Clause 9 - Information databases

Children Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:55 am on 21st October 2004.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 8:55 am, 21st October 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 34, in

clause 9, page 7, line 21, leave out 'one or more databases' and insert 'a United Kingdom-wide database'.

Welcome back to the Chair, Dame Marion. In the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), let me say how appropriate it is that your return is accompanied by the sun's rays tripping through the autumn sky, across an azure-blue background poking fun at the gun-grey clouds of despair that haunted our proceedings earlier in the week. My hon. Friend extends his apologies that he will not be joining us this morning. I am sure that the Committee will wax less lyrical as a consequence, but I shall try my best to fill in for him.

The clause is very important and I anticipate that the Committee will take a fair amount of time to discuss it. I shall talk in fairly general terms about the whole clause, unless you indicate that we shall have a clause stand part debate, Dame Marion. I would be happy to defer a more general discussion until that stage.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible suggestion. Also, as it is very warm in this Room, hon. Members may remove their jackets if they so wish.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful, Dame Marion.

Information databases are an important aspect of the Bill. We agree with the proposal in principle, but there are still enormous gaps in what the Government have set out in the clause, despite the amendments made to it in the upper House, and it remains little short of Horlicks, if that is a parliamentary term. We need far greater clarification from the Minister this morning before we can support the clause, because we do not know what we would be supporting. She admitted that the consultation documents are not available yet anyway, so we do not know what we will be consulting on.

The point of the database is clearly to fulfil Herbert Laming's strong suggestion in the Climbie report that there should be more joined-up working between all professionals involved in child protection. To facilitate that, we need joined-up information sharing, as I am sure the entire Committee would agree. What is proposed is quite radical and drastic, but it probably

needs to be so to avert in future the sort of tragedies that happened with Victoria Climbie and all the others, whom we do not hear so much about.

In effect, however, the clause gives the Government the powers to institute what can only be described as a surrogate identity card scheme for young people. That sets off an awful lot of alarm bells with people who are already sceptical about more databases and ID cards for the population in general, so it is essential that we get the clause right. Amendment No. 34, to subsection (1), would limit the Secretary of State to one database—we need to get one database right. The clause gives him the power to set up any number of databases, and we need to question seriously what he intends to do.

As I said, improvements were made to the clause in the upper House, largely at the suggestion of my noble Friend Earl Howe. We were able to persuade the Government to add a number of conditions about the content of the regulations, such as the sort of information that could be kept on such databases and the time for which it could be kept. We also sought an assurance that medical records would not be kept on the database. I shall return to that issue on a later amendment, as we want to know whether that could still happen under some of the catch-all subsections in the clause.

The Government launched some 14 trailblazer authorities. I am not sure whether there are still 14; I think that about a dozen are still going. They included my own local authority, West Sussex county council, which has done a lot of work in this area and, in many respects, is in the lead. I have had many conversations with people at the council who are playing a leading role, and I pay tribute to them for what they have done. I disagree with the approach that they are taking, but they are doing a comprehensive job.

The point is that those trailblazers are only halfway through. It is only recently that they have applied for second-wave funding to complete their research. We are therefore being asked to write a blank cheque both for local authorities to set up a database, about which I am less concerned, and for the Secretary of State to set up any number of databases, the conditions for which are exceedingly vague, the purposes of which are not determined, and the operation of which has not yet been decided. Their operation cannot yet have been decided because the Government's own trailblazers have not yet reported. A still greater concern is that the trailblazing teams are not all talking to each other. They are doing a lot on their own but, they tell me, there has been no joined-up working between them. We could end up with a host of different suggestions being made.

We must know what we are committing ourselves to in a clause that gives the Secretary of State enormous powers over information held on 11.5 million children throughout the country. We need many more assurances from the Minister before we can support the sort of proposals that are being made.

Great concern is being expressed by many professionals about how many of those databases there will be. There is particular concern among the

medical profession about a number of issues. The British Medical Association asked a number of questions:

''How do Ministers envisage collating information required under Clause 9(4)?

Will they use the route of the automated Exeter Registration System which is run by 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?

Some children are not eligible for NHS treatment, such as those who come to this country with their parents who are working here short term. How will these children be identified?''

We need to give assurances to the medical profession in particular, because it is an important player; otherwise, it will not contribute as the other contributors to, and monitors of, the database would want it to.

Currently, professionals can break confidentiality rules in cases in which they are concerned about abuse or neglect of children. However, the Bill appears to extend that power further, so we need to clarify and spell out exactly who can breach confidentiality, who can be informed of the facts resulting from that breach, and in what circumstances. My reading of the clause is that it fails to do that.

On security, there are also fears about who will be able to access the databases. Will the sort of people from whom we are trying to protect children be able to gain access to the data under the accessibility regulations of the Data Protection Act 1998? We need assurances from the Minister on that matter. I know that it is not her intention that such people should be able to gain access to the data, but we must make the provisions watertight.

I am afraid that Governments—not just this Government—do not have a good record on setting up IT systems. The recent revelations about the rocketing IT bill for the NHS are not great cause for comfort in our attempts to get this database right, to make sure that it is set up and to make sure that it is affordable. That is why I want to limit the Secretary of State to one national database, which is clearly set out, aside from the ones that may operate locally. That is the point of the amendment, to which I keep trying to return to stay in order.

The big concern of many of the children's groups is that we will have information overload. The NSPCC has said that information sharing alone is not a substitute for critical understanding and reasoned decision making. It points out that those dealing with the concerns about Victoria Climbie were in possession of information indicating that she was at risk, but failed to understand its significance. It concludes that too much poor-quality information will not aid decision making about children; instead it will make it more difficult. That is an important point.

I asked the Minister on Second Reading how putting details of my children and those of other Members, whom I hope are not at risk, on to a national database with 11.5 million other children will improve

protection for, and promote the welfare of, vulnerable children. That groups includes both those already on child protection registers and those who need to go on a register for enhanced monitoring and protection.

In Children Now magazine, Lisa Harker from the Daycare Trust mentioned comments from the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who warned in an article in The Times about

''sleepwalking into a surveillance society''.

This will be another database that, as I said at the outset, will be a radical change in giving the Government Big Brother-style powers in their crudest sense. Those powers must be justified. Having information for the sake of it will not necessarily help the children. Lisa Harker herself says:

''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.''

Barnardo's has said that

''the lack of clarity and the duty imposed on a wide range of professionals . . . to disclose information for inclusion in the database may lead to a culture where recording concerns becomes an automatic response; a 'form filling' exercise rather than a reasoned process of professional assessment with a direct connection to the provision of services. We fear that professionals may be drawn into recording masses of concerns without any one person taking responsibility for acting and being accountable for the outcomes experienced by the many children, young people and families in need of support.''

Even one database, to which we are trying, through the amendment, to limit the Secretary of State, may contain just an enormous mass of low-grade information that does not contribute one iota to helping vulnerable children.

A lack of clarity in the establishment of the database could seriously damage relationships among children, their families and professionals. If children think that confidential information about them is being passed to people to whom they would not want it passed, and it cannot be described as in their best interests because they are vulnerable, they are less likely to come forward to professionals for help with their problem, medical or otherwise.

We will come on to the phrase ''cause for concern'' in subsection (4)(g), which is particularly contentious. I know that other hon. Members will join in that debate, so I will not go into that.

We also have serious concerns about the complete absence of any appeals procedure, and I may come back to that later. We are setting up a national database and several local databases, putting potentially very damaging and damning information about certain individuals—parents or other professionals—in connection with children who are deemed to be vulnerable or at risk. Nowhere in the Bill, certainly in the clause and especially in subsection (1), to which the amendment pertains, is there any mention of an appeals procedure whereby parents or other professionals can challenge information about them that may not be justified.

I have looked back at a couple of other Acts, which I considered as Bills in Committee, to see what procedures were put in place that are pertinent in this

case. In the Adoption and Children Act 2002 there is a clear safety net in the form of a review of determinations concerning children going into care and, ultimately, adoption. In the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, in which we set up a leviathan structure of powers concerning the financial services community and protection for its customers, there are clear sections about setting up tribunals and having reviews of contestable decisions. There are no such provisions anywhere in this Bill.

If a database is to be set up—whether a national one established by the Secretary of State or a local one—there will be scope for vexatious information to be put on it by certain professionals who do not like certain parents. Vexatious information about professionals could also be added, and information about a one-off incident that is never likely to be repeated could be kept. However, there is no way for the target or victim of that information to challenge its veracity or the fact that it will be kept on a national or local database for an indeterminate length of time. We need checks and safeguards for databases containing large amounts of information.

Giving the Secretary of State enormous powers to set up a multitude of databases—not just the one that we are trying to limit him to—with all sorts of Henry VIII-style, catch-all powers under regulation, causes great concern. We need to strike a far better balance; it is only fair for those people at which the finger of blame is pointed because they are seen to be a risk to children in some way. There must be a right of appeal in certain circumstances.

I could go on, but several amendments to this important clause have been tabled. If we are to give the Secretary of State the powers outlined in the clause, we must know exactly how he will use them, how people can relate to them, and how people can be protected against them being used in ways that we do not intend. The amendment would tie the Secretary of State down to a national database, which would not contain lots of information but act as signposting, across local authority boundaries, between certain professionals who have had contact with vulnerable children.

Experience has shown that transient children are the most vulnerable. They may be in the care of Newcastle authority one minute and appear in Brighton or Norfolk the next. A proper national database is essential so that when a child comes into contact with an authority, it can check whether the child has any form and whether concerns have been expressed by professionals in other authorities. Under the rules of the child protection register, when a child leaves one authority, another authority must be notified. If only it were that simple. Too many children disappear off the radar, and they tend to be the most vulnerable.

