Sunday, August 06, 2006

#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.

#2 The National Pupil Database

In 1997, the Government came to power with three stated priorities: education, crime and ‘modernisation’. In education, they identified a need to ‘drive up standards’ in order to ensure that the workforce was sufficiently skilled to meet the challenges presented by developments in information technology and the new ‘knowledge economy’. The first two databases we're going to deal with are concerned with this priority.

The 1996 Education Act (s537) empowered the government to collect information about pupils directly from schools; however, this specifically could not include the name of any pupil. Since then, a series of amendments and regulations has changed that situation to enable, since 2000, a regular ‘pupil level’ (ie. individual) census of every pupil in a state-maintained school; the range of information collected has also increased incrementally.

In particular, the
School Standards and Framework Act 1998 schedule 30 para.153 allows the Secretary of State to prescribe in regulations the data to be collected, and the people or bodies with whom it may be shared. [More information about the series of regulations that has since followed can be found by searching on ‘Education (Information about Individual Pupils) (England) Regulations’ – there is too much to list here.]

Because the legislation says that schools must supply the data (a ‘statutory duty’ - which provides an exception to certain requirements of the Data Protection Act) parents and children are nor asked for consent, nor informed that it is taking place. Once collected, the information is held on the National Pupil Database (NPD) and at the moment is principally used statistically or for research. LEAs can also obtain information that relates to pupils in their area.

Capita, who carry out the census on behalf of the DfES, takes information directly from each school’s system on the dates prescribed by DfES. Until this year, the census was held annually in Jan/Feb (the Pupil Level Annual School Census or PLASC), but from 2006 it will be a termly census in secondary schools; primary schools will follow suit next year.

This year the census has also been extended to include nursery schools; from 2007 it is intended to take information from all childminders, private nurseries and playgroups. The full list of more than 40 individual-level data items, and more detailed information about the census can be found here.

The NPD has fairly recently been expanded to incorporate the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority database, which holds the records of key stage tests and public exams, and other information formerly held on other systems about attendance and exclusion. It remains to be seen whether use of the data will gradually increase, as eg this TES
article seems to suggest it may.

Data held on the NPD will not be deleted, as this
Parliamentary Written Answer (PWA) makes clear:

"The Department does not intend to delete the records of pupils who leave the maintained schools sector, either at age 16 or 18, or before then."

#3 Connexions

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;
  • police;
  • 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
  • income
  • housing
  • 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
  • identity/self-image
  • aspirations
  • 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.

Connexions Card:
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).

#4 'Predicting' children who may offend (1)

The second government priority was to deal with crime and reform of the criminal justice system. In particular there was concern about youth offending, and a growing belief that children could be prevented from becoming offenders if early intervention was targeted at those who displayed certain behaviours -such as having a short attention span or behaving aggressively - or at those who lived in a difficult or deprived environment.

The objection to this idea is that, while many older offenders can be seen in retrospect to have had certain personality traits and life experiences in common, there is a dearth of evidence to show that the majority of children displaying such 'signs' will go on to become offenders. In other words, this may be an 'all buses are red' argument, and the effects of labelling children who have not committed offences may actually cause problems.

In 2001, there was outrage when Sir Ian Blair, then a Deputy Commissioner with the Metropolitan Police, suggested that small children who apparently showed signs of becoming criminals could be logged and monitored.

Although little more was said about it at the time, over the past few years this emphasis on ‘risk management’ of children has grown, and a plethora of schemes has sprung up to monitor and ‘divert’ those thought to be ‘at risk’ of offending behaviour, together with corresponding electronic records and assessment tools. In fact, it’s appropriate to issue an acronym-warning at this stage, plus another warning: don’t imagine this area has nothing to do with you, or with the Children’s Index/’Every Child Matters’ agenda. It’s actually fundamental.

