Select Committee on Merits of Statutory Instruments Twenty-Seventh Report

Memorandum by Mrs Hilary Searing

1.  I am a retired social worker and I write in a personal capacity. I have 28 years experience in local authority social work and my last position was as a Senior Practitioner in Children's Services.

2.  I welcome the Committee's scrutiny of the draft Regulations for the establishment and operation of ContactPoint. The government has pushed ahead with this proposed database using arguments which are misleading and often fail to consider the wider problems in Children's Services. Ever since the passing of the Children Act 2004 I have been arguing for a more balanced examination of the objectives of the proposed database and have raised concerns about the way it could weaken the child protection system through a loss of focus on those children at greatest risk.

3.  I am limiting myself in this submission to the question under the heading 'Objective' - do you think that ContactPoint, as now proposed, will adequately achieve its declared aim of "supporting more effective prevention and early intervention, to ensure that children get the additional services they need as early as possible"? In my view the proposed database is an unnecessary tool for social workers and will do nothing to improve support services to children.

4.  ContactPoint has been presented as a useful resource for social workers and other professionals who provide services for children. It seems that its main purpose is to enable practitioners to find out who else is working with a child or young person so that they can, where appropriate, work together to deliver better coordinated support. In addition, it is intended that the database will eventually be able to identify those children who are the subject of 'child protection plans' when information from child protection registers is transferred onto the database. However, this information is highly confidential and would require much more secure arrangements than those now being proposed

5.  The proposed database needs to be considered within the context of changes in children's services, arising out of the Government's Every Child Matters programme, affecting the way that referrals are now dealt with. Significantly, there has been a reduction in the number of child protection investigations and an increase in the use of the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) which is a new, more standardised approach to assessing children's needs for services.

6.  ContactPoint will contain records for every child under 18 and include contact details of parents or carers and education and health services involved with the child. My main concern is that ContactPoint would make it easier for professionals to share information about children with each other without the knowledge of their parents or carers. The government justifies the erosion of the important principle of consent by arguing that the needs of children are central.

7.  The principle of informed consent requires professionals to obtain consent from clients before disclosing confidential information, including information on whether the client is known to the agency. Information sharing between different professionals often leads to better assessments but in the past this was only done without the consent of the child or parents where there were serious child protection concerns. It now seems that other concerns, such as risk of offending or living in an impoverished family/community, are also being considered serious enough to justify dispensing with consent. This represents a significant shift in thinking and the erosion of an important principle of good professional practice.

8.  Social workers are being told that ContactPoint would help them identify children at risk of abuse or neglect. In my experience this may be true in some of the most serious cases, which are very few in number, but in the vast majority of cases coming to the attention of social workers there is no need for a new database.

9.  We already have a well established inter-agency system for dealing with child protection concerns and it generally works well when all agencies adhere to the agreed procedures. Social workers have a legal duty to investigate where there are suspicions or allegations of abuse or neglect. As lead professionals they may need to contact other agencies involved with the child for information to determine whether the risks to the child are serious or immediate. In my experience, tracking down the child's school and details of the GP and other significant professionals is a fairly simple process, usually requiring several phone calls at most.

10.  The current system for identifying and monitoring children at risk of significant harm has been developed and improved over many years and now provides an excellent framework for practice. In some cases the child's name is placed on the child protection register and a child protection plan drawn up. The child protection register is not just a means of recording information; it is also a social work tool for working with children who have been identified as at risk. In my view it is wrong to assume that the stigma that some families experience can simply be removed by abolishing the register and replacing it with the term 'child protection plan'. This is already happening in anticipation of ContactPoint when it is expected that data will to be transferred from one electronic system to another. The experience of those who are the subjects of child protection plans are unlikely to be affected by this change in terminology.

11.  After registration of a child on the child protection register an inter-agency plan is drawn up and core group meetings are held, involving the family and professionals, to share information, plan and review progress. In post-registration work social workers are the lead professionals and they work closely with other professionals in contact with the child and family. Therefore, ContactPoint would be seen as totally irrelevant as current arrangements ensure that the core group of professionals work closely together.

12.  Social workers are also being told it will be easier for them to deliver better coordinated support to vulnerable children. However, in these situations the database is unnecessary. Social workers providing support services already have access to their own records system if they wish to obtain details of children already known to their department and names of other professionals involved.

13.  Finally, social work does not want a national database of every child in this country as the problems created by such a database would far outweigh the benefits. It would effectively be the end of client confidentiality. In child protection work the principle of aiming to work with families on a voluntary basis is a good one and social workers aim to build trusting relationships with their clients. However, the danger is that once social work has become more closely aligned with an inter-agency system of surveillance and monitoring of families most people will be less open and trusting towards social workers and this will make their job more difficult.

July 2007

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