Information Sharing Index (England) Regulations 2006

– in the House of Lords at 7:34 pm on 20th March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools) 7:34 pm, 20th March 2006

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 2 March be approved [20th Report from the Joint Committee and 27th Report from the Merits Committee].

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, these regulations provide for data-matching trials to take place as essential initial work in the development and implementation of the information sharing index, to be established under Section 12 of the Children Act 2004. Section 12 provides that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills may make regulations in relation to the establishment and operation of an index. The Government announced on 8 December of last year, in a written parliamentary Statement, their plans to make an initial set of regulations governing data-matching trials. The regulations before us this evening give effect to that commitment. Later this year, we will consult on and lay before Parliament more substantial draft regulations to govern the operation of the index itself.

Better information sharing is essential for early and effective intervention to improve the five Every Child Matters outcomes for children: being healthy; staying safe; enjoying and achieving; making a positive contribution; and achieving economic well-being. The information sharing index is a key element of the Every Child Matters programme to transform children's services. It will support more effective prevention and early intervention to ensure that children get the additional services that they need as early as possible. The aim is to improve the reliability and quality of public services for all children, young people and families.

The index will provide a tool to support better communication among practitioners across education, health, social care and youth offending. It will allow them to contact one another more easily and quickly so that they can share information about children who need services or about whose welfare they are concerned. The index will hold basic identifying information on all children in England. It will also contain the names and contact details of practitioners providing specialist and targeted services to a child. Practitioners will also be able to indicate that they have information to share, have taken action or have completed a common assessment framework.

It is important that practitioners and the public can be confident in both the accuracy and robustness of the index, when fully developed. A number of concerns have been expressed, not least by your Lordships during the passage of the Children Bill, about accuracy, security and the feasibility of collecting and managing such a large volume of data. That is why we are proceeding by way of trials. The regulations will provide us with the legal basis to undertake key tests in relation to the accuracy and quality of the data that will populate the index. The fact that we are bringing forward these regulations at this time, and in advance of the work to load data on to the index proper, is wholly consistent with our careful step-by-step approach towards the whole of the index project. The results of the trials will not only inform the final design of the index but refine the statutory guidance and the full regulations which will support its operation.

To create a record on the index containing basic information for each child, it will be necessary to draw upon a number of existing sources for the relevant data items. No single data source currently contains them all. To prepare the way for this, we need to examine a sample of records from each of the data sources. This will enable an assessment of how comprehensively each source covers the population of children and which is the most reliable source of accurate and up-to-date information. It will also enable us to assess how disparities in the way in which data sources record each item can most efficiently be overcome, so that data from different sources on the same child can be brought together or matched accordingly.

The regulations provide a clear legal basis for these tests, and provide for the organisations that hold the data sources to be tested to supply data so the tests can take place. The regulations require local authorities in England to comply with a request from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to supply, from their existing source systems, basic child information. By basic child information, I mean the child's name, address, date of birth, gender, any number used to identify a child's record and the name and contact details of anyone with parental responsibility or who has care of the child, when that information exists. The authorities will also be required to provide the name and contact details of any practitioner providing a specialist or targeted service to the child. We are, however, engaging the participation of only nine local authorities, chosen to represent geographical spread and different size and type of area. I should stress that we have secured the agreement of all nine authorities to take part in the trials, and the Government will meet their reasonable costs. There will be no charge to the council tax payer.

We will also collect a sample of basic child information from national government data sources under powers provided by Section 12(9) of the Children Act 2004. This permits any of Her Majesty's principal Secretaries of State to provide information for the index. The Department for Work and Pensions, as data controller for the child benefit records that it holds, will provide basic child information from its child benefit records. This will include the name and address of the child benefit claimant, as proxy for parental details. The Department of Health will provide basic child information and GP practice contact details, and my department will provide basic child information and contact details of any educational establishment the child attends.

I assure noble Lords that under the terms of Section 12 of the Children Act, no personal or medical records can be included on the index. I also want to make it clear that the draft regulations provide safeguards against the collection and processing of disproportionate amounts of information. We will be taking only a sample of data records. The sample size will be no greater than is sufficient for statistically valid testing of data accuracy. The information will not be used in any operational sense. The output of the trials will be a summary report on the outcome of the tests, and it will not include any personal data that could identify an individual.

In addition, we will ensure that there will be stringent security measures controlling the physical security of the hardware and systems used to transmit and hold the data for testing. Only a strictly limited number of authorised staff from my department and its contractor will have access to it. The draft regulations provide that the information supplied for these tests will be retained for no more than three years, and we will ensure that it is securely destroyed once our use for it has ended.

