New Clause 4 — Appeals about information held on databases

Orders of the Day — Children Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 2:44 pm on 2nd November 2004.

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'The Secretary of State shall establish an appeals procedure by which individuals referred to on a database established under regulations under section 12 (explicitly or implicitly) in respect of a child whose case has been referred to that database may challenge the inclusion of information.'.—[Tim Loughton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 16—Procedures in relation to the processing of personal data—

'(1) This section shall have effect in relation to the provisions described in section 12 and the processing of personal data.

(2) The Secretary of State may not make any regulations under the provisions of section 12, or issue guidance or a direction under those provisions, unless the Information Commissioner has been provided with the opportunity to make representations as to any degradation in the protection afforded to data subjects or to any degradation in the effectiveness of any data protection principle which would be caused by the implementation of that regulation, guidance or direction.

(3) If the Secretary of State issues regulations, guidance or direction under the provisions of section 12 which, in the view of the Information Commissioner, degrade the protection afforded to data subjects or degrade the effectiveness of any data protection principle, the Information Commissioner may publish any relevant information, correspondence, document or advice which relates to the degradation in question.

(4) For the purposes of this Act, section 10(2) of the Data Protection Act 1998 (c.29) (exemptions from right to prevent processing likely to cause damage or distress) shall apply as if it read as follows—

"(2) Subsection (1) does not apply in a case where any of the conditions in paragraphs 1, 2 or 4 of Schedule 2 is met."

(5) Personal data processed by any data controller for a purpose specified in regulations, guidance or direction made or issued under the provisions of section 12 shall not be processed for any other purpose unless that purpose is also specified in regulations made under powers authorised by this Act.

(6) For the purpose of this Act, "personal data" shall mean any data which relate to a living individual who can be directly or indirectly identified—

(a) from those data, or

(b) from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller.

(7) For the purpose of this section—

(a) the definition of "data", "processing", "data controller" and "data subject" shall be the same as in section 1 of the Data Protection Act 1998;

(b) the "data protection principles" are the principles described in Schedule 1 to the Data Protection Act 1998;

(c) the "Information Commissioner" is the Commissioner established by the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.'.

Amendment No. 46, in page 9, line 32, leave out clause 12.Amendment No. 17, in clause 12, page 9, line 39, leave out 'one or more databases' and insert

'a United Kingdom-wide database and facilitate regional databases where appropriate'.

Amendment No. 2, in clause 12, page 10, line 15, leave out paragraph (g).

Amendment No. 18, in clause 12, page 10, line 15, leave out from 'of' to end of line 16 and insert

'concern for his welfare, such basis for concern having been set out in national guidance;'.

Amendment No. 3, in clause 12, page 10, line 17, leave out paragraph (h).

Amendment No. 38, in clause 12, page 10, line 39, at end insert—

'( ) The requirement to disclose information for agencies specified in subsection (6)(b) will not apply if disclosure would be detrimental to the child's welfare or safeguarding.'.

Amendment No. 19, in clause 12, page 11, line 2 , at end insert—

'(7A) The requirement to disclose information for agencies specified in subsection (6)(b) will not apply if disclosure would be detrimental to the child's welfare or safeguarding.'.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

We now come to what could be, barring the smacking debate that we shall hold later, the most contentious part of the Bill and the one about which the Opposition have the most concerns. I want to talk to clause 12 as a whole. Amendment no. 46 would delete it, but other amendments in the group, as well as new clause 4 itself, would improve and make acceptable the whole section about databases.

This is an important part of the Bill. In Committee, we spent more than a morning on it, rightly, yet at the end of that time we had few assurances from the Minister for Children, Young People and Families about how the provisions would work, so we subsequently decided to vote against the whole clause. The upper House made some improvements to the clause, but although they were welcome they did not go nearly far enough.

In Committee, the Minister mentioned that she hoped our fears would be assuaged by the publication of the consultation document on the whole database system, which duly took place last week. We are grateful for that consultation document, but that is all it is—a consultation document. It is not a White Paper; it does not show a firm direction for the Government to take. The responses will not be in until the end of January, yet we are being asked, at this late stage of the Bill's progress, to write the Government a large blank cheque to set up powerful databases that would include each and every one of the more than 11 million children in this country.

