Hillingdon in the High Court

January 20, 2007

The Childminder has an update on this story about the eviction of 16yo unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from care. Hillingdon has mounted a High Court challenge to the cuts in government funding that they say have created the problem.

Dog’s dinner, anyone?

January 19, 2007

If we’re rather quiet on the blogging front at the moment, a couple of items in the Register will explain why things have been exceptionally busy. Yup, fingerprints.

Take a good look at that first Register story. It says:

David Smith, deputy information commissioner, said: “For us to come out now and say fingerprinting isn’t allowed would be very difficult because these systems have come in over the last four years. We were asked about them and we said it was okay.”

Roughly translated, that means: we may have got it wrong, but it’s too late now. Instead, the Information Commissioner’s Office will cover their embarrassment by working with the DfES to produce guidance for schools on something the schools shouldn’t actually be doing in the first place.

Given that we first complained about school fingerprinting to the ICO around 4 years ago, and then again last year, only to be told that there wasn’t a data protection problem, you can perhaps understand that we might be feeling pretty peeved.

The price of medical records

January 19, 2007

The Times provides yet another illustration of the thriving market in personal data:

Rates that the private investigators were charging their clients for their illegal services:

Itemised telephone billing £750 per month
Personal banking information approx £2,000
Hacking into a target’s computer £5,000 per address
Monitoring a target’s telephone calls £3,000
Obtaining a target’s confidential medical records £350-£500 per person

For more details of what it costs to blag into someone’s private life, see our last blog on the subject.

Told you so

January 19, 2007


“Blunkett admits Asbos not working”

Funnily enough, exactly what hundreds of us told him four years ago.

Salad dressing or pork pies?

January 17, 2007

The problems facing children with SENs continue, and it’s hard to see how they will improve while the Government continues on its present path:

Figures from the Audit Commission in 2002 showed that 87 per cent of primary school exclusions and 60 per cent of exclusions in secondary school related to pupils with SEN. The Government insists the situation is getting better; figures released by SEN minister Lord Adonis last July showed the number of permanent exclusions of pupils with SEN halved from 18 per cent in 1997 to nine per cent in 2005.

If only.

The Advisory Centre for Education []says the figures quoted by Adonis mask that fact that, since 1997, data collection has changed; now it only covers the narrower group of children with statements that can be applied for if a child needs extra provision. Chris Gravell, the charity’s policy officer and advice worker, says: “To say it has halved from 1997 to 2005 is nonsense.

…Figures released by the National Autistic Society also cast doubt on Adonis’s figures. Research carried out in both 2000 and 2006 showed that one in five children with autism and one in four children with Asperger syndrome were excluded.

Those for whom SENs are more than a passing political dust-up might want to read last year’s report from the Select Committee on Education & Skills, which warned:

The Government needs to radically increase investment in training its workforce so that all staff, including teaching staff, are fully equipped and resourced to improve outcomes for children with SEN and disabilities.

Evidence from this inquiry demonstrates how far the country is from achieving such a vision. It is simply not acceptable for the Minister to say that the current system is “not always working well”. Special educational needs should be prioritised, brought into the mainstream education policy agenda, and radically improved.

In particular, read the section headed ‘Failings within the SEN system‘, and the minutes of the evidence given by Lord Adonis in which (as junior minister to Ruth Kelly) he bats away all criticism of government in the direction of local authorities or ‘parliament’ – while insisting that the government is not pursuing a policy of closing special schools – in a bravura display of abrasiveness and spin.

The report ought to be required reading for anyone passing comment on the Ruth Kelly business. As the editorial in Children Now says:

As Kelly has realised, sometimes educating children with SEN in mainstream schools may not be in a child’s best interests, because either the pupil or school is just not equipped to cope with the reality of inclusive education.

She, however, is fortunate that she has the luxury of being able to pay to “do the right thing” for her son – many other parents will never be so lucky. As a result, it’s imperative that the Government urgently revisits the issue in order to create a system that would be good enough for their own children not just for the public at large.

ROSLA again

January 15, 2007

Also on CiF today, Andrew Brown talking about the plans to lower youth unemployment figures raise the school leaving age:

There’s an extremely important difference between making it easy for people to learn, or to gain qualifications, and making it compulsory. It is not just the difference between freedom and compulsion: it is the difference between treating them like adults and like children. If the purpose of education is to produce adults, then artificial retardation isn’t going in the right direction.

