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Lord Northbourne: What the noble Baroness said implies that if a child makes a mistake, or if someone files some incorrect but adverse information about the child, there is no way that that child can escape that information. The medical authorities and the schools will all have that information. Short of going abroad, the child will not be able to escape that blot on his or her character. Is that really fair?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: We are not talking about blots on a child's character. We are talking about children in needchildren who we believe might benefit from extra support from services. Let us go back to the beginning. The reason all this came up was that it was very much part of the recommendations that emerged from the Climbié inquiry and from other people who have had years and years of experience and who say that whenever a serious incident with a child occurs, it is almost invariably the case that some professionals say, "If only I had known these other professionals were involved, I would have acted sooner or differently". We must address this issue. I accept that it is not easy.
However, we should not assume that professionals will act in the worst interests of children. Indeed, all our professionals who work with children are trying to support them. My contention is that we must give them effective tools to support children. Sometimes it is difficult and time consuming for professionals to find out whether other services are involved with a child.
I have acknowledged the concerns that noble Lords have. I have said that we need to consider more carefully the fact that flags of concern might lead people to the wrong conclusions, or constitute blots on a child's character. However, I do not believe that is the case. I believe that the registering of a concern provides an opportunity for other professionals to talk to each other. It may be thought that simply having a list of the agencies involved with a child might lead to a suggestion that the child comes from a strange or difficult family. However, without information about which other agencies are involved with a child, it is very difficult to do the work that professionals need to do. That is borne out by experience. Within that context the people accessing the databasewe shall discuss that matterwill be seeking who else they need to talk with in order to support a child. They will seek to find out who else can work with them on the child's
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and the family's side, as it were. That is what the measure is about; it is not about people making bad or malign judgments. It is about supporting and helping children. As I say, I accept that certain issues need to be worked through, but I do not accept that there is any other principle behind what we are seeking to do.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I hope that the Minister can clarify a matter for me. It certainly seems to me that we are talking about information that is available anyway. One of the points made in the Climbié case was that the information was there; it was not put together.
I see the ambivalence in that what we are worried about is new methods of communication, which we know have been abused in other ways. Presumably, we are having to weigh up the value of the new method against the lack of co-ordination which was more likely to occur in the past.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: As I have already indicated, parents would have the right under the Data Protection Act to know what was on the database. That is clear. I would not know whether we would have matters which would never be on another database because one of the issues is knowing if and when information about a child is available.
I said, and I reiterate, there is the date of birth, name and address of the child, parent or other person caring for the child. If a professional is working with a child he or she can look up that very basic information and know where the child lives and who has parental responsibility. There will also be details of the other professionals and their contact in working with the child. The flag of concern and the way in which we identify that there is concern is contentious and that I have accepted. It is a difficult issue to work through. I have already indicated our interest in looking at that matter more closely.
But that is it. The purpose is to enable practitioners to identify other people with whom they can communicate. In my earlier example I said that it would also help to identify a child who is on the system because it has a GP but is not at school. Victoria Climbié was known to a number of different agencies, but was never in school. That was because there was no way of identifying that matter.
The use of new technology is a critical part of how many organisations, private and public, now talk to each other and use the system to benefit their own work. We are simply looking for a way to do that here.
Earl Howe: I am extremely grateful to all Members of the Committee who have taken part in this debate and in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for the support which she was able to give to Amendment No. 134. I also thank the Minister for her very full and
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illuminating replies. Her agreement with the various points I was trying to make is reassuring rather than the opposite in this context because it saves me repeating and reinforcing any of the earlier arguments.
But I have more than a little sympathy with the observation made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, when she said that the Minister's policy statement prompted as many concerns as it answered. I believe that some of the later groups of amendments will pick up some of those worries.
One of the concerns I have is the Government's intention to make this an all inclusive system on which the names of all 11 million children in England will be entered. I need to be persuaded that this blanket coverage is either necessary or proportionate to the stated objectives of the Bill, bearing in mind the huge resource implications that we are dealing with here. However, the work of the trailblazer projects will be very informative on that score. I am prepared to be swayed by the results of that work. We shall have time between now and Report to assimilate a good many of those lessons.
As regards Report stage the Minister's commitments are welcome concerning the government amendments she intends to table. The acceptability and the adequacy of them will be judged by reference to the concerns voiced by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the minimalist approach to the inclusion of factual data on databases that both the Minister and I subscribe to. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, I should like to see the word "comprise" in the government amendment rather than "include". I hope that point may be borne in mind.
