My Lords, I too declare my interest as a member of the Merits Committee. Indeed, for this inquiry—hearing the evidence and preparing the report—I was in the chair because our proper chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, had very honourably decided not to take part in the committee's deliberations, because of his position as an adviser to the company which has been awarded the contract to design and build the technical solution for the contact point database.
The matters which were of concern to the committee have been thoroughly ventilated in the evidence which we took, in our report and in the speeches in this debate. I do not need to rehearse them again.
I had the impression that those who came to give evidence to us were so steeped in—I might almost say dazzled by—the beauty and complexity of the universal database of children which they sought to create that they were losing sight of whether the universality of the scheme was proportionate to the needs of the children whom it was intended to benefit, and to the costs and risks inherent in it. For the sake of catching as quickly as possible the 3.5 million to 5 million children who may be in need of specialist and targeted services, they will include in the database 5 million to 7.5 million children who have no such need.
The sheer size of the database, and the large number of practitioners who will have access to it, will maximise the costs and the potential risks of breaches of security which could be damaging to children as well as to the scheme, and the threat to privacy not only of the children who need the additional services, but also of those who do not. It is all in a good cause, no doubt, but I think that it is fair to say that the members of the committee were not convinced whether we really needed this universal sledgehammer to crack this partial, even if sizeable, nut.
The committee was told that it would be useful to include in the database the children who have no need of additional services, because it would enable the department to check whether they were getting the universal services to which they were entitled. Is that a good enough reason for a universal database in this case?
We were told that the universal database would be useful if a child became in need of specialist or targeted services, as the database would help the services concerned to make contact with the child's situation more quickly than would be possible without it. It would no doubt take longer to establish a child's situation and needs and provide practitioners with the information they need if the entry on the database had to be built up when the child's need for additional services came to be known. Is that delay a good enough reason for establishing a universal database? Is the elimination of that delay, perhaps of no more than a few days, worth all the additional costs and risks inherent in a universal database?
As I say, the members of the Merits Committee were, for the most part, not convinced. I do not mean to say that they were against it; I intend to say no more than they were not convinced of the need to go ahead with the universal database. I hope that the Minister will reconsider that decision, which I think, with some experience of bureaucracy, is a bureaucratic dream that could easily turn into a bureaucratic and political nightmare. In the light of the reservations expressed by the committee and by so many bodies in their evidence to us and in other submissions, I hope that he will re-examine the advantages of establishing a system more narrowly tailored to children in need of specialist and targeted services.