Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340
TUESDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2007
Q340 Mrs Dean: It was about drawing
up the protocols for sharing the information with other departments
Mr Wright: I am not aware of any
outward sharing, if you like, of information from the DCFS. We
certainly rely upon other government departments to provide information
to us. Contact Point again would be the best example of that where
in fact we take national data feeds from three other Departmentsthe
Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions and
the Office for National Statisticsand we combine that in
Contact Point with data from our own records from the pupil database.
Q341 Mrs Dean: To turn to Contact
Point, the Assistant Information Commissioner describes how the
ambitions behind the database which is now Contact Base "started
out as rather greater and have fallen backwards a little bit".
Could you summarise the history of the Contact Point database
in terms of the development of its objectives and scope?
Mr Wright: I am not actually familiar
with its long history. Clearly the history of the database goes
back to 2001 and the Victoria Climbié case, but in the
time that I have been engaged with Contact Point, the mission
for the Department around Contact Point has not changed in any
way. The system is an electronic index of every child in the country,
with the sole purpose of bringing together those care professionals
that work with children and need to be aware of other care professionals
within the system that may be working with the same children.
Q342 Mrs Dean: So you do not really
agree with the Assistant Information Commissioner that there has
been a pull-back from the ambitions that were once there?
Mr Wright: I am not aware that
there has been a pull-back. I have been with the Department for
most of this year, I was not in the Department at that time, but
I am not conscious that there has been any watering down or changing
of the Department's ambitions for Contact Point.
Q343 Mrs Dean: It may be something
that you could look into for us?
Mr Wright: I would be glad to.
Q344 Mrs Dean: In designing Contact
Point do you know what steps have been taken to ensure that the
information collected about children is accurate and that the
positive outcome in terms of child welfare outweighs any loss
of privacy so early in life?
Mr Wright: Yes, the basic data
on which the system relies is taken from four other data sources.
What the system actually does is bring those four data sources
together and then matches the data sets. There is a significant
amount of overlap in those data sources so you will be picking
up children's names, home addresses, and so on from all those
different data sources. What we do is use the technology to match
those databases and prove by overlay, if you like, that the data
is indeed correct for each of those children. There are exception
reports which are produced on a routine and regular basis to highlight
anomalies that may require further investigation.
Q345 Mrs Dean: Which are the four
Mr Wright: They are taken from
the Department of Health, from the benefits system of the DWP,
from the birth registers of the Office for National Statistics,
and from our own national pupil database.
Q346 Ms Buck. I was surprised to
hear you list the three Departments and not include the DCLG.
I just wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the relationship
the Department has in respect of information from local authorities,
in particular from all the sources in the DCLG?
Mr Wright: We do have contact
with the DCLG in relation to Contact Point but not in regard to
data-sharing. Our particular contact with the DCLG is to ensure
that the infrastructure over which Contact Point is delivered
is going to be delivered in a way which will enable local authorities
to most readily and easily use the system in a secure way. There
is no output flow of data to DCLG and there is no data actually
coming from them. The infrastructure of the system is actually
something that from local authorities' point of view is extremely
important because of course now and into the future the expectation
is that they will wish to access a number of systems from different
departments. We are very keen to ensure that the mechanisms by
which they access those systems are compatible and it is not a
burden put upon the local authorities to connect to lots of different
Q347 Ms Buck: In terms of the local
authority Every Child Matters agenda your involvement in this
is purely an infrastructure and data compatibility one?
Mr Wright: Certainly from my own
group's perspective but, no, a very significant part of the Contact
Point programme is actually working closely with the local authorities
to make sure that there is robust education about what the system
can do, how it should be used, how it should be protected, and
the security that is in place and so on, so there is certainly
a very active dialogue with the local authorities to ensure that
the system will be effective in its use.
Q348 Ms Buck: How do you see local
authorities' various sources of information currently within the
Every Child Matters framework fitting into this? To give you an
example that goes to the heart of it for me, and it goes to the
heart of a lot of the data protection issuethe NOTIFY system
for children in temporary accommodation because this is very much
about children who drop through the netI am not quite clear
of the importance that local authorities should be putting on
systems like that, which go very much to the heart of children
at risk and child protection, and how they will fit into a national
Every Child Matters data framework as you are describing it.
