Children Bill [HL]
Baroness Ashton of Upholland (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills; Labour)
My Lords, I was slightly surprised that of all the things we have tried to do in the Bill the noble Earl should think that the database was the Government's solution to the Victoria Climbié case.
I agree completely with the noble Earl that there is no substitute for professional judgment and behaviour. The noble Earl might reflect on the experience of the trailblazers; namely, that in some cases it took, I believe, three days to contact the appropriate professional. We have consulted professionals and have considered all kinds of different ways of supporting front line staff. I agree with the noble Earl that it is a matter of people, training and other resources. This measure is not a substitute—it is not an "either/or" but a "both/and". It is very important to see it in that context. We believe that a universal database is justified under human rights. It enables a particular child to be correctly identified and for practitioners to have access to other practitioners' contact details.
However, we also agree that the entry of case details on such a universal basis would not be a proportionate response in the pursuit of a legitimate aim. I can state categorically that there are absolutely no plans for a pan-European database of any kind.
I turn to Amendments Nos. 123ZA and 142A which concern reporting annually to Parliament. I am not immediately attracted to the proposal although I was interested in the seven-year timescale. However, I am sympathetic to the concerns that the noble Baroness raised. I wish to reflect further on whether a statutory duty to report might be a sensible way forward. As noble Lords are aware, we are keeping open the possibility of local, national or regional level databases so we need to think about that in the context of whether a duty to report might be framed in advance of decisions on the geographical and organisational basis for the establishment and operation of databases. I hope that goes some way to meet the noble Baroness's concerns.
We were asked why we were bringing forward this measure now. I was mindful of what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said in a previous debate. We felt that this was an appropriate Bill and an appropriate moment to bring this forward. As noble Lords will know, often legislation is not the response that we put forward. Often there are other ways of supporting our practitioners and our children. This was an opportunity we did not wish to miss, and therefore I hope noble Lords will see the amendments I have put forward as a response to concerns that have been raised, in exactly the kind of development of government strategy that noble Lords seek.
Amendments Nos. 123A and 143, 124 and 125A put in place a general information-sharing duty on those responsible for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and indicate that the Children's Commissioner will provide guidance to support that duty. Amendment No. 125A removes Clause 8 and puts in place a power to share information. We have deliberately not sought to create in the Bill a general new duty to share information. There are difficulties in being too explicit about what information should be shared, as that could risk people labouring under the misapprehension that they can share that information only in the circumstances specified by legislation. We do not wish to do that.
Amendment No. 124 proposes that the information provision should apply to persons and bodies identified in Clause 7. It could therefore say to practitioners that information sharing should relate only to arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare, and not to co-operation to improve well-being as covered in Clause 6 and, of course, described in Every Child Matters. Amendment No. 124 also suggests that information sharing would relate in particular to cases where there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. Again, there are difficulties of practitioners feeling they were only bound by the duty to share information in such circumstances, or worse, that they could not share information in other circumstances. Again, that illustrates why we have not gone for a general duty.
We are clear that comprehensive guidance to practitioners under Clauses 6 and 7 needs to bring clarity about the circumstances under which information may be shared to promote the welfare, safety and well-being of children under current law. Amendment No. 124 implies that the Children's Commissioner would hold responsibility for issues of guidance. I have already explained in debating earlier amendments why we believe absolutely that the responsibility for guidance on information sharing lies properly with the Government.
I turn briefly to the suggestion that guidance would be sufficient to achieve our aims and that we do not need to legislate as we are doing for the establishment and operation of databases. We need to do both. The clear message from the trailblazers is that legislation is needed to ensure that all bodies and practitioners know they can and should contribute. We could not have a position where, at every turn, those establishing databases might have to struggle to persuade key bodies that it was legal to contribute and that they should do so. We must put in place a system that covers all geographical areas with a common approach. Legislation enables us to do that. Information can cross borders and follow children, stopping them falling through the gaps.
I have already said that I firmly believe that noble Lords are in agreement on the need for effective information sharing to improve outcomes for children, but Amendment No. 125A illustrates the pitfalls that we have been at pains to avoid. I have suggested in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that there is a serious danger of constraining the circumstances in which practitioners feel they could, may or should share information, and we must avoid doing this by design or unintentionally. The effect of the amendment would be to establish an explicit power, not a duty, for people and bodies in Clause 7 to share information, but only in circumstances where there is reasonable cause to suspect that significant harm is likely. The noble Baroness may not intend it, but it would impose a grave limitation on the sharing of information, preventing practitioners from discussing a child until they were confident that significant harm was at issue, and not just around the databases.
I have emphasised in Committee that best practice includes seeking the consent of children and families to share information, but I cannot agree that it makes sense for practitioners to have a legal obligation to send a notification whenever they discuss a child, sending copies of what has been said. We believe this would be a bureaucratic burden that would inhibit information sharing. As the noble Baroness has said, Amendment No. 125A is mainly concerned with the operation of computer systems. During the course of our debate, I asserted that the database represents a valuable tool for practitioners. Those in the amendment are limited in terms of who they cover and what data they contain. They do not bring any real advantage in improving the sharing of information to help improve outcomes for children. I believe the proposed arrangements for licensing and monitoring computer systems would be disproportionate and bureaucratic to govern systems that already exist, and to which existing legal safeguards apply. I also say that policing the operation of computer systems is not an appropriate function for the Children's Commissioner.
Our proposal set out in some detail how a database will operate. That detail will come before Parliament for decision. The system will be transparent. Public accountability is set up around how the databases are operated. The amendment appears to suggest private arrangements between the Secretary of State and the various bodies which would leave Parliament out of the process. We could not agree to that. It would impose an information regime that would be restrictive and bureaucratic rather than facilitate the sharing of information. I hope that on that basis that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.