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Children's databases - a real cause for concern

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A report, published today (Wednesday 22 November) by the Information Commissioner concludes that new government policies designed to safeguard children could increase dangers, divert resources and create a 'surveillance' culture where parents are sidelined.

The report describes extensive databases being established in fields as diverse as education, youth justice, health and social work, and the linking of these systems through the new Information Sharing Index, the Integrated Children's System and a new, in-depth personal profiling tool known as the 'Common Assessment Framework'. It finds that the systems are not secure and violate UK and European data protection and human rights law.

The authors of the report, Children's Databases: safety and privacy, all from the Foundation for Information Policy Research, are: Ross Anderson, Cambridge University; Ian Brown, University College London; Richard Clayton, Cambridge University; Terri Dowty, Action on Rights for Children; Douwe Korff, London Metropolitan University; Eileen Munro|, LSE.

They list main concerns with the current policy being implemented:

  • Although introduced as a response to the death of Victoria Climbie, the policy shifts the focus away from abused children, putting them at greater risk. As Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, has said: 'When you are looking for a needle in a haystack, is it necessary to keep building bigger haystacks?' The new IT based strategy will divert resources and attention away from these children, potentially posing more dangers.
  • The policy is based on overconfidence in professional knowledge and in the power of IT. One of the databases, the Information Sharing Index aims to track all 12 million children in England from birth. It will form the hub of a network of health, education, social care and youth justice systems for monitoring and assessing children.. Predicting how children will turn out is highly fallible. The main focus of the policy is on spotting the babies and children who may become a 'menace' or a cost to society in later life by, for example, having babies in their teens, underachieving at school, or being delinquent. This also raises the issue that labelling can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as all adults treat the child with suspicion.
  • If this 'screening' of children did happen, would there be a place for parental responsibility? Parents and children's views about what they need are being sidelined, while many families already find it hard to obtain even basic disability aids. The database involves a micromanagement system of targets and performance indicators for every child prescribed by the State and responsibility for achieving them is being placed on children's services, rather than parents, even down to meeting 'performance indicators' about the amount of fruit and vegetables eaten or participation in voluntary work. Parents are to be assessed on their competence by insufficiently qualified professionals. Children may be coerced into providing highly intrusive data on themselves, their parents and friends, without proper checks and safeguards, and into giving their 'consent' to widespread datasharing, without involvement of their parents, in contravention of the law.
  • Families' privacy and autonomy is being shattered as the government puts them all under surveillance. The current policy proposes treating all parents as if they cannot be trusted to bring up their children and to ask for help if and when needed. Sharing information about families is essential in detecting child abuse and neglect but the new policy extends this to all concerns about a child's health and development.

Eileen Munro said: 'The policy extends the surveillance needed for child protection concerns to all concerns about a child's health and development. It reduces parental authority, undermines their confidence, and risks damaging their willingness to seek or accept help.'

Terri Dowty said: 'Offering services that support families is highly desirable, but the way to do this effectively is to listen to parents and children in order to understand what problems they need help with, and to make sure that relevant services are properly resourced. As it is, the Government proposes to take the child protection system and apply it to all aspects of children's health and welfare needs. We don't need a surveillance system which forces professionals to make clumsy risk assessments. What practitioners need is the time, resources and the opportunity to listen more to parents and children, and respond in the best way.'

To read the full report, see www.ico.gov.uk| 

Contacts and other details

  • Eileen Munro, Reader in Social Policy at LSE - 020 7955 7349
  • Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering, University of Cambridge , 01223 334733
  • Ian Brown, Senior Research Manager at the Cambridge-MIT Institute and Researcher in Computer Science, UCL - 020 7679 7214
  • Richard Clayton, Computer Science, University of Cambridge - 01223 73570
  • Terri Dowty, Director, Action on Rights for Children - 020 8558 9317
  • Douwe Korff, Law, London Metropolitan University - 02071335010 (univ), 01223-841264 (home)
  • FIPR: see www.fipr.org 

Press cuttings

Public Technology Net
IT systems designed to protect kids will put them at risk instead: official (23 Nov 06)
Article about the recent report Children's Databases: Safety and Privacy, published by the Information Commissioner. Includes comments from Dr Eileen Munro, one of the report's authors.

Community Care
Children's index will 'divert resources from frontline services' (22 Nov 06)
The children's index could put young people at increased risk by diverting resources from frontline services, a report ordered by the Information Commissioner and published today has found. One of the authors, Dr Eileen Munro, a reader in social policy at LSE, said the scheme 'would overstretch scarce resources, damage parents' confidence and divert services from focusing on real cases of abuse.'  

The Register
Report raises child index alarm (22 Nov 06)

The Telegraph
Child database 'will ruin family privacy' (22 Nov 06)
Parents will be devalued and family privacy shattered by the mass surveillance of all 12 million children in England and Wales, says a report today commissioned by Parliament's Information Commissioner. One of the report's authors, Dr Eileen Munro, LSE, said: 'The Government is extending the surveillance needed for child protection concerns to all concerns about a child's health and development. It reduces parental authority and risks damaging their willingness to seek or accept help.'

Evening Standard
Four million children at risk of being stigmatised by nationwide 'problem child' database (22 Nov 06)
Article about the report Children's Databases: Safety and Privacy. One of the report's authors, Dr Eileen Munro, LSE said: 'When dealing with child abuse, we do need to override privacy. But the new policy extends this level of intrusion into families that are not even suspected of abusing their children, and to all concerns about children's development. It will also over-stretch scarce resources, damage parents' confidence and divert services from focussing on real cases of abuse.'

Daily Mail
Four million children at risk of being stigmatised by nationwide 'problem child' database (22 Nov 06)

22 November 2006

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