Quite. We already infantilise young people for far too long, and then wonder why so many aren’t inclined to be co-operative with our great plans for them.

Another thought: who will be responsible for ensuring that a 17-year-old attends school/college/whatever? Will this become another stick with which to beat parents? (Think of the potential revenue from Fixed Penalty Notices, because it’s pretty hard to imagine how anyone will force a six-foot young man into school.)

Despite all the touchy-feely stuff from Government nowadays about ‘consulting’ children on policies that affect them (gee, thanks) it’s pretty clear that they haven’t bothered on this one. The last word should go to one of the commenters at CiF:

instead of the government dictating to students what they should do, what they should learn, and how they should learn it, perhaps they should consider asking the students what they actially want; you never know, we may just have some good ideas about what could make *our* education better!!

Privacy and information sharing

January 15, 2007

Some good stuff on Comment is Free today. First up, A.C.Grayling on government information-sharing plans:

The Blair vision …is a vision of an obedient, orderly, quiet, submissive, tidy, untroublesome Britain, its little unit-clones of citizens lined up in queues, modestly glowing with solid bourgeois virtue, their height, weight, bank details, medical records, daily calorie intake, bowel movements, salary, TV viewing habits, voting record, sexual proclivities, parents’ names, holiday destinations and shoe sizes all stored on a big, gleaming, throbbing computer in the basement of 10 Downing Street, with wires running to police HQ, MI5, every government ministry, the Inland Revenue, and the equally big, gleaming, throbbing but not-quite-working NHS computer, all stored and packaged ready to pop up at the press of a button as a citizen is tracked across town by thousands of CCTV cameras.

It’s a shame that the plans to do exactly the same things to children weren’t greeted with the same outrage when they were outlined more than 3 years ago. Although, we were all less knowledgeable then and perhaps the struggles over children’s databases – and ID Cards – have played their part in raising public awareness of the implications of government intrusion into private life. Grayling says:

Is it worth reminding the government of the point of privacy, and why its protection is so eminently worth the price of non-joined-up government record-keeping? It might be an instructive exercise for Mr Blair to be asked these questions: can he explain why every human rights convention specifies a right to privacy as fundamental?

Again, it’s worth remembering that under the ECHR, children have exactly the same right to privacy as anyone else. Just to underline the point, Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child makes it clear that this means children too.

There’s been plenty of banal drivel about ‘rights and responsibilities’ over the past few years, missing the point entirely that being the subject of human rights places upon everyone who wants to claim them the duty to ensure that everyone else can do so, too. Otherwise the concept is meaningless.

Very soon now, the Government will put regulations before Parliament to enable the establishment of the children’s Information-Sharing Index. Let’s hope that the anger about plans to share adults’ data is put to use in defence of children’s privacy as well.

Not-at-all super ASBOs

January 14, 2007

Tim Worstall tells it like it is on the government’s latest wheeze, the ‘Violent Offender Order’ (aka ‘Super-ASBO’) that can be issued to anyone whom the police believe might commit a violent offence.

So, you’ve actually done nothing wrong at all [] and the State, on the balance of probablities, including hearsay evidence, can insist that you move out of your house, move towns, probably lose your job….wonderful isn’t it?

They ought to issue an uber-ASBO to everyone at birth so that they can dispense with the so last-year hassle of fair trials.

Those pesky giants

January 14, 2007

Less than a month after the BBC reported that one giant had been slain, another one looms on the horizon:

A giant database of people’s personal details could be created at Whitehall under government plans which ministers say will help improve public services.

Tony Blair is expected to unveil the proposal in Downing Street on Monday.

Well, what a surprise. The NIR was always about creating a central ‘spine’ to enable the delivery of joined-up egovernment services ‘transformational government’, so something has to replace it.

It’s all gone very quiet since the Citizen Information Project produced its final report last year, recommending the creation of a central population register that would pull together the data held on the children’s IS Index and the NIR. The Ministerial Statement that followed said that the government accepted the recommendations and that:

…further work is being carried out in line with the transformational Government implementation plan published on 29 March 2006.

A nifty diagram (pdf) produced by the CIP shows how it could all fit together. Scroll down to Appendix A on page 24 and you can see a central spine surrounded by more arrows than Custer’s last stand, representing the ‘interactions’ of each human being with the central system from birth to death.