The 10 trailblazer projects—pilots—being set up to try to investigate how such schemes could work are only halfway through their task. That work is being extended until March 2005 and the projects have just been granted second-tier funding, yet we are being asked to give the Secretary of State enormous powers to set up databases, about which there remain a lot of unanswered questions. The Government do not even know what the final identity and nature of those databases will be.

Even more worrying is the fact that only in the last week or so have we started to hear details about the Government's integrated children's systems, which, I gather, are to replace child protection registers by December 2005. They will be more detailed than child protection registers and will contain children's social care case records. They will operate in parallel with other case record systems, such as the NHS care record system for health practitioners.

The Minister has pledged £30 million to the project over the next two years, yet that was not mentioned once during the entire proceedings of the Bill in the upper House, on Second Reading or in Committee. Not once did the Minister allude to the fact that another much larger database is being constructed, for which money is already committed, and which will replace child protection registers.

Why was that not mentioned? How will the new system interact with the databases that we are discussing in the Bill? How will information be transferred? What arrangements have been made for security of access under the new systems? In answer to my written question

"what arrangements are already in existence to register children on a national register", the Minister replied:

"There are no arrangements in existence to register children on a national register."—[Hansard, 13 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 634W.]

Why was that?

What is this proposal if it is not a national register? We need much more information than we have been given so far.

Yet more alarm bells are sounding. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned in an article in The Times earlier in the year that we risk

"sleepwalking into a surveillance society".

The arrangements have already been referred to as "Big Brother for children" in The Guardian. Children Now magazine recently warned:

"We need to avoid making professionals slaves to technology by placing undue burdens on them to record information. And we should question whether the benefits of storing copious information about children are offset by the disadvantages of information overload and creeping surveillance."

I share those worries.

We said from the start that we are not against the principle of databases. We need databases to protect vulnerable children, but they should contain only minimal information and should not be a substitute for professionals talking to each other. Their scope should be limited to vulnerable children, rather than every single child in the country, because the system will otherwise be impractical and unworkable.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman PPS (Rt Hon Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State), Ministry of Defence 3:00 pm, 2nd November 2004

The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged Lord Laming's recommendation that information sharing is absolutely vital. He clearly welcomed the amendments to the provisions proposed by the Lords. He was complimentary about some of the information that is coming from his own trailblazer. He has asked for details about the consultation process throughout the passage of the Bill, and he now has them. Is he not just grandstanding when we should be getting on with cracking these thorny issues and making information sharing a reality for the safety of all our children?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that it is essential to make information sharing a reality, but although we are told that the method in the Bill is the only way of doing that, we do not know exactly how it will work. Information sharing is a sensitive subject, as I shall illustrate with comments made by the British Medical Association and sexual health clinics. We need to get the system right or it could be entirely counter-productive. People will not present themselves if they do not want information to be shared by others, so although the principle of information sharing is right, we need a proper system. We have said all along that we do not understand how putting the names of 11.5 million children on a database—we do not yet know the extent of the other details that might be included—will benefit the tens of thousands of children who could realistically be described as children at risk or vulnerable children.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

The hon. Gentleman is entirely missing the point, which is surely that it is difficult to define the children who are at risk. The Government's proposal would flag up causes of concern among professionals, which would help to identify the children who are missed under existing systems—they will certainly be missed under any of his proposals.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

We will come on to the definition of "cause for concern" in a moment because that is another worry. I still cannot understand how overloading a system with the details of 11.5 million children would help those who are most at risk. Many of the missing children to whom the hon. Gentleman rightly often refers—we debated them in Committee—will remain missing if such databases are in place because their parents, carers or private fosterers often want them to remain missing, but that is an entirely separate issue.

I want to pose some more questions to the Minister, although I want other hon. Members to have the opportunity to speak. She has said:

"we are not good at establishing IT systems"—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 October 2004; c. 240.]

We do not know how close we are to having available for the database information technology that would be interoperable with other services. We have received no assurances about security of access. We do not know which identifying marks will be used—will they be NHS or national insurance numbers? Clause 12(4)(h) is a catch-all provision that states that

"information of such other description, not including medical records or other personal records, as the Secretary of State may by regulations specify" may be included on the databases. What does that mean? What could be included? How long will the information be kept on the system? How will the system address the Soham loophole? Will information on children be kept after they reach 18?

