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Civil servants' pro-Labour memo reignites child data controversy

Tories ask questions on civil service impartiality

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Exclusive The Conservatives have called on the government to explain why supposedly impartial civil servants have intervened in a political argument over how sensitive data on children should be stored and shared.

Earlier this week the Department for Children, Schools and Families wrote to local authorities to argue that Labour's plans for the forthcoming ContactPoint database are the best to protect children from abuse. The government will pool personal data on every child in England and Wales, while the Tories say only those identified by social workers as vulnerable should be included.

"It [Labour's plan] is much less stigmatising - no judgement is required about who should be included or not. With a selective system, such as that proposed by the Conservatives, practitioners may make decisions about the needs or vulnerability of a child in absence of all of the available information," the DCSF memo said.

Today, shadow children's minister Tim Loughton told The Register: "It would be very serious if ministers have allowed civil servants to contravene rules on impartiality. The DCSF must explain if an abuse has taken place in this instance and, if so, what action they will take."

Yesterday Loughton tabled a parliamentary question to DCSF asking who the memo on Conservative policy was sent to and on whose authority. Government officials are not allowed to take political viewpoints under the Civil Service Code.

A DCSF spokeswoman said today she thought there might have been a misunderstanding over the purpose of the memo. The department sent this statement:

Information was sent to all Local Authorities after several direct requests from ContactPoint Project Managers, and information from our regional team that there was widespread interest from other local authorities, to outline the differences between the proposed selective system from Michael Gove MP and a universal system, ContactPoint. It was written to demonstrate the benefits of the universal system and to clarify some inaccuracies and myths which have been circulating about ContactPoint.

For ContactPoint to be successful it must be a national and universal online directory. In their lifetimes, up to 50 per cent of children will require additional service support, but there is no accounting for who, when and where this requirement will materialise. By including every child on the directory, by its definition early intervention is possible for every child's requirement.

The ContactPoint project was set up in the wake of the inquiry into the murder of Victoria Climbié. She was killed in 2000 after authorities' repeated failures of coordination allowed abuse by her guardians to continue unchecked.

The Capgemini-run database is the centrepiece of the government's Every Child Matters initiative. After repeated delays it is now scheduled to launch in January, and will allow thousands of doctors, social workers, teachers and police to share data on children. However, the Conservatives pledged earlier this month to scrap ContactPoint if they win the next election and replace it with a more targeted system.

Loughton said: "The Government has shown that it cannot be trusted to set up large databases and protect the information held within them. Independent experts have confirmed that there are serious problems with ContactPoint. It would increase the risk to some of the most vulnerable children in society so it would be irresponsible to press ahead."

In their memo, the DCSF ContactPoint team said Victoria Climbié's case might not have been included under the Conservatives' alternative data sharing scheme. Tory policies would have failed to prevent her tragic death, the civil service implied. ®

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