A number of Members of the Committee raised the spectre of the scope for misuse of the system and the information contained in it. These are issues which we shall pick up in later groups of amendments. They constitute a major area of concern. On the whole, I do not take issue with the Minister's remarks; indeed, they lead me to believe that we may be able to reach an understanding on the key issues that the clause embodies. But it is vital that the wording of the clause, when amended, ties down this and any future government very tightly. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 143, 147, 155A, 211, 214 and 216. These amendments continue the theme of the previous group, which is to try to deal with the question of what information should or should not appear on a database.
As I said earlier, I believe that there are certain kinds of information which from the outset should not be allowed to feature on a database at all. I am very worried by the wording of Clause 8(5)(a) which states,
This suggests much more than details of identity or flags of concern. In conjunction with paragraph (b) it suggests that someone's entire case history could be posted on the board. I know that the Minister has given us reassurances on that score, but that is what the wording implies. It needs attention.
What if a teenage girl has been having under-age sex and has contracted a sexually transmittable disease or has had an abortion? If the circumstances of such a patient gave rise to a concern on the part of a doctor, we must allow that doctor to post a flag of concern if he has a serious concern. But the system should not legally allow that doctor to do any more than that. He should not be allowed to post details of the services provided to the patient.
Less colourfully perhaps, if a teacher believed that a child was falling behind at school because his home circumstances were making him tired or depressed, and the teacher called in the school nurse to talk to the child, those facts and opinions should not be revealed to others on a database. Apart from anything else, one could not interpret such information out of context. As we said earlier, it is quite wrong in principle to do that.
I shall be raising in a later amendment the question of thresholds of concern, which is to say the point at which a concern becomes serious enough to warrant a flag. But we need to ask here where a concern should begin. Is a policeman obliged to register a concern about a child if the child's father has just been to prison? Perhaps. Should there be a flag of concern if the child's father went to prison 20 years ago and has not since re-offended? Perhaps not. But how is anyone supposed to know where the dividing line is?
In any system of this kind, much will dependor ought to dependon the professional judgment of the doctor, teacher, social worker, police officer or whoever it happens to be, but I hope that the Minister will agree that the regulations need to spell out clearly where the boundaries should lie regarding making substantive information about a child accessible by others without prior reference. I am not talking about what is on the database as much as what the flags denote.
The more information that is loaded on to a database, the more there is a risk of information overload. I was pleased to hear the Minister's remarks about the minimalist approach. There must not be scope for information overload, because it leads to further risksthat unauthorised people will have access to details that they should not know about and the risk that resources will be diverted away from direct services to children into maintenance of the database.
If this sort of system is to work at all it must be kept simple. The Government need to demonstrate that sharing detailed information in this way really will safeguard children and enhance their welfare. If it is not their intention that detailed information should appear on the database, then subsection 5(a) needs to be radically re-worded.
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I am raising a rather different point in Amendment No. 143. What happens if it comes to the notice of a child or an adult that information contained on a database is not correct? What remedy does the person have to ensure that the misinformation is amended? That is a fundamental point. If untrue information is posted on a database for others to read or is disclosed as a result of a flag that has been posted, how does the subject of that information get it changed? A teacher might suspect that the odd behaviour of a child in class is due to abusive parenting at home, post up a flag and disclose that information to a professional who refers a query to him. What if the assumption is completely wrong? What if all the time the child is suffering from attention deficit syndromeADHD? If a diagnosis of ADHD is subsequently made, any hint that there might be abusive parenting should be removed from everyone's records. How does the parent see to that if he becomes aware of it?
It opens up the whole question of the extent to which information held on a database will be disclosed to the child or to his parents. To what extent does the Minister envisage that parents and children will be informed of what professionals have disclosed about them? Will there be a legal entitlement to access one's own file? What if there is a simple error involving the spelling of a child's name or a wrong digit in his date of birth? Who will be able to have those mistakes corrected and how will that be achieved?
Obviously, although mistakes are bound to happen, it is important for those who input a flag of concern about a childand for database operatorsto ensure that any information that they register with the database is subject to prior scrutiny and checking to ensure that mistakes are kept to a minimum. Will the regulations contain any mandatory procedures to ensure that such prior scrutiny and checking does happen?
It would be helpful to hear a little more from the Minister about the type and level of information that she envisages being the subject of a database entry and how open the system is intended to be. I beg to move.
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