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Reg digging exposes holes in ContactPoint numbers

Complacent government estimates could endanger project

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Government ministers have been misleading Parliament for the last year by repeatedly giving out estimates for the likely number of users for their ContactPoint Database that are significantly lower than suggested by their own research. According to IT experts, if these results have not been taken into account, this could damage the long-term success of the project.

Earlier in the month, we carried out analysis suggesting that the government may have significantly under-estimated the likely number of users of the new ContactPoint database, perhaps by a factor of three. Response from individuals working in sectors likely to be affected has been mixed, with many saying that our estimate of about one million is more plausible as an eventual outcome than the figure of 330,000 repeatedly quoted by Government Ministers.

Now we learn that a report produced over 12 months ago put the most likely figure at 365,000 - or 10 per cent more than has been quoted by ministers. The Department's own National Workforce Analysis from October 2007, released in response to The Register continuing to probe, concludes: "Our current best estimate of national user numbers is 365,000, with a likely range of 300,000 to 450,000. This is broadly consistent with earlier estimates used in the business case (330,000 users, with a somewhat wider range)."

Yet here in February 2008, some five months after that research was published, we have Kevin Brennan, then a junior minister at the DCSF, still repeating the figure of 330,000 in response to a question in the Commons.

The document also included a number of issues in respect of the quality of data captured - most of which would tend to inflate the final figure, rather than lower it.

This is supported by the answer given to a Parliamentary Question this week, which now puts the likely figure at 390,000, with a range of possible outcomes between 220,000 and 480,000. However, government embarrassment may be spared a few days longer by the fact that the answer was slipped out last thing, just before parliament was pro-rogued, and a backlog in printing up Hansard, the official record of proceedings, means it may be a few days before MP's are fully aware of how numbers have shifted.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has consistently claimed that access to the ContactPoint Database will be highly restricted and only a very small proportion of the near-three million individuals identified in legislation as entitled to access it ever will. That does beg the question of how a system whose objectives are to improve the care of individual children by facilitating contact between professionals, can achieve that objective if all information has to be accessed through a series of departmental gate-keepers.

As we reported last week, organisations such as ACPO are sceptical that the limited access proposed for the police will be sufficient to allow ContactPoint to achieve its stated aims.

Parliamentary critics of the scheme have been attempting for some time to understand the basis for the government’s user figure.

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