Each local authority area has its own Youth Offending Team (YOT) that is responsible for making provision for youth justice, including preventive work. The YOT is a multi-agency body typically consisting of representatives from police, probation, education and social care. It is answerable to the Youth Justice Board (YJB).

Children aged 8-13 may be referred to the ‘Youth Inclusion and Support Panel’(YISP) if they are thought to be potential offenders, in which case an assessment is made using an in-depth tool called ‘ONSET’ and the child will be referred to a 'diversionary' scheme. It's worth looking at the ONSET tool because it gives an idea of the criteria used to make judgments about a child. Data about them is held on the Youth Inclusion and Support Panel Management Information System (YISPMIS).

Another scheme run by each YOT, under the auspices of the YJB, is the ‘Youth Inclusion Programme’ and ‘Junior Youth Inclusion Programme’ (YIP and Junior YIP). In each area, YIPs target the 50 young people aged 13-16 thought most 'at risk' of offending, truancy or social exclusion; Junior YIPs target those aged 8-12.

The target group is identified via a process called ‘ID50’ which involves referrals from local agencies, or uses other information:

"there are clearly young people that are at risk but are not known by local agencies: the YIP must endeavour to access these young people. We believe that there is a considerable amount of local intelligence with regard to these young people – the YIP should assume the role of an identifying agency by collating information about these young people from local contacts, residents, tenancy associations, community groups, street wardens, etc."
Data about children involved in YIPs/Junior YIPs is held on the Youth Inclusion Programme Management Information System (YIPMIS). ONSET is not currently used on ‘YIP’ children, but the YJB believes it could be helpful to begin using it.

As we have said, the whole policy of 'early intervention' is highly controversial. Some US studies suggest that it is not helpful, and some recent news about a study underway in the UK can be seen here. The authors of this study assert that early contact with youth justice agencies is likely to exacerbate the commission of offences.

Its effectiveness is also questionable - youth crime figures have remained stable for several years.

#5 'Predicting' children who may offend (2)

In addition to YOTs, each area also has a ‘Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership’ (CDRP), a Home Office initiative that consists of the same sort of bodies as a YOT, plus voluntary sector and community reps. There is overlap in the work that CDRPs and YOTs cover; children identified under one scheme may be provided for under another.

The CDRP is responsible for delivering a Home Office-designed scheme called ‘Prolific and Other Priority Offenders’ (PPO) which is divided into 3 tiers. The first tier of this scheme is called ‘Prevent and Deter’ and, as the name suggests, focuses on those thought to show signs of being predisposed towards offending. Data is held on the local PPO Performance Management System. Guidance on running a PPO ‘prevent and deter’ scheme can be downloaded here.

The identification of children for the various schemes inevitably involves the sharing of information. The powers most usually relied upon to do this are general ones contained in:
  • Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 which gives each local authority the power to do anything that promotes the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. A copy of guidance on the use of this power is on the ODPM site
  • Section 37 of the Crime And Disorder Act 1998 which places a duty on “all persons and bodies carrying out functions in relation to the youth justice system” to have regard to the aim of preventing offending by children and young people.
There are several other ‘diversionary’ schemes run by different combinations of agencies and voluntary sector providers – again, with considerable overlap. To give some examples:
  • On Track’ was established by the Home Office in 1999 and then taken over by the Children’s Fund. It is aimed at 4 to 12-year-olds and their families in areas of high deprivation and crime.
  • Positive Futures is another Home Office initiative, started by the Drug Strategy Directorate in partnership with Sport England and the YJB, but its management has just been handed over to ‘Crime Concern’. It is aimed at those aged 10-19, especially those living in deprived neighbourhoods.
  • Positive Activities for Young People (PAYP) is for 8‑19-year-olds who are identified as being ‘at risk’ of social exclusion or committing crime, or who are ‘disengaged’ from education.
This is beginning to cross the line into the far wider ‘predictive’ agenda covered by ‘Every Child Matters’ and the Children Act 2004. In the interests of clarity, we’ll stop there for today and deal with a predictive system called RYOGENS tomorrow.

