#1 Re-starting the cycle
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. Start here, and simply go through the postings in number order.
What we’re giving you is a factual outline of the children’s databases and information-sharing projects, information about the processes used to identify a particular child as a ‘target’ and to assess him/her, and also a bit 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.
Time is short because the DfES intends to hold a public consultation on the Children’s Index soon. We want to make sure the information in this blog spreads as widely as possible so that everyone can contribute to that consultation and lobby their MPs. So, please pass this URL on to everyone you know, and link to us if you have a website or blog.
One general point to aid understanding: 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.
The Connexions service offers a complete careers, counselling and advice service to 13-19-year-olds. It was created in 2000 to address two issues:
- The need to ensure that young people gained the necessary education and skills to meet the requirements of the ‘knowledge economy
- The need to reduce the high number of young people over 16 not in education, employment or training
The Learning and Skills Act 2000 provided for the establishment of the Connexions service, and for ‘Learning and Skills Councils’: the local public/private partnerships responsible for Connexions. Sections 114-122 of the Act allow for information to be collected and shared without consent across a wide range of agencies in order to identify young people in the target age group, and to spot those who are ‘disengaged’ from education or showing signs of having personal problems that might present a ‘barrier to learning’.
The agencies empowered to share information are:
- local authority;
- health authority;
- primary care trusts;
- learning and skills councils;
- probation services;
- youth offending teams.
Every young person is allocated a ‘personal adviser’ (PA) who brokers access to services, and is responsible for carrying out an in-depth personal assessment of the young person. This assessment process is known as APIR (Assessment, Planning, Implementation and Review) and covers every area of the young person’s life, including information about parents, family and friends. Online access to the APIR framework is no longer available, but guidance can be viewed here.
Using APIR, the PA can obtain information from the young person and make assessments under the following headings:
- physical health
- social and community factors
- family history and functioning
- capacity of parents/carers
- risk of committing criminal offences (or re-offending)
- relationships within family and society
- attitudes and motivation
- life skills, key skills and basic skills
- achievements and participation
- substance misuse
- mental health/emotional well-being
Each local Connexions service aims to collect information about everyone aged 13-19 in their area, and this is held on the Connexions Customer Information System (CCIS). Consent is normally sought before information is stored or shared with other agencies, but the consent can be a ‘one-off’ to grant all agencies access to the electronic record until such future time as consent is withdrawn. In other words: the consent need not be limited to a specific time, place or piece of information and the young person cannot refine the consent to specify which of the agencies listed above may or may not have access to specific information. The government confirms this in the final para of a PWA.
As far as information gleaned from the APIR is concerned, a young person’s PA will decide which parts of it should be shared.
The Connexions service believes that any young person in the target age-group (ie 13 or over) can consent to information-sharing in their own right, without the knowledge or involvement of parents, so long as the PA believes them to be ‘competent’. We’ll return to this, and the whole issue of consent, later on.
Information is held on the CCIS until a young person reaches 20 (25 if they have special educational needs) and is then archived for a further 3 years.
The ‘Connexions Card’ is a related smart card scheme for 16-19s, run by Capita, that allows young people to collect points as a reward for participation in education, training or voluntary work. The points can then be exchanged for goods or services. If this is done via the website, consumer profiling is carried out. The card can also be used to obtain discounts in shops, in which case the young person’s purchases may be reported back to their PA.
The future of Connexions:
There is currently upheaval within Connexions because of changes to the way it is funded, a reduction in the size of Learning and Skills Councils, and the question of where it now fits in with the development of the same kind of system for all children from birth (more on this later).
#8 Background to 'Every Child Matters'
‘Every Child Matters’ (ECM) was published in September 2003 following Lord Laming’s report on the death of Victoria Climbie; its proposals formed the core of the subsequent Children Act 2004.
At the heart of ECM is an extension of the 'preventive' agenda: the belief is that if all agencies work together to keep an eye on every child, and intervene in 'low-level' problems, this will prevent potentially serious problems developing. To aid this process, ECM does away with the idea of separate local authority services. Instead, all services are brought together into a multi-agency ‘children’s trust’. This is inspected by a single joint inspections body, headed by OFSTED.
The joint inspections body judges how well agencies are working together, and whether they are making progress against 5 ‘outcomes’ - performance indicators for each child. These say that children should:
- Be healthy
- Stay safe
- Enjoy and achieve
- Make a positive contribution
- Achieve economic well-being
A further 26 Public Service Agreement targets (PSAs) have been defined for local authorities. These are the actual benchmarks against which their performance in implementing the 'five outcomes' will be measured. A full list, including the now-famous '5 fruit and veg a day', can be seen here The ECM agenda also conflates ‘child protection’ and ‘safeguarding children’. The first refers to children at risk of abuse or serious neglect; the second to children in need of local authority services. This distinction is very important - more about it below.
