Select Committee on Merits of Statutory Instruments Twenty-Seventh Report


Twenty-seventh Report

Instrument Reported

The Committee has considered the following instrument and has determined that the special attention of the House should be drawn to it on the ground specified.

  

Draft Children Act 2004 Information Database (England) Regulations 2007

Summary: We are in no doubt about the importance of these Regulations. They set out the details of the "ContactPoint" database which will hold basic identifying information on all 11 million children in England under the age of 18, and which will be accessible to over 300,000 users. The Government have shown a thoroughgoing commitment to preparing for the national operation of the scheme, through large-scale expenditure and wide-ranging engagement with all interested parties. However, the Government have not in our view conclusively demonstrated that a universal database is a proportionate response to the problem being addressed. While the Government have taken the need for security seriously, the scale and importance of the scheme increase the risk that any accidental or inadvertent breach of security, or any deliberate misuse of the data, would be likely to bring the whole scheme into disrepute.

These Regulations are drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that they give rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House.

1.  The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF, successor to the Department for Education and Skills) have laid these Regulations under section 12 of the Children Act 2004 ("the 2004 Act"). An Explanatory Memorandum (EM) and Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) have been provided.

2.  We took evidence on the Regulations from DCSF officials; a transcript is published as Appendix 2. Before the evidence session, DCSF offered the Committee an additional memorandum on communications, stakeholder engagement, and implementation, which is reproduced at Appendix 1. In response to questions at the evidence session, the Department have also provided a supplementary memorandum, which is reproduced in the appendix; and they have placed in the Libraries of both Houses copies of extracts from an internal DCSF report on "Children with Complex Needs and Their Families", and of a report on "Learning From Information Sharing and Assessment Trailblazers".

3.  We invited a number of organisations to offer us written comments on the Regulations, and received comments from other organisations and individuals. Their comments are also reproduced at Appendix 1.

THE 2007 REGULATIONS - "CONTACTPOINT"

4.  The EM states that the Regulations provide for the establishment and operation of a database (previously described as the Information Sharing Index, now designated as "ContactPoint") under section 12 of the 2004 Act. They place a requirement on local authorities to participate in the operation of the database; specify what information will be held, who must or can provide it, and how long it can be retained; who can be granted access; and how accuracy will be maintained.

5.  The EM also states that ContactPoint is "a key element of the Government's Every Child Matters programme to transform children's services, by supporting more effective prevention and early intervention [so as] to ensure that children get the additional services they need as early as possible. The goal is to improve the five outcomes for children set out in the document 'Every Child Matters: Change for Children' (DfES December 2004): being healthy; staying safe; enjoying and achieving; making a positive contribution; and achieving economic well-being. ContactPoint aims to improve the experience of public services for all children, young people and families. It will enable practitioners across education, health, social care, youth justice and the voluntary sector 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."

6.  ContactPoint will hold basic identifying information on all children in England until they reach 18: contact details for their parent(s) or carer(s), together with names and contact details for those providing education, the GP Practice and practitioners providing specialist and targeted services to a child. In addition, names and contact details of practitioners providing sensitive services (sexual health, mental health and substance abuse) may be added to ContactPoint only with the informed and explicit consent of the child, young person or, where appropriate, their parent. There will be no substantive information (e.g., case notes) in the database about a child's family, social, educational or clinical situation or needs.

7.  When fully operational, ContactPoint is intended to hold information on 11 million children. DCFS estimate that it will be available to some 330,000 users, including practitioners from education, health, social care, Connexions,[1] the voluntary sector, youth justice and the police.

THE 2006 REGULATIONS

8.  The Regulations revoke the Information Sharing Index (England) Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/983), which were brought into force in April 2006, and which provided for data-matching trials to take place as preparation for the development and implementation of ContactPoint. The Committee drew the 2006 Regulations to the special attention of the House,[2] when we commented that the earlier Regulations paved the way for the eventual implementation of an Information Sharing Index covering all children in England. We stressed the concern expressed by some commentators about whether a database covering all children in England was a justified and proportionate response to the need to improve communication among professionals in relation to the smaller (though significant) number of children in need of specialist help.

IMPLEMENTATION PLANS

9.  DCFS are planning implementation on a schedule which foresees that ContactPoint will be available in all 150 local authorities and to all "National Partners" (organisations listed in Schedule 2 to the Regulations) by the end of 2008. They have identified the following key milestones for implementation:

  • summer / autumn 2007: initial records created from national data suppliers;
  • April 2008: system deployed to 17 "early adopter" local authorities in the North West;
  • end-2008: operational system deployed to all local authorities.

VIEWS OF INTERESTED PARTIES

10.  It is clear, both from DCSF's own summary of responses to their consultation on the Regulations carried out from September to December 2006,[3] and from written evidence submitted to the Committee, that views on the desirability and efficacy of ContactPoint vary widely.

