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We all wish to see an end to the horrors that befell Victoria Climbié and others. Inasmuch as the system will create a culture of over-reliance on what will always be a flawed database, it would divert attention from the children who most need protection from those who profess to care for them. It appears that the children of the rich and famous may be exempted if there is a risk of kidnap. While I fully understand why that should be the case, it strikes me as the most damning admission of the inability of the system to protect the details of children, not to mention the injustice of treating one set of children differently from the rest.

The Government’s financial estimates for ContactPoint leave much to be desired, as we shall hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. The chief information officer and group director of programme and systems delivery at the Department for Work and Pensions estimated in May that only 30 per cent of government IT projects succeed. Given the huge complexity of the system—150 little databases wired into one national database—the system, as much as any other, risks becoming yet another hugely over budget IT white elephant, and a very dangerous elephant at that.

It is imperative that the regulations are not passed until much greater thought has been given to their information. Once the regulations are enacted, there will be no further opportunity to prevent the slackening of security around those precious and vital personal details. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert “but this House regrets that adequate safeguards are not in place to ensure the protection of the information collected”.—(Baroness Morris of Bolton.)

7.45 pm

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, before addressing the substance of the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and referring to my amendment, I make it plain that those on these Benches, in this House and another place, are at one with the Government and the Official Opposition in wanting a strong and secure system of child protection, early identification of every child’s special needs and early intervention to provide the services that they need to allow them to thrive and fulfil their full potential.

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We all agree about the desirability of multi-agency working and the best possible communication between the professionals involved with every child in the best interests of that child. We differ only in our view of how that can be best achieved. While we are delighted that the Government are prepared to invest additional funds in securing these ends, we question whether this very welcome money is being spent most effectively in the interests of the nation’s 11 million children by setting up a gargantuan and dangerous database, at least half of which, by the Government’s own admission, is unnecessary, since the children do not need any special services at any time up to the age of 18.

I have expressed on many occasions my concerns about the overall safety and value for money of the scheme. I did so most recently in the debate on large government IT projects on 21 June. I therefore thank the Minister for the letter that I received from him yesterday, following a little prompting from the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, which asked whether he had written to me about the concerns that I had raised when it looked at the merits of the regulations on 10 July. I think that the Minister thought that by writing his letter he had pre-empted the issues that I might raise. In fact, he has really given me the skeleton of my speech, although I am reassured by a couple of his points, such as the fact that information about parents will not be put on the database. Many of the other points raise further questions.

Perhaps I could turn to the excellent 27th report from the Merits Committee. It would be an understatement to say that the committee was not best impressed by these regulations. The introduction to the report says that,

As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, has just ably demonstrated, the regulations are shot through with loopholes. The committee added in paragraph 23 that it is not convinced that,

That is why my amendment expressing regret—in contrast with that of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, which I support—covers the system’s cost benefit as well as its safety.

We supported the 2006 regulations on data-matching trials, as it was only fair and reasonable to conduct trials. However, we have much greater concerns now that we have reached this stage. We are not convinced that the trailblazers’ results have been sufficiently analysed or that they provide an adequate basis for going ahead with this immense national project—the biggest government database yet.

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My worry is that the Government found it more convenient to set up a universal database, rather than investing in extra professional health visitors, social workers and the like who can focus on children in need, because they intend, at some time in the future, to use this information to feed into the national identity database. The Government propose to keep the data for six years after the child has reached 18 and is therefore ineligible for any children’s services. Despite the Minister’s assurances in his letter that there are no plans for data sharing or bulk transfer of data, it would be awfully convenient to plan for that and do it at some time in the future. When it happens, as I still fear it will, I will remind him of his reassurances at this time.

The unnecessary attack on the privacy of at least half of the nation’s children is another matter that concerns many of us. We are assured that the system will comply with the data protection legislation, but many of us consider that that is not enough. It is one thing for professionals to share information about a child where it is necessary to do so in the best interests of that child, but quite another to share information about all the other children in the country for no better reason than that it is more convenient to do it universally.

I simply do not accept the Government’s response, either to the Merits Committee or to me, that a universal database is better because it removes the need for thresholds and has less stigma and because it is not known when a child will need a service anyway. If we spent all this money on more professional staff, we would know earlier when children need help and would be able to provide it much sooner.

Every child has to go through some sort of assessment and reach some sort of threshold anyway in order to qualify for any service. If there is any point at which stigma might be attached, although I hope not, it is at that point, and not at the point at which their private details are being entered on to an electronic database in the privacy of someone’s office. Therefore, that argument does not wash.

The committee expressed concern that the system will be used by 330,000 users. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and I are both concerned about the security of a system that is open to so many users. I am worried about the screening of the people inputting the information on the database, as is the noble Baroness. For example, the contract, I believe, is with Capgemini, which is expanding its operations offshore, in particular to India. Will the Minister give an undertaking that a clause will be written into the contract expressly forbidding the processing of any ContactPoint data outside the UK, since it is impossible properly to screen the people involved?