Setting up a national database that can cross-reference as much information as possible about who knows best about a child, so that the professional in Brighton knows to talk to the director of children's services, or whoever, in Newcastle, where the child was last recorded, is the best way to try to keep tabs on vulnerable children. We need to tie down the purposes and mechanisms of that national database much more

tightly than the clause does. The amendment would initiate some strict definitions of what the databases will achieve and how they will operate. I apologise for being so long-winded.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

Order. I ask the hon. Lady please to shout a little louder as the Hansard recording cannot pick up her voice.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am surprised by that request, Dame Marion, as I was a teacher for many years. Perhaps I had the most effective control over my classes by speaking quietly. It is quite embarrassing for a teacher to be told that she is not speaking loudly enough. However, I will try to speak up, and I trust you will remind me if I let my voice drop.

We share the concern about the amount of power that is being placed in the hands of the Secretary of State without having full information about the limits on that power. I am not yet convinced of the case for a United Kingdom-wide database, but I assume that there will be a free and open debate on the subject this morning, which will be a learning exercise for us all.

One reason why I am not convinced is that I have differences with the Conservative Opposition inasmuch as I believe that the purpose of the measure is that there should be a preventative agenda. Therefore the proposal should not be confined to children who have been highlighted as being vulnerable at a particular time. My perspective is different: there is a strong case for a local authority database that contains simple details, some of which are specified in subsection (4), and which cover all children. However, that gives rise to the question about how information is to be shared when a child moves from one authority to another.

In my work as a local councillor, I witnessed many problems when children arrived at a place and there was no information about them, but the existence of a national database will not solve that problem. Local authorities are not notifying sufficiently now, and I am not convinced that they will set to and pass on the necessary data simply because there is a United Kingdom database. I want the Minister to tell me how data will be shared between different local authorities.

I support questioning the Secretary of State's huge power in respect of one or more databases, but at this stage I am not absolutely convinced about the case for a United Kingdom-wide database. How will the provision link to the NHS database for children? The police also have a considerable amount of information and I should be interested to know how they share information between police forces. I have been looking at their new system for sexual offenders and how it is flagged up. Has it been considered as a model for data sharing? That would perhaps allay some of our concerns.

I do not want a full discussion of the matter, but I will flag up all the questions that the Joint Committee on Human Rights raised, some of which were answered in the interim by the Lords amendment, which we greatly welcome. However, at least half are still unanswered, as far as I can see. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that an answer had been given about how long data would be stored, but I cannot see that in the Bill. Perhaps I am missing something.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

On the hon. Lady's point on how long information can be kept, the Bill now specifies that regulations must give details about that. We still do not have that information because we do not have any of the regulations, and we are unlikely to get it before the Bill passes through Parliament. However, at least we got a provision into the Bill that the information must be set out at some future stage. She is right to say that the information is not there.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is exactly right; we just do not know the answer to the question. Is it right to store data beyond the age of 16 or 18 or after an issue in a family has long since been resolved? The problem is that we have seen no draft regulations. I understand that, for many other Bills, draft regulations are available at least before Report.

The Joint Committee's report states clearly that it has written to the Minister asking what the justification is for not dealing with the details of the proposed database—singular—in primary legislation and for answers to the questions that it lists above. I should very much like her to respond to all the outstanding questions during this morning's debate; otherwise, we cannot move on.

Finally, I echo the comments of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham on the concern about the success of Government IT systems generally. Interestingly, just this week we have had the Government response to a Select Committee report on IT and, in turn, the Select Committee's response. The Work and Pensions Committee published the Government response to its

''major report into why many IT projects in the public sector become defective, waste large sums of taxpayers' money and cause distress to thousands of clients.''

The potential for distress in the area that we are discussing is incredible, as the hon. Gentleman said.

The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), said:

''Overall, we are very dissatisfied with the Government's response. The Government's record on IT projects needs to get better. We produced a well-argued report into how the Government's record . . . could be improved. Our report was widely recognised throughout the media and industry . . . However, we have received a response from the Department that all too often does not fully engage with the letter or spirit of the report's recommendations.''

The feeling is that there is not a learning experience from past failures. Again, we must be very wary of the introduction of a complex system with which things

could go badly wrong. I am not sure that we can support the amendment, but nevertheless an important point has been made by flagging up the phrase ''one or more databases''.

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

Many thanks, Dame Marion, for being prepared to wait until I arrived before starting the proceedings. I apologise for nearly being late.

The debate on the clause is one of the most important debates that we shall have on the Bill, and I am pleased that we have time to consider the issues properly. The measure is one of the most complex parts of the transformation agenda that we have set for ourselves and of the whole-system change that we want to achieve in children's services. We want to build all the services around the needs of the child, get multi-agency working going, and move to an agenda of prevention, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) referred.

Let us return to the reasons why we are going down this road. I think that all hon. Members accept this. When I read the report on Victoria Climbie's death and the other reports that we have had over the past 25 years on the tragic and often unnecessary deaths of children, I saw that something that always comes up is the failure of professionals, either within one agency or across agencies, to share information properly. We are trying to get people to work together and share information at an appropriate stage, and that is why we are moving down the road of providing a tool for professionals. It is no more than a tool. The creation of databases will support better information sharing between professionals within an agency and across agencies.

If we do not go down the database route, we will still have to introduce a set of new protocols, ways of working and regulations for professionals to ensure that information is shared better. The databases are one of many tools, but an important one. It is critical that we tackle some of the complex issues raised by hon. Members, face up to some of the tensions within those issues and try to resolve them in as open and collaborative a way as we can across the political parties, so that we can provide an effective tool that will enable professionals to share information and thereby perhaps prevent child deaths in the future. That is the whole purpose of the idea.

The Government's record—the public sector's record—on establishing new IT systems is dire. We all accept that. That was the case as much under the Conservative Government as under the Labour Government.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The Labour Government have spent a lot more—wasted a lot more.

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

We have invested a lot more, because of changes in information technology. However, we are not good at establishing IT systems, and it is for that reason that we have two or three principles behind our approach. The first is that we should keep it as simple as possible—I hope that hon. Members agree with that. That has particular

implications for the amendment. Secondly, we must go slowly, so that at every stage in the development, we check and re-check the feasibility and doability of the project, both in practical and financial terms. Thirdly, we must be as open as we can. We are, therefore, deliberately going slowly and deliberately trying to keep things as simple as possible. We shall also be open, and I am happy, in seminars or elsewhere, to share with hon. Members from both sides of the House the way in which our thinking is progressing. The last thing that we want to do in relation to the issue is to move in a way that does not build consensus.

There are many difficulties. One of the key issues is how one achieves the correct balance—to which the Joint Committee on Human Rights referred—between the rights of the individual to privacy, as enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998, and the need to protect children effectively and to prevent them from suffering harm or falling into danger. We are thinking through that difficult issue.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful to the Minister and hear what she says. It is right that we should get things right. I started my comments by saying that the change is so radical that we must get it right. Does the Minister therefore not think that, rather than giving rise to scepticism and opposition because of the vagueness of the proposals, it might have been more sensible to omit the clause from the Bill and to return to the whole subject as part of the more comprehensive database regulations that will need to be drafted later in relation to police records because of the Bichard inquiry and Soham? If that work had been done, the Government would have been clear about the extent of what they were proposing. They are not at present.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children) 9:30 am, 21st October 2004

I would have agreed with that, but for three reasons. The first is that we must make progress on the issue and we need the legislative framework to enable us to do so. Secondly, we have said openly that we will use the affirmative procedure in both Houses as we develop the regulations, and we stand by that. I hope that engaging in debate with hon. Members on both sides of the House will lead to intensive discussion on the regulations as we make progress on phasing them in. Thirdly, we also needed to clarify in law the powers of professionals to share information and how they can operate. The database is only part of the system that we will establish to achieve better information sharing. Much of clause 9 clarifies the rights of professionals to share information about children and their families where that is appropriate to safeguard and protect them and to promote their well-being. Those are the three reasons for proceeding in this way.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Labour, Ipswich

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the current difficulties is that many professional agencies are not confident about what information they can legitimately exchange? The case of the Soham murders and Ian Huntley was a stark example of agencies arguing among themselves about whether provisions of the Data Protection Act

1998 applied. Therefore, it is vital to clarify the legal framework in which data can be exchanged between agencies.

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

I completely agree with my hon. Friend's extremely helpful intervention. It is partly to respond to fears expressed by many professionals at the front line about whether they can share information that we have clarified in law their existing powers and authority.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

We have had this conversation before, and the question that arises is why is it necessary to include these provisions in the Bill, if that work can be done anyway? Why is the problem not tackled by investing heavily in training the work force? The fact that people are allowed to do things but do not understand the law and how it applies makes one feel that there is another motive behind the regulations that we have not yet seen.

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

The hon. Lady is right that training is equally important. There is not one answer to ensuring that professionals share information more effectively. Part of the answer is clarifying professionals' powers and duties, which we are doing in the Bill, part of it is providing them with the tools to do so, hence the establishment of the database, and part of it is training them so that they understand when and how it is appropriate to share information. We are not saying that training is not important—of course it is—but we hope that those solutions will provide a stronger infrastructure to support the sharing of information.

We have talked a lot about recruiting and retaining social workers. I am not a social worker, but some hon. Members have been. They tell me that they spent far too much time chasing up and ringing various people, seeing who else was involved in a case, going down a lot of dead ends—thinking that perhaps it was X or Y, but finding that it was not—and often being unable to trace other professionals involved in a case. I hope that we can use the best information technology as an effective tool to support professionals so that they do not waste their time trying to track down who else they should talk to but do what they ought to be doing: promoting the well-being of children and protecting them.

