Drive to put child protection online leads to array of emerging systems

One of the key proposals of Lord Laming’s report into the death
of Victoria Climbi’ was the need for a national database of all
children under the age of 16.

The aim of the proposal is to overcome the often antiquated and
inadequate record keeping and the problems in sharing information
between different agencies.

Most of the agencies criticised by Lord Laming have embarked on
programmes to improve their collection, use and sharing of
information. Initiatives under way include the Integrated
Children’s System (ICS) and e-social care records within social
services; and the Integrated Care Record Service (ICRS) within the
NHS. There is also the Connexions Customer Information System
(CCIS); Identification, Referral and Tracking (IRT) system for
local authorities; and the Police Information Technology
Organisation (Pito) plus whatever the government decides to call
its drive to re-engage children missing from education.

All have a simple common objective – to enable the different
professionals who deal with vulnerable young children to gather
data and share it in a manner that can be understood. But they make
a bewildering array of protocols, IT systems and initiatives.

As the government finally issues its long-awaited guidance to local
authorities on IRT of vulnerable children, concern is growing over
the fragmented way in which data-sharing systems are being set up
in the various agencies.

It is feared that a lack of communication between agencies,
together with a wide disparity in the resources available to each,
could create several different systems that at best simply
duplicate each other’s data and at worst create even greater
barriers to inter-agency co-operation.

“It sounds barmy and confused and it is barmy and confused,” says
director of social services at Devon Council David Johnstone. “When
you look at the data that will be contained within the ICRS and
that within the e-social care record there must be at least an 80
per cent overlap.”

Yet both systems are being set up virtually independently with very
little cross-fertilisation between the two, he says.

An additional concern is whether the big multinational IT
companies, currently eyeing up the money on offer to set up ICRS,
can deliver software systems that are up to the task.

Recent high-profile failures within the public sector, such as the
collapse of the Inland Revenue’s administrative system and the
fiasco over criminal record checks, have hardly engendered

“When you look at the record of these companies it is one of
absolute failure,” says Johnstone.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Simon Hughes has also
criticised the government’s reliance on unproven IT for its
information-sharing strategies.

“To rely on a combination of expensive IT, some of which is still
on the drawing board, is to multiply the risks both to children and
the exchequer,” he said.

Such criticisms will be particularly galling for the government as
they could seriously undermine its response to the Laming

In an annex to the forthcoming children’s green paper, leaked to
Community Care, the government makes it clear that a cross-agency
system for sharing information is essential to its drive to improve
the protection of children at risk of social exclusion, neglect and
abuse. In particular, it states that, once IRT and ICS are up and
running, the child protection register will become superfluous and
will gradually be phased out. None of this will be possible if the
information-sharing systems are not in place or the computer
software is not up to scratch.

This may be part of the reason why the government Children and
Young People’s Unit has released the local authority guidance on
IRT in advance of the green paper. Originally scheduled for March,
the guidance was postponed to allow the green paper to be published
first. But with the green paper now delayed until September, the
unit has decided to go ahead and publish anyway.

The guidance is based on the experiences of 10 trailblazing local
authorities and lays out a detailed timetable of what is expected
of each local authority as it progresses towards the March 2004
implementation date for IRT.

By the end of September, for instance, each local authority should
have audited its current practice, including the identification of
information-sharing protocols, assessment processes, strategies for
securing the engagement of stakeholders and mechanisms for ensuring
that children in need of support receive appropriate services at
the earliest opportunity.

By next March, local authorities should have put in place protocols
for information-sharing covering health and education services and
social care. They should also have budgeted for extra IT and agreed
standards for data collection, storage, retrieval and

The development of IRT is concurrent with a drive within the NHS to
deliver ICRS. The difference is that while IRT is to be launched at
the end of March 2004 on a budget of just £100,000 per
council, ICRS has a total budget of £2.3bn and will not be in
place until at least 2008.

This disparity, according to Johnstone, is “blighting” the
data-sharing initiatives currently taking place within social

“Social care has a budget of around £25m. The NHS has
£2.3bn. So which do you think is going to develop the more
powerful IT system? And how am I going to convince my suppliers to
invest in systems to be up and running by 2004 when ICRS could come
along in 2008 and swallow everything up?”

Nor is there any guarantee that the NHS’s record system will be any
better than those already being used within social services
departments, says Johnstone. Indeed, he believes that the NHS would
do well to learn from the work that has already been done within
social care.

“We have to get the different parties talking together now and we
have to be treated as equal partners. The NHS is not taking
sufficient regard of the level of development in integrated systems
that has taken place in social care. We are at least a decade in
advance of the NHS. The NHS has only just started talking about
people-based information systems whereas we have had those systems
in place since the beginning of the 1990s,” he says.

There is a risk that the biggest drive ever seen to improve
communication between the services involved in child protection
could result in a different “integrated” system created by each
agency and produced in splendid isolation.

– IRT: Information Sharing to Improve Services for

Alphabet soup of protection systems

  • IRT – Identification, Referral and Tracking. A system to
    identify children at risk of social exclusion and flag up concerns
    to workers in all relevant agencies. To be up and running in every
    local authority by end of March 2004. Guidance has already been
  • ICS – Integrated Children’s System. A “conceptual framework”
    for the assessment, planning, intervention and review of children
    using social services. It is currently being piloted. Due for
    national introduction in 2005.
  • ICRS – Integrated Care Records Service. Part of the NHS’s
    national IT programme. Aims to integrate care records across all
    health and social care settings. To be implemented in three phases
    by the end of 2008.
  • CCIS – Connexions Customer Information System. Brings together
    information about young people aged 13-19. By April 2004, all
    Connexions partnerships must provide a database of all 13- to
    19-year-olds; details of their progress through learning;
    Connexions interventions, including joint working and referrals to
    other agencies; and contact with other agencies.
  • Pito – Police Information Technology Organisation. Provides
    ITsystems for the criminal justice and court service. Currently,
    analysing child protection IT systems used by police forces. A
    decision is due in September on whether there should be a national
    system that takes into account the needs of social services.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.