Several problems have emerged due to conflicts in the proposals since the publication of the consultation document. A range of listed persons or bodies will be compelled to disclose information. There will be no caveats or exceptions to that requirement, except for the medical ones that I mentioned. When the Minister was asked in Committee about professional judgment, which we support, she said that permitting it would

"cause confusion because it would mean that practitioners would have to think about whether they should enter the fact that they are working with a child on to the database. The practitioner would have to apply a test whether disclosing the information that they were being asked to disclose would be detrimental to the child's welfare. We want to provide practitioners with certainty about using the database, not uncertainty."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 October 2004; c. 263.]

That effectively overrides the essential need for professional judgment to be applied, although we were promised that throughout the passage of the Bill. What will be the penalties for non-disclosure? Who will judge whether a case of non-disclosure was intentional or accidental? What will happen following a case of non-disclosure?

It is interesting to note that paragraph 2.19 of the consultation document states that a practitioner can override a professional duty of confidentiality to place a flag on the database. However, paragraphs 2.22 and 3.25 say that a practitioner may not be able to share information because of a duty of confidentiality. That raises the amusing possibility that two practitioners could flag the database and contact each other, yet be unable to discuss their reasons for doing so—such is the craziness of the consultation document and the Minister's proposals.

We have received strong expressions of concern from many professionals. The BMA asked:

"How do Ministers envisage collating information required under Clause 9 . . . Will they use the route of the automated Exeter Registration System . . . run by the PCOs to collate the information? Whose responsibility will it be to provide the information—primary care organisations or individual GP practices? What impact will the requirements have on GP practices and primary care?"

It understands that

"the database is expected to include the GPs' name and contact details for every child under 18 on their lists rather than for children about whom practitioners have a concern. The Minister appears to be saying that it is also the practitioner's responsibility to notify the data manager each time a child leaves a practice list, and every time a child registers with a new practice . . . Each practice could have around 440 children on its list and the BMA will need to explore with the Department of Health" how the logistics and any extra work load requirements will be addressed.

I recently received a letter from Brook Advisory Centres saying:

"We are particularly concerned that young people's attendance at sexual health services might have to be notified to information databases. This concern was not allayed by the amendment during the Bill's passage through the House of Lords . . . Research has consistently demonstrated that confidentiality is of paramount importance for young people using contraceptive and sexual health services. Concerns about how far confidentiality is protected in General Practices and other sexual health services are among the issues most frequently raised by users of the Brook Young People's Information Service, which is accessed by 17,000 young people a year."

As one user of the service said:

"I think it is an utter disgrace. Next they will be printing barcodes on the insides of your wrists. I know I would think twice about seeking any help or advice, instead of listening to street tales about contraception etc. It would be ridiculous and a bad move."

Brook and many children's charities are worried about how the database system will work.

Given that the Government are proposing such an important step change to the way in which we put information about each of our children on systems, they need to be better prepared and further down the road than they are at present. If they do not give us the real assurances that we need, they should consider removing the clause from the Bill. They could then do the work on it that is required and bring it back as a part of a criminal justice Bill. Such legislation could address the Soham loophole and related problems with databases that we have at the moment.

New clause 4, which we did not get to discuss in Committee, would set up an appeals procedure. There is no appeals procedure in the Bill that relates to any of the databases. There is therefore no defence against wrong information being placed on a database—wrong information that may be vexatious, which has been placed there as a result of a complaint made by a child against a teacher or a parent. Those records—we do not know the extent of what may be kept—may be kept for an indeterminate period and if used may count against the person mentioned. Surely, as with any other such database, there should be a mechanism by which people who want to challenge the veracity and relevance of the information stored about them can do so. There are no safeguards in the Bill, and that is a deep worry. Wrong information about people could be placed on the database either accidentally or intentionally, and their lives and records could be unjustifiably blighted as a result.

None of that detracts from the requirement, the necessity and the desirability of placing on the database worrying information about those who might be dangerous to vulnerable people. That is what databases should be about. However, we need proper checks and balances. At no point during the passage of the Bill have the Government provided reassurances on how an appeals mechanism could work and how long the information will be kept.

Amendment No. 17 would limit the Secretary of State to setting up one database. We now know why the Government resisted a similar amendment in Committee, saying that it might be appropriate for other databases to be set up. We are to have databases coming out of our ears, it would appear. The Minister claimed that accepting the amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from setting up a regional or a London-wide database, for example. There is a strong case for a London-wide database because of the nature of and interaction between all the boroughs in London, and the Climbié case clearly underlined that. I have no problem with that, but the Bill as it stands could facilitate it through co-operation between authorities.

