Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Earl Howe: My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for tabling the Government's amendments to this clause, all of which I welcome greatly. She has responded positively to the specific concerns that I and other noble Lords raised at earlier stages.

On Amendment No. 31, it is good news that the rights of the citizen under the Data Protection Act are to be highlighted automatically. That will do much to dispel any idea that secret things are being said and done behind the back of citizens. I am not quite so sure about the extent to which the Data Protection Act allows someone to lodge a formal objection against something and to be certain that it will be dealt with fairly and promptly. The rights conferred by the Act appear to me to fall short of that, but perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to clarify them.

I am concerned that the power of the citizen for getting things done is actually quite limited. In this context, that could be very damaging because, if there is a practitioner's name or a flag of concern that is inaccurate or misleading, it might serve to disadvantage the person whom it concerns if a professional were to happen upon it.

I shall speak briefly to Amendments Nos. 24 and 34. I do not expect the Minister to seize on them as the answer to her prayers, but they are intended as a helpful suggestion which I hope she will consider. It was the Minister who mentioned on Report that there was nothing in Clause 9 to allow the sex of a child to be entered on to a database. As she knows, I am very much a minimalist in my approach to these provisions, but I went away and realised that she had a point. Some names tell you clearly whether you are dealing with a boy or a girl, but other names do not, particularly non-English names. Knowing the gender
15 Jul 2004 : Column 1469
of a child is an essential matter. That is why I felt that the Minister might consider including the word "gender" in the Bill.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, I too welcome the Government's amendments. Like many other noble Lords, I have pointed out repeatedly the deficiencies of what is now Clause 9. I take heart from the fact that the Minister has listened to a number of the points that have been made.

I welcome particularly the provisions about the Data Protection Act. I share the concerns of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about whether the Act is a satisfactory instrument by which individuals can seek redress. None the less, it is the law. As I have also said on many occasions, and as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, pointed out early on in his report, the lack of knowledge and understanding among professionals of their scope to share information under the Data Protection Act has had horrible consequences for children. It is therefore important that the Data Protection Act is firmly set in Clause 9.

We support Amendment No. 24. My notes on that state simply "Lindsay, Lesley, Daljit" and there they stop.

Unsurprisingly, I shall concentrate on Amendment No. 30. I am relieved that the Government tabled Amendment No. 28, which deals with the length of time that information should stay on the database. We have said at previous stages of the Bill that it appeared that once information or a flag was on the database, it would stay there until the child's whole record left that database, which would presumably be when the child reached the age of majority.

There is a strong case for including in the Bill annual reviews of data. Events happen through children's lives in the process of growing up that it may be right to have recorded at some point. Equally, it may be important in terms of that child's well being that the continued inclusion of information should be subject to review. There should be a mechanism by which practitioners are encouraged—I would perhaps say "forced"—to review the data that they hold on people.

I, too, shall give the Minister a mythical example. It involves an area containing a number of statutory agencies. Once a year, they might look at all the information they hold on children and, from that, identify the small number—it always is a comparatively small number—who are in receipt of multiple services from different agencies. We should bear in mind that a universal database is involved. It would be advantageous to them and the children to have to undertake an annual review of the information in the database. Much could flow from that, not least because it would enable authorities to see trends and patterns within individual agencies and to examine resources for children's welfare.

At a previous stage, the Minister held out great hope for the consultation that will take place on flags of concern. I remain deeply opposed to flags of concern, as she knows. I make no secret of the fact that my
15 Jul 2004 : Column 1470
perspective involves protecting people who are wrongly adjudged to be worthy of inclusion on practitioners' databases as a cause for concern, and I seek to strengthen their rights. The annual review process would do so. Organisationally, that is a commendable part of good practice. I should prefer it if that provision were in the Bill and then consulted on; it should not emerge from a process of consultation.

Those of us who have argued most vigorously about Clauses 8 and 9 have been very generous to the Government in terms of the promise of forthcoming consultation. Perhaps we have been too generous. On reflection, noble Lords may conclude that we have set a bad precedent. As I said, we were faced with a clause whose drafting was unacceptable to begin with. It is marginally better as a result of additions and it is greatly improved by the noble Baroness's amendments, which we considered today. Such amendments should have been in the Bill in the first place because they contain absolute tenets of basic good practice. For all those reasons it would be advantageous to have an annual review and for that to be specified in the Bill rather than left to regulation.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for the welcome that they have given to the government amendments, albeit with the caveats mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, that the DfES lawyers prefer "sex".

Baroness Barker: My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell us what they think about the Bill?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, there can now be a car sticker—with a Hansard reference no doubt—on this point. Despite the fact that the DfES lawyers prefer the word "sex", they are very happy to accept "gender". We are very pleased to accept Amendments Nos. 24 and 34.

The noble Earl asked me about the data protection principles. As I understand from reading the information that I have been given—I shall ensure that the noble Earl is given a copy—individuals apply in writing to find out what information is on the database. They can apply in writing to have something removed. Ultimately, the matter is for the courts to decide. I do not have available details of the process that the individual goes through in that regard. I shall, of course, write to the noble Earl to clarify that.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Baroness but it has just occurred to me that there is a circular regarding access to records which may conflict with what we are discussing. We may need to consider that. I have tried to consult with my noble friend Lord Laming on that, but perhaps I should discuss it outside the Chamber as it might constitute an added complication.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I should be grateful to know about any added complications. I
15 Jul 2004 : Column 1471
am sure that between them the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, will be able to track down the circular; in fact, I shall hold them to that, if I may.

On Amendment No. 30 the difference between the noble Baroness and myself is very small. I am not sure that an annual review is sufficient. It is important that a constant review is conducted of the information that is being held. People should be aware of what information is being held in terms of names, contact points and any flags of concern. We want to see something that is unnecessary removed immediately. We want to ensure that we make it clear that where it is obvious that a flag is no longer necessary it should be removed immediately. We want to ensure that regular reviews of the whole process take place. As I say, I am not certain that a year is the most appropriate length of time.

I know that the noble Baroness considers that the consultation exercise is perhaps a bit woolly—I do not know what word she might use—but it is important that we talk to professionals about their experience and consider the experience of the trailblazers. We need to consider carefully the detail of what will be included in guidance and regulations. My job is to ensure that I have put on the record that the regulations will cover the rules on deleting concerns after they have been addressed or when new information is obtained that states that the concern is ill-founded. Furthermore, the guidance and directions that we shall issue on the management and operation of the database should make it clear that one of the functions of anyone operating the database will be to monitor the use of the recording of concerns.

We want to discuss and take views on the regularity of formal reviews. However, we consider that it is important that where there is no need to have a flag of concern on the database—or whatever terminology we end up with as we are consulting on that—it should not sit there. The critical point is that information that is irrelevant should not sit there. I believe that we are all agreed on that. Our method of achieving that is through consultation, the regulations and the guidance. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that our objectives are not dissimilar to hers and that on that basis she will feel able not to press the amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page