inclusion of fire and rescue—whether a further group of practitioners would be able to access ContactPoint. Fire and rescue services provide support to young people, often very vulnerable children with serious underlying problems—fire setters, for example, whose vulnerability might be the cause of their fire-setting behaviour. It is important that those services are able to work with other practitioners to provide support to such children.
Mr. Jackson: May I return to the Minister’s comments on overseas nationals working in the United Kingdom? Is he saying, in effect, if the prerequisite outlined in the regulations to provide an enhanced criminal records certificate is not feasible for a person who wishes to work for national partner or a public organisation that has access to the database, for the reasons that he gave, that it will be set aside? Is that what he means?
Kevin Brennan: I do not think that that is what I said. I said clearly that the CRB provides information to employers seeking certificates of good conduct or criminal records from a number of countries, and that we will work with the CRB to ensure that the guidance is clear about the requirements for checks in relation to overseas staff who are granted access to ContactPoint. There is no question of waiving the requirement.
The hon. Members for Basingstoke and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked whether we had taken the views of children and young people seriously enough when consulting on the matter. We sought their views directly. A considerable amount of time and effort was spent seeking the views of more than 1,100 children and young people from a wide range of backgrounds. We also considered a wide body of research on the views of children and young people, and we have taken on board the experience of the local authority trailblazers that developed local pilot systems and consulted children and young people and families. The information showed that children understood the benefits of information sharing and of ContactPoint. Understandably, they want reassurance about security and so on; nevertheless, they can and do understand and support the need to ensure that information can be shared, when it is appropriate for their protection.
It is unfortunate that there has been so much misinformation in the media about ContactPoint. I readily understand some of the concerns caused by press reports saying that the database will contain information about what children eat and other press stories that are completely inaccurate. It is important to have accuracy on the nature of the database.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke asked whether an IT system could safeguard young children and said that the real problem was that we need better information sharing. Of course, the IT system on its own cannot safeguard children; it is improvements in the way that practitioners work together that will improve the safeguarding of children, and ContactPoint should make it possible for practitioners to work together much more easily and efficiently. ContactPoint will not get practitioners off the hook, nor will it give rise to a tick-box mentality—thinking that if they go to a ContactPoint they will have done their job. The responsibility will remain on the professional practitioner to act if they believe that action is necessary.
The hon. Lady also raised the monitoring and following up of security breaches in respect of ContactPoint. That responsibility lies with our national partners in the first instance, and they will be accredited to ensure that their processes for doing so are adequate. For other organisations, either the employing organisation or the local authority will be responsible for monitoring and following up security breaches on a case-by-case basis.
The hon. Lady asked about appropriate security measures and I can assure her that the system was designed from the beginning with a defence-in-depth approach to security. It will require practitioners who have the appropriate permission to access it to have basic security measures such as a password and a log-in, they must also have a PIN and a token to access to the system. As much defence in-depth as possible is built in to the system’s design.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole also asked about the European convention on human rights. The Government take their responsibilities under that convention very seriously indeed. As we do with all legislation, we sought the necessary legal advice on the relationship between ContactPoint and the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government are confident that if the database were to interfere with children’s rights to privacy under article 8 of the ECHR, any interference would be proportionate and justified as is permitted, because practitioner access will be strictly controlled and limited to those who need access.
Mrs. Miller: Was there any mention of provision for a challenge in respect of article 8 in the legal advice that the Minister obtained? If he does not have that information to hand, perhaps he will write to me.
Kevin Brennan: I will be happy to write to the hon. Lady on that point. A challenge is always possible under the Human Rights Act on almost any subject. I repeat that the Government are confident that the legal advice we have received is that such a challenge is unlikely to be successful.
The hon. Members for the Basingstoke and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole also raised the impact on confidentiality of having so many people able to access the database. The people who are given permission to access a ContactPoint will be practitioners who provide support and services to children, people who should already have the best interests of children at heart in all they do and who are already acutely aware of the need for confidentiality in their jobs. As they are now, practitioners will be required to make a professional judgment about whether it is appropriate to share information with others who are working with the same child. ContactPoint will make absolutely no difference to that fundamental professional principle.
Mr. Jackson: I am listening carefully to the points the Minister made with regard to local authorities. What sanction will there be on local authorities to proceed with investigation of misuse of the data? If it is not recorded as a key performance indicator for a local authority, it may not be a priority. That is a concern if one considers the pace at which the Standards Board for England moves.
More specifically, may I ask the Minister what is the time scale for reconsidering section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998 in respect of increasing the penalty for misuse of the data? Has he any idea about that?
Kevin Brennan: I do not have the answer to the latter point and I may have to write to the hon. Gentleman if inspiration does not reach me before I finish my already lengthy speech.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about investigations, local authorities will have a legal duty in that regard; to my knowledge, there will be no specific target in that respect, but they will have to fulfil their legal duty and can be challenged if they do not.
I turn now to the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, and I promise to learn her constituency name for the next time that we encounter each other. She asked whether the local authority trailblazers had produced empirical or really hard data about the benefits of ContactPoint. As she knows, the trailblazers were members of the expert panels that assessed and confirmed the operating costs and benefits of ContactPoint. We are content that that information creates a robust business case for the establishment of ContactPoints. I accept her scepticism about that, but that was our assessment of the evidence.
Annette Brooke: Part of the question is about the cost of the hard evidence. However, the hard evidence that we are looking for is the improved outcome for children.
Kevin Brennan: I certainly accept that that is the case. The hard evidence will be demonstrated by the fact that practitioners will have more time to work directly with children rather than having to search out information, which should be readily available to them, when they have a concern about the children with whom they work.