The regulations are a prudent and necessary first step in establishing an accurate and up-to-date information sharing index. I commend them to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 2 March be approved [20th Report from the Joint Committee and 27th Report from the Merits Committee].—(Lord Adonis.)

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Education, Shadow Minister (Children), Health, Shadow Minister (Women), Trade & Industry 7:42 pm, 20th March 2006

My Lords, I thank the Minister for taking the time to outline the detail of these regulations. Much of what he has said repeats the announcement by the Secretary of State on 8 December last year and the information in the Explanatory Memorandum provided with the regulations.

We on these Benches believe that the protection of our children, particularly vulnerable children, must be a genuine priority. We fully support the aims behind the Every Child Matters Green Paper and the 10-year strategy on childcare which propose the policy outcome that each child should "stay safe". We concur with the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that poor communication between professionals from different agencies was a contributory factor in the death of Victoria Climbié. However, as the NSPCC has highlighted:

"Costly information systems in themselves will not protect children".

We have continually expressed serious concerns about the scope of the proposed shared index database, and have highlighted problems that have not been thought through. In drawing these regulations to the attention of the House in its 27th report, the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee only emphasises that our concerns have not diminished. Indeed, they have increased, particularly as we envisage potential conflicts and overlaps with current proposed legislation. As my honourable friend Tim Loughton said:

"The government's nanny-state approach will do nothing to safeguard the children most at risk. We should be concentrating on the most vulnerable children who are on child protection registers, in care or in homes with a record of domestic violence . . . We opposed this clause when it was proposed in the Children's Act 2004. It is bureaucratic nonsense and ID cards for children by the back door".

We are not against the principle of databases; we need them to protect vulnerable children. But they should contain only minimal information and cannot be a substitute for professionals talking to one another.

In our debates on the Identity Cards Bill, we have looked carefully at what the Home Affairs Committee referred to as the,

"proliferation of large-scale databases", including the potential database we are discussing today. I remind your Lordships of that now well known quote from the Information Commissioner that we are in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society.

There are around 11 million children in Britain today; according to the Government, 3 million to 4 million are vulnerable. We share the concerns of the Information Commissioner that the Government have failed to justify setting up a universal database covering 100 per cent of children, irrespective of whether there are concerns about individual children.

Along with the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we question whether the database complies with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights regarding the right to respect for private and family life. We believe that the scope of the index should be limited to vulnerable children only, with clear limits on the use of information that is held, and that a universal database is not a proportionate response to the pressing social need it is trying to address.

During debates on the Children Bill, my noble friend Lord Howe stated that the index is,

"a charter for Ministers to devise information-sharing schemes of an unspecified and potentially far-reaching nature, overriding common-law rights of confidentiality, and without necessarily paying heed to the fundamental principles of data protection . . . I have very serious difficulties with this . . . There are numerous practical questions as well which remain unresolved".—[Hansard, 30/3/04; col. 1217.]

I hope that the Minister will today be able to provide better answers to our concerns than the ones that have failed to assure us to date.

The regulations allow for trials of sharing information to be implemented. What system will these trials use? Are the systems already in place and, if not, what is their estimated cost? Are they the same computers and databases that will be used should this index be rolled out nationally? What assessment have the Government made following concerns expressed by us and the Information Commissioner on the administrative burden of capturing information on all children, and the resources required to follow up concerns? The Government's record with large databases to date has not exactly provided a glowing reference.

Security and access to information on a local scale, let alone a national one, can have serious consequences should it fall into the wrong hands. I hear what the Minister says about the restricted number of people who will have access to the database, but what training will they have and what checks will the Government insist on? Will the people operating the trials, with access to the shared information, have Criminal Records Bureau checks? Who will decide if these trials, let alone the national project, will comply with the Data Protection Act and ensure that personal data are accurate, relevant, secure, and, as the noble Lord said, not kept longer than necessary? Will children be allowed to access the records held on them in the index under the Data Protection Act?

The ability to flag up a "cause for concern" can mean different things to different people. Worries have been raised that this subjective view could also lead to a danger that some care professionals may add it as a defensive measure, particularly in today's increasingly litigious society. While one would hope that all care professionals are honourable and careful enough not to do so, what steps will the Government take should this arise? We must avoid a tick-box mentality when dealing with our vulnerable children.