The various schemes we've talked about may well offer children and young people a great deal of fun, and we're by no means saying that they spend long evenings sewing mailbags. We are told that, in some areas, services have been overwhelmed by young people who have not been identified as part of the target group, but who nevertheless want to join the activities on offer.

Questions arise, though, over the targeting of specific people. There is real concern that early 'labelling' of children stigmatises them and is counter-productive. It's also worth considering what the reaction might be if the government introduced similar targetted 'interventions' for adults. Children also have human rights - and they can be defamed.

In too many areas there is a serious shortage of affordable play and leisure provision - putting a string like 'youth +facilities +lack' into a search engine reveals the extent of the problem. While some children undoubtedly need intervention, many also get into trouble when they are bored, and 'messing around' escalates.

Should leisure activities have to be justified as 'diversionary activity' before a young person can access them, or should they be routinely available to all? Would adequate provision for all young people, without any qualifying labels or individual monitoring, of itself solve a lot of problems? Such questions in turn raise serious issues about how far society values its younger members, and is prepared to provide for them.


RYOGENS was developed as one project in a portfolio of e-government national projects. The name is an acronym for Reducing Youth Offending Generic National Solution, although this full title is no longer mentioned on their website, and it is being positioned as having wider use in the whole children’s agenda.

RYOGENS is a web-based predictive and information-sharing system that local authorities can buy into, offering a checklist of concerns (we strongly recommend you read these) to be used in order to reach a decision that a child is ‘at risk’ of offending. [NB update 29.11.06 the original Ryogens page seems to have been removed recently. We have replaced it with the archive version]

Until very recently, the website also provided a list of legal reasons that practitioners could use to override refusal of consent to share information; however, this seems to have disappeared from the site, and the most recently archived list can be seen here. Since the migration of the project to the e-government site last year, there do not appear to be any later archived versions.

The local authority using the RYOGENS system decides how many ‘concerns’ from the checklist should be entered on the system before an alert is triggered. At this point an assessment is made and the child is referred to relevant services.

A child of any age can be recorded on the RYOGENS system. According to an evaluation the youngest was 9 months old, although the report acknowledges that in this case the power ‘appears to have been used incorrectly’.

On the RYOGENS website, a number of case studies are given, where refusal to consent to information-sharing has been overridden by the discretionary power to ‘promote social inclusion’ contained in the Local Government Act 2000 – mentioned yesterday. It would be very helpful to have the views of any lawyers on this use of s2 of the Act, and on the accompanying guidance on s2 from the ODPM.

#7 Police databases

Different police areas have systems for sharing information about children who come to their attention. Sometimes these are run in partnership with other agencies: for example the ‘Nipper’ database in York is run in conjunction with the ‘Safer York Partnership’ and records information about children at risk of harm, truants and those whose behaviour is described as 'unacceptable' - which includes playing ball-games in the street.

The Metropolitan Police operate a system called ‘MERLIN’ which was developed from their missing persons database. It now records details of any child who ‘comes to notice’ for any reason, ranging from child protection to bullying; being ‘present when premises are searched’; where it is suspected that a family member has mental health problems or in any circumstances where a police officer thinks that the family needs social services involvement. We are told that the data on MERLIN is available to all Metropolitan Police officers and to civilian staff on completion of training, and that other local agencies can obtain information from it if they have signed an information-sharing agreement with the MPS.

Just to round the ‘crime and justice’ section off, we should mention that where a child or young person is actually charged with a criminal offence, assessments are carried out by the YOT using a tool called ASSET, which has various add-ons for assessing drug use, vulnerability, suitability for bail etc. Information about young offenders is held on a YOIS or Careworks system.

Before we move on to the whole ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda - the Children’s Index, the Common Assessment Framework, ‘joined-up’ services and the Integrated Children’s System - we recommend that you download and read the green paper ‘Every Child Matters’ This sets out the thinking behind the planned new system.