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

My confidence in the proposal has been greatly increased by my discussions with experienced social work professionals involved in some of the pilot projects. They have made it clear that the proposals are developing out of good professional practice and are not being imposed on them by geeky adolescents with a penchant for IT. The serious point of my question is whether my right hon. Friend believes such a system will encourage and require individual workers to take more personal responsibility for the information that they have and for sharing it with fellow professionals?

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

That is one of the objectives, so I hope that it will occur. Equally, it is important to put on record that holding, recording and even sharing information with other professionals is not an excuse

for or an alternative to inaction. During the training process, we will ensure that professionals do not think that simply because they have indicated on a database that they are concerned about a particular individual, they do not have to act. That is important.

We hope that the database will enable professionals to focus more on protecting the child. We also hope that it will be a tool that gives the professionals a fuller picture of the child, so that they can take better-informed decisions about them. We hope that the databases will support us in identifying much more quickly the children with whom others have contact and whether they are getting the universal services to which they are entitled. We also hope that it will help us make a much earlier identification of need and provide more effective action because the professionals know who else is involved. Those are the purposes behind what we are doing.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

An amendment in the other place, which I believe was suggested by Liberty, proposed to scrap the whole idea of the database and simply to include a duty to co-operate on all the people involved. Why is that not a satisfactory solution? At the end of the day, we need people to co-operate, rather than just rely on the database.

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

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, that is to misconceive the database. The duty to co-operate is included in clause 7. Clause 9 makes clear the powers to share information and establishes a process in which information is a tool to support better co-operation. The database is nothing other than an effective tool, taking advantage of modern technology.

I want to move on to the issues raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. He said first that the consultation documents are not yet out, and I apologise for that. I had said that we hoped to have them out in time for debate in Committee, but I have to discuss them with colleagues and we need consensus across Government on these difficult issues. However, I am making best endeavours to ensure that the first of our consultation documents will be out before Report, which is in a couple of weeks, so that Members will have been able to have at least an initial look at it. I put that in the context that we are not going to rush anything or curtail the consultation or debate in any way.

The hon. Gentleman's second point was that the database was a surrogate ID card. It is not a card and children will not carry anything around with them. It is not the same at all and has a completely different purpose. The concept of ID cards is more about supporting us in tackling international crime and terrorism. A record will not appear anywhere. As we made it clear in the other place, the database will not include any detailed information on the child in terms of the case details. To return to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, there will be no NHS health or police records on the database. We may discuss this in greater detail when we talk about causes

of concern. The database will simply have the name of the GP or the doctor and the details of any other health service professional who is working with that child.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I appreciate that no one is talking about a physical card that children will carry around, but the Minister is trying to minimise what will be on the database. Subsection (4) sets out that it is not just

''(a) his name, address, gender and date of birth;''

''(b) a number identifying him;

(c) the name and contact details of any person with parental responsibility . . .

(d) details of any education being received . . .

(e) the name and contact details of any person providing primary medical services . . .

(f) the name and contact details of any person providing to him services . . .

(g) information as to the existence of any cause for concern in relation to him;'' and any other information that the Secretary of State cares to include. That could be vast. The Minister is underplaying the extent of what can be held on this database.

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

The wording in clause 9(4)(h) puts it beyond all doubt that medical case records can never be included on the database. The hon. Member quoted paragraphs (d) onwards which refer to the names either of the institutions or the professionals working with the child. There are no details about the child itself. For example, the educational details will be just the details of the child's school, not whether the child is a non-attender or has special educational needs. It will simply be the details of the educational establishment if the child attends one or not if the child is receiving education at home.

Let me give an example of where that is quite important. It relates to the universality and whether it should be a smaller database just of those children who are at risk of harm and abuse. Having a universal database is one way we can ensure that all children access the universal services to which they are entitled. We know that some children are missing school. If we have details of the education being received by the children on that universal database it will be much easier. As the hon. Gentleman knows we have huge difficulties in trying to keep track of children who are missing education. This will make it much easier to trace those children who are not in school and thereby to ensure that they get the education that will enable them to contribute in adult life.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I do not disagree with what the Minister says, but she has just completely contradicted herself. She said that the database will have details only of the school or educational institution that provides an education because we need to know about those children who are not receiving education. She then referred to the details of that education. Subsection (4)(d) refers to ''details of any education''. It does not say details of any establishment providing the education. We will come to this in a later amendment but she has clearly contradicted herself.

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

I am sure that this is parliamentary counsel's drafting. I am receiving nods from my officials. This is parliamentary drafting to describe the information that we require on the database, which is the institution that the child attends. It could be a child who is educated at home. An amendment has been tabled in relation to home education. [Interruption.] I have got it right.

Subsection (4)(d), as currently drafted, is drawn widely to allow the database to record where a child or young person is receiving education, whether that be at home or in other institutions, such as pupil referral units or hospitals, as well as in schools or colleges. That is why it is drafted in that way.

The hon. Gentleman said that we were asking for a blank cheque. We are not, which is why any regulations that we implement in relation to the clause will be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses. I hope that the assurances that I am trying to give hon. Members this morning will convince them that we are in no way trying to do anything behind closed doors. We want to be as open and as consultative as possible.

The BMA asked us several questions, and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is right to refer to them. There are questions to be asked by a whole range of professionals, and we look forward to working with the BMA in formulating the regulations in a way that will benefit the practicalities to which it refers and that will ensure that we take advantage of its expertise.

The hon. Gentleman says that we have at least 10 trailblazers.

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

I do not know how many there were before, but there were 10 by the time the document arrived on my desk. Those trailblazers are meeting and discussing particular issues and, of course, we are taking advantage of the experience that they are accumulating in thinking through some of the regulations and protocols. Therefore, they are meeting and discussing issues together and with us.

This is an iterative process, which is why we need affirmative resolutions. We want to build on what we learn from the trailblazers. On the other hand, we would let down the memory of Victoria Climbie and would not fulfil Lord Laming's recommendations if we waited for three, four or five years until the trailblazers were firmly embedded before we even started to make progress on information sharing and on developing a tool that can promote better information sharing.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

The Minister says that discussions are being held with the trailblazers. Will she say whether there has been any discussion about the issue of access to the confidential services for young people that the Family Planning Association raised and that we are obviously very keen for them to take advantage of? We all know that young people are sometimes reluctant to seek advice unless they can be sure that it is confidential.

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

This is one of the very difficult issues that we must think through, and I hope that the consultation paper, which we will have ready before Report, will start to address that sort of issue.

There are three aspects to confidentiality. The first is the sensitivity of the information, to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred. When information is sensitive, we want as far as possible to work with consent, particularly of young people. Another aspect, on which trailblazers are helping and showing us the way, is that technology is such that we can make certain pieces of information visible only to certain people. So one can hide information. The point is not that information is being hidden, but that the fact that a particular professional is working with a child can be hidden from other professionals. My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health will know much about that as an expert in the field. We believe that we have found the way through on that issue.

Domestic violence is another area in which confidentiality is important, so the consultation document deals not only with advice on sexual health or contraception given to young people, but with all abuse, including alcohol and drug abuse. We do not want addresses to be released widely.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

Under the clause, if a young person in such a situation were unwilling to give consent for the information to be released, would the information that the young person had used this service automatically be released? What sort of work has been done on that?

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

I ask my hon. Friend to wait for the consultation document. There are two issues. The first is open to debate, but my view is that if a professional is working with a child, they should indicate that. The second question is whether others should have access to the knowledge that a professional is working with a child when that information is particularly sensitive. That arena allows flexibility in creating a system that operates to ensure that where the professional judgment is such that it would not be in the child's interest for others to know that a professional was working with the child, the information could be hidden except for in those exceptional circumstances where it becomes relevant. That sounds a little tautologous, but it is a difficult issue.

We should not say to professionals, ''You can choose whether or not you put on to the information database that you are working with a child.'' All professionals need to show that, but whether their work is visible to other professionals working with the child is another issue. The technology enables us to give the confidentiality that is necessary in some circumstances.

That deals, I hope, with some of the confidentiality and security issues talked about by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

Tim Loughton indicated dissent.

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

The hon. Gentleman does not agree. However, I want to deal with the issue of why one database, not more.

I agree with hon. Members that we need to find a system whereby if children move across local authority boundaries, they can be traced. At the moment, we are carrying out a feasibility study on whether we should have one national database or 150 different local databases, with perhaps a 151st database. The databases would have to be interoperable, which is why it is important for the system to be developed nationally. Information about where a child's record is could be kept on the 151st national database. I am told that the technology allows that, so that if I rang up and needed to track Joan Smith, the 151st database would enable us to find where that record was kept and would also hold children's records if they are not located in one local authority.

I have been told that the technology enables such a system, and if that is right, it will deal with many of our concerns about how information is properly held as children transfer over local authority boundaries.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Is it not right to say, as I have been told by some of the trailblazers, that they are operating different IT systems at the moment and that a national standard has not been set to make them interoperable? What the Minister is trying to achieve will not be achieved at the moment.

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

The trailblazers have different systems, which we will have to develop. That is part of the process that we will go through over the coming years as we develop one national standard to ensure interoperability.

