Because I say so

May 17, 2007

Just spotted this gem on the back page of this week’s Children Now:

“Public health is a greater priority than freedom of choice” – Birth defects expert Professor Nicholas Wald on the news that the Food Standards Agency may require folic acid to be added to all bread, cake and biscuits.


Safe in their hands (4)

May 17, 2007

Worth taking a look at this report about the National DNA Database in the Register:

It would have been more accurate for the NDNAD to say in its report today that between 1995 and 2005 approximately it tried to load 126,200 erroneous records onto the database, of which only 26,200 were stopped by the system.

…a further 10 per cent of records on the DNA database, which contains about 4.1m records, are duplicates. These are records that have identical DNA samples as other records on the database, but different identifying information.

Radical solutions

May 16, 2007

‘Fresh Fresh Fresh Start’ perhaps?

Schools Minister Andrew Adonis today launched tough new guidelines to ensure effective and early action is taken to improve weak and failing schools.

…”We want to turn round poor schools more quickly and challenge those that are clearly coasting as soon as possible to make sure they do not decline into full failure.

“Where a school gets stuck in special measures – making no progress whatsoever after about a year – then we will need to look very carefully at whether it should stay open. It may be better to close the school and look for new arrangements such as an Academy – or to hold a competition for a new body to run the school.”

Ah, rather like this, or maybe this?

Disposition to crime

May 16, 2007

With the government’s announcement of a crackdown on baby criminals, there’s a strangely apposite comment piece from Daniel Finkelstein today on the difference between dispositionalism and situationalism.

any one of us is capable of dreadful behaviour depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. Our concentration on the personality of evil people, on their dispositions, is a mistake. We should think instead of the situation.

Finkelstein points to evidence that the Tories are moving from being dispositionalists to being situationalists. Ironically, they are meeting a Labour government steaming in the opposite direction with their latest initiative to target unborn ‘menaces to society’.

Any one of us is also capable of being a pretty poor sort of parent: loneliness, financial worries and the inability to see how things can possibly improve are enough to plunge plenty of people into depression. It’s hard to smile, sing nursery rhymes or enjoy being pregnant when you feel utterly bleak.

It’s actually no bad idea to offer friendly help to, say, an isolated young woman who doesn’t have the network of family and friends that many people can take for granted when they are plunged into parenthood. But to bill that as a crime-prevention measure instantly turns it into something hateful. It makes a child’s birth into an occasion for gloomy doubt and reduces an expectant mother merely to the sub-standard object through which the next generation arrives, with its implication that “hey, you’re so useless that we need to try and make something of you so that at least your child stands a chance”. A repugnant message, but the govt seems incapable of recognising just how vile it is.

Kate Billingham, director of the project and deputy chief nursing officer, rejected suggestions the scheme could stigmatise deprived children. “I myself think labelling and stigmatising are used as ways of not giving people the help they want and their children can benefit from.”

The fatuity of that statement undermines any hope that ‘giving help’ will be handled sensitively. How can a scheme that is trumpeted by the government as entirely negative – ‘preventing’ someone identified as a potential problem from becoming so – ever be anything but labelling and stigmatising? But if one doesn’t recognise the pitfall, one can hardly avoid it.

In the right hands, this initiative ought to be a really good, positive idea: a compassionate offer of support from one human being to another in recognition of the fact that pregnancy and babies can be frightening, exhausting and confusing, especially if you’re alone with a mountain of other problems. Instead, though, macho government posturing, hate-speech and the driving ambition for control have reduced it to a divisive, dispositionalist measure stripped of any humanity.

What do you know?

May 15, 2007

Test your knowledge of school biometrics with LTKA’s quiz.

Sheesh, it’s only £1bn

May 14, 2007

I’m lost for words:

The Liberal Democrats have blasted the government for overspending on IT projects by more than £1bn in the last five years.

However, the Cabinet Office downplayed the news, saying it spent £12.4bn per year on IT projects and adding that £1bn over five years is a small percentage of the total.

Essential life skills

May 14, 2007

Confirmation that we live in a litigious age:

The UK Intellectual Property Office’s drive to raise Intellectual Property awareness within schools has paid off with a record number of entries being submitted in this year’s Think kit “Hobby to Enterprise” competition…

The Design & Technology Students have been asked to come up with something new and useful to do with their hobby. Students will need to show designs and label each element clearly to show how the product can best be sued.

DNA Inquiry

May 13, 2007

From Scotland’s Sunday Herald:

The Sunday Herald has learned that independent government advisory body the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) is to launch an investigation into the retention of DNA samples, this summer.