#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.

#9 The Common Assessment Framework (CAF)

The CAF is a central feature of the 'Every Child Matters' agenda. It is an in-depth, personal assessment tool to be used on children by practitioners in any agency with which a child has contact. It facilitates information-sharing by introducing a standardised set of assessment criteria for agencies that have, up until now, had their own different ‘in-house’ assessment procedures.

The government estimates that around one-third of the child population is in need of additional services at any given time. Where it appears to a practitioner that a child has needs that are beyond the scope of that particular agency, or that the child is not ‘progressing’ towards the ‘five outcomes’ - the performance indicators set down in ‘Every Child Matters’ - it is expected that a Common Assessment will be carried out and an indicator placed on the Children’s Index that this has been done. It will be decided at local level which practitioners in each agency are to be trained to use the CAF.

The full framework can be seen
here - do look at it to get an understanding of the questions asked. You will probably notice the similarity between the CAF and other assessment tools such as APIR, ONSET, ASSET etc. It’s also along the same lines as a social services assessment of ‘need’.

practitioner’s guide (which you should also read) advises practitioners that:
“Wherever possible, you should base the discussion and your comments on evidence, not just opinion. Evidence would be what you have seen, what the child has said and what the family members have said. Opinions should be recorded and marked accordingly (for example ‘Michael said he thinks his dad is an alcoholic’)..”
It's hard to see how practitioners can stick to 'evidence' when they are meant to find out whether a child has 'stable' or 'negative' relationships, is 'creative', is developing a 'positive separation from family', has self-control and 'positive attitudes', and whether parents provide appropriate clothing and a 'stable, affectionate, stimulating family environment', 'effective and appropriate discipline' and avoid 'over-protection'. These types of question imply that there is an accepted standard, while in fact it is the practitioner's own opinion that is sought.

The practitioner’s guide also raises the issue of consent in section 5, stressing that a CAF should be voluntary on the part of the parent/child, and that information should not normally be shared without consent; however, there are circumstances in which lack of consent can be overridden. This section asserts that a child aged over 12 can generally be expected to have the capacity to consent. It is not clear what the legal basis is for this assertion, nor for recording ‘opinion’ about parents in their absence, but we will be dealing with these issues soon.

#10 Integrated Children's System (ICS)

The Integrated Children’s System (ICS) is currently under development. It is both a 'concept' of all agencies working together, and it is also the core of an ‘Electronic Social Care Record’ (ESCR) for children that will hold all of the case records and information about every contact a child or young person has with social services. The nearest parallel is with health records and the NHS system, and in fact there is some reference between the development of the two systems, as this document, for example, explains.

It appears that everyone will, in time have an ESCR and work is already taking place on a ‘Single Assessment Process’ for elderly people that brings together medical and social care records. More information about this whole area can be gleaned by searching on strings such as ‘NHS +ESCR’ or ‘ICRS +ESCR’ (ICRS = Integrated Care Records Service).

To return to the children’s agenda, though: once the ICS is up and running, it is intended that when a child becomes involved with social care, an electronic message will be sent to the Children’s Index to inform everyone of social services involvement and to seek information about any other agencies’ involvement. If a CAF has been completed by any practitioner, this will form a starting point for a more comprehensive ‘Children in Need’ assessment to be carried out by social services.

Pilots of ICS are currently being carried out in several parts of the country, and the final reports are expected within the next few months.

#11 The Children's Index

And finally: The Children’s Index. Also known as ‘Information Sharing and Assessment’ (ISA) or just plain ‘IS’. s12 of the Children Act 2004 gives the Secretary of State for education the power to create a database (or databases) of everyone in England who is aged under 18. The actual detail of what information can be collected may be specified in regulations. Similar provision is made for Wales, although the power is devolved to the Welsh Assembly.

