Government bids to clear up practitioner ‘confusion’ on information sharing

Draft guidance says consent usually not the most appropriate justification for exchanging information when children are at risk, amid concerns social workers see lack of agreement as a barrier

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By Nicole Weinstein

The government has sought to address “confusion” among practitioners that is preventing them from sharing information to safeguard children at risk.

Consultative guidance issued last week is designed to address concerns that staff are not sharing information without consent, contributing to what government safeguarding advisers have dubbed the “perennial problem” of inadequate knowledge exchange in child protection cases.

The Department for Education (DfE) stressed that consent was generally “not the most appropriate lawful basis” to pass on information in a safeguarding context. Practitioners should instead rely on other justifications, notably their legal duties or public function.

Children’s social care strategy pledge

The proposed updated advice on information sharing in relation to safeguarding was pledged in the DfE’s draft children’s social care strategy, Stable homes, build on love, published in February.

Drawing on the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s inquiry into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, the draft strategy said information sharing was “challenging and too slow”.

These reviews had highlighted the “confusion, anxieties and poor practices”  among practitioners when sharing information to protect children, said the consultation document on the draft updated information sharing advice.

‘Lack of clarity’ on when to share information

The draft advice itself acknowledges that a lack of clarity could lead practitioners to “assume, incorrectly, that no information can be shared because no consent has been provided”.

The current information sharing advice, last updated in 2018, states that practitioners should, “where possible, share information with consent”.

However, the draft update says states that consent should “not be seen as the default lawful basis” for sharing personal information in a child safeguarding context, as it is “unlikely to be appropriate in most cases”.

This because the person may withdraw consent at any time, or, if a practitioner believes a child is being neglected or abused, seeking consent could “undermine safeguarding procedures” and may increase risk.

Lawful bases to share information

Instead, it points to three other bases for sharing information under the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR) that could be used instead:

  • ‘Public task’ – sharing information is in line with the lawful exercise of a public function.
  • ‘Legal obligation’ – it is necessary to share information to comply with the law.
  • ‘Legitimate interests’ – the sharing is necessary for the organisation’s legitimate interests or the legitimate interests of a third party, unless there is a good reason to protect the individual’s personal data which overrides those interests.

These first two lawful bases are most suitable for public sector staff and the last more relevant for voluntary or private sector staff, the draft advice says.

The information sharing advice is non-statutory, meaning practitioners are not obliged to follow it.

Working Together update

However, it is in line with 2020 changes made to statutory child protection guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children, which now states that consent is not necessary to share information for the purposes of safeguarding, so long as there is another lawful basis to do so.

The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, which oversees reviews into serious cases involving children at risk and advises the government on child protection, welcomed the consultation.

As well as raising concerns about inadequate information sharing in its report into the murders of Arthur and Star, it found that poor exchange of information at critical points was present in 40% of cases it reviewed for its 2019 annual report.

Information sharing ‘a perennial problem’

“Information-sharing is a perennial problem in child protection,” said a panel spokesperson. “Our national reviews and annual reports show that the failure to share information between agencies makes it difficult for practitioners to build and maintain an accurate picture of what life is like for the child.

“In the worst-case scenarios, this can contribute to children suffering serious harm and sometimes to tragic, fatal incidents.”

The panel’s concerns were echoed by social work academic and Association of Child Protection Professionals trustee Ciaran Murphy, who said: “High profile cases dating back to 1973 with the Maria Colwell abuse case show that people become fearful of sharing information in case it is the wrong thing to do. We continue to see this today in high profile child deaths – and it’s a barrier to protecting children.

Child protection ‘should supersede other concerns’

“The start and end position should be that child protection concerns supersede all other concerns – and there needs to be better clarity on this,” he added.

“Practitioners should ask themselves, can I retrospectively, after the facts, justify my decision-making an action-taking. If you’re sharing information to protect the child, you nearly always can. If you don’t share information and a child is harmed, it’s very difficult to justify.”

The DfE will update the information sharing advice on the back of the consultation, which ends on 6 September.

The DfE is also due to report will be delivered to Parliament by summer 2023 setting out ways to improve information sharing between safeguarding partners and will contain recommendations for potential technical and non-technical solutions.

You can respond to the consultation online or by emailing:

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2 Responses to Government bids to clear up practitioner ‘confusion’ on information sharing

  1. Ruth Cartwright June 28, 2023 at 12:29 pm #

    The background to some of this confusion about information sharing may be the misues of the Data Protection legislation and regulation by many bodies. It is easier just to say ‘We cannot share that information – Data Protection’ than to investigate whether you can and indeed should share the information. This is often down to reception and backroom staff rather than frontline workers.

  2. Elle June 30, 2023 at 12:39 pm #

    Ruth, I don’t agree. I’m an independent sw and I’ve been working, unpaid, on a DoL safeguarding case. I raised the concerns with the LA and OPG. I was still in contact with one side, who was relying on me for general advice. He was being blocked from seeing his dying father. I supported him as much as I could with help from the OPG, but there was apparently an open safeguarding relating to him, and the DoLS Team wouldn’t share anything with me…an outsider. It was eye opening, but also ridiculous. I had no idea of any potential risk the son posed, but felt a duty of care to support him under our code of practice. However, I could have been enabling something I knew nothing about. I had to stand back after I’d followed all the standard procedures but it didn’t feel good. This man’s father was dying and, as we all know, the safeguarding process can be slow. Guilty until proven innocent, all the while the risk of him not being able to spend time alone with his dying father growing. There are certainly statutory processes, and I might sound naive, but from a human perspective, it felt wrong.