In order to allay the Minister's objections to the amendment that we moved in Committee, we have slightly changed the wording so that it refers to facilitating "regional databases where appropriate". As we have gone that far to accommodate the Minister's concerns, perhaps she will tell us which other databases, about which we do not yet know, she envisages the Secretary of State will need to set up and which the amendment would prevent.

Amendment No. 18 is about the definition of "cause for concern". Hon. Members have mentioned the reference to it in clause 12(4)(g). This strange phrase has come out of the blue. To what types of concern does it refer? It would appear that it is intended to be all-encompassing: any concern about a child's behaviour, circumstances or developmental progress. By what standards are children and parents to be measured and a judgment on concern to be made?

As the Barnardo's briefing said:

"Cause for concern is not a recognised criteria and will include unclear and subjective information of unproven worth, which may lead to inappropriate interventions while leaving vulnerable children at risk. Cause for concern is not a standard used or understood by the caring professions. Nor does it appear in any other child welfare or health legislation."

It certainly does not appear in the Children Act 1989. That contains

"clear definitions of where local authorities can and must act when the child is in need. The child-in-need threshold is defined in statute and is associated with a range of additional powers in the supporting schedule. The Bill as currently drafted does not give professionals a common standard of that kind."

We need qualification of what the phrase really means. If we do not know what it means, practitioners in the field who will have to put the legislation into practice daily—GPs, social workers, teachers, the school nurse, the police—will be confused. They need to operate under one standard—hence the amendment suggests that we identify "cause for concern" and that a basis for it should be set out in national guidance. As I said in Committee, that guidance should be distributed among the professional bodies concerned, to ensure that all professionals sing from the same song sheet and operate under similar thresholds.

Amendment No. 38, which we have co-signed with the Liberals, and amendment No. 19, which we have tabled alone, are about not disclosing information if it would be detrimental to the child's welfare. That is self-explanatory, and we went into it at length in Committee. Extraordinarily, the Minister again did not take the point on board, although it is clearly in the interests of vulnerable children that such a provision should be in the Bill. We hope that the slight re-wording will make it more acceptable.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield 3:15 pm, 2nd November 2004

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's comments on databases. Obviously, I was not privy to discussions in Committee, but I have followed carefully his arguments on Second Reading and this afternoon. Do I understand him correctly in assuming that he is arguing that there should be a London-wide database and regional databases—such as one in west Yorkshire, for example—but not a national database? If so, what assumption is he making about the lack of mobility of families? The database that he suggests would not cover somebody moving from London to Leeds, but in my experience that happens quite regularly.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which is why I have been suggesting exactly the reverse throughout proceedings on the Bill. We are in favour of local databases that join up local professionals and which would probably come under the aegis of the director of children's services. We need greater clarification of how that information would be submitted and acted on, and at what point an intervention by social workers would be triggered. I am in favour of that for vulnerable children, such as those on the at-risk register and those who are looked after.

For exactly the reasons mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, I am also in favour of a national database—information for which would be passed from authorities that flag up children on their own databases. The most vulnerable children are usually the most mobile. A child on the radar of Newcastle social services who disappears and ends up in Brighton would need to be the subject of a central exchange of information, so that the social services director in Brighton could check on a national database for any form. The decision on whether intervention should occur should be left to the relevant authorities in the area where the child resides, with or without parents. We absolutely need a national database, but 11.5 million children do not need to be on it. We must concentrate on the most vulnerable children, to whom the most resources should be devoted. That is the great difference between us.

Clause 12 is very important and we shall certainly be pressing our amendments to the vote unless we receive some severe assurances from the Minister.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

I wish the Minister well with the Bill. Children need the protection afforded by this legislation. There have been too many horror stories of the system failing to co-ordinate the activities of professionals and children have been killed or abused as a consequence. However, there needs to be augmented protection of individuals from Ministers taking sweeping powers in establishing one or several information databases, which could interfere with private and family life—which, after all, is protected under article 8 of the United Nations convention on human rights. Therefore, my sole intervention on proceedings on this Bill is the tabling of new clause 16, which would go a long way to addressing the concerns expressed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Committee warned of the human rights problem in paragraph 109 of its 19th report, which states:

"We remain concerned about the lack of detail contained on the face of the Bill and the breadth of the regulation-making powers being conferred on the Secretary of State in a context involving serious interferences with Article 8 rights."