One could argue that some of the investment in the local authority trailblazers will not be used over time, but it was important to get the trailblazers up and running so that we can use the knowledge that they acquire. They are doing it in very different ways; the Sussex example is interesting and rather a good one. It is kept incredibly simple and I am impressed by it. Others are using causes of concern, for example, in a different way across the country. We are having to learn from that. I hope that all hon. Members will talk to the trailblazers as they develop their expertise.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am delighted to hear that the Minister is impressed with West Sussex council's system, and one would expect that of a three-star rated, Conservative-run authority. Would it not have been more sensible if, as part of the conditions for the operation of the trailblazers and the grants of about £1 million to put them in place, there had been a central, uniform system that they all used to get them off to a good start? The absence of that will only delay the process yet further, and, as the Minister said, it has wasted investment on promoting different computer systems that do not ''talk'' to each other.

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

I wish that it had been that easy, but we have to decide what to design and we are learning from the trailblazers and from experts. If we

could have designed a system first we would have done so. We are using the trailblazers to build the expertise needed to design a prototype.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Labour, Ipswich

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to take a national position on the form of a database at the pilot stage would completely undermine the purpose of piloting to generate best practice in innovation in local areas?

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

If we had known what we needed to design, we would not have needed trailblazers. We needed the pilots in order to understand where to go from here. One needs to design to a purpose.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The Minister is talking about something completely different. Trailblazers are needed to decide how they gain, use and share the information. That is quite separate from having a computer system that is compatible with other computer systems, whereby when they have decided what information is relevant, it can be shared. We are talking about two different things.

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

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is a more IT, techie sort of person than I am. I am not the world's greatest in that regard and I look to my hon. Friends to help me. However, as I understand it, one has to know what information one wants before one can design the appropriate system, which can then be interoperable. Am I correct?

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

My very good hon. Friend also tells me that Sheffield, the authority in her constituency, is another excellent trailblazer from which we are learning a lot. Sheffield and West Sussex gave me a good demonstration, which I hope that the hon. Gentleman has seen. Telford and Wrekin, too, is doing a good job. There is a lot of good stuff from the trailblazers in their different ways.

We are considering whether to have local databases, which I would prefer as it would be the simplest option. That is how to get the proposal off the ground, but do we need a 151st system to enable knowledge to be spread across the piece? Why not have a database of children who are at risk of abuse? I put those arguments on the record because they are important.

We want to take a preventative approach, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said. The thrust of the reform agenda is to ensure that people do not merely react when things go wrong to try and stop them getting worse, but that they prevent a crisis occurring. A preventative approach means identifying children before they are on the at-risk register.

About 3 million of the 11.7 million children in Britain—about a quarter to a third—have an additional need of some sort, although that does not mean that they are at risk of harm or abuse. If we want to identify those additional needs at an early stage, a universal system that enables earlier identification is an advantage in ensuring that ''Every child matters'', to repeat the title of the Green Paper.

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

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend about the necessity of universal provision, but as we discussed at our last sitting, there is an alarming gap in provision for children who may come unaccompanied through immigration and not be picked up again. I will not rehearse the iniquities of asylum policy, or our previous debate, but I ask her to assure me that she will continue to consider the issue and do everything that she can to plug that enormous gap. We cannot seriously say that we respect the memory of Victoria Climbie until we do so.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children) 10:00 am, 21st October 2004

There is a range of children—asylum-seeking children, Traveller children and others—who could easily fall through the net. A data-sharing system will help us to identify those children, and any child in Britain is covered by the Children Act 1989. Children who come in as asylum-seeking children may show up at a housing or social services department, a GP practice, a school or a youth club. Therefore, the system will support my hon. Friend's objective of trying to ensure that we protect all children in Britain; that is what we want to achieve.

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

I entirely agree, but my point is about children who do not go to school and youth clubs and who are not taken to hospitals. The evidence from Operation Paladin suggests that a significant number of children come into the country but do not thereafter become known to anyone. That is of enormous concern.

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

I do not think that Operation Paladin proved that. I think that it proved that the systems to deal with the children about whom we are all concerned, who are trafficked in and do not come in as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, are more robust than they were in the past. We did not identify those children at risk through the Operation Paladin experiment. They probably come in with adults, so they are not identified at the point of entry, and they emerge later, if we are lucky, or they do not emerge and are exploited later on. Operation Paladin has not given us all the comfort that we would have wanted in terms of trying to get to grips with the trafficking and exploitation that occurs with children who are brought in.

Let me return to why we want a universal data system. I think that we are probably talking about local systems supported by a national system. Earlier, I was making a point about additional needs. A universal system also ensures that we can identify most children. Nothing will be 100 per cent. effective—my hon. Friend is right about that—but a data system will enable us to identify and know about more children than we currently do. That is to be applauded. The system will ensure that children have access to the universal services, which is very important. We have talked about children who are not at school. I think particularly about children who are not in the NEET group—those who are not in education, employment or training. That is another area in which we want to do things better. The system will help local authorities

to plan for services. A local database will also prevent the stigmatisation that is associated with being on the record of a social services department. I hope that that explanation convinces people that going down the universal route is the most important thing to do.

On amendment No. 34, I hope that I have convinced the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that I share his desire, as we go down the database route, to have a system that ensures that we can track children across boundaries to prevent them from slipping through that net. I hope also, on the basis of simplicity, that he does not pursue his amendment, because it would tie us down to building just one database system, and the dangers of not succeeding would be far greater in that case. The amendment pre-empts the feasibility work that we are doing and that we will consult him on as to what works best. I hope that I have convinced him that we intend to be as open as we can in pursuing this policy, and that he and others will work with us to ensure that it works for children.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

We have had a long but useful debate on the amendment, which probably mitigates the need for more lengthy debate on other parts of the clause. However, an awful lot of questions remain unanswered. The Minister said that I accused the Government of wanting a blank cheque. Well, that is what they want. It is not an inappropriate analogy and, furthermore, there is no date on that cheque as to when the proposal will come into force and when we will know how it will work. We do not know how much it will cost and how many people will be involved, so we do not know how much the cheque will be for. We do not really know who the beneficiaries will be or who will have the authority to access the account and sign the cheque off. Despite everything that she has said at length, the analogy is a good one. It is a very blank cheque.

Some of the Minister's responses were not adequate. She gave an excuse about consultation—I know that the process takes a long time, but the Government have had a long time. The Bill started in the Lords at the beginning of this year, Lord Laming's report came out at the beginning of last year, and Victoria Climbie died four and a half years ago. There has been a lot of time for the Government to produce more detail on essential parts of the Bill such as clause 9. She was unable to produce the consultation details for the Lords stages of the Bill or for this Committee, and she may not be able to do so by Report—the final stage in this House. It is not good enough to say, as she put it, that this is ''the way these things go''.

We are being asked to sign a blank cheque without even seeing the consultation details, let alone the proposal that the Government intend to put forward as a result of that consultation. We are possibly years down the track from seeing what the Government will physically and practically produce, which may or may not be acceptable to many people with great concerns.

The Minister says that they will not rush the consultation. I entirely agree that, although it is late already, it is appropriate that everybody has their views heard. Will she at least say that we will be able

to debate the subject on the Floor of the House, because it is of such magnitude? I know that she will tell me that she is not in control of the parliamentary timetable and that it depends on the Whips, but she could at least do her best to try to secure parliamentary time to debate the important subject of databases and information sharing. The subject goes beyond the remit of child protection, because Home Office matters and the implications of Soham are attached.

It is not as though the Minister would have to pull any great favours to do so, because until yesterday afternoon's debate on the national service framework for children, no Government time in this Parliament had been given to debate child protection issues. The only debates on that subject have taken place in Opposition time. We have not had a debate about children on the Floor of the House since she became the Minister for Children, Young People and Families. That is a pretty poor record, and I hope that she will use this excuse to try to lever time out of the Whips so that all hon. Members can contribute to a debate.

The Minister went through the list in clause 9 trying to minimise what will be included in the database. However, the only guarantee that she can give, because of additions that were inserted in the House of Lords, is that medical records will not form part of that data, but everything else can. On the subject of education, she again gave the excuse of parliamentary counsel drafting, but again that is not good enough. She gave a sigh of relief when she apparently knew what she was talking about once she received a note from her assistants. Why can education not be tied down more specifically to the identity of the education provider or the fact that education is taken at home if that is the alternative?

The Minister also mentioned the important subject of stigma. We do not want to do anything that stigmatises children who appear on a register. I have raised that subject with children who come out of the care system. Someone doing work experience for me has been through the care system and is exceedingly impressive and articulate. I have consulted him and many others. The response that I have had is that there is no overriding wish from supposedly vulnerable children—children who have been in the care system—to go on to a universal register with everybody else to make anonymous the fact that they have greater requirements and may be deemed vulnerable. They would much rather be specifically placed on a database and flagged up as having greater needs so that we pay greater attention to them and make sure that they get the help and support that they require. They do not care about the fact that they may be singled out; that is certainly the response that I have had. The excuse that we need to dilute the group of vulnerable children by making them an anonymous part of 11.5 million children does not wash.

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

I suspect that I know the young man whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned; he is indeed an excellent young chap. However, does the hon. Gentleman not place too much responsibility on his

shoulders in asking him to speak for every young person in the country? Has he, for instance, consulted A National Voice, the national organisation for young people in care? Has he sought its views on the matter?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I started off by saying that I had consulted a number of people. I have not consulted A National Voice but, of course, I have not based my views entirely on those of one individual. I have been to see a number of care action teams, which are made up of young people who have been through care in various counties and I have brought them to seminars and summits here. I have not detected the fear that if vulnerable children only—however we want to define them—were put on a register, enormous stigma would go with that. I have found that such children have been rather relaxed about that. We can have a debate on the subject but I do not think that it should be such an overriding concern that we need put every one of our 11.5 million children on the database.

