Clause 9 - Information databases

Children Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee on 21st October 2004.

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Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 109, in

clause 9, page 7, line 43, leave out paragraph (g).—[Mrs. Brooke.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne 2:30 pm, 21st October 2004

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: 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'.

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);'.

No. 190, in

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

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.'.

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.'.

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.'.

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).'.

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 Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

This is the last leg—what a shame. I was speaking to amendment No. 37 and had just taken the point from the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) about having central guidance. I certainly do not want the Government to impose guidance. I wish the professions to decide on the most appropriate guidance for practitioners in the field to trigger the cause for concern, whatever it will be called, to take their concerns to a higher level. I hope that there would be collaboration between the different bodies of professionals so that they do not operate from entirely different thresholds at a local level.

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

I agree that there is an issue about professionals operating at different thresholds. I doubt whether it is possible to solve that problem with guidelines from the national professional bodies. If the hon. Gentleman talks to teachers, social workers and others, they will tell him that either the guidelines will have to be so incredibly detailed that they will be impossible to draw up with any precision, or they will too broad to be useful in individual cases. Basically, professionals want to make these judgments themselves. If we try to impose guidelines either from the Government or from the professional bodies we will have difficulties.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The trouble is that, in the absence of guidelines, there is no guarantee that a GP in his constituency will not operate to a set of values and thresholds that may result in his referring to child protection issues, not because he has not seen any, but because he does not think that they trigger the cause for concern criteria. A GP in my constituency might do the complete opposite.

I should like to know what steps have been taken. Surely these are key bodies in the operation of all these measures in the Bill. That is the point of amendment No. 37. We are unhappy with the cause of concern criteria, but I am trying to put in a replacement. [Interruption.] The Minister is having a bit of a fit at the moment although not at my amendment I hasten to add. We want to be constructive so that we can improve what is already there.

Finally, I want to touch on a couple of the amendments in the name of my lamented Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). His name has cropped up rather more today than when he is present.

Amendment No. 225 would add details on the database about who provided the information. This is an interesting point. Surely there needs to be some means of checking the source and therefore the veracity of the information that is being provided and, perhaps more importantly, for that person to be held accountable if the information turns out to be inaccurate or vexatious at a later stage. Amendment No. 224 clarifies what Ministers have been saying: details of the cause for concern should not be released to anyone not otherwise entitled to access it. It would be interesting to hear who the Government think should have that access.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I should like to speak to amendment No. 219 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke). The Government seem determined to include any cause for concern in the Bill. The amendment probes what regulations the Minister sees as appropriate to safeguard children and young people whose information is recorded on the database and may be passed on to another person. Under the amendment, a child or young person would have the information that was being disclosed, so that they could check that it was accurate and appropriate. The amendment goes on to say that the child should be informed in the first place and, if they are not mature enough, the parent, guardian or anyone else with parental responsibility should have the opportunity to check the information.

It seems to me that if ''cause for concern'' is not well defined, there will be too little information on the database to be of any use. Alternatively, there will be so much that people have no confidence in it. However, confidence that the database is appropriate, accurate and instrumental in looking after the well-being and welfare of children is important for the professionals using it, so it is not appropriate to include any cause for concern on the database.

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

I shall bring this debate to a speedy conclusion, but if hon. Members feel that I have not touched on what they are interested in, perhaps they will indicate that to me. I shall preface my remarks by saying that all we are talking about is one tool, among many, to achieve better information sharing, because that will mean that people intervene earlier and more appropriately. We hope that, as a result, children will be better protected.

Nothing that we are doing with the database or anything else detracts from or diminishes the importance of the professional judgment of all professionals who deal with children. We are not replacing the judgment of the professional with a bit of ICT; we are simply introducing a database, and all that goes with it, to support better decision making and better professional judgment. It is in that context that we are working.

Let me pick up on the issues that people have talked about in relation to cause for concern. We are not talking about a system whereby recording that a practitioner is concerned triggers action to address that concern. The practitioner still has the responsibility to take action and to take the initiative. Having cause for concern indicates nothing more or less than that. If I had cause for concern about a child with whom I worked, all that would be indicated would be that I had cause for concern. That would suggest that I felt that if another professional had a cause for concern, they should talk to me. We would want to share the information about the child so that, between us, we could come to a better decision as to the action that we should take. There would be no information on the system beyond the fact that a professional had cause for concern and wished to speak to other professionals about the issue.

Nothing in the clause changes the way in which common law applies to the decision that a practitioner makes about whether they can discuss a child's case with another practitioner. If a practitioner were approached by another practitioner, he or she would have to have regard to all data protection and confidentiality obligations before deciding to share the cause for concern with the other practitioner.

The indication of a concern enables a practitioner simply to signal to others who subsequently look at the child's record that they have a concern about the child at that time. That would prompt contact—that is all. Then the two practitioners could see whether their observations were related, and that would help them to build a better, early all-round picture of the child's needs.

The database will not hold the detail of what a practitioner is concerned about, so it will always be professional judgment that determines whether an individual practitioner is worried about an aspect of a child's life that others dealing with the child might need to know about. We do not propose a system whereby recording a concern prompts action on a child's case, so there is no need for a common threshold in that sense. It is not a referral mechanism, as current mechanisms are. It should prompt discussion, and that discussion will lead to decisions on action.