Another reason why the Minister should accept my new clause is that she may have been misdirected a little by her officials' analysis of the Data Protection Act 1998. For instance, in her written evidence to the Joint Committee, published in the Committee's report on page 24, in reply to the question:

"What is the proposed relationship between this legislation and the Data Protection Principles in the Data Protection Act?", she said:

"We expect the databases to fully comply with the Data Protection Act and do not want to make any special arrangements under data protection for them."

To my mind, that answer is clearly wrong, as clause 12 contains a host of special arrangements such as the wide-ranging ministerial powers that can be used to neutralise the data protection principles.

Let me give a background example to show why subsections (2) and (3) of new clause 16 are needed. In Scotland, the collection of dates of birth on the poll tax form was not deemed excessive because it was prescribed in regulations. In England and Wales, a tribunal ruled that it was excessive, because there was no need to collect everybody's date of birth. That did not conform with the data protection principles. That is what happened in England and Wales when the Data Protection Act applied. In Scotland, the opposite happened under ministerial regulations. Therefore, statutory prescription specifically weakened the privacy protection afforded by the Act, and I think that the same will happen under this Bill.

In clause 12, we see statutory provisions that could weaken data protection principles. Under subsection (6)(a), the Secretary of State has the flexibility to specify personal data that could be excessive for the purpose, and that neutralises the third principle of the 1998 Act. Under subsection (6)(b) to (f), the Secretary of State has the flexibility to specify in regulations disclosures that could otherwise be incompatible with the purpose of collection, and that neutralises the second principle. Under subsection (6)(g), the Secretary of State has the flexibility to specify in regulations a long, or even infinite, period of retention of data, and that neutralises the fifth principle. Under subsection (6)(h), the Secretary of State has the flexibility to specify in regulations criteria that allow inaccurate or out-of-date personal data to be retained on the database, and that neutralises the fourth principle.

Under subsection (13)(a) to (c), the Secretary of State can specify a level of security that is lower than the appropriate managerial level, and that neutralises the seventh principle. Under subsection (13)(d), the Secretary of State can transfer data abroad, outside the European economic area, and that neutralises the eighth principle.

In effect, the Bill gives the Minister control over how virtually all the data protection principles apply to personal data. The Information Commissioner cannot effectively enforce the principles if the Minister has used her powers in a way that degrades the protection afforded by each principle.

It will not be satisfactory for the Minister to give reassurance about consultation with the Information Commissioner. The point that I am raising is that there is no counterbalance in the Bill to stop any future Minister using the powers to set aside or degrade the protection afforded by the data protection principles. That is why, when the Minister told the Joint Committee that

"We expect the databases to fully comply with the Data Protection Act and do not want to make any special arrangements under data protection for them",

I think that she is wrong. She is seeking powers that could be used to undermine any of the principles.

Subsections (2) and (3) of new clause 16 require the Secretary of State when issuing guidance or drafting regulations to allow time for the Information Commissioner to make representations on whether the protection afforded by the data protection principles or the protection in relation to data subjects is likely to be degraded. The Information Commissioner is also empowered to publish any relevant material that in his view shows degrading of the protection afforded by the Data Protection Act caused by a ministerial decision. That would also enable Parliament to be kept informed and have a debate if that was deemed necessary.

New clause 16(4) removes the Secretary of State's ability to override the right to object, which is granted in the Data Protection Act, and slightly to widen the right to object to meet the Joint Committee's concern. The right to object in the Act applies only in exceptional circumstances. There are two tests: the processing has to cause substantial distress and damage, and that distress and damage has to be unwarranted or unjustified. In many cases, there may be distress that is not substantial, or there may be distress but the processing is completely justifiable.

Such cases have been identified by the Joint Committee in paragraph 114 which states:

"The information which may be included on the database about a child goes beyond purely objective facts about a child, such as their name, address and date of birth. It includes information, such as contact details of persons providing services including health services, which may reveal very sensitive information about the child, such as the fact that a seventeen year old girl has been referred to family planning services. It also includes 'the existence of any cause for concern' about a child, which is an extremely subjective and open-ended phrase which is almost bound to include very sensitive information about a child."

