Critics of children bill flag up weaknesses

Putting children and families at the heart of services, or a
dangerous infringement of children and families’ civil
liberties? Government ministers have heralded the Children Bill
introduced into the Lords last month as “the most far-reaching
reform of children’s services for 30 years”. Sceptics,
however, say that at best the Bill is about being seen to do
something about child protection in the wake of Lord Laming’s
inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié. At worst they
believe it could actually increase children’s vulnerability
to abuse by paedophiles.

The issue causing disquiet among children’s rights
campaigners are provisions for setting up databases about
individual children. Clause 8 provides for databases to share
information between a whole range of service providers, including
education and schools, police, health, probation and Connexions,
and anyone else the secretary of state “arranges to provide, secure
or participate in the provision of services”, which might include
private sector organisations.

Pilots for information systems which identify, refer and track
vulnerable children are being carried out in 10 local authorities.
However, the Bill includes powers for the creation of a national
database. Many organisations, including the NSPCC, believe that
databases will need to be able to share information if they are to
prevent children slipping through the net when they move between
local authorities.

The problem with a national system, or databases which can talk
to each other, is that it makes it easier for people to hack into
the system. Terri Dowty, a spokesperson for the pressure group
Action on Rights for Children, describes the database as a

“paedophile’s address book”. She says: “There is no such
thing as a secure database. We think it’s dangerous for all
children’s names, addresses and dates of birth to be in one
place, with markers for vulnerability.”

Liz Atkins, head of policy at the NSPCC, supports the principle
of setting up databases, but believes that there is a “mammoth
task” in ensuring all the potential difficulties are resolved.
“Every child abuse inquiry over the past 30 years has highlighted
failures in communication between professionals,” she says.
“Databases could be a useful tool for tracking children at risk but
communication between individuals is the key thing and databases
cannot replace that.”

Originally, the government said databases would only be for
children at risk but now the plan is for all children to be
included, with a flag entered if an agency has a concern about a
child. Dowty believes this contravenes article 8 of the European
Convention on Human Rights, concerning respect for privacy and
family life. “It’s arguable that this is justified to balance
child protection concerns. But we aren’t just talking about
children at risk of harm, but children at risk of social

Many of the detailed arrangements, including what information
should be held in the system, will be dealt with instead by
secondary legislation (regulations) to be introduced at the end of
the year. So we only have the word of ministers as to what kinds of
concerns should be flagged. Using regulations to introduce such
critical powers is contentious because it is impossible for MPs and
peers to introduce amendments – they can only vote for or against
them in their entirety.

Launching the Bill at a London conference last month,
children’s minister Margaret Hodge acknowledged the
difficulty of balancing the privacy and rights of individuals with
the need to protect children’s welfare. She gave the example
of a professional flagging up a concern about a low birth weight
baby. If there was a further concern by staff at the child’s
nursery, another flag could be raised. “The system would then
facilitate a discussion between the two professionals who have
flagged up their concern.”

If flags are to be used so widely, the system could be
overwhelmed. Dowty says: “Professionals are being asked to flag any
concerns even if they don’t have solid evidence. They are
bound to want to cover themselves. If you have all these flags, how
are people going to distinguish between a flag that is just
trivial, and one that’s there because a child is covered with
bruises and the neighbours are worried? They will both join the
queue of cases waiting to be looked at.”

Another concern is that children should have some control over
what information is put into the system. Atkins says: “We know that
most children don’t refer themselves for help because they
are worried about getting into trouble or being split up from their
families. They want control over how personal information is

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