Finally, the ECM agenda involves setting up a central database to allow practitioners to share information about children and their families so that they can discuss what services they need. The Children Act allows this to be done without consent, and the details are left to regulations. This database is now known as the Children's Index, and we will deal with it in more detail in a couple of days.
The information-sharing agenda and ‘joined-up services’ agenda was not a response to the Laming Inquiry: it had already been under discussion for some time as part of the government’s third priority, ‘modernisation’.
In 1999 the white paper ‘Modernising Government’ was published. The Executive Summary explains the intentions to ‘join up’ services and “deliver a big push on obstacles to joined-up working”. It also talks about “information age government” and sets the scene for what has become known as ‘e-government’ – electronic delivery of public services.
The following year saw the publication of three Cabinet Office documents that took these ideas further. ‘e-government: A Strategic Framework for Public Services in the Information Age’ discussed "sharing data between departments in support of integrated services" and the possible need for changes in the law to allow this.
Also in 2000, the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit produced 'Wiring it up' and 'Electronic Government Services for the 21st Century'. (The ‘vision’ set out on p16 of this second document is well worth reading.)
In April 2002 the PIU produced a further report: ‘Privacy and Data-sharing’. This identified areas where rapid progress could be made in joining-up services, and included children’s services on the basis that agencies would be able: "to identify quickly children at risk of social exclusion and provide the support they need to keep them on track”.
Lord Laming’s report was published in January 2003. When ‘Every Child Matters’ was subsequently published during the autumn of that year, The Secretary of State for Education said: “This Green Paper sets out our plans to reform children’s services in response to Lord Laming’s Inquiry report into the death of Victoria Climbié.”
There are still those who, because of the link that was made between Victoria Climbie and a need for ‘joined-up’ services, believe that the 'Every Child Matters' agenda sprang directly from Lord Laming's report, and that the purpose of the new ‘Children’s Index’ is solely to protect children from abuse. This belief is strengthened by the repeated use of the phrase ‘at risk’.
Historically, ‘at risk’ has meant at risk of ‘significant harm’ as set out in s47 of the Children Act 1989. This is no longer the case. Although the change of definition has not been addressed directly, ‘at risk’ now has several meanings, including ‘at risk of committing offences’, ‘at risk of social exclusion’ and ‘at risk of not receiving services’.
The association of ‘Every Child Matters’ with Victoria Climbie and the repeated use of expressions such as 'safeguarding' and ‘at risk’, without making it entirely clear what the ‘risk’ is, have had the unfortunate effect of confusing child protection with more general child welfare concerns where abuse is not an issue. This confusion has stifled essential debate – after all, who could possibly be against protecting children who are in danger of abuse or serious neglect?
The ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda proposes a fundamental shift in the role that the state plays in family life, yet the majority of families remain completely unaware of this.
#12 Consent to information-sharing
The key issue with all of the existing and proposed database systems is that of gaining the consent of those to whom the information refers. As we have shown over the last couple of weeks, information may be shared without any consent whatsoever, or refusal of consent may be overridden by purported reliance on general, discretionary statutory provisions.
To give some examples of the vague powers being invoked to share data without consent:
- s2 Local Government Act 2000 gives a local authority (LA) a discretionary power to do anything that promotes the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area
- s37 Crime and Disorder Act 1998 requires that LAs should have the aim of preventing offending by children
- s175 Education Act 2002 requires schools and LEAs to carry out their functions ‘with a view’ to safeguarding children’s welfare
More specific information-sharing powers are provided by:As the potential to share information has increased, so, too, has the guidance to agencies on whether, when and how consent should be sought before sharing.
We’ve already mentioned the Youth Justice Board’s ‘ID50’ guidance; elsewhere, other YJB guidance on sharing information about those thought to be potential young offenders advises that: “obtaining consent remains a matter of good practice, as opposed to a requirement of law”.
The Department for Constitutional Affairs' data-sharing toolkit implies that agencies can rely upon a range of implied powers to share information, and suggests that: “If there is no existing legal power for the proposed data collection and sharing, then consideration should be given to establishing a statutory basis by enacting new legislation”.
The effect of s12 Children Act 2004 is to obviate any need for consent in order to populate the proposed Children’s Index, and the entire ethos of the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda is one of widespread information-sharing.
After considerable protest from various agencies, the DfES has now said, in its most recent guidance, that practitioners should normally seek consent before sharing any confidential information that they hold about a child and his/her family – but this guidance is non-statutory and ultimately it will be for each local area to develop its own information-sharing protocol.