I am also very much concerned—this was pointed out by the committee in paragraph 11—about the lack of support for this scheme from children, young people and their parents. The committee said that, during the consultations,

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A number of children’s organisations have called on the Government to establish a major national communications campaign to inform children and their parents about the facts and their rights in this matter. I am most concerned that this should be effective, in particular the right to be asked for explicit consent to the inclusion of the fact that they are receiving sensitive services, such as contact with sexual health professionals. Frankly, I cannot imagine any child feeling inclined to give such consent. I am worried that children will not come forward for such services if they think that the information may go on the system without their consent, with the horrific consequences that that could have on sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy rates.

I understand that there is best practice about this in organisations such as Barnardo’s. Will the Minister assure me that the strongest guidance will be given to everyone inputting data into the system, to be absolutely sure that the child, not just their parents, has given consent to matters of this sensitivity? Will he say how this aspect of the system will be monitored? Will Parliament be told how many children have been asked for their consent and how many have refused it?

The British Association for Adoption and Fostering and its partners expressed concerns that the scheme might even deter families who mistrust officialdom from coming forward for services because they do not want their details on a universal database. What evidence is there that this in an unfounded fear and how will this matter be monitored?

There is also the matter of the system’s enormous cost, which, as the Minister has said, is £224 million for set-up and £41 million annually to operate it. In his letter and this evening, the Minister claims that this money would support up to 13 additional front-line staff in every local authority in the country. I can imagine the celebrations all across the land if local authorities were told that they could have 13 more fully trained professionals to work in their children’s services. Yet the Minister tells me that the trailblazers demonstrated that ContactPoint will free up between 16 and 24 staff per authority by reducing administration time. Therefore, why are local authorities not celebrating? Are these front-line staff child experts or are they administrators? The committee asked how this projected annual benefit would be translated into service delivery. I echo its question. Perhaps the Minister would tell us today.

Surely it would be better to use these millions to reduce the social workers’ caseloads, thereby improving retention by providing more colleagues so that they have the time to communicate meaningfully with other professionals working with their clients and therefore do their job better. I would rather put the money into trained people than into hardware and software when we are talking about services involving one-to-one human contact.

The Government claim that ContactPoint will reduce duplicated effort. However, they are only guessing and have shown us no evidence whatsoever. The system’s security has to be a major concern. The fact that the Government plan to allow just the

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location of high-profile children or those in danger of kidnap or domestic violence to be screened out from most users is a clear indication that they are not fully confident of its security.

The Merits Committee is not, either. Hackers are clever and creative. That is why all anti-virus software is produced reactively not proactively. It plugs the holes once breaches have demonstrated their existence. Breaches of the security of ContactPoint will bring the whole system into disrepute and people will not use it. Parents will want their children out of it and the Government will have to think again. Is that what the Minister wants?

Both the Merits Committee and I, in the Minister’s letter, have received assurances about the systems in place to monitor usage. Every access will be recorded and patterns of usage scanned. Will that be by computer or by a human being? Potentially suspicious patterns of access are to be reported to the manager. The managers will also be monitored to ensure that they are doing all this. But do we have a monitor to monitor the monitors who are monitoring the monitors? I joke, but this is serious and it is getting ridiculous and expensive. If such a cumbersome system of safeguards is necessary, that makes it clear to me that the dangers are immense. Could not all this money have been better spent or is the hidden agenda that the Government really want a universal database because of its potential for other purposes? We should be told.

8 pm

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I rise somewhat timorously to create something of an innovation this afternoon—a Back-Bench contribution in support of government regulations.

I want to comment briefly on what is happening in the House in general. I see in this House an increasing interest in secondary legislation, and that is good. It is good for Parliament, it is good for the secondary legislation, it is good for departments—it does not feel like it at times, but we get better performance from them—it is good for the Government and, in this case, it is good for the children.

I declare my involvement in this matter as a member of the Merits Committee. Indeed, the committee is so enthusiastic tonight that four of our 11 members are here. It is great to get lots of praise—I thank noble Lords for that—but it is extremely important to realise how limited we are. We 11 sad souls plod through 1,200 statutory instruments a year. Our terms of reference require us to make only two decisions. To quote our terms of reference, we have to make a decision about whether we should bring the instrument to the special attention of the House and we have to decide the reason for doing so. There are four such reasons: it imperfectly achieves the policy objectives; it inappropriately implements European Union legislation; the circumstances have changed since enactment of the parent Act; or, most generally of all—it is under this circumstance that we brought this measure to the attention of the House—it is politically and legally important or gives rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to

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the House. I think that we have that right, and those are the two things that we do.

We then try to help the House by writing reports that will illustrate and help the subsequent debate. To be honest, we cannot spend too much time on them because of the sheer volume involved. Very occasionally, we call witnesses and publish their evidence, which we hope will also illuminate the debate.

