Free information index
Child database 'will not prevent tragedies'
David Batty 12th December 2005
The children's minister, Beverley Hughes, today warned that the planned electronic database of all 11 million children in England was not a "technological magic wand" that would prevent further child abuse tragedies.
Speaking exclusively to SocietyGuardian.co.uk, Ms Hughes said the database, which is due to be operational in 2008, was "not in itself a panacea" to the flaws in child protection identified by inquiries such as that into the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié.
The minister said anecdotal evidence from 10 local pilots of the database suggested that the system significantly improved the sharing of information and joint working among professionals and agencies involved in child welfare.
She also set out how the index had been changed to address concerns that it would erode family privacy and breach the Data Protection Act. The database will not include case records, or details of assessments, but will merely state that a certain professional has some unspecified information about a certain child. Plans for professionals to mark a child's file with a so-called flag of concern have also been dropped.
"The whole purpose of this is to be a tool that enables practitioners to connect more easily with other practitioners," said Ms Hughes.
"It's completely unnecessary for it not only to contain any case information but even for it to indicate whether the information is an issue of concern or actually something about a need for a service or the fact that somebody's in receipt of a service."
Access to the database will be restricted to senior practitioners within an organisation and anyone without that clearance will have to submit a request to access it stating why they need to do so.
Once the national system is in place, the minister said it would be up to England's 150 local authority children's departments to input new data and ensure that records are accurate and up to date. It is projected that each department will need to hire between six and nine extra staff to manage the database locally, who will have to undergo criminal record checks before gaining access to the system.
The minister said there would also be a central back-up system, run by whichever company wins the contract to run the index, which would enable operators to double check the accuracy of the information.
She said: "Where a child moves from one area to another, the central index will hold a repository of all that information. When a child is put on the index in another area then it will do automatically that matching process.
"It is meant to be the statement as far as we can best make it of where children are. It will capture changes and do the matching automatically to make sure there's an accurate picture."
It will be left to local authorities to audit the data on the index, but officials from the Department for Education and Skills are in discussion with the information commissioner, who monitors compliance with the Data Protection Act, regarding an independent national audit of the records.
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