11.  DCSF's summary states that there were 256 responses to the consultation and explains that: "approximately one-third of the formal responses came directly from young people and parents. The majority of responses from this group expressed their opposition to the establishment of ContactPoint, raising concerns about the impact on their privacy" (page 3 of summary).

12.  Amongst those who commented directly to the Committee:

  • Barnardo's voiced clear support for the scheme, which it described as "a challenging project, but worthwhile in that it harnesses the technologies of the 21st century in support of those who work with children in the interests of the children themselves";
  • NCB (the National Children's Bureau) acknowledged the scheme's potential "to underpin effective information sharing and joint working which is vital for ensuring children and young people receive the help and support they need as early as possible", while also identifying a number of practical concerns;
  • the NSPCC also set out several issues which, in its view, needed to be resolved by DCSF to ensure ContactPoint's effectiveness;
  • the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), in a joint submission with the Family Rights Group, the Family Welfare Association, and Parentline Plus, voiced a range of objections to the current proposals, and suggested that the scheme might in fact "deter families who mistrust officialdom from accessing services because they may well have their anxieties heightened at the idea that their details are to be recorded on a universal database".

13.  We know that there is considerable interest in the House in this scheme. On 21 June 2007, speaking in a debate on public sector IT projects, Baroness Walmsley set out a number of concerns about ContactPoint that had been voiced during the passage of the 2004 Act and subsequently.[4] In our consideration of the Regulations, we also had the benefit of a memorandum from the Earl of Northesk (printed at Appendix 1 to this Report).

EVIDENCE FROM DCSF

14.  In taking evidence from DCSF officials, we sought to elucidate the following main issues:

  • the scope of ContactPoint, and the justification for a universal database;
  • the security of the scheme, and safeguards against abuse;
  • the attitude of children, young people and their families towards ContactPoint; and
  • the feasibility of DCSF's current plans, which foresee deployment of the scheme across England by the end of 2008.

SCOPE OF CONTACTPOINT

15.  We were told by DCSF officials that, although there was a need for professional intervention only in the case of half (or fewer) of all children, they saw a clear case for including all children in ContactPoint, because this would ensure that the system contained basic information to facilitate speedier co-operation between professionals in any case when the need for intervention arose. "It is principally about supporting early intervention for children who at some point in their lives will need additional support. At any point in time that is around, as you quite rightly said, 30 per cent, but up to about 50 per cent of children at some point in their life will need additional services. Children will move in and out of this spectrum. It is not possible to predict when children will become in need of additional services. We believe a universal service is much less stigmatising as it removes the need for creating thresholds. We would then have to make subjective judgments about which side of that particular threshold a child fell at any particular point in time in their life." (Q3)

16.  The RIA states that the total cost of ContactPoint will be £224 million for set-up, and £41 million per annum for operation; and that the total annual benefit at maturity will be £88 million. We commented that, in view of concern on the part of some stakeholders that the money spent on the scheme could be better directed at frontline interventions, DCSF needed to set out more clearly how the projected annual benefit would be translated into service delivery. We were told that DCSF have recently done research with almost 3,000 practitioners about current working methods without the ContactPoint facility: "... they have told us that on average they seek to identify other practitioners about 107 times a year and on average the time it takes them to do that is four hours. So that is an indication of the amount of time practitioners are spending trying to trawl around and find out who else is working with the child." (Q3)

17.  The Regulations provide that all information about individual children will become "archived material" on the date they reach 18 and will remain in an archive for 6 years. We asked whether the individual concerned would be given an opportunity to say whether the archived information was correct, and were assured that "they have that right under the Data Protection Act and we will make sure they know they have that right." (Q40). We also pressed DCSF on the rationale for retaining archived information. We were told that this was common practice: "... indeed in many cases it is insisted upon by audit and others that information should be retained beyond the point at which its natural purpose is completed purely to support investigations and complaints and it is for this purpose that our archive is intended. It is put in a place that is beyond use. It is not there to be used in relation to the individual child." (Q36) The House may wish to consider whether this is sufficient justification for retaining information for six years after it ceases to be needed for the purposes for which it was obtained.

SECURITY

18.  We referred to concerns about the security of the database which had been raised by several of those who offered comments to us. We received a full explanation of the security features to be built into the scheme, including arrangements to monitor access to the database by authorised users. "Ensuring that only authorised users access the system requires what we call 'defence in depth'. It is a bit like the medieval castles had a mote and a bailey and a keep, so we have multiple provisions for security ... [In addition] we are going to be actively monitoring every single access to ContactPoint. Every single update will be recorded securely in an audit log and that audit log will be scanned automatically looking for patterns of unusual or potentially suspicious behaviour which will be reported to a user manager responsible for each user, and we will be monitoring the user managers to make sure that they are monitoring the users' activity reports as well." (Q63)