Because of that process, I have been exposed to this discussion at length and I have also been exposed to, and have been able to probe, the witnesses. I conclude that ContactPoint, the information database, will bring real benefit and will be safe. The whole range of new scrutiny means that the Government have had to up their act. I should like to speak briefly to the two amendments tonight and to share with the House my conclusions about the two issues raised.

Noble Lords will know that, despite our wonderful reports, the Merits Committee is not as unanimous as it sometimes appears from our work. I am a dissenting voice. I failed to persuade my colleagues, and the report reflects very much the views of the majority. However, I took away these two areas and I should like to speak, first, to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, concerning the whole issue of security.

If I have any professional skills left these days, they relate to an involvement in safety management systems. Those systems and security systems have very typical common characteristics. Broadly speaking, you cannot make anything safe. Ultimately, you reduce risk to as low a level as is reasonably practical and you get to that extremely low level by having multiple layers. I think that we should look at the five layers that I took from the witnesses, and I should be grateful if the Minister could either agree with me or write to me on some of the details. I believe that these five levels reduce the security risk to an acceptably and infinitesimally low level.

First—this cannot be said often enough—the data held on the system are sparse. They include an identifier and details of who is in contact with the children. They say nothing whatever about the children other than the simple identifier and who they are in contact with. Because the details are so sparse, for most children the database will contain, other than the identifier, only details of the school and who is providing them with medical services.

Secondly, access to the system is not through a typical PC terminal in a connected system. We are talking about a dedicated terminal that is degraded with encrypted software so that it behaves as a dumb terminal. You can access the system only through a whole series of security measures and, when the terminal gives up its information, it cannot be used to store or manipulate the information. They are special dumb terminals and they exist only as necessary for the users.

Thirdly, use of the database and every activity on the system will be tracked and monitored. Noble Lords may ask who monitors the monitors but, ultimately, all security systems are about layers of tracking and watching how people behave.

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Fourthly, every time a practitioner uses a system, he has to explain and record on the system why he needs the information, so that the intentions of the users can be tracked and monitored.

Finally, you have to look at who will be using the system. It sounds as though a large number of people will be involved. However, not only will the users be screened in connection with its use but they will be the very people who have already been screened because they are the practitioners to whom we presently entrust involvement with vulnerable people, such as the children whom this is designed to help.

I believe that those layers of protection will create the appropriate level of security. I hope that the Minister will be able to agree with me and reinforce that this will be a safe and protected system.

The second amendment, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, concerns proportionality. There is no word that I like more in legislation or regulation than “proportionality”. It is an absolutely key concept and we do not discuss it enough. The benefits must outweigh the costs. If only we applied that test with every piece of legislation and every regulation, we would be a better run nation. It is the key idea.

Let us go into the question of how the measure is disproportional. At any point, 30 per cent of all children and, during their lives, 50 per cent of all children require some intervention and help from the caring services. I hope that there is universal acceptance that such intervention should be integrated. There is universal acceptance that the people providing those services should talk to one another and communicate. The only people to whom this system does not add value are the 50 per cent of all children for whom the only data that will be recorded, other than the identifier, will be their school or educational institution or how they are proceeding in their primary healthcare. The cost of holding that data is infinitesimal. It will be merely the overall cost of ensuring that the system is secure, so the disproportional cost will, in fact, be trivial.

Then we should look at the supporting evidence of the benefits. The department claims—because we probed it on this, I believe it to be true—that it will create £88 million-worth of practitioner benefit. It will cost £41 million a year to run and £224 million to set up. That £88 million-worth of benefit will relate to practitioners’ time. Practitioners who presently waste their time ringing up various agencies to try to find out who else is involved with a particular child will not have to do that in future. Instead, they can bend their efforts to supporting the child, which is what they are there for.

The database’s other value is that it will facilitate very early intervention. Everyone who talks about this area of activity says that early integrated intervention is key, and the database facilitates that. Therefore, I do not believe that it is disproportional; I believe that it is sensible and proportional.

Finally, we probed the whole area of consultation. The original evidence that we heard contained some of the concerns that people have mentioned. Paragraph 7 of the memorandum from the department, on page

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14 of our report, sets out how specifically it has gone out of its way to probe children’s and young people’s concerns after informed debate about what it is doing. When protections were explained, the children ended up in support of the system. They felt that it was valuable. For example, in the Sheffield experiment, only two out of 100,000 people refused to have their details on the database for the purposes of the trial. The children and young people asked for assurances, but they believed in the assurances that they received.

I believe that these regulations are safe. They will add real value, bring forward integrated intervention and be welcomed by the young people whom they are designed to help.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: My Lords, I too declare my interest as a member of the Merits Committee. Indeed, for this inquiry—hearing the evidence and preparing the report—I was in the chair because our proper chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, had very honourably decided not to take part in the committee’s deliberations, because of his position as an adviser to the company which has been awarded the contract to design and build the technical solution for the contact point database.

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