The intended database has come to be known as the Children's Index, and is the one that most people are aware of. I hope it’s now become clear why we have left this until last: the Index is the file-front that serves the whole range of agencies that may be involved with a child. It is intended to provide a complete directory of all children from birth, together with a list of the agencies with which s/he is in contact. It won’t hold any case records, but will enable practitioners to contact each other in order to share information.

Think of it like a bicycle wheel: the various databases that hold different kinds of information about children are spaced around the circumference, linked by spokes to a central hub - the Children's Index.

Currently pilots are taking place in 12 local authorities to assess what data should be used for the Index.
Regulations to allow these pilots to take place provide for the following information to be collected:
  • name
  • address
  • gender
  • date of birth
  • parent contact details
  • name and contact details of any educational institution attended by the person
  • name and contact details of any specialist service provided by the local authority
  • name and contact details of primary health care provider
  • child benefit claimant details
An accompanying memorandum indicates the government’s intention to hold a public consultation before bringing in final regulations during the autumn to allow the Index to be set up across England. A more recent statement from the Children’s Minister says that the consultation will take place during the summer holidays.

It has also been confirmed that details of ‘sensitive’ services – where the mere presence of the details reveals sensitive information (eg drug treatment or mental health) - will for the time being only be included on the Index with consent.

You may find this briefing on the way that CAF, ICS and ISA
fit together useful.

ID Card Database
A recent development with regard to the Children’s Index is that consideration is being given to using information from it, together with data from the National Identity Register (NIR), to create a single 'master list' of the population. See our
other blog for more information. The final report of the Citizen’s Information Project says:
The Department for Education and Skills is developing an Information Sharing Index which, when completed, will have some of the characteristics of a child population register covering England. This appears worth examining further as a possible strategic option to deliver benefits similar to, and fitting alongside, those from the NIR.
We’ve finished outlining the systems now, and will turn to the thorny issues around consent to information-sharing.

#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.

#13 'Informed Consent'

Moving on from whether consent is sought at all before information is stored on a database and/or shared with other agencies, it’s important also to consider how – and from whom - consent is gained. ‘Informed consent’ means that the person giving it fully understands what they are agreeing to, and feels under no pressure to give a particular response.

We’ve already seen that Connexions asks for ‘blanket’ consent to allow information to be put on to a database and allow agencies to access it over a period of time. Is that reasonable? Someone of 14 - and their parents - might be perfectly willing to have information about, say, the young person's dyslexia stored and shared, but if a year later that same young person is going to need help with a drug problem, or become pregnant, how is anyone to foresee the problems that sharing such information may cause?

What about sharing information about others? The guidance to the CAF advises that information should be put in context (‘Michael said he thinks his dad is an alcoholic’) but unless there are genuine concerns about possible abuse, should that information be recorded at all without the consent of Michael’s dad?

It seems to have become accepted practice that any teenager can be approached directly for consent without the knowledge of their parents, so long as the agency thinks they are ‘Gillick competent’ to give such consent. This notion comes from a House of Lords judgment in a 1985 case, where Mrs Gillick sought to prevent her Area Health Authority from giving her under-age daughters contraceptive advice.

The Law Lords ruled that, if a doctor or other NHS worker believed the young person was capable of understanding the advice given to her and could not be persuaded to involve her parents, then it was lawful for the doctor to offer treatment without parental knowledge. This judgment was recently reinforced by a similar case, where a Ms Axon sought to prevent doctors offering abortion to her underage daughters without her knowledge.

The important point about the Gillick case is that it provided an exception to the common law principle that parents have responsibility for their underage children. It should also be remembered that the House of Lords judgment laid repeated stress upon the importance of seeking to persuade the young person at least to allow her parents to be informed, and warned that their judgment:
“ought not to be regarded as a licence for doctors to disregard the wishes of parents on this matter whenever they find it convenient to do so. Any doctor who behaves in such a way would be failing to discharge his professional responsibilities, and I would expect him to be disciplined by his own professional body accordingly.”
Even if one believes that the Gillick judgment can be expanded to cover situations other than a medical setting – and that has not been tested in the courts – offering a service to a young person where s/he flatly refuses parental involvement is substantially different from assessing the young person’s competence to consent first, and only involving parents if it becomes essential. How can such a presumption in favour of excluding parents completely from the decision-making process be justified?