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

As I said before, the database's purpose is to strengthen prevention and protection. From what the hon. Gentleman has said, he should have no concern about the indication of causes of concern on the database. They will just ensure that vulnerable children are given the services and the protection to which they are entitled. We think that we ought to be able to flag up on the system the concerns that professionals may have about such children's well-being and welfare.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

We shall come on to ''causes for concern''—a notorious phrase—later. I would hope that there would be no reason to flag up causes for concern about my or any other Committee member's children. I could not guarantee that, but one would hope so—certainly in the case of my children, however much they like to make out otherwise when things are not going well. The point is that I have not heard the Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) or anyone else make a case as to why placing my children on the database would enhance the service and support that we need to focus on children who have needs, are on the child protection register, are looked after and have had problems. I do not see that cut-across.

I should like to take up a few other points. Quite rightly, the Minister said that the point of getting the database to work properly is to cut down on a lot of time wasted as a result of professionals chasing one other around. That is absolutely right. It is why we support the database. I am not saying that we do not need the database; I started off by saying that I agreed that we need databases and local databases. I particularly agree that we need localised databases that can talk to other databases. I still have concerns that we are not nearly far enough down that road and that a lot of investment has gone in the wrong direction. I agree that we need a national database to link up the 150 localised databases.

The Liberal Democrats take a different view, but they have to explain how all the children who move—there are an awful lot of them—will be protected in the absence of a national database. Many children fall

through the gaps. Even a national database will not catch those anonymous children who, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said, are in the country even though we do not know about them. Those children are kept away from being presented to professionals, because they are more vulnerable. We need to do as much as possible for them. Even a national database will not pick those cases up, but it will fill in some of the gaps.

There are also data protection principles to consider. There are a number of questions that the Minister needs to answer, if not now, then later in the discussions on the clause. Principles established in the Data Protection Act 1998 are germane to what is being set up. The fourth principle of data protection states:

''Personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date.''

We have heard nothing about the veracity of the information, about how and by whom it will be checked, or about how wrong or vexatious information will be challenged. We have no details of how that information will be kept up to date. We do not want just a series of snapshots of odd instances. We need a dynamic database that brings together different strands of information. The analogy that I like to use is of a jigsaw: we need a jigsaw master to piece the bits together to create a picture that shows whether intervention should be launched on behalf of a vulnerable child. Whether the jigsaw master is, ultimately, the director of children's services or someone else remains to be seen.

The fifth principle of data protection states:

''Personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes.''

The Minister has acknowledged that that is at least a requirement of the regulations, but we need an indication of how that requirement will be defined when those regulations are eventually produced. We need constantly to review the worth of the information on the system. We have heard nothing from the Minister about how that will be achieved.

We also do not know how individuals can access those data. Will children have a right to do so when they are under the age of 18? Will they have that right when they reach 18? Is it appropriate that those data are kept on the system only when the child is still a child? Is there a case for its being kept after the child is 18 or, as in the requirement for children coming out of care or children with disabilities, up to the age of 22? Do such arrangements cease to be appropriate when children reach seniority?

Is the Children's Commissioner empowered to run the national database? We do not know who will be in charge of it. We know that the Secretary of State can write the cheques—we are giving him a large book of blank cheques.

An awful lot has gone unanswered. However, after an hour and 20 minutes I shall return to the amendment, as I know you wish I had done earlier, Dame Marion. The amendment seeks only to

constrain the Secretary of State to the establishment of one national database. I have elaborated on our concerns about how that database will operate. The proposals say nothing about constraining local databases. The Minister tried to suggest that I was in favour of just one database and nothing else, but I am not. I am favour of the 150 or so local databases under the aegis of directors of children's services in local authorities. I am also in favour of a national database, run, ultimately, by the Secretary of State, although his powers to run it will, I hope, be defined.

The Minister has signally failed to deal with the amendment by telling us why the Secretary of State needs more than one database. What would the other national databases do? If there is to be no more than one national database, the Minister must accept the amendment, as we are giving the Secretary of State all the necessary powers for a single database. If we are to consider withdrawing the amendment, surely the Minister must say why the Secretary of State may want more than one national database, and what purposes the additional databases would serve. If she cannot do so, she will obviously have to support the amendment.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children) 10:15 am, 21st October 2004

I think that we shall want to move to a Division. I shall deal with only two issues, or we will end up going round the houses.

First, the information on the databases will be covered by the Data Protection Act 1998. All the rights that ensue from that Act will be appropriate to the Bill's provision. We need authority to go further than the amendment would allow. For instance, we may decide to go for 150 databases or for some other number—and a case may be made for London having a regional or sub-regional database. We need flexibility in order to make the best decision. We do not want to be constrained by an amendment that will allow us only one choice.

Secondly, whichever way we go, and although we must set national rules, we shall also want interoperability between the databases, so that they can talk to each other. Even with a national system that supports children moving across boundaries, local systems could talk to each other and operate against the rules. We do not want 10 trailblazers doing different things; we want to include authorities throughout the country. Much as I would like to help Opposition Members by agreeing to the amendment, it would not give us the required flexibility.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will debate the matter fully. I would love to debate children's issues more often on the Floor of the House. I shall use my best endeavours to find time for further debates. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who is responsible for community care, led a good debate yesterday, in Government time, on the national service framework for children. I hope that Opposition Members will show the same interest in debates on children that they show in debates on other issues.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am terribly sorry, but the Minister has not addressed the point. She mentioned London. I entirely agree that a good case can be made for a London-wide database. That was clearly shown in the case of Victoria Climbie; she was moved a short distance from one authority to another, but the information was not linked up. Nothing in the amendment would prevent a London-wide database being established, because powers elsewhere in the Bill allow children's services authorities to co-operate London-wide, either singly, doubly or with many others. That would not be ruled out by the amendment. It could still be achieved under subsection (1)(a) on individual databases.

The Minister's case falls completely. She has not told us what the additional databases would achieve, or what would be their purpose. In the absence of her addressing the object of the amendment, I fear that I shall have to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 12.

Division number 8 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 9 - Information databases

Aye: 2 MPs

No: 12 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I beg to move amendment No. 35, in

clause 9, page 7, line 25, at end insert—

'(2A) Any person or body establishing or operating a database under this section shall ensure that the database operates to safeguard and promote the welfare and best interests of every child whose personal information is held.'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 36, in

clause 9, page 8, line 31, 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)

I am afraid, Dame Marion, that it is me again; I shall try not to speak for quite so long this time. I think that we have established a few principles on the clause.

I am sure that we can all agree with the spirit of proposed new subsection (2A). I fear that the Minister may come up with a technical explanation, given to her by her civil servants, of why it would not be appropriate or achieve what we want. However, the purpose is to impose on those responsible for establishing and operating the databases a clear duty to ensure that all databases operate to safeguard children and promote their best interests and welfare.

It is clear that databases can be established under clause 9 only when their purpose is to support co-operation to improve the well-being of children and young people under clause 7, to safeguard or promote the welfare of children and young people under clause 8, or to fulfil obligations under section 175 of the Education Act 2002. However, no corresponding duty is placed on those establishing or operating the databases to prioritise the safety and well-being of children.

Where a database is established and operated by another agency—a ''body corporate'', as it is referred to in clause 9(2)—it will not be subject to any duties in relation to safeguarding or promoting the welfare of children. That is the point at issue; we are trying to make that obligation clear. In the cases in question, there is no clear and unambiguous duty on persons and bodies that establish or operate databases to prioritise the safety and welfare of all children and young people whose records are kept.

Because of the range of people who would be accessing or inputting data in the system, the potential sensitivity of that information and the fact, as I have already pointed out, that the clause is something of a skeleton provision, surely accountability on the part of the people operating the databases is essential. They should work to safeguard children and promote their welfare, and they should be accountable on those points.

What are the guarantees on safety of access? I have already raised that point, and we still need more assurances from the Minister. Database management cannot be regarded as an administrative or technical role. It is surely essential to the safety and effectiveness of the system that everyone who accesses or records information is police checked and trained to work in line with best practice, and that their use of the database is monitored. Likewise, decisions about the recording, disclosure or analysis of information held on the system should always be taken in light of the need to safeguard children and promote their welfare.

We have already had a debate about the poor record of Government IT projects, and we need to get the one that we are debating right. There is a need for one named person who can be held clearly to account for the operation of each information-sharing and assessment database. We did not ascertain in our earlier deliberation who that person would be. I assumed that it would be the director of children's services, in a local role. Presumably that is the person with whom the buck should stop. We do not know that yet; perhaps the Minister would deal with the point.

If a breach of security occurs on a database, information on it turns out to be wrong, or information is not put on the database although it should be, where does the buck stop? Surely the whole point of joining up services under a children's services authority and appointing a clear head of that department, in a director of children's services, is that that is where the buck should stop. That should be the case just as much with IT and database matters as with

the management of the department as a whole, the structures and the joining up of professionals that we spoke about earlier.

Proposed new subsection (7A) in amendment No. 36 is self-explanatory, and I am sure that we would all agree with its intentions. However, I suspect that the Minister may again trot out an excuse for not including it in the Bill. It is important that it is included. The amendment's purpose is to ensure that agencies retain the discretion not to disclose information in situations in which to do so would be detrimental to the child. If they were forced to disclose such information, that would be self-defeating in what we are trying to achieve through the Bill—none of us would want that. The amendment would mean that sensitive services such as those dealing with drugs or sexual health would be permitted to make judgments about whether to disclose, in cases in which such disclosure might result in the disengagement of the child from that service. A blanket policy of required disclosure, for which the Bill appears to provide, might put some children at risk. I am concerned about the possible impact of automatic notification on children's access to essential but sensitive services.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, in paragraph 115 of its 19th report, flagged up concerns, stating:

''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.''

