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UK Gov's response to child abuse – unique IDs for all

Enter, the Department of Toyland Security...

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The British Government yesterday announced that it would be issuing unique ID numbers for all the country's children, and that local databases of all children would be set up in order to facilitate information sharing between child- (and not so child-) related agencies. The objective, depending on which Government songsheet you happen to be listening to, is either to provide child-centred services better, helping children to "develop their full potential" (Margaret Hodge) or to tackle child abuse more effectively in the wake of the "tragic death of Victoria Climbié" (Charles Clarke).

The second at least provides the jumping-off point for the Government's Every Child Matters Green Paper, whose introduction (Tony Blair) says that in response to the Climbié enquiry "we are proposing here a range of measures to reform and improve children's care." But it's a jumping-off point that provides an excuse for a characteristic piece of busybodying, with barcoding the lot of them the necessary side-effect.

Victoria Climbié died in February 2000, and her carers were later convicted of murder (a timeline of her case can be found here). Her's was the latest in a series of cases of child abuse which have exposed the weaknesses of the UK's social services departments, and communications failures between the agencies involved. Climbié's injuries prompted a hospital to alert Haringey social services and the police, who between July 1999 and February 2000 failed to take any effective action. During approximately a year in the UK (she came from the Ivory Coast, via France, on a false passport) Climbié did not attend school, a matter which seems not to have been addressed by the authorities involved either.

That reprise of Climbié's short and unhappy life in the UK illustrates the mismatch between the problem and the solution proposed. Climbié was not initially known to Haringey, the relevant local authority, and would not have had an ID number, had they existed at the time. The authority was alerted after the first detection of injuries, within a few months of her arrival in the country, and her subsequent death was caused by that authority's failure to act in any meaningful way. Communications failures between agencies have been a factor in other child deaths in the UK, but in Climbié's case the failures seem more ones of competence.

And there is a long-term Government failure to tackle both competence and inter-agency communication, so we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that there are very real problems to be tackled here, nor of the likelihood that centralisation of records and systems and the broadening of access to them might go some way towards fixing these problems. The Government, however, is going way beyond simply applying IT to the "at risk" register and ensuring that swift and decisive action is taken when alerts occur.

Young People and Families Minister Margaret Hodge, who presided over her very own social services disaster while running Haringey's next door neighbour, Islington, in the 1990s, does not believe child protection can be improved by focussing tightly on it in this way. "Child protection cannot be separated from policies to improve children's lives more widely. We want to reform children's services to best protect children from risk of harm. At the same time, we want to shift the balance to prevention by providing greater support to all families.... We want all children to have safe and secure childhoods in which they can develop their full potential. We want to see fewer children suffering from educational failure, experiencing substance misuse, committing crime and anti-social behaviour, or becoming teenage parents. That means giving greater support to vulnerable children and those in care and raising education standards for all pupils."

And to be fair, there's some argument to support some of this. Multiple agencies keep multiple lists of children at risk and/or disadvantaged for multiple reasons, so there probably is something to be gained via the interchange of information on them. It is however a pretty substantial step simply to merge all of these lists, without going to the lengths of producing lists of all children, and giving broad access to those lists to multiple agencies whose job it is to place ticks in the relevant boxes. If, for example, your child has special needs - linguistic, perhaps, or learning difficulties - how do you feel about having their file looked over by social services or the Metropolitan Police? How do you feel about having their whereabouts logged when you move?

Essentially, the Government's response to the Climbié enquiry has grown into a vast exercise in child auditing, a sort of Department of Toyland Security. The mechanics are summarised as follows (page 13 of the Green Paper). The Government will prevent any children "slipping through the net" by:

"Improving information sharing between agencies to ensure all local authorities have a list of children in their area, the services each child has had contact with, and the contact details of the relevant professionals who work with them. The Government will remove the legislative barriers to better information sharing, and the technical barriers to electronic information sharing through developing a single unique identity number, and common data standards on the recording of information... We will expect every local authority to identify a lead official with responsibility for ensuring information is collected and shared across services for children, covering special educational needs, Connexions [a sort of truancy register], Youth Offending Teams, health and social services. The aim is for basic information to follow the child to reduce duplication."

You'll note from this that we're neither making it up nor exaggerating - all children will have a file full of all sorts of information on them that follows them around, and starting from the best of possible motives the Government will have instituted a massive exercise in social control and monitoring. Which will be extended. As an example of this, take a look at this document from the Metropolitan Police, produced (also from the best of possible motives) in conjunction with the Climbié enquiry:

"Immigration can play a pivotal role. They should check the status of the person with the child or children and reason for entry. Details of the composition of the family should be accurately recorded and should include where the family intends to stay. This intelligence should be linked to national/regional database... Closer links between Immigration, Health and DSS would identify if any benefits  are being claimed, in particular child and housing allowances.  Information given to obtain benefit or allowances could be checked against data collected at the point of entry into the UK for irregularities. Such irregularities should initiate enquiries with social service departments. This would provide a proactive response to tracing families from both an immigration and social services perspective. There is a need to identify the hidden population within a community... Issue of new 'smart' I/D card will assist, including issue of a National Insurance Number to individuals regardless of age..."

And so on. How much of that stems from an honest attempt to address the problem of child protection, and how much from the broader agenda of the originating organisation? There's at least some of the latter there, clearly.

But it would appear to be exceedingly difficult for the current Government to address any major problem without the production of central registers, the issuing of unique IDs and the linking of databases. The Register does not however think this is because they deliberately use every opportunity as camouflage behind which to construct the giant Database of Everyone and Everything of their dreams. We think it's because they're busybodying control freaks who can't stop themselves. Whatever, it amounts to the same thing in the end - time to build a register of unique ID schemes* before it's too late... ®

* On which matter - about two headlines down from the Green Paper on last night's PM on Radio 4, we were told that "senior police officers" wanted a "DNA Sample from everyone in Britain held on a central database." A police spokesman later denied the programme's suggestion that this would make everyone "suspect from the moment they were born."

Related Links

BBC report
Government announcement
Green Paper and related documents

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