Mr Wright: Contact Point, as you
rightly describe, is a national system to be accessed and used
by every local authority. Each local authority in the country
will also have a number of its own support systems and case management
systems that do actually hold detailed information about particular
child cases. What is important to us is to ensure that we are
delivering the infrastructure of Contact Point in a manner in
which it can be integrated at the local authority level with their
local data sources to present a full picture, but of course the
case information that local authorities hold is solely for their
Q349 Ms Buck: So none of that will
be uplifted into
Mr Wright: No, no lift goes upwards
but we need to be able to connect systems at the local level.
Q350 Ms Buck: Can I just ask you
about the potential of developing biometric data in education
and schools. Where has that got to, where is the thinking and
does the Department expect there to be a time in the near future
when children will be expected to carry some form of biometric
Mr Wright: Surely. Biometric systems
are used within a number of schools within the UK. There is no
drive from the DCSF to promote the use of biometric systems but
we are very conscious of the fact that a number of schools find
them quite beneficial. They are used in schools for the purposes
of monitoring attendance, of providing children with facilities
to remove library books or to purchase school meals. There are
a number of benefits of using biometric-based systems over other
technologies such as smartcards, principally the fact that the
child does not have to carry anything with them and therefore
do not lay themselves open to bullying tactics from other children
that may wish to get hold of their card in order to access the
services that they have.
Q351 Ms Buck: Do you think that we
should be comfortable with the idea of biometric recognition for
getting out a library book?
Mr Wright: Certainly the Department
is quite content with the use of biometrics in that way by school
children. It is a very effective mechanism. Biometric data that
is held by these systems is of quite a low quality in the sense
that it is only held at a level which will enable a school to
differentiate amongst the school community, so there is no value
in that biometric information outside of the school environment.
Chairman: Thank you, Karen Buck. Margaret
Q352 Margaret Moran: Given your technological
capacity and capability and the fact that you are dealing with
a number of children's databases, how much further do you think
there will be progress or otherwise in relation to further data-sharing
and data-gathering? Is there greater scope for any of that?
Mr Wright: I think over the next
few years we are certainly going to see significant progress around
the initiatives that we have already started. I mentioned when
I started about being able to join up this very large and quite
complex education system that we have in the UK, so it is about
improving choice for learners. Our expectation is that there will
be a number of other future participants in the initiatives that
we have already started. We have a programme we call MIAP (Managing
Information Across Partners) which is very specifically to support
the Government's drive for reforming the 14 to 19 age group. MIAP
actually underpins the diploma environment and it is going to
be very important that children can take their information from
one institution to another and can have their qualifications recognised
on their lifetime journey. I do not see on the horizon any particularly
new initiatives at this time. I think it is quite inevitable that
we will find that we will wish to continue to provide that kind
of shared information infrastructure across the education system.
I do draw a distinction perhaps between education and the care
and welfare of children, and when it comes to systems like Contact
Point there is very clear regulation in place for systems such
as Contact Point, so I see no drift from that. Contact Point is
there for a very specific purpose and that is the backstop to
what that system will be used for.
Q353 Margaret Moran: I want to come
back to Contact Point later. You are talking about data-sharing
from pre-school nursery through to 19, to the end of HE, something
Mr Wright: Well, in fact in information
terms I am talking about what we would refer to as the lifetime
journey of the learner, so I am talking about, yes, from the early
years right through to adult and workplace training. In the changes
in government this year the Department for Education and Skills
was split to create the Department for Children, Schools and Families
and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. In
terms of lifetime information-sharing that effectively cleaved
a line at aged 19 in that learning journey, but with colleagues
in the DIUS we see a very strong need to continue that co-operation
between the two Departments to ensure that the education system
in the country remains joined up.
Q354 Margaret Moran: It is very expensive
data-sharing based on very different systems very often. How can
you ensure inter-operability and ensure that there is no rubbish-in
rubbish-out? Where do you think the technology will take us next?
Are we looking at data-mining, profiling, prevention?
Mr Wright: Sorry, can you just
repeat the first part of your question.
Q355 Margaret Moran: I have forgotten
it myself! Where do we go next in terms of technology and interoperability?
Mr Wright: Thank you, I think
the key word was "interoperability". Joining up across
government is extremely important in lots of different areas.
