Professionals are wary of the latest IT fix to the problems of information sharing on vulnerable children. Andrew Mickel finds out how ContactPoint will operate
After the array of personal data that was lost by the government last year, it is little surprise that ContactPoint was given a hostile reception from the media during its launch last month.
Most criticism of the database, which contains basic details on all 11 million children in England, has come from civil liberty groups and opposition parties, based on concerns about cost, state intrusion and security. In contrast to this lack of faith in the government’s ability to securely store our personal information and run large IT projects, the Children’s Inter-Agency Group – whose members include the Local Government Association, NSPCC, the British Association of Social Workers and Youth Justice Board – along with most groups who actually work with children, have backed the database.
Children’s minister Baroness Delyth Morgan says the support the sector has given the system is proof that ContactPoint is both secure and on course to save frontline practitioners millions of hours in contacting other people who work with children. “We want to get this absolutely right from the outset,” she says. “We’re happy to learn as the process goes along rather than get stuck on particular dates.
“ContactPoint is on budget and on track to deliver this tool to professionals as quickly and efficiently as we can.”
No miracle solution
The database is based on one of Lord Laming’s recommendations made after the inquiry into Victoria Climbié’s death. Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children (one of the partner organisations of ContactPoint), says: “This isn’t a miracle solution, and shouldn’t be seen as such, but it means our staff will be freed up to spend more time with children.”
ContactPoint is intended to reduce the number of hours that professionals spend trying to contact each other. Because the database is national, this should be particularly useful for finding professionals who work with children who move across local authority boundaries. Being able to see who else is working with a child should also save time with referrals, and mean early interventions can be set up faster. Assessment time should be cut back, too: common assessment frameworks, for example, will be flagged on files of children who have them, so they shouldn’t be duplicated any more. Morgan insists that there won’t be any red tape to access files.
But before the system can save time and money, there’s a lot of training to be done. The January press launch marked the start of the training process. Two officials from every local authority in England will be taught to shield children flagged as vulnerable by the different organisations involved in ContactPoint, ensuring that their details are not available to view by most users.
At the same time, there are 17 pilot local authorities in the North West, as well as children’s charities, Barnardo’s and Kids, which will start training users as soon as all vulnerable children in the country are shielded. That is scheduled for this spring. Other local authorities and organisations will start training in the autumn.
Bernadette Gee, ContactPoint manager for Rochdale Council, which is already using the system, says it has taken her team two years to work out which organisations and people will need access to it. “We’re breaking a lot of the ground,” she says. “We evaluate constantly.”
Gee has now started the Rochdale shielding process and the statistics from there show the scale of the task: 1,400 practitioners will have access to details on 55,000 under-18’s. Of those, Gee estimates that 110 will be shielded, with just under half coming from social care. If that rate is replicated across the country, 22,000 children will need shielding.
Gee says the system is user friendly, likening it to accessing an online bank account. Each user will have to complete training and have an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check. They will be issued with a system ID, password, token and PIN which will all need to be used every time a child’s details are looked up.
The database can be accessed through case management systems, or outside of social care settings, via web access – although it will only be accessible through computers that have been approved as safe by local ContactPoint teams. There will also be mediated access for professionals working in the field, such as by phone. It will be impossible to browse children, and all use will be monitored and audited.
Given all of these precautions, why are there still concerns about the sytem’s safety? Probably the biggest public fear is the loss of information. But Morgan says that as ContactPoint is constructed from information gleaned from other systems, that won’t be possible.
“ContactPoint users will not be in a position to download information,” she says. “The only thing that is possible is for a ContactPoint manager – someone very high up – to download an audit report, but that doesn’t include any information about children at all.”
There is also the issue of how many practitioners will have access to the system. The official estimate has climbed from 330,000 to 390,000 in the past year. However, Morgan says: “It will fluctuate, I’m sure but I don’t see the number changing radically.”
Whatever the figure, the system should make collaboration between professionals more straightforward. But for all the benefits the database could bring, its proponents are keen to emphasise that ContactPoint can’t replace professional decision-making. Maggie Atkinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children Services, says: “The lesson was first stated back in 2003 [in Laming] but we can’t say it has been truly learned until ContactPoint is up and running.”
ContactPoint: Quick answers
● What will ContactPoint consist of?
The database will contain data for every child in England, including:
- Date of birth.
- An identifying number.
There will also be contact details for parents or carers, schools, doctors and social workers. Sensitive services, such as drug and alcohol services, can only be listed with either the child or child’s parents’ consent or if the provider of the service thinks that the child may be in need. If a common assessment framework has been completed for the child, that will be flagged.
The information has been gleaned from existing databases, but ContactPoint cannot contain case information held on those systems.
● What are the numbers involved?
It is estimated that there will be details of 11 million children under the age of 18 on the system, which will be searchable by 390,000 practitioners. Records will be archived on young people until they are 24. The system has cost £224m to develop and is estimated to cost a further £41m a year to operate. For that, the DCSF says it will save five million hours of practitioner time.
● Is there a privacy issue?
If a practitioner wants to use contact information for professionals working with the children, they will have to go to the local authority, which will act as a broker with the other contacts. Hundreds of children in each local authority will be shielded so that not all practitioners can see them.
● How safe is the system?
A report on the database by Deloitte and Touche was withheld by government, but the executive summary was broadly in favour. But it did note that “risk can only be managed, not eliminated”.
Would ContactPoint improve your ability to work, or put your clients at risk? Join the debate
Published in Community Care 12 February 2009 under the headline ‘Have Data, Will Share’