Article 8 of the European convention on human rights states:

''Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.''

Unless we qualify the terms of the clause, we risk a challenge under that article.

There are particular areas where one might want greater safeguards. It has been pointed out by various women's organisations and organisations concerned with domestic violence that such safeguards should be in place for special agreements with child protection and social care agencies, and for children and spouses who are fleeing domestic abuse or forced marriage. In such situations, information about those concerned, including their whereabouts, must be tightly controlled. As the clause currently stands, blanket requirements to log the contact details of the service with which a child becomes engaged will automatically disclose that child's location. A birth parent, for example, could then readily access that database for information on their child under the Data Protection Act 1998. What safeguards are there when there is a risk of violence from a non-resident parent towards a child and the other parent?

Earlier this week, I had an interesting meeting with representatives from the Commission for Social Care Inspection, discussing the issue that I raised in the Committee and on Second Reading about responsibility for children placed in private children's homes away from their local authority area. I was

given the report on a recent inspection of one children's home in my constituency about which I had particular concerns.

I was not aware of the procedures for access to those reports. The results of inspections of elderly care homes are placed on the internet—on the website of the inspecting agency—and the responses by the care home owners to the inspection reports can also be placed on the website. Inspections of children's homes are exempt from that requirement, so one cannot go to a website and find out about them. However, any one of us—any member of the public—is fully entitled to go to a local social services department or to the CSCI and ask for a copy of the inspection report on a private children's home. All one has to do to get that report is to produce identification, such as a driving licence, passport or credit card. The CSCI then has a duty to present that person with the full report on that private children's home.

There is no requirement on the person at the CSCI to check the background of the person to whom they are presenting that report, who could be the non-resident parent of a child housed in a private children's home for whom there is no contact order because of a perceived threat of violence. There is no safeguard that would prevent the person requesting that report from getting it. He would not have to justify the grounds on which he required it. The CSCI has no means of checking the identity of the person to assess any risk that he might pose to somebody housed in that private children's home. I find that rather worrying, and the Minister is expressing a degree of astonishment that it is the case.

I do not wish to deny perfectly permissible data to responsible people. However, the fact is that anybody can access such information, without any checks as to whether they pose a risk to those housed in a private home. There have been instances in which data have been misused. The CSCI told me about cases in which, after reports have been published, there have been burglaries at certain homes. They tended to happen during changeover time, when the staff were involved in meetings about the changeover and were not necessarily keeping an eye on the rest of the home. Crooks got hold of the reports and, on a fairly slim reading, were able to identify when was a good time to go and rob those homes. The CSCI has responded to that; it acknowledges that there is a security angle to the information that it let out.

Nothing has been done with regard to the security of the children in those homes, the details about how they are looked after having been accessed by somebody who might want to do them harm. That might be a relative who has no right of access or a paedophile trying to inveigle his or her way into making contact with certain people. I was alarmed to hear that, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board. Until I raised the issue with the CSCI, it had not realised its importance. The people to whom I spoke will discuss it with colleagues come back to me about it. That is a good example showing why we should ensure that the information that we place in databases does not

compromise the welfare of the children whom we are seeking to help, for instance in relation to domestic violence.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre 10:30 am, 21st October 2004

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Of course the reports would not identify individual children. The reason for making them so public would be, in part, in response to situations in which institutions have undergone no effective scrutiny whatsoever, and their children have suffered grave abuse.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I entirely take the hon. Gentleman's point, and do not seek in any way to exclude the information, to reduce the degree of inspection or, ultimately, to prevent authorities from improving or closing homes. In some of the cases that I cited earlier, I would have liked the inspectors to have stuck their noses in further, and named and shamed. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman at all.

Of course, the children's identity is not revealed in any of the reports, and that should remain the case. However, for a potentially harmful person, be it relative, paedophile or anyone else, to be asking questions about a particular home suggests that the location of an individual has been compromised. Alternatively, a paedophile might just be looking for an opportunity to inveigle himself into the presence of particular young people in the homes. I am concerned about that, and about the fact that no checks are made, in relation to any particular risk, on the identities or motives of those asking for information. The situation is clearly different if the request comes from the police or from local authority representatives with an obvious interest in the home. They may be seeking to place children there, investigating potential abuse or finding out whether things have improved in a home where abuse has happened. However, if an ordinary individual, from the other end of the country, who apparently has no connection whatever with the case, says, ''I ordered a report on the home,'' we should ask questions, and there is no facility for doing so. That is my point.

A briefing from the Family Planning Association states:

''All young people are entitled to confidential services when seeking advice about sex, relationships and sexual health. FPA believes that professionals should not share information on young people's contact with sexual health services or where young people are known to be having sexual relationships. Information-sharing should only take place when there are serious child protection issues, or if they have the young person's consent.''

The FPA is concerned that if attendance at sexual health services is flagged on the database, young people will be reluctant to seek the advice and services that they need. I am not sure whether that would be flagged on the database or covered under medical records. Strictly speaking, those data are not medical records; I therefore seek the Minister's clarification.

I hope that I have given clear examples of situations in which there are worries that the protection and welfare of a child could be compromised by a lack of

proper safeguards obliging disclosure. It would be self-defeating if that could happen, as appears to be possible in the Bill. We are all trying to achieve the same end, so I hope that the Minister will respond constructively and positively to the amendments and to the spirit in which they were tabled.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I support the amendments, and I hope that the Minister will not find anything objectionable in them. It may be argued that they are unnecessary, but as the hon. Gentleman said, we cannot be careful enough, and no situation should be ambiguous.

We have had briefings from many organisations that support the amendments, and as the hon. Gentleman has expressed their views, I will not repeat them.

Amendment No. 35 refers to anyone who is involved with the database. I discussed the issue with an intern who is now working with me. He was employed on a part-time basis by a social services department, and was given the job of inputting data, but he was not subject to a criminal record check. The opportunity will exist for mistakes to occur unless the amendment, or a similar provision, is in the Bill. That example is probably as powerful as that quoted by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful for that additional example. The hon. Lady may be aware of the recent case of Haringey council. Despite having carried out checks with the Criminal Records Bureau, it employed 18 people who had failed their CRB checks, which had thrown up previous problems, including one conviction for paedophilia. The person concerned was employed by Haringey social services to drive a minibus for disabled children. CRB checks themselves do not prevent such things happening.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I accept that. We are continually assured about the improved performance of the CRB.

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

The hon. Gentleman has raised that issue before and I ask him to be careful before accepting everything that he reads in the media. When the matter was raised in the media, I took the responsible action of checking with Haringey council, which employs thousands of people in its social services department. I will write to all members of the Committee giving them the assurances that Haringey council gave me. The council undertook CRB checks on all members of staff; it is not that it did not undertake them—

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

But it still employed them.

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

No. The hon. Gentleman is alleging that those CRB checks threw up issues that made the individuals inappropriate to work with children.

The undertaking that I have from Haringey council is that although a very few of the thousands whom it employs may have had criminal records, none of those records showed an offence that made the individual unsuitable to work with children. I shall write to all hon. Members about that, but I ask the hon. Gentleman not simply to repeat information reported

in the media. It is often misleading and serves to lower morale among social workers and social services departments, just when we are all trying to have confidence in the work that they are doing.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

We will have to have this debate later through the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole.

We do not want to do anything that will lower the morale of social workers who are already desperately demoralised. Their morale needs to be improved. However, a local authority took on one individual who quite clearly had a criminal conviction for paedophilia yet was put in charge of a minibus transporting disabled people around north London. If that is not the case, then the Minister should say so, but she did not respond to the point when I tabled my parliamentary questions.

The local authority's appointment strikes me as inappropriate, given that it was subsequent to a CRB check. My point is that CRB checks are not the be all and end all, and when local authorities take on people who have thrown up serious concerns, one wonders exactly what the point of these checks is in the first place.

Mrs. Brooke rose—

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The hon. Lady cannot be beaten.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

Order. I remind hon. Members that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole will now have the Floor and that we are now into interventions. It is entirely a matter for the hon. Lady whether or not she wishes to give way.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I should like to take up the Minister's kind offer to look into the matter and to write to us, because I want to proceed with the point that I was making about 10 minutes ago. I hope that the Minister will be satisfied with the opportunity to clarify the matter for us all.

I was trying to make the point that it is not always apparent that someone is working with children if they are temporarily employed to input data, but we should be absolutely clear that working on a database means that almost everyone is on the frontline of working with children, even though they might simply be inputting technical data. I therefore suggest this safeguard for those reasons alone, because it would be very easy not to require a criminal record check if one simply thinks, ''Well, this is just a temporary job. It's just a bit of data inputting.'' The point of my amendment is that such a job is more than that; children are involved. If the amendment is at all what the Minister wants, we need that protection.

Unsurprisingly, I am greatly concerned about the sensitive services. It is obvious that we do not want to deter parents or children from accessing such services. Again, just to give an example from my own experience, for a long time the main upper school

where I live had a very tough policy on drugs to the extent of instant exclusion. That meant that parents were frightened to go to social services for advice because they were afraid that their child would be excluded from school. It is vital, when parents or children seek advice, that such sensitive information is held and released or published only after due consideration.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, particularly those relating to children living with domestic violence, and forced marriages or even unforced marriages, in which young people are hunted out. There is an enormous amount of concern. I hope that the Minister will consider the amendments because they only enhance the Bill and this section on databases.

