Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Start here

We are aware that everyone wants to know about the most recent database developments - especially the planned Children’s Index - but that’s like making a cake by starting with the icing. To appreciate what the Index is about, it’s necessary to understand the systems that already exist and something of the law/policies behind them.

What we’re aiming for over the next fortnight is a basic outline of the children’s databases that are either planned or that already exist, information about different processes that are used to identify a particular child as a ‘target’ and to assess him/her, and also a little about the law and policy involved. To cater to all tastes, we’re starting from an assumption of little knowledge but hope you feel reasonably confident to enter the debate on children’s databases by the end of it.

There are plenty of links to help you find out more. We’ve chosen them carefully so that you get maximum information, and a starting point for more exploration. Where there is a lot to look up, we’ll wait a day or two before giving you the next instalment so that you have the chance to do this.

We regret that we really can’t enter into discussion as we go along. There’s a lot of other work going on at the moment (and one of us is on leave next week) so excuse us if we don’t answer comments just for now. Discussion will be welcome later: the priority is to give you information, and time is short because the DfES intends to hold a public consultation on the Children’s Index over the summer holidays.

A general point first:
Over the last few years there has been an increasing move towards using primary legislation (aka ‘statute’ or ‘Acts’/’Bills’) as a window through which secondary legislation (aka ‘regulations’ or ‘statutory instruments’) can be made. The telltale phrase in a statute is something like: ‘the Secretary of State may by regulations prescribe…’ That phrase is a ‘hook’ upon which the actual powers can later be hung.

The advantage to a government of this approach is that they are equipped with a general power to do something, and don’t normally then have to subject the details to full parliamentary scrutiny and debate. Thus the powers that a government has can be changed relatively easily, so long as they don’t exceed what is allowed by statute, and the potential powers available to a government may be far greater than those currently being exercised.

‘Guidance’ is exactly what it says. It can be changed easily and is not scrutinised by parliament. Its force depends on whether the statute to which it applies says that a person or body ‘must’ or ‘may’ have regard to it - or doesn’t mention any guidance at all.

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