In paragraph 115, the Committee states:

"We remind the Government that Article 8 requires that there be adequate procedural safeguards regulating the disclosure of sensitive personal information, and these may require participation by the person who is the subject of the information in decisions concerning the inclusion and disclosure of certain types of information".

My subsection dealing with the right to object meets the Committee's need for a safeguard, by removing the Secretary of State's ability to overrule the right to object. At present, it is a judicial process that determines whether there has been substantial distress and whether that processing should cease because it is unwarranted. In contested cases, it is the courts that determine the balance between the interests of those who run the information databases and those of the individual concerned. However, in this Bill the Minister is taking untrammelled powers to determine that her view will prevail. There is no balance there, and the proper judicial process should be reinstated.

New clause 16(5) requires any processing purpose of personal data under the Bill to be defined by regulations made under it. It basically negates an organisation processing personal data for a secondary purpose, even where that secondary purpose is authorised by other legislation. If the data are wanted for the secondary purpose, the Secretary of State's regulations should clearly say so. This is a major improvement. It limits processing purposes only to those identified under the Bill.

Subsection (6) amends the definition of personal data. That is necessary because the European Commission has sent the Government a 20-page infringement letter stating that the Data Protection Act 1998 is deficient and does not implement the data protection directive, 95/46/EC. Has the Minister seen that 20-page infringement letter? If so, has she taken it into account? If not, I cannot see how she can stand at the Dispatch Box talking about the protection of personal data when our UK Act is, according to the Commission, deficient in affording protection. As I said, powers are being enacted to override its already weak provisions anyway. My wide definition of personal data helps to resolve the matter and I ask hon. Members to support new clause 16 in that light.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:30 pm, 2nd November 2004

Many of the comments that Harry Cohen made underline our feeling that we are being asked to sign a blank cheque. Many questions remain unanswered. Despite last week's publication of the consultation document, I still believe that we have more questions than answers. We are not trying to be obstructive but it is difficult to vote on such an important issue without more details.

There is a problem of being out of synch when we hear on Report that some matters will not be concluded until January. I share the concerns of Tim Loughton but I want to place it firmly on record that I do not agree with his general stance. We need local databases with objective data and I cannot believe that they should be restricted to those identified as vulnerable. I therefore distance Liberal Democrat Members from that viewpoint. If we are genuinely to move towards a preventive agenda, we must have basic, simple information on everybody.

I repeat the anxieties that I raised in Committee. Once one moves away from objective data into the subjective realm, my concerns increase. Let us consider the term, "cause for concern". I have just used the word "concern"; everyone else uses it. There is no definition and I am not sure that I want anyone to start defining it. If we ask different professionals from different backgrounds to flag up a cause for concern on a database that will become available for other people to see, we must worry about the use to which it might be put.

The consultation document suggested that the intention was for a flag to be attached if one professional wanted to talk to another. I do not want to belittle that because I should like the Minister to respond to the point. I do not understand how the proposal will make it any more likely that people will communicate with each other. For example, one either looks at one's e-mails or one does not. Someone either opens the database and knows which children they need to look up to find the flag or they do not. I do not understand how it will work. It sounds simple: an indication that someone wants to talk to someone else. However, I cannot understand how it will work when there are so many children and when other systems of communication are far more direct. We all say that our professionals need to communicate directly with one another if we are genuinely to protect our children and intervene at the earliest possible stage.

I found the consultation document easier to follow on sensitive services. The Minister had picked up the points that many organisations raised but it is important to note that the NSPCC remained concerned about the Bill. It might be fairly content about subjects for consultation but the measure permits the disclosure that someone has accessed sensitive services. I fear that that will put off young people and parents from using the services. I am not assured about that matter.

I have tried to make it clear that I agree with some provisions and take a different approach from Conservative Front-Bench Members to others. Overall, we have more questions than answers and we must vote to express that opinion. It must be rare to have so many unanswered questions about a major Bill at this stage in the proceedings. I hope that I am making clear our support for the some provisions but despite that, we must vote to express our anxiety, which centres especially around the subjective nature of any data on the database.

Although we support the local databases, I should have liked some suggestion of the options for passing on data when the child moves. I do not perceive the necessity for a national database per se, but mechanisms must exist. There must be different methods and we need to be able to assess them and have an opinion. The proposal will not work if it is viewed as a massive intrusion into one's life by a national database that has masses of information about everybody. However, some of the most vulnerable children are those who are moved around for various reasons and I would be distraught if I believed that we had a system that allowed the children who need protecting the most to fall through the gap.