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

I shall return to the Haringey issue, because we clearly have a different understanding of it. I cannot recall a relevant parliamentary question, but I will reread the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary questions, because I cannot remember what information he said he had received from me in answer to one. I will write to all Committee members.

On the issue of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised some important issues. I shall write to him when I have read the Hansard report of what he said and had an opportunity to think through the implications, which are complex. We must protect the interests of children. That is paramount.

We share the aims of the amendments, but we do not believe that they are necessary. Access is important. It is one of the issues for our first consultation paper, which we hope to publish next week. We need to concern ourselves with who should be allowed to access the system. That must include those who are delivering services and those who are known to the child. Those are the sort of criteria that are sensible in determining who has access to the database.

On ensuring the appropriate checks, there is a range of considerations. We will have to set minimum requirements before granting any individual authority access to the system. A Criminal Records Bureau check would be an obvious start and we would have regard to anything arising from the Bichard report into the Soham situation. We will have a relevant practitioner level protocol and users will, of course, be obliged to have training on safe and secure use of the system, including compliance with data protection and human rights legislation and, where relevant, the Caldicott principles. We shall have to keep the criteria relating to conditions of access under continuous and close review, and anybody barred from working with children will be barred from access to the database. We are also considering audit trails, user authorisation systems and other such issues, which will add further security in relation to access.

Let me deal with the first amendment and then come on to the issue of sensitive information, whether about particular children or about domestic violence in families. The amendment is unnecessary because clause 9(1) links the express purpose of the database

provision in the clause to the duty in clause 7 for co-operation arrangements to be made with a view to improving the well-being of children in the authority's areas. It links the database's purpose to the clause 8 duty to make arrangements to ensure that professionals safeguard and promote the welfare of children and to section 175 of the Education Act 2002, which places a similar safeguarding duty on education authorities.

That means that anything that is done under clause 9 can be done only for the purposes of those duties. Anything that does not comply with those duties cannot be done. The comfort that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham seeks from the amendment exists and the measure does not need further reinforcement. I give him the further reassurance that in the guidance and directions, which will be subject to full debate, we will emphasise that link between clause 7 and clause 8 and section 175 of the Education Act 2002 with the powers and duties under clause 9.

Amendment No. 36 would limit the circumstances in which the database can be displayed. I recognise the importance of the issues that have been raised; we do not want to introduce a system that is detrimental to the interests of children, particularly where domestic violence or witness protection is involved or where children want to access services but want their access to those services to be confidential. We want the database to provide a tool to help people to act in the best interests of children. I keep repeating that.

However, the amendment 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.

If the amendment were passed, there would be scope for different interpretations by different professionals, leading, in my view, to those gaps in information that can lead to children falling through the net and being abused or subject to neglect. Therefore, while we agree that the amendment raises an important issue, we think that the appropriate place to take account of it is in the regulations and guidance.

The consultation document that we are preparing will start to flesh out some of the issues that Members raised. In the debate on the previous amendment, we talked about the trailblazers and how, on sensitive issues—particularly in relation to domestic violence—they are managing to block out access to information. Sheffield is doing that, as, I think, is West Sussex. Leicester has also developed some such facility.

On the issue raised by the Family Planning Association and others about confidentiality, I completely understand professionals' concern that they need to make that professional judgment to preserve the trust in relationships that they establish

with children, young people and parents with whom they work. Having said that, however, we need to ensure that professionals are involved in the databases in an appropriate way, not that they are not involved in the databases. The important considerations are around consent, which I talked about, and confidentiality.

We want to make sure that the decision that we take on the issue is one in which everyone has confidence. We do not want to deter young people and children from taking out services. The consultation that we are about to publish will talk about the best way forward in dealing with recording practitioner details in relation to potentially sensitive services. The key issues that we want to explore in that consultation will be the extent of inclusion of such information, the determination of who can see it and how we will try to ensure that the consent of the child and the consent of the parents is sought wherever that is possible, although there will always be exceptional circumstances that prevent gaining that consent.

I am pleased that Members have drawn out those important issues. I reassure Members that we take them seriously and want to bring everyone with us as we determine how we use the database in relation to both sensitive services and to people whose information we want to keep from others. I hope that, in the consultation about the document that I hope to issue shortly, we can bottom out some of the difficult issues and reach consensus. I ask the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to withdraw the amendment because, although its content is important, it is not necessary.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful to the Minister. We all look forward to bottoming out some of the information lacking from the Bill. I am particularly grateful for her clarification about amendment No. 35. She gave some more detailed assurances about how that would become clear and, though it raises an important point, is, perhaps, unnecessary. It is useful that she put on the record some of those assurances.

On amendment No. 36, things were going relatively well until the Minister used the fact that practitioners ''would have to think'' before they started to make decisions about what information should be placed on the database as an excuse for not accepting it. I hope that they will have to do that anyway and I still have concerns about allowing professionals to use their professional judgment where it may otherwise compromise the child's welfare. That is the whole point behind the amendment.

I will not press the matter to a Division and I am happy to drop the lead amendment, but we need further assurances on the second amendment. I reserve the right to return to that point on Report, when I hope the Minister will give us more concrete assurances about why it should not be in the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 212, in

clause 9, page 7, line 36, leave out from 'details' to end of line 37 and insert

'the name and contact details of any educational institution of which he is a registered pupil or at which he is registered as a student'.

We now come to the question of the information that is to be kept on the database. One category, which is set out in clause 9(4)(d), involves the details of the education that is being received by the child in question. This is a probing amendment to find out a little more about the details of the education that will be required to be kept on the database.

It is clear that any institution attended by the child will have to be included on the record. Paragraph (d) goes wider than that, because it refers to

''details of any education being received''.

That would include other forms of education. The explanatory notes on the clauses refer to

''details of any education being received whether in an educational institution or other setting;''

The purpose of the amendment is to probe what those other settings might be and what is the extent of the duty to record the education that is being received by the child. The education of such children is an important subject, especially those who are in care, and it is important that we should have as full details as possible about the education that they receive.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 11:00 am, 21st October 2004

I rise to back up the points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison). The amendment was tabled in the name of our hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, who sadly cannot be present this morning. I undertook to make some points on his behalf.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The hon. Gentleman knows more about the activities of my hon. Friend than I do.

The point of leaving out clause 9(4)(d) and qualifying it with the words that we propose to insert, returns to a point that we touched on with the Minister. She told us the reason she had been given by her officials why the terminology must be in the form that it is. I was not convinced and we need to probe a bit further in to why we need to use a rather wide and vague phrase. In addition, if the intention is purely to name the educational provider, whether it be a school, an academy, a special educational needs provider or at home tuition, why cannot that be said in plain English in the Bill? Why must it use the strange configuration that appears to allow greater details about the type, nature, extent, inadequacies and failures of the education that is being provided to the child? The Minister assures us that that is not the intention. Therefore, why can we not just use our wording in the first place? I look forward to further clarification as a result of this probing amendment.

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

This is the way parliamentary draftsmen chose to draft the provision to ensure that we have information about where the child is being

educated. There is nothing more or less to this matter at all. It is simply as it is because a child could be in an institution, or be educated at home, or be in a pupil referral unit, or a hospital, as well as being in a school or a college. It is simply worded to encompass all of the possible institutions. The hon. Gentleman does not understand quite why we want it, but one of the advantages of the universal database would be that those missing from education could be identified much more readily. That would be a good advance.

The hon. Members for Isle of Wight and for Hertsmere might like to indicate any further details, beyond what I have said, that they require. I shall see whether we can address those in the regulations, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. However, the provision involves nothing more than telling us where a child is being educated.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

My hon. Friend and I shall want to reflect on what the Minister has said to establish what light has been thrown on this matter by her remarks. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 37, in

clause 9, page 7, line 43, leave out from 'of' to end of line 44 and insert

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

Amendment No. 225, in

clause 9, page 7, line 44, at end insert—

'(ga) details of the person (''the informant'') who has provided information in accordance with subsection (6)(b) or (c);'.

Amendment No. 190, in

clause 9, page 7, line 45, leave out paragraph (h).

Amendment No. 218, in

clause 9, page 7, line 47, at end insert—

'( ) In this section a ''cause for concern'' shall not include any matter internal to the child's family unless the informant has reasonable cause to believe that a crime may be or may have been committed.'.

Amendment No. 219, in

clause 9, page 7, line 47, at end insert—

'(4A) Any regulations made by the Secretary of State under subsections (1) to (4) must provide that—

(a) where information recorded on any such database is disclosed to another person, the person making the disclosure must notify the person about whom the disclosure is made of the information being disclosed, and provide them with a copy of it; and

(b) where information recorded on any such database is disclosed to another person, and the information relates to a child, the person making the disclosure must notify—

(i) the child if he is of sufficient maturity, and

(ii) his parent, carer and anyone with parental responsibility of the information,

and provide each of these persons with a copy of it.'.

Amendment No. 223, in

clause 9, page 7, line 47, at end insert—

'(4A) In this section a ''cause for concern'' shall not include any matter internal to a school, youth club or voluntary organisation unless the informant has reasonable cause to believe that a crime has been or may be committed.'.

Amendment No. 224, in

clause 9, page 8, line 20, at end insert—

'(6A) Nothing in this section shall entitle any person to any information about the cause for concern other than information of the kinds described in subsection (4).'.