I have a role within the Department for Children, Schools and
Families to support the policy directorates in managing information,
but I also have another role as a member of the information community
across government, so we have mechanisms at a higher level, if
you like. We have a CIO Council that comprises members from all
government departments, and a very significant part of our agenda
and our thrust through the CIO Council is to ensure that we have
a common framework for data standards and can share best practice
across government departments, so in areas such as data security,
for instance, those thrusts to ensure that we have the right levels
of security in place and we are using technologies that are available
as wisely as possible is the sort of thing that is done at a higher
level, if you like, through the CIO Council, and that is quite
an active community.
Q356 Margaret Moran: Just very quickly
on Contact Point, you will be aware, more than anyone I guess,
that there are serious concerns about the amount of data being
collected on children and whether lack of confidence in the ability
to keep that data confidential will deter people from accessing
the services and indeed possibilities that having all that data
together could actually put children at greater risk. What research
has your Department done to ensure the effectiveness of communication
about what is actually happening on data-gathering and data-sharing
in that context?
Mr Wright: I would describe Contact
Point itself as an electronic index. It is true that it will include
data on every child in the country but it is only basic demographic
information, so it is child's name, date of birth, address, parents'
names, the learning setting/the educational setting in which they
are currently residing, GP's name, and other specialists that
they may have contact with. There is no case information within
Contact Point whatsoever. Whilst the Contact Point programme is
a significant technological challenge, we recognise that communication
across the community of users of Contact Point, of which there
are many thousands, is a crucial part of the success of the system,
and that is a very active dialogue with that community. As part
of the first phase of the use of Contact Point, which will commence
during next year, we will be working, and have started working
very closely, with 17 early adopter local authorities so that
we can work closely with them and learn the lessons of early adoption
and make sure that that knowledge and that practice, if you like,
is shared and cascaded to other users of the system.
Chairman: Thank you very much, Margaret
Moran. We are now turning to some questions to Dr Stephen Hickey
from the Department of Transport and we are going to start with
Q357 Martin Salter: Dr Hickey, I
was interested in your memorandum of evidence to the Committee
and in particular in paragraph 4 where you talked about clarity
about the legal authority under which data may be shared, including
using the Data Protection Act, being critical. I want to tease
out a couple of examples. Has your Department had any requests
for data from other government departments or other areas of government
which you have considered not to be lawful?
Dr Hickey: I cannot think of one
offhand where we have specifically rejected it on that ground,
but we certainly do review the legal basis on which we do data-sharing.
Most of our data-sharing is fairly long-standing but we would
certainly want to know on what basis any approach was made to
us and what was the legal justification.
Q358 Martin Salter: Because at the
moment the way the process works is that government departments
and other agencies seek advice from the data protection authorities
and also from the Information Commissioner and it is possible
that cracks could open up and people could end up with different
advice and different practices could emerge.
Dr Hickey: But we would need to
look at it from both ends of the telescope. We need to look at
it both from have they got the power to seek the information but
also have we got the power to give it, so we will ask both those
Q359 Martin Salter: One final question
from me. I notice in paragraph 2(7) of your evidence there is
perhaps a more contentious area than a government department,
which is the sharing of data with parking enforcement companies.
It says here that you will do this where they can show reasonable
cause to receive the data. Of course some parking enforcement
companies are nothing more than licensed thugs to clamp vehicles
in dubious circumstances. Do some of the clampingI will
not even call them organisationsoutfits benefit from data
provided by your Department?
Dr Hickey: There was a big review
of this done last year and ministers announced 14 improvements
to the processes around reasonable cause. Reasonable cause are
the words used in legislation but there is not a definition in
law. 14 measures were announced last year to tighten up on the
processes around reasonable cause and who should get the information.
Amongst those is a lot more transparency around the information
which is now, for example, on the DVLA website and on Directgov,
so there is a lot more visibility to people on the circumstances
in which information can be provided. As far as parking companies
are concerned, there are two set of processes, one is for ad hoc
individual requests, and the companies have to go through a process
to justify why that is needed and they are asked various questions
about their business and the purposes and so on, and that can
be checked and audited, and refused of course if those answers
are not acceptable. In addition, for companies who are doing it
on a regular basis, which of course some of them are, and where
we have electronic links, they are required to register with us,
and they go through processes of validation including of their
internal processes and they are also asked to be members of an
approved association which itself has various processes for control.
All of that is much more transparent now than it was two years
ago. As I say, a lot of this is now on the website and our feeling
is that the processes are now working more satisfactorily than
when this issue was raised quite strongly a couple of years ago.