It’s quite hard to find the link to this document on the web. If it should suddenly disappear, as sometimes happens, you can contact ARCH for a copy (email details are on our website)

Safety in silence

January 13, 2007

We mentioned that the cost of the HMRC database has already risen from £3.5bn to £8.5bn, and now MP Vince Cable has been asking parliamentary questions about the costs of the government IT projects that didn’t get past first base – Dizzy has the lowdown on £12.6m flushed away by Defra.

Dizzy also point out that some departments have refused to reply to Vince Cable’s PQs:

on the grounds that it will cost too much to do so, or, and this is my favourite, because they had a name change therefore cannot answer questions about things that happened under the old name

That sounds familiar – as regular ARCHers will know, the Home Office has refused, on cost grounds, to give figures for the number of unconvicted children on the National DNA Database (which we suspect is well into 6 figures).

After speaking to two journalists last week, both of whom could quite reasonably be expected to have an interest in the lack of DNA figures, it seems that Home Office refusal to answer tricky questions is a very effective tactic: both journalists said that it would only be news if we actually had the figures.

ARCH is a great fan of the media. When it works well, it’s the way that the man on the Clapham omnibus, without regular access to politicians, finds out what’s really happening. But when journalists won’t hold government to account for its failure to give answers, our enthusiasm starts to dim. It looks as if the government can keep on keeping its mouth shut whenever it suits them.

Just chuck ’em out

January 13, 2007

This is absolutely dreadful:

for children in care born in the UK, there is a presumption at [Hillingdon] council that they will remain looked-after until they are 18; for those in the system who arrived in the UK as unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors, there is a policy of ejecting them from the care system as soon as they turn 16 and have notched up the minimum 13 weeks in care required to qualify for (significantly cheaper) leaving care services instead.

But before you put the blame entirely on Hillingdon, go and read the rest.

Close, but no cigar

January 13, 2007

According to the Sun yesterday, the battle to stop schools taking children’s fingerprints without parental consent was all but over. This was certainly news to us here at ARCH – and to everyone else working on this – in fact the first we heard of it was when the BBC rang me asking for a comment, so out of the window went my spiffing plan to finish a briefing that’s been hanging around for weeks, as I tried to find out what on earth was going on.

It seems that the Sun had picked up on some pre-Christmas news that the government is revising its guidelines on data in schools to include biometrics.

True, the fact that government is acknowledging the existence of a problem is a step forward, but ‘victory’ is rather over-egging it. We have been receiving complaints on a regular basis for more than 4 years and it’s pretty clear that a great many children and parents are very distressed about the whole thing.

It’s simply not good enough to issue ‘guidelines’ to schools without any parliamentary debate or public consultation. So, the champagne is still at the back of the fridge, keeping company with a lonely sprout or two, and it’s business as usual.

There are a couple of more realistic stories on the BBC and the Register

The great ASBO spin

January 12, 2007

Mention 2003 to anyone working with young people or involved in criminal justice and you’ll hear tales of folk mysteriously going grey overnight… some even went mad, they say. It was the year that saw in some of the most draconian legislation that ever disgraced the HMSO printing presses: the Sexual Offences Act, the Criminal Justice Act and the Antisocial Behaviour Act.

It was the last of this dreadful triad that gave us the ASBO – a new hybrid to sit in the cracks between the civil and criminal law: civil as far as human rights to a fair trial or to have an offence clearly defined in law were concerned. Criminal because any breach could send you straight to gaol.

When the White Paper was published on 13th March, the phone lines were jammed with NGO types asking where the address for responses had gone, and complaining that it read more like a hateful pub rant than a government policy document. Good old David Blunkett, eh? The man of the people. (Well, Annabel’s, dinner parties and duchesses apart.)

As for where responses should go, Blunkett told us. Consultation? There was no consultation. The Bill followed a scant fortnight later (mercifully with the language toned down) and the Home Office stuffed its ear plugs in as everyone from the voluntary sector to local authorities and the police told them why ASBOs were an appalling idea.

Fast forward a few years, and the Youth Justice Board has just issued a report cataloguing the great ASBO disaster zone in terms remarkably similar to the briefings that fell on deaf ears back in 2003 when the Bill was going through.

