Surveillance: Citizens and the State - Constitution Committee Contents

Memorandum by the e-Assessment in Child Welfare research project, located at the University of Huddersfield and part of the Economic and Social Research Council e-Society Programme

Dr Christopher Hall and Dr Sue Peckover (Huddersfield University), Professor Andy Bilson (University of Central Lancashire), Professor Brid Featherstone (Bradford University) and Professor Sue White (Lancaster University)


  This submission reports findings of research on the implementation of new technologies to support information sharing and assessment in child welfare—the children's database and the common assessment framework. There has been concern that the database constitutes an increase in surveillance of families and an invasion of privacy. Our findings are that the implementation of the technologies has been slow with some reluctance by professionals and agencies. There are problems about accuracy, consistency and consent. The use of new technology also provided challenges to working in partnership with families. The extension of the initiative with the implementation of a national database, ContactPoint, poses major concerns about privacy and constitutional rights.

  1.  This submission reports the findings of research by the e-Assessment in Child Welfare project, located at Huddersfield University, part of the ESRC e-Society programme. The project has monitored the implementation of the Information Sharing and Assessment initiative in four local authorities over the last two years, including two of the pilot projects. Our findings focus on how these technologies are being used by professionals in their everyday work.


  The Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, (the Laming report), like many that preceded it, highlighted problems in the way that professionals in child welfare communicated. They often worked in isolation, had a partial view of the needs of and risks to Victoria and made unwarranted assumptions about the role and actions of other professionals. Had information available to these professionals been coordinated, a more holistic picture of Victoria might have emerged and the need to intervene been recognised. In response the Government introduced the Children Act 2004 and the "Every Child Matters" initiative, which implements new technologies to promote information sharing and assessment of children: the children's database (sometimes called the Child Index) and the Common Assessment Framework.

  3.  The database has been the subject of critical comment in Parliament, the media, amongst children's charities and academics. Some consider it an inappropriate, costly and disproportionate response which will not protect children. Too much information will be collected but without extra services. Others see it as an invasion of family privacy and an increase in surveillance more generally. There are particular concerns about the security of confidential information.


  The children's database is required under s.12 of the Children Act 2004. It contains basic information on all children in an area, details of their parents and carers, school and GP. It also includes contact details of targeted services being provided and the opportunity for professionals to record a "cause for concern". It is accessible to all professionals with criminal records bureau clearance. It does not include confidential information or case records, but indicates where such information exists. However it has been noted that displaying children's contact with services and "concerns" constitutes confidential information. It was piloted in 11 local authorities, but, because of technical and information sharing problems, only three have established a working index. A national database (called ContactPoint) is planned for 2008.


  The CAF has received less comment. This is a standard assessment form to be used by all child welfare professionals, which can be e-enabled. It encourages professionals to assess children in terms of their personal development, parenting and family environment, under 19 headings. Children and parents' comments and their consent to share the assessment are recorded. The existence of a CAF is entered on the children's database. It is seen as an early assessment of a child's needs and concerns, to be completed mainly by schools, GPs, health and early years' professionals. The CAF was piloted in 12 local authorities and is being developed in others.


  The development of these technologies should be understood in terms of changes in child welfare policy more generally. Social policy commentators have observed the expansion of state intervention with children. "Every Child Matters" heralds a more universal view, focusing on "children with additional needs", rather than children "at risk" or "in need", as in earlier legislation. The Government aims to identify and track around a third of children who require interventions beyond universal services. By intervening at an earlier stage, it is hoped that more appropriate services can be provided and more serious problems prevented. However, such identification requires a massive system of assessment and information exchange. The use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be seen as constituting increased surveillance of children and families. In particular, information at early stages of "concern" is being recorded and shared, some of which might be termed "low level"; for example children with literacy difficulties who did not warrant a holistic assessment. In our research some professionals were instructed to complete CAFs routinely, sometimes with insufficient knowledge of the child. The database includes all children, yet only a small proportion have needs which warrant multi-professional attention. This raises the question whether these are proportionate responses.

  7.  Whilst child welfare organisations have always maintained large amounts of information on children, these initiatives encourage and require information to be managed and exchanged in new ways. The ICTs in the pilot projects in our research have limited functionality, only able to track individual children. However, it is not clear what options will be built into ContactPoint, and if it will facilitate opportunities for "data matching and profiling" (combining data sets to predict behaviour) or "function creep" (data collected for one purpose are used for another).


  Our research has identified wide data inaccuracies. In terms of the children's database, there are both technical and practice problems. A child's record was established by matching data from various sources, health, social services, education and because of differences in basic information—names, house numbers, birth dates etc—this created multiple records for some children and missed others. Children who frequently change address or school are often particularly vulnerable.

  9.  There was inconsistency over when a professional should indicate their involvement with a child on the database. For those in contact with large numbers of children, for example teachers or GPs, it is not clear at what point their involvement constitutes more than a universal service. The pilots demonstrated that when parents were consulted before making an entry, some refuse. Also some "sensitive services", like counselling or mental health workers, did not record their involvement. All these omissions and errors meant that a professional looking up a child's record did not see all those involved. In our research, the local knowledge of workers was often more accurate than the database. This created a view that the database was not useful and led to less use and hence more inaccuracy.


  We found considerable variation in the use of the CAF, both between and within local authorities. Some agencies see it as an internal assessment for the professional, the family and the agency. Others see it as a referral to pass concerns on to targeted services. Different uses create different approaches to how it is completed. The former approach is more likely to be completed with the family and represents agreement about a shared view of the child. The latter aims to persuade other agencies to become involved, not necessarily representing families' points of view.

  11.  Information sharing is often assumed to be straightforward: for the writer it is seen as uncontested, discrete and easily written. For the reader it is seen as accurate, consistent and meaning the same thing. However we found professionals balancing dilemmas of working in partnership with children and parents and sharing concerns with other agencies. In both cases information sharing was a strategic activity.


  Obtaining informed consent to share CAF information is difficult with electronic systems. Our research found no evidence children or parents had access to their electronic records, and consent to record professional involvement was not clear. Some professionals completed CAFs with children and parents, but, particularly when used for referral purposes, only around half reported consent. As these technologies are extended, they limit the active participation of children and parents in key decisions across increasing parts of service provision.

  13.  The database and CAF concern individual children and there is limited ability to address wider issues in terms of families and communities. The limited functionality of the database does not link siblings' records. The CAF asks about parenting, not the problems faced by parents. To assume that CAF databases have more accurate information about services than families may encourage a general distrust of parents.


  A number of constitutional issues are raised by current proposals for ContactPoint. This includes removing the need for consent and common law rights to confidentiality with regard to data held on it. We are also aware of the draft guidance on shielding (hiding) data in ContactPoint which makes it difficult for individuals (eg those involved in domestic violence) to know of the need or to request that their data should be shielded. The proposed threshold is that data can be withheld only if it is likely to cause "significant harm". With potentially a wide range of professionals accessing ContactPoint there are insufficient safeguards. Whilst the data are limited, malevolent access raises serious potential misuses (eg grooming a child, locating estranged children or stalking a professional).

  15.  Given this impact on constitutional rights and potential misuses, ContactPoint needs to demonstrate that it serves the greater good either through demonstrating general benefits to a wide range of children or substantial benefits to a smaller number. As with other commentators we question whether the specific benefits of the system are likely to be achieved sufficiently to outweigh possible problems of confidentiality, inaccuracy or potential abuses of the system.

6 June 2007

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2009