I am sorry that we do not have a range of options. I do not have a full grasp of how the system could work. I simply have an image of the principles that I want the Bill to retain. We cannot be confident that those principles are retained because of the lack of detail in the measure.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

It is obviously necessary to take every measure that we can to protect vulnerable children. Our ability to collect data more effectively and efficiently than in the past does not necessarily mean that it would be sensible to act on it. We should therefore consider the proposals carefully. I support my hon. Friends in their quest for a great deal more information from the Minister.

Harry Cohen made a powerful case. His description of the way in which the Bill runs counter to the proper protection of the individual was impressive. The trouble is that the Minister does not have a good reputation for willingness to listen or for use of data. I am therefore not prepared to leave in her hands the decision about the information that goes on to the lists, especially when the provisions are remarkably imprecise. In many years in the House of Commons, I have never known an occasion on which the relevant professional bodies have criticised a Government Bill in such detail for lack of precision. I cannot recall circumstances in which a Minister's hon. Friend made such a devastating attack about data protection.

I was interested that the Brook Advisory Centre, an organisation of which I largely disapprove, singled out a fascinating matter. Information that cannot be given to parents could be given to the state under the Bill. That is a new system. The centres will be asked to put on a database information that they have spent all their time—in my view, wrongly—trying to remove from parents. That is amazing.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

If the Minister claims that that is not correct, why does the Brook Advisory Centre, which is close to her, appear to believe that it may be asked to do things of which it disapproves and that, in its view, would undermine its activities?

Apart from that, I want to discuss the phrase "cause for concern". I am amazed by the causes for concern that people manage to produce. If the phrase is not defined more effectively, I fear that many people in all sorts of areas will have causes for concern that involve their own views and attitudes rather than children. The Minister must free us from our cause for concern, which is lack of precision in the keeping of data about young people, who have the right to be protected in the same way as adults—we live in a world in which far too many people think it satisfactory to keep information about adults.

Lastly, I want to underline something that my hon. Friend Tim Loughton said on holding data about those who are vulnerable. The idea that every child should be recorded in that way is immensely illiberal. Indeed, I was very surprised to hear the Liberal spokesman, Mrs. Brooke, once again underline the illiberality of the new Liberal party.

It is not acceptable to keep data on people for no reason and I cannot see why children should be put on a database unless there is a reason for it. I am perfectly prepared to protect people, even for the smallest of reasons, but the idea that data must be kept on every child in order to protect the vulnerable is the reverse of the truth, because the more data kept, the more likely it is that the data that one needs will be obscured.

The Minister has not proved her case either here or in Committee, and the House of Commons needs a better explanation than the one that she has given. The professional bodies are all as confused as the House.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

It is no good the Minister shaking her head, because the professional bodies have said that they are confused. The Minister may think that those bodies are all stupid, which is an attitude that she often takes towards people outside this House, but the fact of the matter is that they are confused. Unless she can remove the confusion of this House and the professional organisations, she will go down as a Minister who wants the power to do things as she thinks fit, and this House does not have confidence in her to do things as she thinks fit, because we have had too much experience of her.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I regret that final contribution. When Mr. Gummer comes to the House to discuss a serious matter such as this, he should read himself into it so that he can make a more informed contribution. He would do better to return to the Herbert Laming inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié and the many other inquiries into the deaths of children.

Time and time again, such inquiries find that the same features went wrong. One thing that every inquiry into an unnecessary child death finds is that people failed to share information effectively. Our attempt to establish a system—a tool—that professionals can use better to protect and safeguard children and better to promote children's well-being should command respect and support from both sides of the House and should not be pushed around like a political football, as in the case of the remarks made by the right hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Is it not also the case that many deaths of children at the hands of parents and care givers come out of the blue as far as public agencies are concerned? Causes for concern would not be detected under the sort of system lamely proposed by Conservative Members.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I agree entirely. I am conscious that hon. Members want to discuss other issues and hope that Tim Loughton will accept that we had a full debate on that issue in Committee. I shall simply say this: the information databases that we propose are no more than tools to support professionals in working together better. If professionals work together better, they may be able to prevent some other child's death. The databases are tools to shift the emphasis in how we work from simply intervening to protect children when things go wrong to, as my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson said, trying to intervene earlier to prevent children from going wrong. They are no substitute for the many systems that we have in place.