I am conscious of time; for the reasons I have mentioned, and more, we opposed these measures during the passage of the Children Bill. I hope that the Minister can at least give us assurances that if the proposed pilot schemes do not pass muster, the Government will consider returning to the drawing board rather than pushing on with what we already view as a flawed scheme.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills 7:48 pm, 20th March 2006

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for explaining the regulations to us. I share many of the reservations expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. During the passage of the Children Bill we, too, opposed this clause and argued that it was quite unnecessary to set up so large a database. We also felt that in so far as any database was required, it should be limited to vulnerable children. That said, the Government are determined to attempt to set up this huge database. We should remember, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, that there are 11 million children and we are effectively aiming to gather basic identifying information such as, the Minister told us, the name, address, gender, date of birth and unique identifying number of children. Basic identifying information about the child's parent or carer and contact details for services involved with the child—the school, GP and other services—will be included. There will also be a facility for practitioners to share information with others to flag up areas of concern—there was a lot of discussion during the Children Bill on that.

Ultimately, the aim is to establish this huge database—an identity card for every child, in effect. However, it is sensible that there should be trials before the Government proceed with this. In that sense, as far as these regulations are concerned, we on these Benches feel that it is sensible to see the trial go forward before we endorse what the Government are doing. We are particularly pleased that the draft regulations that will be issued later in the summer will be issued in the light of at least some of the early developments from the trial. I understand that there will be extensive consultation on these draft regulations, which is vital. We are also reassured that this database is seen very firmly as a trial and that all the data will be securely destroyed after the trial has been concluded.

Our concerns when we discussed the Children Bill were about maintaining the accuracy of the information, particularly the difficulty of keeping tabs on a population which moves rapidly around in rented accommodation, as is true of vulnerable children. Keeping up-to-date information on addresses, schools and GPs will not be easy. Undoubtedly, a key feature of the trial will be to see how far the data from different sources can be married up. It is essential that the trial includes a substantial example of this highly mobile population.

It is particularly unclear, other than through the process of reconciling conflicting information, how far and how it is proposed to test accuracy and reliability. I am also unclear about how far aspects of this database will be available to the general public. I assume that information about the name of the child, its gender, address, GP and school contacts would, through the Data Protection Act, be available for the individual parent or carer—indeed, as the child is older, for the child itself—to see to assess its accuracy. I do not know how far the trial will be using that ultimate test of accuracy to test the quality of the information as it goes along. Will it include an opportunity for individuals concerned to see the data about themselves?

Equally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, mentioned, there was considerable concern about preventing others from obtaining information—I am particularly concerned about vulnerable children or mothers who have been open to abuse and so forth. It is important that the trial tests security systems. The database must be secure and cannot be accessed by non-authorised personnel. I assume that that will also be part of the trial.

Finally, one comes to the whole question of how much the trial will cost. Estimates given in the Explanatory Memorandum suggest that during the period of setting up the database from 2005-08 there will be a one-off implementation cost of £224 million and that the annual operating costs will subsequently be £41 million. I am very sceptical about those figures. Given the costs of implementing the identity cards database that we have seen—somewhere in the region of 25 per cent of the population will be put on the identity cards database—we ought to be talking in billions rather than millions. However, those are the costs that have been put down. I hope that the trial will provide accurate estimates of the cost of putting such databases together.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Baronesses for their comments. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, rehearsed her party's opposition to these regulations, which I fully understand. However, I think that she would agree, since I always aim to promote the maximum possible area of consensus when I speak to your Lordships, that proceeding by way of trial as we are and as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, reiterated, is by far the best way of going about testing a number of the propositions that she laid down and many of the concerns that she raised. Of course, the areas of concern that she raised are legitimate—in many cases, to do with the robustness of a large project of this kind. It is precisely for those reasons, to bottom out a number of the operational, practical and cost issues—including those cost issues mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, a moment ago—that we are proceeding by way of trial.

The robustness of the data is important as are issues to do with confidentiality and cost; hence the pilot. We intend to engage in extensive consultation as the pilot proceeds and I give an undertaking today that I will seek to engage both of the Opposition parties in that consultation. Indeed, once we have early results from the trials, I will speak to both noble Baronesses to share more information—on the basis that it is not more widely shared and is destroyed immediately afterwards.

I will take the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, one by one, but I may need to respond to some of them afterwards in writing. She asked why the index was not limited to vulnerable children but would be extended to all 11 million children. Although I was not party to the previous debate, I understand that this issue has been rehearsed before when the Children Act was undergoing its passage. We believe that it is important and appropriate to cover every child because it is estimated that, at any one time, 3 million to 4 million children and young people need additional targeted and specialist services. It is not possible to predict accurately in advance which children will have such needs or which children will never have them. Any child or young person could require the support of those services at any time in their childhood. Moreover, we believe that all children have the right to the universal services of education and primary health care and the databases will show whether or not they are receiving those services and will then help trigger local action to ensure that they do receive them.