A source at the HGC said: “I don’t think there is any disagreement that DNA databases are useful things, but the discussion is who should be on it, how long you should be on it, and what safeguards should be in place.”

Couldn’t-care-less in the Community

May 13, 2007

An estimated 175,000 children are ‘young carers’ – that is, they look after disabled and ill parents or other family members, sometimes for 20+ hours per week. It’s hard to put an exact figure on it because fear of being taken into care keeps most children quiet, and the resources that would be needed to replace children’s responsibilities with properly funded social care gives local councils and government a powerful incentive not to look too closely.

Now, even the funding that is available for young carers’ projects is under threat:

The carers grant and children’s fund are central government pots of money that fund a range of projects for carers and disadvantaged children, and include schemes backing young carers. The carers grant is worth £185m in England this financial year, while the children’s fund will provide £130-£149m. Both are due to be wound up next March. The children’s fund will go directly into councils’ children budgets, but the future of the carers grant will not be clarified until the comprehensive spending review in October. Charities fear all the money will simply be absorbed into local government funding, with no guarantee that help for young carers will be protected.

Al Aynsley-Green, the children’s commissioner warns that child carers barely feature in the plans published by councils covering priorities for young people.

In the Times today, Minette Marin has plenty to say on the subject, and mentions the recent suicide of a child nursing her mother:

In October a girl of 13 died after taking an overdose of morphine pills meant for her terminally sick mother, whom she had looked after since she was nine. The coroner at the inquest wrote to Beverley Hughes, the children’s minister, who later claimed that the government had such children’s needs “in the frame”. Some frame.

If just a fraction of public outrage about ‘hoodies’, for instance, was redirected towards forcing councils to support young carers, you can bet the issue would move up the agenda pretty fast. I don’t know how many ‘hoodies’ each local authority contains, but it’s a fair bet that there are at least 1,000 children looking after parents or relatives.

Go on, email your local children’s services department and ask them what they are doing about supporting and identifying young carers in your area, how they will ensure that existing projects survive, what the budget will be and whether they will ring-fence it.

You can find the address here.

Reid on rights

May 12, 2007

John Reid has been busy embarrassing Britain at the G6 summit by taking pot shots at human rights again:

.”The right to security, to the protection of life and liberty, is and should be the basic right on which all others are based,” he said. “Now, more than ever, it should be the fundamental starting point of all our principles and practices across Europe.”

The right to life already is the fundamental starting point of the ECHR. That the Home Office can’t see how to get its act together to fulfil its positive obligation to protect our lives, without destroying our rights to liberty and security of person, is a problem it needs to address.

Reid also asserted that:

“We need to work to modernise the law – still protecting human rights and still providing equity and justice – but reflecting the reality of the conflicts and struggles we now face.

“We need leadership to do this. It can’t be left solely to the lawyers.”

Rather ironic when one considers how readily they have left lawyers to mop up the mess created by ambiguous legislation and abysmal standards of drafting.

Take the Sexual Offences Act 2003 for instance: it criminalised all forms of sexual behaviour between teenagers – except that the government made clear that it ‘didn’t really mean it’ by stating its advance intention of instructing Crown Prosecutors that they should not normally prosecute. The Joint Committee on Human Rights delivered a well-deserved broadside:

one should attempt to target legislation so that it reflects a proper balance between the rights and interests affected by it. The Government does not suggest that it would be impossible to do this, but it prefers not to try, in case the legislation fails to cover every conceivable case in which one might want to prosecute. Instead of striking a proper balance, this approach in effect refuses to take on the task, leaving it to the discretion of prosecutors to make sure that the legislation does not systematically violate people’s rights. As we have frequently said in earlier reports, official discretion should not in general be regarded as offering satisfactory protection against violation of rights.

As for ‘the need to modernise’ the law, modernising fantasies have already cost us billions in failed IT projects, so I’d prefer to pass on that one, thanks. If there’s a straight choice between politicians and lawyers to safeguard my rights, all the evidence so far suggests that my best hope lies with the lawyers.

Biometric hot air

May 11, 2007

(Via Pippa) Kim Cameron is blowing a few more holes in the sales pitch for school fingerprint systems:

It drives me nuts that people can just open their mouths and say anything they want about biometrics and other technical matters without any regard for the facts. There should really be fines for this type of thing – rather like we have for people who pretend they’re a brain surgeon and then cut peoples’ heads open.

Burying bad news

May 11, 2007

As regular readers of this blog will know, we’ve spent the best part of a year trying to get figures for the number of unconvicted children on the National DNA Database. Various MPs have tried, the Children’s Commissioner has weighed in… nada.

At last, David Davis has managed to coax at least some figures out of a reluctant Home Office, which show that half a million under-16s are on NDNAD, and a further 0.6 million 16 and 17-year-olds.