I want briefly to deal with some of the new issues that were raised in the debate. The first concerns the integrated children's system, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. That is not the same as the information database, nor is it a national register—it is a framework for social services, working with children in need and their families. It will be supported by the computerisation of social services records that are currently kept on paper.

As the hon. Gentleman well knows from the debate in Committee, those records would not appear on the databases where we are keeping the simple, basic information that can identify children and those who work with them. The integrated children's system will not contain information about all children, only the records generated by those working with children in need and it will not be accessed by all practitioners, only those working with the children who are specified. The hon. Gentleman's point was a red herring.

In new clause 4, the hon. Gentleman raises an issue that we did not have time to debate in Committee. I remind him, and my hon. Friend Harry Cohen, that the databases will comply with the subject access provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998. That means that parents and children can exercise existing rights to see what information is held about them through a simple request to the database operator. They will be able to ask for inaccuracies to be corrected, and that must then happen.

Moreover, there are measures in criminal law that impose penalties for the misuse of data in computer records and under the DPA. It would be a breach of the fourth data protection principle, which deals with accuracy, knowingly to supply untrue data or to fail to delete inaccurate data. That can lead to enforcement procedures by the Information Commissioner; and failure to comply with an enforcement notice issued by the commissioner is a serious offence.

I do not want to return to the argument about a national database because the Committee in general—apart from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—supported the need for it. He knows, however, that our thinking is along the same lines as his: that we should have local databases, some on a regional level, whether it be London or Greater Manchester. They need to be inoperable—

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I am sorry—the hon. Gentleman is right to correct me on that.

The Bill needs to provide for what we call the 151st system, which would ensure that all professionals know where to locate a child and that, if that child leaves one local authority area and moves to another, there is a system that holds a record of them until they re-emerge in another area.

I come to a concern that was expressed by several Members. The Bill contains a provision to enable a practitioner to inform another practitioner who subsequently accesses a child's record that they have a current concern about the child. That means that the second practitioner can see who else they should contact as a priority to determine whether their observations are related, so that together they can build a better all-round picture of the child's needs. That represents an added dimension to the information that the databases provide by simply holding the contact details of all the practitioners involved with a child. It will prompt contact and facilitate appropriate discussion to address the problem at an earlier stage. It is not a substitute for action—I said that in Committee and reiterate it today.

One would hope that in most cases placing a cause for concern on a database, as we suggested in the consultation document, would mean that the consent of the child and the family had been sought, and that only in the most exceptional circumstances where the child is at risk of harm and abuse would that happen without such consent.

I shall deal briefly with the important contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead. I provided him with a written answer before the summer recess, in which I said that the databases would comply with the Data Protection Act 1998. I should also like to reassure him and all other hon. Members today. We are establishing a complex system and we need to work our way through a lot of difficult issues. Because we know that Members are concerned about these issues, we have said that we shall come back to both Houses of Parliament to seek affirmative resolutions as we go forward with the regulations and guidance. There is no hidden agenda here. There is no way in which any future Minister could misuse or abuse the powers in this part of the Bill. What we wish to do is move forward to try to establish better systems for sharing information. I hope that hon. Members will be satisfied by those added assurances.

Hon. Members have said that many children's organisations have concerns on this issue. Yes, but even during the first consultation on the first set of regulations, I have already had letters from organisations such as Barnardo's, the National Children's Bureau, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and the Children's Society, all welcoming the consultation in which we are engaged and recognising that it is starting to deal with some of the concerns that they had expressed earlier. Yes, it is only a consultation document, but we will come back to both Houses and use the affirmative resolution procedure to ensure that we have the support of everyone as we move towards regulations. Not to take advantage of this opportunity to provide a tool for professionals to share information, so that they can prevent the unnecessary deaths that we have witnessed, such as that of little Victoria Climbié, would be to miss the opportunity of a lifetime. I am not prepared to do that, and I hope that all hon. Members will share my wish to move forward with this part of the Bill.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 174, Noes 293.

Division number 303 Orders of the Day — Children Bill [Lords] — New Clause 4 — Appeals about information held on databases

Aye: 174 MPs

No: 293 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.