Is the Government chastened? Not a bit of it. If you read the response delivered by Lord Bassam on Wednesday, you’ll see that they are distinctly upbeat about the whole thing.

First, the report shows that almost half of the sample breached the terms of their ASBO. It is important to note that the sample of young people was not representative of the ASBO population and therefore those results cannot be generalised or be indicative of overall ASBO compliance rates. Furthermore, I reject the proposition that any breach rate is an indication of failure.

The man is a true adept, managing to combine the reverse toe-loop and triple axel of spin in a single paragraph. There’s some impressive ‘failure is success’ doublethink, but note also the subtle ‘faulty research’ technique in operation: if an opinion poll of a few hundred people delivers the desired answer, then the people have spoken. However, if a report fails to come up with the goods, it’s because the sample wasn’t representative, and thus the YJB report

…should in no way be read as representing the experience of all YOTs or, for that matter, crime and disorder areas.

Nice try, YJB. Pity about the audience.

How libellous is your database?

January 12, 2007

According to Children Now:

Leicestershire Council has signed a £1m contract for an IT system designed to help target truancy, behaviour and pupil attainment.

The five-year agreement with Capita Education Services will provide a system to manage pupil and school data. It will make it easier for children’s services teams to share information on attendance, exclusions, behaviour, pupil attainment and special educational needs.

Over on the Capita education site, online demonstrations of all their products are available. The ‘Detailed Pupil Record’ captures, well, everything – right down to ‘disruptive behaviour – throwing food’.

Schools need to start being very careful if they are logging and sharing information on what may be subjective or unfair decisions about behaviour. After all, who hasn’t at some point been unfairly accused of some misdemeanour or other at school?

Generally children shrug injustice off as yet another example of a particular teacher’s irascibility or unreasonableness, but if that information is going to be spread around and find its way on to the databases of other services in order to facilitate judgments about whether a child is showing signs of being ‘at risk’ of future offending, that’s another matter completely.

The problem with sharing unsubstantiated and disputed allegations amongst schools, social services, Youth Offending Teams and the police can be summed up in one word: defamation. In the days when details of alleged misbehaviour and consequent detentions were scribbled down in a punishment book, the idea that a child’s reputation might suffer damage would have been laughable, but the situation now is entirely different.

A child whose database record is peppered with incidents of ‘disruptive behaviour’ is a child heading for a label and a multi-agency intervention scheme. More, that record is persistent: unlike the punishment book, it doesn’t disappear down the back of the head teacher’s filing cabinet to accumulate dust once the pages have started to fall out. It can follow a child around every agency with which s/he has contact for years to come.

Teachers are going to have to start being very sure indeed about what goes on to a child’s behaviour record, because as soon as children’s information starts crossing the school fence, the implications of unjust accusations suddenly become extremely serious.

So that’s a ‘no’, then.

January 9, 2007

Just before Christmas, we mentioned that we were still waiting for answers to parliamentary questions about the retention of children’s DNA tabled by Grant Shapps MP. They were very simple:

a) How many under-18s arrested but never charged or cautioned have DNA profiles stored on the National DNA Database (NDNAD)

b) How many U-18s who have received reprimands or final warnings (not a finding of guilt in law) have profiles held on NDNAD

At the time, the Sunday Times had just reported that the overall figure for retention of innocent people’s DNA was 1.2 million – 8 times the previous figure given by the government.

Given that juveniles represent a quarter of all arrests, we became suspicious that the original government figure of 25,000 for unconvicted U-18s was more likely to be around the quarter of a million mark.

We’ve just had a call to let us know that the Home Office refuses to answer Grant Shapps’ questions, claiming that it would cost too much to get the figures.

So, they can break the overall figures down according to age, or ethnic appearance. They can give figures for those in Mid-Essex or Wantage who are on the DNA database but unconvicted. They can even answer questions on individual cases involving DNA evidence.

But apparently the Home Office can’t give the figure for the number of unconvicted juveniles on the National DNA Database…?

Update January 10th I notice that Dizzy Thinks is talking about government admissions that they have a ‘traffic light’ system for PQs:

“The Department began trialing in October of this year an informal colour-coding system to identify questions of which press office should be made aware, and for which Ministers wish separate media briefing to be developed.”

So what colour do they give to the ones that even their press office can’t spin?