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

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend makes that clarification. I hope that that will help local authorities to move away from what other hon. Members present will recognise as the Friday afternoon syndrome, in which other professionals—some of whom become very well known to social workers—clear their desks on Friday afternoon by offloading their anxieties about particular children over the weekend on to social services, without any hope or expectation that anything can be done about them. That is very poor practice.

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

Finally, I shall deal briefly with two other matters. First, I agree that the information must be accurate, but to include the source of the information, as proposed in amendment No. 225,

tabled by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, would be a bureaucratic nightmare. The identity of the person who raised the cause of concern would be included, but not the source of the complaint. For example, if a child's name and address was obtained from a health authority, the fact that the name and address was thus obtained would not need to be entered on to the database.

Secondly, I understand, as do all hon. Members present, that practitioners need a clear understanding of what we want them to do. We will, of course, need to explain the detail in regulations and in guidance on how that aspect—the causes of concern—of the databases will work. That is why we are preparing the consultation paper and why we will subject the regulations to the affirmative procedure. We will take the public consultation exercise seriously; we want to hear what the professionals say and will have regard to that as we prepare the regulations for consideration by hon. Members. I hope that those final words of comfort will persuade hon. Members not to press their amendments.

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

I thank the Minister for her brevity. I do not mean that disparagingly, because she conveyed some important points despite that brevity. However, I do not feel reassured on some of my original objections to paragraphs (g) and (h) of subsection (4).

First, we would feel more comfortable if it were not stated so definitively in the clause that there would be the opportunity to place flags of concern on the database. My reading of the clause is that that is definitive; it is not just a possibility that will be picked up later. That decision should be made after the evaluation of the trailblazers, and the big problem is that there will be a time lag in getting the evaluation results.

I was also not reassured by the Minister saying that the cause of concern would not be indicated in any detail. I accept the point, but I see flags all over the place, because that does not overcome the problem that anyone can feel a cause for concern on matters ranging from the minor to the most important. Over-cautious people might flag things up and others will think, ''I don't want to get involved in a lot of paperwork—I don't think I'll do that.'' There is such a great possibility of the flagging system going wrong that I cannot support it.

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

Let me just provide some clarity. If I, as a professional, put a cause of concern on the data system, that will be because I have taken some action—it is not an excuse for inaction—and I feel that is important that another professional contacts me if they have causes of concern about a particular child. It is a false idea that a busy professional would put up thousands of flags of concern because they wanted thousands of other professionals to contact them to have conversations to decide what to do about the child. All the professionals are busy people; they will use those causes of concern appropriately, because otherwise they themselves will be overloaded with people contacting them about a child.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:45 pm, 21st October 2004

I thank the Minister for her intervention. As I said earlier, things could work either way, but we have no way of knowing, because we do not have the evaluation. We have heard time and again that everything is dependent on consultation before the full regulations are set out. It is difficult when we do not know what lies ahead and what is involved. There has been no further information since the Bill left the other place, and I hope that more information will be available before Report. It would help if we at least knew the terms in which the consultation will be framed and saw the documents before they were sent out.

I am sure that the Minister accepts that I am not the only person raising those concerns, which worry many people throughout the country. I do not accept her argument, although I do not mean to be confrontational. We need to discuss the matter more fully on the Floor of the House, and I shall not divide the Committee on the amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 110, in

clause 9, page 9, line 13, after 'advice', insert 'and training'.

I can be very brief. Subsection (13)(e) of the clause refers to the need for advice on data protection. Training would fit in perfectly with that proposal, as a great deal of training will also be needed. The amendment would address some of my anxieties in that respect.

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

The clause as drafted refers to the need for children and families to have advice so that they are aware of their rights under the Data Protection Act 1998. It is the professionals who work the system who would need training, and the clause is therefore not an appropriate place for the amendment. As I said earlier, I agree with the hon. Lady that training of professionals is important, but the clause is not the right place to specify it.

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

I have made my point; I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I shall not detain the Committee. We have had a lengthy debate and received some useful information from the Government, although not nearly enough. However, I fear that there are still too many gaps in the Bill as drafted and too many question marks, and it would therefore not be right for the Committee to agree to the clause stand part. I shall urge my hon. Friends to vote against the clause with a view to returning to it on Report, when I hope the Government will greatly have improved the proposal. We may then be able to support it.

As the Minister knows, I support databases in principle, but they should be properly quantified, qualified, manageable and practical databases that will actually work, and we have not been assured that they will work in their current form. I shall press clause stand part to a Division.

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

I endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments; there are still too many questions and not enough answers. Liberal Democrat Members have stated which proposals we strongly support. The Minister may suggest that we were dragged into it, but we have listened carefully to the arguments and worked them through logically. We accept many of the principles of the measure, and many of the Minister's reassurances. However, we still have many questions about what will actually happen—who has access, how long the data will be held and so on. Those questions were all raised in the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Any extra information that could be supplied between now and Report could only enhance the debate on the clause. I therefore also agree that we should vote against it at this point.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 13, Noes 5.

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

Aye: 13 MPs

No: 5 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.