In our view, a universal index is much less stigmatising and therefore much easier to operate than one that is simply focused on children who are on the at-risk register because no threshold decisions have to be made concerning who should or should not be on the register.

The noble Baroness asked whether the index complies with the European Convention on Human Rights concerning privacy. Any measure that might constitute interference with ECHR rights to privacy must go no further than is necessary to the pursuit of the legitimate aim. The Government have opinion from Treasury counsel that supports our view that the inclusion of all children on index systems is proportionate and justified and will not interfere with Article 8 of the ECHR. The type and amount of information on the index is stringently restricted with no case information recorded.

The cost issue was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and I simply reiterate the figures that she herself gave to the House, which we have made publicly available. We will keep a close eye on those costs as we conduct the tests and trials and will be happy to report back to the House further.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and her colleagues have claimed that the information sharing index was a system of ID cards by stealth. The objectives of the index are to support local agencies and their duties to co-operate to promote the well-being of children, to safeguard them and promote their welfare as set down in Sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004, and no more. There is no comparability with the ID card. The purpose of the index is to improve services to children with a strong emphasis on early intervention and prevention where children have additional needs. The data about children to be held is clearly specified and limited. The objectives are quite distinct from those of ID cards, which are in any case for post 16 year-olds.

How will we be certain that the index will be secure? The index is designed from the bottom up with security in mind. Robust security measures relating to access to, and misuse of, data will be introduced. These issues will be reflected in the regulations, guidance and staff training that will govern the operation of the index. Unauthorised access will be prevented by using a combination of measures. First, strong, two-factor authentication involving the need to possess a physical token and to know a secret password will be used. A good analogy would be chip and PIN, which is used to authorise payments. This will prevent the guessing of passwords and other forms of attack on password access, and will also render a stolen token useless. Secondly, all users will be trained in the importance of security and good security practice. They will be made aware that misuse of the index could result in disciplinary action or a criminal conviction.

The noble Baroness asked how we would stop unauthorised people gaining access. All users will have their use of the system monitored and there will be an audit trail of their use of the system. All users will have to state a reason for accessing a child's records, and all access to any data will be recorded and reviewed regularly for suspicious patterns of access. Misuse of the system will be detected. Children who have a reason for not being traced—for example, where there is a threat of domestic violence or where the child has a celebrity status—will be able to have their details concealed. No case information will be held on the index.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked who will have access to the index. Practitioner access will be granted according to the role of the practitioner. All practitioners with access will have to have had relevant training and undergone appropriate CRB checks. Based on trailblazer experience, we estimate that between 300,000 and 400,000 users will access the index. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill which is currently before your Lordships provides that the operators or administrators of the index be included in the top category of regulated activity under the Bill's proposed barring scheme. They would not only be subject to mandatory checks, but, if this led to inclusion on the children's barred list, also be barred from employment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked me whether the index satisfies the requirements of the Data Protection Act. We believe that it does. The full regulations and statutory guidance will clearly set out that all information on the index will be handled in a manner that is consistent with the Data Protection Act, and they will address issues of accuracy, retention, security and confidentiality.

I was asked who was responsible for the index. Accountability for a child's records will lie with the local authority in whose area the child is ordinarily resident. This includes responsibility for ensuring that the index is operated in line with the regulations and statutory guidance, and that all data are current and up to date.

I was asked by the noble Baroness about training. I can give a commitment that all users will undergo training before they have access to the index. Included in that will be training on legal responsibilities. The costs of this training are included in the published costs of £224 million for implementation.

I was also asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, what systems would be used. Only specialist, closed systems for data analysis will be used. Only analysts will have access. The data will be securely eradicated after analysis.

I reiterate why these regulations are before us today. They provide for data matching trials as an initial step in establishing the information sharing index. The index is a tool to help support improved communication between practitioners working with children and young people. By knowing who else is involved, practitioners will be better placed to help children, young people and their families get the help they need more quickly.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, I asked the Minister what access a parent will have to the index to check personal data.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the answer to that question to hand, but I will let the noble Baroness know as soon as I can after the debate.

I hope that what I have said will provide assurance that we are not rushing into implementing the index without addressing the concerns that have been raised. I have also stressed that the provisions in these regulations limit the amount of information collected to no more than is necessary to establish a verifiable data match. The regulations impose an absolute limit on the retention of the records, and they will be securely destroyed once they are no longer needed for their purpose.

On Question, Motion agreed to.