Would a new tracking system protect children?

Invasion of privacy and putting too much faith in IT
systems are among criticisms of the government’s desire to
identify, refer and track children. Ruth Winchester

How much information does the state have about you? Your name,
date of birth and marital status. Probably your address, what sort
of home you live in and who you live with. Whether you’re a
wage earner or on benefits, plus a few other bits and pieces,
depending on your contact with services.

Under almost all circumstances, the Data Protection Act 1998
protects you from having your personal information used against
your wishes. But elements in the green paper on children at risk
suggest that the government is committed to a major change in the
concept of family privacy.

As Trojan horses go, the government’s identification,
referral and tracking system is not particularly well camouflaged.
It clearly aims to identify young children with problems, refer
them to preventive services and track them through to adulthood.
And given the belief that early support for children and their
families can prevent serious problems a few years down the line,
these are very hard aims to disagree with.

But contained within the body of this proposal are a host of
implications that could permanently change the relationship between
the family and the state. Essentially, what the green paper
proposes is this: every child in the UK will be registered on a
locally held database. They would be identified with a number
unique to them, possibly their NHS number. Information would
include their name, address and date of birth, their GP and school,
and a “flag” stating whether the child is known to
agencies. A range of agencies (the green paper envisages at least
13 separate bodies) would be able to access and amend this

So far, so complicated. Even a straightforward list of
children’s details raises enormous privacy issues. But
crucially, the government is consulting on whether “warning
signs within the family”, such as a parent’s,
carer’s or sibling’s imprisonment, domestic violence,
mental health or substance misuse problems should also be added to
a child’s record and shared among all those agencies.

Effectively, the government proposes that a child’s record
should become a family record, accessible to the police, health
authority, housing body, and local council – even to
voluntary organisations and school support staff.

Fraught with difficulty

As the situation stands at present, sharing information is
fraught with difficulty and laden with question marks about when it
is legally sound and morally acceptable to share sensitive and
private information without a parent or child’s consent, and
when it is not. Some agencies share information routinely, and
others only when a child is at serious risk.

So what does the government want to do about it? In the green
paper, it says it wants “to prevent situations where a child
does not receive the help they need because of too rigid an
interpretation of the privacy of the child and their family”.
It also says it will “legislate at the first opportunity to
enable information-sharing to happen at an earlier stage to prevent
problems escalating”. This implies amending the Data
Protection Act 1998 to give a wide range of professionals the power
to overrule families’ right to privacy, as long as it is in
the interests of protecting their children’s welfare.

Many people are alarmed at the government’s plans, not
least because they run the risk of driving problems further
underground. Terri Dowty is a policy adviser for Children’s
Rights Alliance for England and has written a paper on the data
protection implications of the government’s plans. She says:
“It will give people one more reason not to ask for help. If
I was worried that my husband was drinking too much, and I wanted
to discuss it with my GP, I’d have to accept that a social
worker might be on my doorstep the following morning.”

Even if the law is changed to make information-sharing easier,
the “information hub” proposals are fraught with
difficulty. The state has a dismal record with big IT projects, and
this could be the most complex yet. Running a
“parallel” system alongside all the existing records
kept by individual agencies would involve duplication of effort,
and the scope for human error – spelling mistakes, adding
data to the wrong record, or deleting a child – is

Lists of children’s names, addresses and level of
vulnerability are also open to abuse. Says Dowty: “We are
piloting something that is inherently unsafe. The more information
a database holds, the more unreliable it becomes, and the more
people who have access to it, the more unsafe it

Will it protect children?

Others question whether such a system would protect children at
all. For Natalie Cronin, a policy adviser for the NSPCC, 
“there’s a danger that people will see it as a panacea
– that once they’ve put a flag on a child’s
record that is the job done. Would the IRT money be better spent
getting more people working in child protection?”

Dowty agrees: “Where an electronic flagging system is
used, there is a significant danger that the duty of care is, in
practice, handed over to the computer system. People become utterly
reliant on it, so that if the system isn’t pinging something
up then there can’t be anything wrong. Safer would be to
replace the 2,000 child protection workers we are missing. There is
no substitute for professional judgement.”

Despite these misgivings, there are now 10 IRT pilots running
across England. Each of the trailblazers has been given about
£1m to set up, appoint staff, learn the lessons, get an IT
system started and pass on the necessary learning to other
authorities. These pilots are expected to produce results by summer
2004. According to one IRT project manager: “It’s long
enough to identify most of the problems, but not find many of the

John Coughlan is social services director for Telford and Wrekin
Council, which is one of the IRT pilots. The authority and its
partners have been working on a system called Aware which is now
part of their IRT project. Over the past three years many of the
system’s problems have been overcome.

He describes himself as an IRT enthusiast, but acknowledges that
the practical and ethical issues are complex. “The length of
time we’ve taken to produce a manageable, accessible system
is a measure of how difficult it is to do.” There are issues
around management of expectations too, he adds. “If you put
someone on the system or flag them up, what do you expect to
happen? IRT should have been called IRIT – identification,
referral, intervention and tracking. Otherwise, so what? What are
we identifying and referring people for? Most of our resources are
sucked into the cases at the extreme end of the spectrum. If we
start to identify families early, what do we stop doing so we can
focus resources on them?”

But Coughlan remains enthusiastic about IRT “because it is
hugely important. We’ve got an army of dedicated workers in 
different agencies, all working hard to safeguard children, often
despite legislative and resource restrictions. If IRT is a way of
assisting these staff, even if it is hugely complex, then it does
represent progress.”

The question has to be whether the price of progress – the
loss of real privacy for every family – is worth paying.

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