Amendment No. 226, in

clause 9, page 9, line 6, at end insert—

'(12A) Any regulations made by the Secretary of State under subsections (1) to (4) must provide that—

(a) where information recorded on any such database is disclosed to another person, the person making the disclosure must notify the person about whom the disclosure is made of the information being disclosed, and provide them with a copy of it; and

(b) where information recorded on any such database is disclosed to another person, and the information relates to a child, the person making the disclosure must notify—

(i) the child if he is of sufficient maturity, and

(ii) his parents, carer and anyone with parental responsibility

of the information and provide each with a copy thereof.'.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I address in particular amendments Nos. 109 and 190. No one will be surprised that we have tabled the amendments, because we oppose the inclusion of subjective data on the database. On amendment No. 109, ''any cause for concern'', as outlined in subsection (4)(g), is subject to wide interpretation. A number of professionals, rightly, will be involved and we want them all to access and use the database, but different professionals obviously have different thresholds for causes for concern. We must worry about the fact that something could be flagged up, accessed by other people and perhaps affect a child's whole future one way or another, and all because there was no common threshold.

The report on the Children Bill by the Joint Committee on Human Rights notes that the phrase ''any cause for concern'' is open-ended and subjective, and bound to include very sensitive information about a child. That raises questions about whether it is compatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights. I have met a number of the trailblazers and found that experience worthwhile. However, it was clear that some—I think, most—of the people whom we spoke to did not feel that the flags of concern were necessary. Having had that debate, I believe that we need the simplest possible database; we want to concentrate on enabling professionals to talk to one another. The danger of flags of concern is that there would be a risk of information overload and some important messages might not be picked up. The tool might begin to become a substitute for talking to one another. If a professional is concerned, there should be direct communication so that there is no misconception. There can be misinterpretations as a result of merely ticking the box on the database. I feel that that could make the situation less safe. It is also subjective, which is wrong.

Our first instincts were to aim for the deletion of paragraph (g). However, it has occurred to us, having considered paragraph (h), that the provisions are very open-ended and could enable the Secretary of State, by regulation, to put flags of concern into all sorts of records that were being returned to the database. Only medical or other personal records are specifically ruled out at this stage. Clarity is needed from the Government about what information they consider could be covered by paragraph (h). As we are also concerned about paragraph (g) we should prefer both paragraphs to be deleted. That would enable us to give more confident support to the Minister's tool kit.

In the other place there was a suggestion that an alternative name might be found for flags of concern. I would not find that any more satisfactory; the principle is wrong and changing the name will not help at all. It is with the greatest strength of feeling that I speak to the amendments, because they would make a big difference to the confidence and wholeheartedness of our support for the clause.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

My cause for concern is that the phrase ''any cause for concern'' is unclear and in danger of becoming a catch-all that is used as a minimum criterion—a way for a worker to feel that he or she is doing something, whereas there might in fact be no guarantee of service or duty to act.

''Every Child Matters'' stated:

''Technical solutions alone will not secure the changes that the Government is seeking to achieve.''

It argued rather that local authorities should lead a process of cultural change, including information sharing and developing a common understanding. Is the Minister confident that ''cause for concern'' is a term that is widely used and commonly understood among the professions concerned with child care? I am not certain that that is so.

I am also uncertain whether the subsection is likely to lead to a cultural change, as the Government wish. Hon. Members may know that I used to teach social workers. Conventionally, we would split the material that we taught into knowledge, skills and attitudes. Without a doubt, attitudes are the most difficult things to get at. Achieving cultural, attitudinal change is the most difficult thing to achieve. I wonder whether registering a cause for concern might be one of those technical details that would allow workers to avoid attitudinal or cultural change in the organization.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

There are many amendments in the group. I shall talk in general terms about the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole , with which I have a good deal of sympathy, and touch on a couple of those tabled by our absent hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. I shall then concentrate on amendment No. 37, which is intended to be helpful.

The hon. Lady is right. The phrase ''cause for concern'' comes from nowhere. It is meaningless and highly subjective. It has no basis in law and no one understands what it means. That is not a good starting point for its role as a useful tool in making sure that a

database works. We should be interested to hear where the phrase came from and what the Minister thinks it means.

We must be careful about subjective data being added to the database. That is the reason for all the points I made earlier. All the major children's organisations that have given us briefings, which are obviously very interested in the Bill, seem to share that concern. Barnardo's, the National Children's Bureau, the NSPCC and the Children's Society have voiced their concerns. They say:

''Cause for concern is not a recognised criteria and would include unclear and subjective information, of unproven worth which may lead to inappropriate interventions while leaving vulnerable children at risk . . . For information sharing to make a positive contribution to safeguarding children and promoting their welfare the information shared must be accurate, objective and comprehensible . . . The power to record 'any cause for concern' will create a system of information sharing that fails to meet all three standards.

'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.''

If that is not right, will the Minister tell me where it is used?

The NSPCC's briefing also flagged up the Joint Committee on Human Rights report, which noted that

'''any cause for concern' is a phrase which is open-ended and subjective and which is bound to include very sensitive information about a child.''

The report reminds the Government that

''article 8 of the European Convention'', which I have already cited,

''requires that there be adequate procedural safeguards regulating the disclosure of sensitive personal information and these may require the participation of the subject of the information in decisions concerning the inclusion and disclosure of certain types of information''.

The NSPCC briefing states that

''there are risks that this approach will make children less safe. Firstly, there is the risk of information overload''— a point that I have already cited.

''In such circumstances practitioners may be at a loss to know how to respond or how to prioritise the needs of an individual child. Secondly, there is a risk that in recording a concern in this way a practitioner may feel a false sense of security and as a result the child's needs may be less, rather than more, likely to be addressed. Thirdly, allowing subjective information of this type to be recorded in the database increases the likelihood that children and young people or their parents will challenge the accuracy of the database record''— although I am not clear how they can challenge it given the lack of any recognised appeals procedure in the Bill.

We do not want to undermine the purpose of the database. The expert groups involved have concerns, either with the definition of ''cause for concern'' in subsection (4)(g), or with the Henry VIII style subsection (4)(h), which allows the Secretary of State to put any information of any detail from any area, other than the single opt-out of medical records, into the database. The Minister's assurances are entirely meaningless until we get a handle on what subsection (4)(h) means.

We desperately need real examples of what ''cause for concern'' means and what it would entail. Is a cause for concern a child seeming upset at school? Is it a failure by a child to achieve the expected key stage level at school? Is it a child with a low birth weight? Is it the fact that a doctor has referred a 15-year-old girl to an obesity clinic—a point that I raised on Second Reading and that the Minister did not address?

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor PPS (Ms Hazel Blears, Minister of State), Home Office 11:15 am, 21st October 2004

The very fact that the hon. Gentleman is listing so many different and clear causes for concern shows that if we started to specify a definition, we would leave out appropriate or new causes for concern. Although it is important to discuss the issue, the hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that he is asking for an impossible list of definitions of the word ''concern''.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I do not agree with that because I am asking for examples of what could be included. All the examples that I quoted need not be any concern of the database. It is a matter between the GP and his 15-year-old patient whether he deems it medically suitable to refer her to an obesity clinic if she has a weight problem at the age of 15. That need not be part of the database, but as the Bill is worded, it could be.

The fact that a child is underperforming educationally at school is primarily a matter for the child's teacher, the school, and the parents—or the people with parental responsibility—to deal with in educational parameters. That need not be part of the database in isolation, only when factors interact. If a child is presenting too often at a GP's surgery and is the subject of bullying at school or clear emotional distress that results from out-of-school experiences, that is when those pieces of information need to be brought together. That is when somebody needs to put together the pieces of the jigsaw, and it is down to the jigsaw master—ultimately the director of children's services—to do that. The phraseology of the Bill is not clear about what should be included, when and how, and what responsibility there is.

Both the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and I made the point about the database providing an excuse for professionals not talking to each other, and that is a fair comment. I have said all along that we believe in the necessity of databases, but only those that operate properly. The database should be more of a fallback. Nothing in our amendments restrict professionals from picking up the phone and talking to each other, and surely that should be the first port of call. The trouble is that that is not happening at the moment, and it will not happen in future unless we establish some standard protocols.

The police do not speak as often as they might to social workers, and social workers do not speak as often as they might to teachers, GPs and others. That is why it is necessary that independently their information is filtered into a central source. If the cases are missed individually by the professionals, or if a doctor is unable to get hold of a social worker because they are busy on another case, sick leave or whatever, so does not pursue the cause for concern, or vice versa—I am not trying to pin blame on one group of

professionals—registering it on a local database under the aegis of a director of children's services would ensure that it is not missed. That should not negate the requirement for professionals to deal with each other more closely than they have in the past, so the two points are not mutually exclusive.

Amendment No. 37 would lay down a new definition because, as I have said, many of us feel that ''cause for concern'' is inadequate. We would redefine subsection (4)(g) so that it referred instead to

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

That comes to the heart of the problem. We need national protocols specifically aimed at different sets of professionals, and preferably agreed in co-operation with the representative bodies of the different professionals at a national level.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer PPS (Team PPS), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I see what the hon. Gentleman is getting at, but earlier he made a plea for professionals to be allowed to see for themselves.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) did earlier, I question whether it is practical to identify all the issues that might be a cause for concern in a way that professionals would find helpful. Professionals will know a cause for serious concern when they see it, and they will not necessarily feel that it is helpful for the Government to send them a checklist.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

That is entirely what I am not proposing, which is why I have suggested centrally agreed protocols by the professional bodies. I am suggesting not that the Government place protocols on the professionals, but that the professional bodies—the British Medical Association, the British Association of Social Workers, and the equivalent for teachers, for example—agree an appropriate minimum standard for what would trigger a referral of a cause for concern up a step—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.