Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/12/contactpoint_figures_analysis/

UK's 'secure' child protection database will be open to one million

Government underestimates, under pressure

By Christopher Williams and Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Government, 12th November 2008 13:08 GMT

Exclusive More than three times as many officials will be able to access sensitive information on every child in England and Wales held in the forthcoming ContactPoint database than estimates circulated by the government suggest, research by The Register has found.

ContactPoint is now scheduled to launch in January. It will store and share data including every child's name, home address and school, and information about their legal guardians. The government has argued it could help prevent cases similar to the horrific death of Baby P, whose tormentors were convicted at the Old Bailey yesterday.

Publicly available staffing figures from education authorities, the NHS, social services and other organisations show that more than one million government employees will have access to ContactPoint.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has told parliament that only 330,000 will use the delayed centralised data sharing system.

DCSF ministers Lord Adonis and Kevin Brennan have told both houses of parliament "the number of users is estimated to be around 330,000".

Use versus access

The lesser figure has been repeatedly highlighted by ContactPoint's critics as reason to fear it will be open to abuse. News that the true number of users could top a million will provide them with more ammunition to attack the government's security claims. Although ministers have emphasised the numbers who will "use" ContactPoint rather than be able to access the database, it's the latter that is seen as most important by campaigners, who are concerned the database will be easily trawled by abusive former partners seeking a reunion, for example.

At time of publications DCSF had not respond to requests for comment on the much wider access to ContactPoint our research reveals.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have pledged to scrap ContactPoint.

Maria Miller, the Tories' shadow minister for children, schools and families told The Register: "An independent review by Deloitte in February said that urgent changes needed to be made to ContactPoint before the government could implement it. Now more problems are emerging with ContactPoint and still the government thinks it is acceptable to introduce it.

"They have grossly underestimated the number of people who will have access to children’s data and now more children will be put at risk. ContactPoint should be scrapped."

The Conservatives want to replace ContactPoint with a smaller system that will only hold data on children deemed at risk. Officials wrote to councils in October arguing against the alternative scheme. DCSF later apologised for the breach of civil service political impartiality rules.

The total number of government employees who will have access to ContactPoint among only GPs and the police is more than 323,000, official figures show.

Baroness Sue Miller, a Liberal Democrat peer with a special interest in data protection issues, said: "The ContactPoint system was dubious to start with. It would have been irrelevant to key cases such as that of Victoria Climbié. This latest revelation merely makes it at least three times worse."

Miller said she was not surprised that the debate on ContactPoint had been informed by incorrect figures, adding, "I do not think the government has necessarily set out to mislead; there is no evidence of that. However they have at least been careless in allowing such a gross under-estimate to circulate in debate."

Repeated failures

ContactPoint is the centrepeice of the government's Every Child Matters initiative, its response to abuse and murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié in 2000. The inquiry into authorities' repeated failures to intervene in her case in part blamed poor information sharing and the lack of an easy way for the various doctors and social workers who visited the family to contact each other.

The system, which will be run by CapGemini, has been delayed twice. The first hold up was caused by the government-wide review of data security following the HMRC lost CDs debacle. ContactPoint was hit by a further delay in September, which ministers blamed on problems with its user interface.

Despite its imminent launch, the criteria to allow access to ContactPoint remain unclear. DCSF told The Register: "Before a search begins, all users will need to identify a reason for the search."

A spokeswoman said there will be no system for determining whether the reason is valid. To run a search users must enter either a first or a surname, an approximate age and a gender.

DCSF said if too many children's details are returned by the database then no results will be displayed, to reduce the risk of spurious searches and trawling. "We are currently working to determine what a sensible and practical limit is," it said.

Last night ministers ordered another review of child protection after a court heard that authorities in the same London borough as the Climbié tragedy had visited Baby P no less than 60 times before his abusers killed him. ®

Comment: How the gov's child protection database fails to add up