Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/10/23/contactpoint_memo/

Civil servants' pro-Labour memo reignites child data controversy

Tories ask questions on civil service impartiality

By Christopher Williams

Posted in Government, 23rd October 2008 13:23 GMT

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. ®

The memo in full

As posted by Ideal Government

CONTACTPOINT - UNIVERSAL SYSTEM VS SELECTIVE SYSTEM

The Conservatives propose to replace ContactPoint with a selective system covering only vulnerable children, such as those in care, on the child protection register or with backgrounds of domestic violence. This is similar to the approach being developed in Scotland – Getting it right for every child - and is more akin to what the electronic Common Assessment Framework (eCAF) and the Integrated Children's System (ICS) projects are seeking to achieve in England, than it is to ContactPoint.

ContactPoint has a different, wider purpose. It is, principally, about supporting early intervention for children who need additional services (30% at any one time and 50% during their lives) and is universal by design.

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, because they can only contact and speak to practitioners they can identify and locate, rather than all those known to be working with the child.

Holding records only for children judged to be 'vulnerable' would require subjective judgments about whether the threshold for inclusion on the system had been met and, importantly, further judgments about when to remove records from the system. It is proportionate to hold a small amount of information on all children, rather than continually making threshold decisions about which children to put onto a system and which to take off.

Without ContactPoint, being able to identify and contact others working with the same child is a frustrating and time consuming process. Practitioners would much rather invest time in providing services to children, young people and families. A survey of nearly 3,000 said that, on average, practitioners need to make contact with other services 107 times a year, averaging 4 hours each time.

Universality: in the light of the case of Victoria Climbié Victoria’s Aunt was claiming child benefit and had registered Victoria with two GPs. On both counts, Victoria’s details would have been supplied to ContactPoint and so would have been available to authorised users, regardless of any cause for concern. Had ContactPoint existed, social workers who came into contact with Victoria and had looked up her details, would have found that she was known as a child living in England and was registered with a GP. She would also have been listed in a Children Missing Education report and her absence from education would have been followed up by her local authority. Consequently, she may have been placed in a school, where her condition would have been observed daily and a Common Assessment may have been undertaken as a result.

Victoria was not assessed, by those who saw her as a child with additional needs. It is questionable whether she would have appeared on a selective system of vulnerable children.