The setting in which consent is sought matters, too, and it also makes a difference if a young person has been the subject of a referral, or has been approached after being 'identified' as needing a service, rather than having initiated the contact. If consent is sought at school, or when a young person is anxious to get one particular service, s/he may feel obliged to appear as cooperative as possible, or find it difficult to articulate objections when faced with an adult who appears to be in a position of power.

The whole area of ‘informed consent’ has become very muddy. A 15-year-old cannot ‘consent’ to, say, go on a school trip, and parents are increasingly being held responsible for their children’s behaviour through the use of Parenting Orders, fines and even imprisonment. Apart from exceptional cases, they are also responsible for supporting their children financially until at least 18. The goalposts of parental responsibility are constantly being shifted. It is anomalous, then, that a parent can be excluded from decisions about sharing information of events in their child’s life that may have serious consequences for everyone concerned - moreover, events that may actually be about the parents or other family members!

While it is undoubtedly important that a child or young person can seek help and advice in confidence, and may be perfectly capable of consenting to counselling or medical treatment, this is not the same as being competent to understand the full implications of complex acts of data-sharing.

The entire subject of consent needs open, public debate. Research has repeatedly shown that young people themselves are very uneasy about information sharing, and there is also growing concern that the role of parents and family in children’s lives is being systematically undermined.

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#14 Summary

There is a range of databases holding information about children and young people, and a corresponding range of legislation that allows this information to be shared between education, social care, health, youth justice and law enforcement agencies.

Many systems are concerned with a ‘predictive’ agenda – identifying children from an early age whom agencies believe may commit criminal offences in the future. The criteria used to make such a judgment include a large number of factors including poverty, getting bored easily, being a victim of bullying, truanting, having a parent with mental health problems and living in a deprived area.

Information about the children identified, and about their families, can be shared without the consent of the child and his/her parents. This predictive agenda has now been extended to identify children who have what are described as ‘low-level’ welfare problems because it is believed that intervening early may prevent them from developing more serious problems.

This type of system has been in use for several years by the Connexions service for teenagers, which uses an assessment tool to identify personal problems that may create ‘barriers to learning’, and brokers access to services.

A new in-depth personal assessment tool (the Common Assessment Framework) that captures information about the child, and the competence of his/her parents, has been designed to be used by any agency if a practitioner believes that the child:
  • is not progressing towards the 5 performance indicators laid down in 'Every Child Matters'
  • needs more services than the practitioner's agency can provide.
It appears that information that a child provides about other people may be collected without the consent of the person to whom it refers.

Social Services are moving over to an electronic record system (ESCR) to be developed along the lines of the NHS information system, and planned links between the two are under discussion.

A central index of all children from birth is currently being established to hold each child’s basic details, plus contact information for each practitioner working with the child. This will act rather like a telephone directory to indicate which agencies are working with a child, and enable practitioners to contact each other in order to share information, discuss the child and decide what s/he needs.

Consideration is being given to using data from the Children’s Index and the National Identity Register in order to create a single national population register.

Although the Children’s Index was initially promoted as a child protection measure in the wake of the Laming Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, plans to provide ‘joined-up’ services had actually been under discussion for several years prior to this, as part of the programme to ‘modernise’ government. This modernisation aims to harness developments in IT in order to provide government services electronically (‘e-government’). It is envisaged that everyone - child or adult - will eventually have a central file that acts as a ‘hub’ for government services.

