Information Sharing Index (England) Regulations 2006

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:42 pm on 20th March 2006.

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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.