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UK.gov apologises for Tory-bashing child database memo

Civil servants went rogue on partisan missive, DCSF Sir Humphrey says

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

A top government official has apologised after civil servants working on the ContactPoint project wrote a memo to local authorities that was sharply critical of Tory policy on child data sharing.

In a letter to shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families Michael Gove, David Bell wrote: "The individuals concerned have crossed the boundary of what would be expected of them under the Civil Service Code. For that, as permanent secretary of this department, I apologise."

Bell is permanent secretary at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). He is the department's most senior non-political figure, in charge of its civil servants. The Civil Service code does not bar officials from holding political views, but says they must not "allow [their] political views to determine any advice you give or your actions".

A Conservative Party spokesman told The Register today: "It's good that Ed Balls' Department has apologised for the 'ill-judged' attempt to get involved in party politics, which is strictly against the rules. Taxpayers' money should be used to benefit taxpayers, not to do the work of the cash-strapped Labour Party."

In the controversial memo, sent in October, ContactPoint officials said Labour's policy of including information on every child in the UK was the best way to protect children.

They wrote: "A 'universal' system recognises that children move in and out of the spectrum of need and that it is not possible to predict the need for, or timing of, additional services.

"It 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 ContactPoint project was set up in the wake of murder of Victoria Climbié. A public inquiry found her abuse was repeatedly overlooked by government agencies, who would have been more likely to intervene if they had shared information. The partisan DCSF memo claimed that the Tories' alternative policy of only including children judged to be at risk may have failed to prevent her death.

In his apology, Bell wrote that ministers neither approved nor commissioned the ContactPoint team's criticism of Conservative policy. "It is legitimate for departmental officials to analyse a range of policy positions, including those of the opposition, and to brief ministers accordingly. However, any conclusions from that analysis should certainly not be communicated by officials outside the department," he wrote.

The Conservative spokesman said: "It is slightly surprising that ministers were so blissfully unaware of what was going on in their own department."

Bell will be "following up" the transgression with the individuals concerned, he wrote, and putting in place undisclosed further measures across DCSF to ensure no repetition.

ContactPoint has been delayed twice, first as part of the government-wide review of data protection following the massive loss of personal details by HMRC last year, and then by problems with its user interface, being implemented by CapGemini.

It's now scheduled to go live in January, when tens of thousands of teachers, doctors, social workers and police will begin sharing information on the contact they have with children. The Conservatives have pledged to scrap the database if they win the next election.

There's a copy of Bell's letter here (pdf). ®

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