In other words: roughly 1 in 5 16-18-year-olds has a profile on NDNAD

Given that around 40% of juvenile arrests don’t lead to any further action by the police, it’s beginning to look as if our cautious suggestion that at least 200,000 children who haven’t committed any offence at all may be on NDNAD (plus a further 200,000 who have only received a reprimand) is a sizeable underestimate.

Strange that the answers to David Davis should simply appear on the books last night. He tabled the questions a month ago and, contrary to normal practice, was not given any prior notice of the answers. What’s that old Home Office motto again? ‘Nothing to hide, nothing to fear’. Hmm.

Only £400m

May 11, 2007

By coincidence it was announced yesterday that:

The official cost of the ID card scheme has risen by £400m to £5.31bn

Hmm. The increase alone is enough to pay for 2,000 extra midwives, health visitors and social workers for each of the next five years. And while we’re on the subject of financial priorities, if the NIR costs £5.31bn, how come the government insists that the children’s ‘ContactPoint’ database will only cost £224m? Just curious, that’s all.

‘ContactPoint’ guidance

May 10, 2007

The draft guidance for ‘ContactPoint’ (aka the children’s information-sharing index) has been published, so no doubt the regulations will appear soon. Just to clarify: the guidance covers the procedures for operating the database – it’s separate from the regulations that will actually bring the database into being.

The government appears to have dropped the ‘flags of concern’ idea altogether, and now says:

3.28 Where your involvement is separately recorded on a child record, this indicates to other users that you are taking some form of action with a child and that you may have important information to share.

Thank God for small mercies.

There is still considerable confusion around the issue of consent to put details of a ‘sensitive’ service on the child’s record (sensitive = sexual health, mental health or substance abuse services). The draft guidance says:

informed and explicit consent must always be sought. It must be sought from the child where they are judged to have sufficient understanding to give or withhold their consent. Where the child does not have sufficient understanding, consent should be sought from their parent/carer.

Exactly what the legal basis is for this instruction isn’t clear. The common law position is that parents have responsibility for their U16 children, with an exception provided by the settled law of the Gillick case in 1985. In the FIPR report to the Information Commissioner last November, we expressed our concern about:

a rather cavalier interpretation of data protection law and privacy law by a number of the agencies involved in building the network of children’s databases. For example, the Gillick precedent (confirmed recently in the Axon case) establishes that a child’s parents should normally be involved in matters of consent, but that, exceptionally, the child may exercise the consent function to the exclusion of the parent if he or she insists on it and has the maturity to understand the consequences. This has been routinely turned into a principle that anyone over 13 can consent to sharing sensitive personal information without the involvement of their parents.

We also reiterated the rules set out by Lord Fraser in that judgment (now called ‘The Fraser Guidelines’) – which included the active refusal of a child to involve his/her parents – and quoted his warning that:

That result ought not to be regarded as a licence for doctors to disregard the wishes of parents on this matter whenever they find it convenient to do so. Any doctor who behaves in such a way would be failing to discharge his professional responsibilities, and I would expect him to be disciplined by his own professional body accordingly.

By making the default position one of seeking only the child’s consent, the government is encouraging agencies to manoeuvre themselves between parents and children (“don’t worry about your stuffy old parents – we’ll leave them out of this”) which undermines the insistence of all of the human rights instruments on the importance of the family, and the Article 5 UNCRC right of children to seek guidance from their parents. It’s not exactly conducive to promoting the respect for parents repeatedly demanded by the UNCRC, either.

We’ll be looking at all of this in more detail over the next few weeks. In the meantime, all comments and suggestions – especially on the plans for security and the audit trail – are welcome.

A couple of things worth mentioning. Home educators who are still sighing with relief over yesterday’s news might want to look at this bit:

3.64 If you work in the LA team responsible for identifying children not receiving education you may access a report which lists the records of all children known to ContactPoint in your area who do not have an educational setting recorded on their ContactPoint record.

And ironically, Victoria Climbie, who was used as the poster-child for this whole initiative, probably wouldn’t have figured on ‘ContactPoint’ at all:

A child record should not be created for a child who is resident outside of England but who accesses services in England.

Covering up with IT

May 9, 2007


The agency in charge of England’s NHS National Programme for IT is to devote more resources to engaging with nurses and midwives

Connecting for Health (CfH) is planning to double the number of national clinical leads in the sector from two to four, and to increase funding for engagement by 25% in 2007-08.

‘Engagement’, eh? It might be more to the point to concentrate on finding some more Health Visitors and Midwives first.

It’s rather like dealing with a severe shortage of social workers by spending millions on huge databases.