Monday, May 29, 2006

Cassandra's last gasp

Yesterday, we stumbled across an article that we had forgotten about. Written for the LibDem ‘Liberator’ magazine in 2002, it was chiefly about the Connexions service and voiced our “…gnawing worry that those of us occupied in yelling over the ramparts about e-government, data-sharing and identity cards made one dreadful mistake: we forgot to turn around and notice what was slithering up the back stairs to the nursery.” (The original pdf is difficult to access, but you can see it on our website archives.)

Four years later, and here we are still banging on about children’s databases, except that events have moved on: the number of databases has multiplied and children are, it seems, fair game for any amount of information-sharing. The public has been lulled into accepting this situation by lurid tales of out-of-control youth and neglectful - or downright abusive - parents. The message is that bands of feral young people are prowling the streets, parents couldn’t care less, families are in moral meltdown and only the intervention of ‘experts’ can avert disaster.

The separation of children from adults has allowed the ‘modernisation’ of government to proceed largely unremarked, until the final jigsaw pieces - the Children’s Index and the National Identity Register- were slotted into place. If we accept the Children’s Index without protest, there is little point in protesting about the NIR because the best we can do is to delay the inevitable: within three decades the majority of the population will be databased beyond belief.

Far more information than any adult would currently tolerate is collected about those under 18 - data that includes speculation and judgments based upon current theories about child development or parenting - but childhood doesn’t actually last very long. In the future, adults’ personal files are likely to hold more information than they would want their closest friend to know. Moreover, the opportunity to leave a difficult past behind and to reinvent oneself will have disappeared

It is adults’ sins of omission that have allowed the National Identity Register to happen: the dismissal what has been going on in the children’s database arena as somehow irrelevant to the serious world of grown-ups; the failure to react to the gradual, incremental acceptance of information sharing as the panacea for all those bad children and their feckless parents, and the backing off when the ‘child protection’ card was played, rather than staying around to ask questions. This carelessness has allowed everything necessary to develop a national identity and data-exchange system to be piloted on children during the last few years.

The Connexions service effectively provided the pilot scheme for the
Every Child Matters agenda and the Children’s Index. When the Chief Executive of Connexions was moved into the directorate of DfES following the publication of ‘Every Child Matters’, she suggested that the Connexions model of operation was a blueprint for the new children's trusts envisaged by the green paper. "We are the green paper for teenagers", she said. In other words, the Connexions model provided a prototype for a scheme that would cover children from birth.

The information-sharing and multi-agency work brought about by Every Child Matters has, in turn, provided a test-bed for exploring models of data-sharing and identity management, and the ‘hub and spoke’ model has developed: think of a bicycle wheel, with all of the different systems spaced around the edge and connected by spokes to a central hub – this hub is the Children’s Index, which provides the connection point between different agencies and also serves as an identity-management system. The local hubs can, in turn, be connected by extra-long spokes to other hubs to achieve national coverage.

Looking back over the last few years, it has been an uphill struggle to get the whole issue of information-sharing about children on to anyone’s agenda: but then, one or two organisations and a small handful of journalists can’t hope to do anything much about this alone.

Please, if you haven’t done so already, take the time to look through the blog since May 2nd and tell other people to do the same. Follow up the links; get a good grasp of what has been going on. We have done our best to make it as simple, factual and accessible as we can, but ask us about anything that isn’t clear.

The public consultation is scheduled for the summer, and then the government will put final regulations before parliament to allow the Children’s Index to go ahead. Unlike most regulations, parliament has to pass a resolution to approve these. Gather enough accurate information to contribute to the consultation and to make sure your MP is well-informed. Tell anyone who will listen about it - trust us, the accusations of insanity and conspiracy-theory are like water off a duck's back after a while. It isn’t too late to halt the Index - but it soon will be.


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