Share and share alike

As the Children Bill reached the committee stage of the House of
Lords this week, there were two burning issues on their Lordships’
agenda. First, the pathetic powers of the envisaged children’s
commissioner in England and whether these could be strengthened.
And, second, the question of information-sharing between agencies
about children and their families.

The first issue is daunting enough but it is the second that is
likely to prove the most intractable. The lords were due to discuss
250 amendments to the bill during the two-day committee hearing.
Such have been the problems coming up with workable arrangements
for information-sharing that command general support and accord
with the law that some lords hoped to throw out this section of the
bill altogether.

That would be folly. But it is indicative of the doubts about this
part of the Children Bill that only one-third of respondents to our
survey this week believed the proposals would ease the flow of
information between agencies. A quarter said that the provisions
cast the net so wide that they would lead to unnecessary referrals
and, indeed, there appears to be resolve to tighten them up. Not
only is there debate about the type of information to be stored,
but for how long, who should see it, and the penalties for
inappropriate use.

The case of seven-year-old Toni-Ann Byfield, shot dead while
apparently being looked after by the man mistakenly believed to be
her biological father, certainly gives cause to wonder whether any
extra information-sharing powers are needed. A simple phone call
from Birmingham social services to its Brent counterpart and the
Metropolitan Police could have been enough to persuade social
workers that a different course of action was necessary. But most
cases are unlike this one. The information is more diffuse and its
accumulation more gradual, requiring a more sophisticated system to
collate it successfully in order to trigger the appropriate

That is why it would be wrong to restrict the recording of
information, as at least one lord has suggested, to children deemed
to be at risk of significant harm. The scale of risk to any
individual child may only emerge once the whole picture has been
pieced together, which presupposes that each agency contributing to
the picture operates a much lower threshold for initial inclusion
on the database. Whatever the difficulties setting up the database,
its rigour must not be sacrificed. CC

l See news, pages 8 and 10

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