Protection down the line

At first sight, Lord Laming’s recommendation that the government
should investigate setting up a database of every child in the
country seems eminently sensible.

He argues that, with a highly mobile population, changes in
traditional family structures and an increasing number of homeless
families, there is a greater risk of children such as Victoria
Climbie slipping through the net” and disappearing from the view of
professionals. This danger is exacerbated because, as he puts it
“those who deliberately harm children have a tendency to cover
their tracks. Poor record-keeping, doubts about the exchange of
information between services, and inadequate client information
systems make [losing contact with children] easy.”

The database Laming proposes would contain basic information about
children and families: record of a child’s date of birth, their
primary carer, their address, their GP and the school they attend.
According to Laming’s vision: “Every child would be registered
shortly after birth, or upon arrival in this country, and then
tracked throughout their childhood.”

This information would be accessible to all agencies involved in
protecting children. Professionals – whether police, social
services, health or education – would be able to log on to the
database, type in a child’s or family’s name, and see where they
have come from, what involvement with services they have had in the
past, and whether there are, or have been, any concerns.

Most front-line staff say that such a database is, in theory, a
grand idea. Information sharing between agencies – the main failure
identified in nearly every investigation into a child’s death –
would happen automatically, without the need for phone calls,
letters and e-mails flying in all directions. Abusers would find it
impossible to arrive at a succession of different A&E
departments in the hope the pattern would not be spotted, while
concerns about a family couldn’t disappear abruptly the moment they
moved across a council boundary.

But, as Laming acknowledges in his report, a simple idea can be
fiendishly difficult to put into practice. Every front-line worker
asked by Community Care said “great idea” followed invariably by
“but who would be responsible for inputting the data?” Given the
paperwork overload that many staff already face, a national
database requiring prompt updating for every case a social worker
had would add yet another administrative burden. The database would
also have to run alongside local records and so staff would have to
input many of the same details twice.

Furthermore, a database is only as good as the people using it, and
statutory services’ record-keeping skills have often been found
wanting. In 2000, auditors found 86 per cent of the information on
the police national computer contained errors, ranging from the
trivial to the highly serious. And during the Victoria Climbi’
Inquiry a child protection team administrator memorably described
the record-keeping chaos in his department, saying that retrieving
the right child protection case file was “like trying to win the
National Lottery”. The chances of a multitude of agencies and
individuals using consistently identical methods to update the
database seem slim, while human error such as entering a surname or
date of birth incorrectly could render the whole process

This is assuming people can get into the database in the first
place. With hundreds of different non-communicating IT systems in
use across country, finding a way of making a database accessible
to everyone who needs it may well prove either impossible or
prohibitively expensive. A web-based system would seem the obvious
choice, but internet access is not universal and can be
problematic. Governments also have a difficult time with national
IT projects – the Criminal Records Bureau and Child Support Agency
are two examples where IT problems have led to delays and chaos but
there have been many others.

Even if the massive initial IT programme and running costs were
accepted by the government, there are questions about whether
families would accept this intrusion into their privacy. The
Connexions service, for instance, ran into trouble recently because
of the information personal advisers collect about teenagers –
including information about sexual activity or drug use, which
could in some circumstances be shared with police, health and
social services.

While no one would argue that abusive adults should be able to hide
behind the data protection legislation, many people question
whether a record of every one of the 11.1 million children in
England is really necessary – particularly since the nature of the
information collected could be extremely sensitive. Would a family
who had needed support when their child was five years old really
want the police, health and education authorities to be able to
find out all about it at the click of a button 10 years later? And
when would the information be deleted?

Roger Bingham is public relations director for civil rights
charity, Liberty. He says the charity would be alarmed by the
implications of such a database. He says: “The first question would
be why we would need a national database of all children when the
problem could be addressed by a database of children at risk, or
who are in contact with local services.”

There is also the danger that a national database could be abused
by people with ulterior motives. “Unfortunately, wherever you
collect that amount of detailed information together you create
risks for those people,” he says. “Under the spirit of the Data
Protection Act you should only collect the information you
absolutely need on people, only those who have a real need for the
information should be able to access it, and it should be destroyed
immediately when no longer needed.”

Catherine Watkins, team manager of a child and family assessment
team at West Sussex Council, recognises the benefits a database
could bring but is concerned that it might lead agencies to stop
talking to one another. “To be able to put a child’s name and date
of birth into a computer and get all the information about them
would be useful and it would certainly make it much harder for
someone who was trying to hide something. But it could cause more
problems than it solves. A lot of the time there’s simply no
substitute for talking to someone about a child, getting a feel for
the situation. The database might simply enable individual agencies
to act without talking to each other or working

Whether the government opts for the feasibility study that Laming
has called for remains to be seen – the Department of Health
refuses to say anything other than that the idea is under
consideration. But it is to be hoped that, before another national
scheme is rolled out, someone attends to the devil in the

Laming’s database recommendation   

The government should explore the benefit to children of setting
up and operating a national children’s database on all children
under the age of 16. A feasibility study should be a prelude to a
pilot study to explore its usefulness in strengthening the
safeguards for children.   Justifying the proposal Laming said:
“The benefit of such a database would be that every new contact
with a child by a member of staff from any of the key services
would initiate an entry that would build up a picture of the
child’s health, developmental and educational needs.”   Source:
Victoria Climbie Report, 2003

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