As ContactPoint has no case data—or, as I called it earlier, subjective data—the hon. Lady asked what the triggers would be for practitioners to be able to talk to each other about their concerns. Stakeholders and practitioners have worked with us and developed a common process for dealing with children’s needs in a wider context. That process will be integrated into their working procedures. It states clearly how and when they should look at ContactPoint. Guidance has been issued as to how and when they should communicate in relation to it.
The hon. Lady also asked about different spellings of a child’s name and the problems that that could cause. For example, a child may have a nickname or, if they are a member of an ethnic minority, they could use different names. ContactPoint will use a sophisticated search engine that can handle different variations in data. It will match variations of names, misspelled names and process cases in which the surname precedes the first name. It can also hold aliases, multiple names and nicknames if that is necessary.
Name changes will be dealt with when detected by practitioners by holding metadata in ContactPoint. ContactPoint will be able to link data from a practitioner to previous information even when a name has changed. Therefore, that matter has been very carefully thought through and there is a system in place.
The hon. Lady also asked about the cost of maintaining child data in cases in which children move about a lot. ContactPoint is automatically updated whenever a practitioner updates their own records. Therefore, the costs are very low and have been included in the operating costs, which I mentioned earlier.
The hon. Lady also asked about health-based services and why they were the only ones that were considered to be sensitive. The Government response to the consultation reflected the views of those who argued that inclusion on ContactPoint of practitioners’ details relating to sexual health, mental health and substance abuse services might deter take-up of those elective services and that is why those details can be included only with the explicit consent of young people. Those details will not be visible to most users who access ContactPoint.
The hon. Lady asked whether the process would ensure the withdrawal of access rights when people leave their jobs. When a person leaves their job, the user manager, the supervisor or someone in the local authority will be notified and they will then cancel the user’s log-in and ID. In addition, the security token that is necessary to gain access will be removed and that will prevent access in future to ContactPoint.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East asked about the general issue of Government IT projects. We are determined to get this one right. We are not trying to develop new technology here. This system contains a fairly thin amount of data, although it is complex in other ways. As he probably understands, we are mindful of the difficulty of running large-scale IT projects, which is why, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned, we are taking a very steady, staged approach to our work, which will draw on appropriate expertise and be subject to very strict financial and operational controls. The project is reviewed regularly at key points by the Office of Government Commerce. We do not underestimate the technical challenges involved in the IT project and we expect to learn many lessons, which perhaps we can share when developing ContactPoints with others. Stakeholder involvement has been a key factor, and we have embarked on a very large-scale programme involving stakeholders in the definition of requirements and in designing the system. We will follow Government best practice for the introduction of major changes to try to minimise risk.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East asked whether ContactPoint is on schedule, and I can confirm that it is on schedule to deliver as per our timetable—by the end of 2008—in all 150 local authorities. He asked also about unauthorised users misusing the system. Every time a user accesses a child’s record, they will have to provide a reason for doing so, which will form part of the information recorded in the audit trail. Where an unusual pattern of use is identified, an immediate investigation will be instigated, and users will be asked to explain their activity. If it is concluded that misuse has occurred, sanctions can be applied, including the deletion of the user from the register of those allowed to use ContactPoint or even prosecution under the Data Protection Act or the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which can lead to a fine or imprisonment. Of course, the sanction would depend on the severity of the misuse.
In the time available, I shall try to mop up some of the other points raised. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the two posts for local authorities is an average, rather than absolute figure for local authorities. He raised another point about who can analyse the number of inquiries about a child. Practitioners will not be able to see how often and by whom a record on ContactPoint has been accessed. It will be monitored only by those looking for patterns of unusual activity, as I mentioned a few minutes ago. It will not be available to those who supply services when making decisions about a child. I hope that that reassures him. He made further comments about credit agencies, but those are not applicable in this instance. Certainly, a house could not be blighted by the fact that somebody has accessed ContactPoint, for the reason that I have just given: that information will not be generally available.
The hon. Member for Peterborough—I always welcome interventions from Whips, having been one myself for the last two years—asked what sanctions are available for local authorities that do not investigate potential misuse. The Secretary of State has a direction-making power so he could direct an authority to investigate, should it prove necessary, although I think that that is highly unlikely.
The hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned significant gaps in local data. Data from local authorities ranged from more than 90 per cent. down to 50 per cent. That lower figure is due to immigrants who contact their local authority before others, which means that local authorities know about some children who are not always known to national data suppliers.
I have tried to cover most of the points raised during the debate, and once again thank hon. Members for their very detailed points. I say to the Committee—I hope that anyone listening on the outside will remember this—that this database will hold only very basic identifying information about a child, such as the name, address, date of birth, gender and unique number of that child, and the contact details of parents, carers and those providing services to the child. Practitioners have told us that that simple tool will save them a considerable amount of time, and evidence from the trailblazing authorities show that the local systems have brought significant benefits to practitioners and, more importantly, to children and young people in families. Introducing that as a national tool will increase the benefits to children and young people in families and to practitioners. That is part of our “Every Child Matters” programme—it will include every child. The regulations support and underpin ContactPoint, and I commend them to the Committee.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 5.
Division No. 1 ]
Allen, Mr. Graham
Brennan, Kevin
Butler, Ms Dawn
Flello, Mr. Robert
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Hill, rh Keith
McCarthy, Kerry
Russell, Christine
Walley, Joan
Brooke, Annette
Duddridge, James
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Jackson, Mr. Stewart
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Children Act 2004 Information Database (England) Regulations 2007.
Committee rose at four minutes to Six o’clock.

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

©Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 24 July 2007