19.  We questioned DCSF's representatives about the proposals for protecting the records of children considered to be at increased risk. DCSF made it clear that no child would be completely excluded from the database: "... we have taken the approach that we proceed on a case-by-case basis. Certainly in those cases that you mentioned [i.e., where there is a risk of kidnapping] the records of those children would be shielded and there would be nothing visible to practitioners that would indicate that child's whereabouts. The only information that would be visible to practitioners would be the child's name, date of birth, their gender and their unique identifier and that is simply so that practitioners know that a record exists for that child and they do not create another." (Q14)

ATTITUDE OF YOUNG PEOPLE TOWARDS CONTACTPOINT

20.  DCSF's work in presenting their plans for ContactPoint to children and young people had clearly produced very mixed responses; we had in particular seen those from the Young NCB which revealed strong suspicion. We asked about the further efforts that would be undertaken to communicate the case for ContactPoint, and in particular to persuade those children most likely to need specialist professional help that the benefits of the scheme were significantly greater than the fears they might have about a potential loss of privacy. DCSF told us that they had "definitely consulted some of those children because the Commission for Social Care Inspection of course deals with children who are in care who are quite vulnerable and who have often multiple services working with them ... I hope by explaining the nature of the data that is held and [that] the purpose of the database is ... to ensure that the services they receive are better co-ordinated, that we can go some way to assuring them that it is not a database of information about them so people can tittle-tattle about them ... [Barnardo's] are very supportive of the way in which we have consulted with more vulnerable children, in particular disabled and handicapped children, which Barnardo's have helped to expose us to, to get that additional view." (Q79)

FEASIBILITY

21.  We asked DCSF about the achievability of their target for national implementation of the scheme at the end of 2008, given that comments submitted on behalf of Sheffield City Council (a "Trailblazer" authority) had voiced doubts that the necessary training of users would be completed in good time. We were given a full explanation of plans to deliver the necessary training, at two levels: "Level one is basically training the local authorities and the national implementation partners to actually manage the ContactPoint system and then to train the end users of ContactPoint. There are about 1,300 people who actually need that level of training throughout the country ... it is a smaller number of people, we are already fairly confident that we can do that. We have allocated seven months to do that ... With regards to level two, which is the majority of the users that make up the 300,000-plus users, the training for that needs is basically identifying and training people to use web-based screens which users themselves have actually designed to make sure that they are user-friendly ... We are not expecting everybody to be trained within those seven months for those users. We are allocating at least a year for the high priority people that need training and then there will be continued rollout after that." (Q81) This is an ambitious schedule, and the House may wish to ask whether there are contingency plans in case of unforeseen difficulties and delays.

CONCLUSIONS

22.  We are in no doubt about the importance of ContactPoint, and of these Regulations which set out the details of the scheme's operation. We have seen ample evidence of the Government's thoroughgoing commitment to preparing for the national operation of the scheme: on the one hand, the considerable cost of setting up the scheme and of the operating expenditure which it will support; on the other, a wide-ranging engagement with those in local authorities and elsewhere who will make the scheme work, as well as with others, such as young people and their families, about whom data will be held in ContactPoint. We also acknowledge the readiness of DCSF officials to respond, in person and in writing, to our questions about the scheme.

23.  While we are equally clear about the desirability of improving communication between professionals involved in the provision of services to children, we are not yet persuaded that the scheme provided by these Regulations is an entirely appropriate approach to that objective. Of course, no-one can predict whether, and when, any child may find itself in circumstances which mean that it needs specialist professional help. However, DCSF state that perhaps half of all children will need additional services at some point in their life, and we conclude therefore that the information collected and stored in ContactPoint for at least 50% of the 11 million children in England will not be required for the central purposes of the scheme. We do not consider that the Government have demonstrated conclusively that a universal database is a proportionate response to the problem being addressed, or that the additional benefits of a universal approach justify the additional costs and risks, as compared with a selective approach which would not include a child in the database unless or until the child's needs for specialist or targeted services became apparent.

24.  We recognise that DCSF have taken seriously the need to design the scheme so as to maximise the security of the information contained in it, and also to provide training to all users which will reinforce the importance of proper handling of ContactPoint data. The Department have gone to a great deal of trouble to devise a scheme which is as nearly perfect as is humanly possible. We are, however, mindful of the risks of human error. On current estimates, ContactPoint will hold data on 11 million children, and there may be over 300,000 users of the scheme. The enormous size of the database and the huge number of probable users inevitably increase the risks of accidental or inadvertent breaches of security, and of deliberate misuse of the data (e.g. disclosure of an address with malign intent), which would be likely to bring the whole scheme into disrepute.


1   Connexions is "a service to support young people aged 13-19 in England in relation to their personal and learning development to ensure a smooth transition to adulthood and working life" (EM to Regulations). Back

2   Merits Committee, 27th Report of 2005-06 session (HL Paper 145). Back

3   See: http://www.dfes.gov.uk/consultations/downloadableDocs/ContactPoint%20Regulations%20Consultation%20-%20response%20summary.pdf  Back

4   HL Deb 21 June 2007 cols 377 to 380. Back


 
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