The green paper ‘Every Child Matters’ changed the definition of the phrase ‘at risk’. Until now, when applied to a child, this has been taken to mean at risk of 'significant harm' from abuse or neglect. It now means at risk of social exclusion, of missing out on services or education, or of committing crime. The repeated use of ‘at risk’ has created confusion and led many people to believe that the Children’s Index is solely a child protection measure. The same can be said of the repeated use of the word ‘safeguarding’.

The legislation that establishes the Children’s Index allows information to be collected and shared without the knowledge or consent of child and parents. The fine details of exactly what information can be collected are left to the Secretary of State to decide and lay down in regulations.

There is considerable confusion around the issue of consent to the sharing of information between agencies:

  • Youth Justice Board guidance says that it is not necessary to have consent before sharing information.
  • RYOGENS provides a list of statutes that can be used to justify overriding any refusal of consent; some of these are wide, general powers.
  • The Connexions service can take a single blanket consent that allows agencies to access a young person’s record on the Connexions database.
Recent government guidance says that consent should be sought before sharing information, unless the child is at risk of abuse or likely to commit a serious crime; the guidance also says that this consent can be taken from someone aged under 16 without parental involvement if a practitioner believes that s/he has sufficient understanding.

The basis for this assertion is a House of Lords judgment in 1985 (in a case called Gillick) which makes it possible for health professionals to give contraceptive treatment to under-16s without parental consent. Whether this judgment can be extended to cover situations other than a medical setting has not been tested in the courts, and the common law position is that parents are responsible for their children until they are 16. The guidance is not statutory, and it will be up to each area ‘Local Safeguarding Children Board’ to develop its own information-sharing agreement.
At the moment, pilots are being conducted in order to decide what data should be put on the Children’s Index. During the autumn, the Government intends to hold a public consultation, and then draw up final regulations for the Children’s Index to lay before Parliament.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Fruit and veg

Most people will have seen the media attention given to children's databases during the last few days. One thing that cropped up repeatedly was the mention of the target of ensuring children ate 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

The full Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets (including the fruit and veg measure) for local authorities can be seen in the DfES' outcomes and indicators document.

Links to some of the press stories are over on our Archrights blog

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Conference reports

'Children: over-surveilled, under-protected' took place yesterday at the LSE. Notes and slides from the (excellent) speaker's presentations can be accessed here and you can even see photos of everyone involved.

Friday, June 23, 2006


A quick reminder about next Tuesday's conference. If you're intending to come, make sure that you email for a place - there are not many left and we can't guarantee admission to anyone who turns up on the day.

Conference - Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected

ARCH and LSE are putting on an afternoon conference in the Hong Kong Theatre of the London School of Economics on 27th June from 2-5pm to outline the range of databases that hold information about children, to clarify the distinction between 'child protection' and 'safeguarding children', and to examine the evidence for the government's current 'early intervention' policy.

For more information see:

As places are very limited, please email: as soon as possible if you would like to attend.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Conference 27th June - Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected

Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected
ARCH and LSE are putting on an afternoon conference in the Hong Kong Theatre of the London School of Economics on 27th June from 2-5pm to outline the range of databases that hold information about children, to clarify the distinction between 'child protection' and 'safeguarding children', and to examine the evidence for current government policy.

For more information see:

As places are very limited, please email: as soon as possible if you would like to attend.

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.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

More on ICS

According to a Socitm review of one local authority’s progress towards implementing the Integrated Children’s System:
“Most social services departments in England and Wales, if not all, are finding the introduction of ICS-compliant systems a considerable challenge. Translating the exemplars and workflows specified for ICS into an efficient and user-friendly system is far from straightforward, and furthermore ICS requires far closer interaction with computer systems by social services professionals than has typically been the case so far and much more structured ways of working. This has led to problems at a time when many social workers feel that ‘managerialism’ is diverting them from client interaction, and social services resources are generally stretched.”

Given the ongoing serious shortage of social workers, it is difficult to see how a reduction in the time available for direct contact with families can be helpful to children.