The rule of law

January 31, 2008

Let’s hope Mr Justice Munby is taking his blood pressure tablets: this week he has had good reason to be apoplectic about government failures to obey the law. The first concerned the case of SK, a prisoner who had not received the regular reviews required by law. The opening four paragraphs of the judgment include this:

I have to say that the melancholy facts that have been exposed as a result of these proceedings are both shocking and scandalous. They are shocking even to those who still live in the shadow of the damning admission by a former Secretary of State that a great Department of State is ‘unfit for purpose’. They are scandalous for what they expose as the seeming inability of that Department to comply not merely with the law but with the very rule of law itself…SK will evoke sympathy in few hearts but everyone is protected by the law, by the rule of law.

Today the papers are full of the case of a baby who was taken away from its mother without a court order:

Local social services had shown hospital staff a “birth plan” detailing how the mother, who suffers from mental health problems, was not to be allowed contact with the child without supervision.

However Mr Justice Mumby said that no baby can be removed “as the result of a decision taken by officials in some room”.

And quite right, too. It’s alarming that any practitioners can be so convinced of their own rectitude that they don’t feel any obligation to obey the rule of law and present evidence to a court.

As the European Court of Human Rights said twenty years ago:

it is an interference of a very serious order to split up a family. Such a step must be supported by sufficiently sound and weighty considerations in the interests of the child… it is not enough that the child would be better off if placed in care.


The good die young

January 29, 2008

In the Guardian today a nice obituary for the human rights and criminal lawyer, Anthony Jennings QC, who died last week at the age of 47.

In 2003 I was doing maternity cover as co-ordinator of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England – the dreadful year-of-the-Blunkett that saw in three hateful pieces of legislation reeking of contempt for young people, amongst them the Antisocial Behaviour Act. We asked Anthony Jennings for a legal opinion on the Bill and he gave it the going-over it deserved – although it soon became painfully clear that trivial issues of human rights were not going to deter a hell-bent Home Secretary.

Jennings was generous with his time and concerned beyond the call of duty, answering my inept follow-up questions with great patience and tact. A lovely man. I shall keep in my head the memory of him saying: “Remember, nothing – absolutely nothing – can entirely extinguish a human right.”

Essential reading

January 29, 2008

A couple of good articles for your perusal. The first is from Liz Davies writing in the Guardian about the eclipse of child protection by the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda:

Following Laming’s report, the government used the findings to justify a policy shift away from the proactive protection of a few children at high risk of harm to intense state surveillance of every child and family though technology and broad based strategies to address child concerns.

With the subsequent launch of the Every Child Matters agenda, the phrase “children at risk” gained new meaning. Children were now defined as at risk of becoming future criminals, rather than victims of abuse, and professional attention was diverted away from the investigation of child abusers and their criminal activities. A set of five outcomes included the ill-defined “staying safe” and the language of protection became almost obsolete.

This seems a good moment to mention the Contactpoint Early Day Motion again. It seems to have stalled at 24 signatures, so if your MP hasn’t signed up yet, it’s time to give him/her a hefty reminder.

The second essential read is from Ross Anderson talking about the NHS databases (pdf) for the British Journal of General Practice:

Of course, there is not just one ‘NHS database’. The current opt-out campaign relates in the first instance to the Shared Care Record, which is being piloted in Bolton, Birmingham and Christchurch; this is being loaded with current medications and allergies initially, and is expected to contain much more later. A further concern is the move to hosted systems by many providers, in both primary and secondary care, which is making records available for central uses outside the effective control of the providers. GP records in particular, once hosted, are expected to be accessible across the local health (and social care) community.

Every child matters?

January 27, 2008

Child protection makes good spin, but here is another example of the declining commitment to children genuinely at risk of harm. Words fail me. The whole article is in this month’s Law Gazette.

New proposals to force local authorities to bear the cost of children’s care cases could see vulnerable children put at serious risk, family lawyers warned this week.

Solicitors told the Gazette they were alarmed that the government is trying to rush through new rules obliging councils to pay a £4,000 court fee before they can issue proceedings to take a child into care. The current fee is £175.

The proposals are part of the government’s strategy to make the courts system completely self-funding, through fees. Local authorities have been told they have already been provided with the necessary budget to pay the £4,000 fee.

Graham Cole, local government representative on the Law Society’s family law committee, said: ‘Government says that provision has been made by local authorities, but all the finance managers I have spoken to have not been able to find this provision. This will have a very significant deterrent effect on local authorities bringing care proceedings and will leave vulnerable children at risk.’

He added: ‘The consultation runs until 11 March but the proposals are due to come in on 1 April. This looks like a done deal that is being rushed through.’

The full consultation document is here (pdf). See page 8.

Bring on the crash-test dummies

January 27, 2008

From The People this morning, some choice quotes from a leaked Home Office document that reveals the intention to come for the young people first:

The secret document from the Identity and Passport Service is headed: “Options analysis – outcome.”

It says: “Various forms of coercion, such as designation of the application process for identity documents issued by UK ministers (eg passports) are an option to stimulate applications in a manageable way.

“There are advantages to designation of documents associated with particular target groups, eg young people who may be applying for their first driving licence.” The report says “universal compulsion should not be used unless absolutely necessary” because of the ID controversy.

In other words: “who’s going to care if it’s only a bunch of kids?”

How very similar to ‘Connexions’ – the information-sharing scheme for 13-19s that was actually a trial run for the entire Transformational Government agenda. Back in 2002, we managed to get a brief flurry of press interest, and then nobody wanted to know. It was another 5 years before the public began to smell the coffee.

Maybe this time around the public will realise that, even if they subscribe to the tired old prejudices and cliches, there’s at least some self-interest in defending young people’s interests.

Four legs good

January 27, 2008

Spyblog has a good piece on the revelations that the best people’s tax records are too sensitive for online filing, drawing the obvious comparison with intentions to ‘shield’ the records of some children on Contactpoint.

Update: Irdial is well worth a look, too

Contactpoint and eCAF

January 20, 2008

Here’s the third of our trilogy. Number 1 and number 2 explain what we’re all talking about.


January 20, 2008

This is number 2 in our series of 3 films. You might want to see number one first.


January 20, 2008

We’ve at last had a series of short films made to explain Contactpoint and eCAF. Here’s the first one on Contactpoint

Playing to the crowds

January 20, 2008

In a good example of Security Theater (an expression coined by Bruce Schneier) the government has apparently decided that:

Metal detectors are to be installed at hundreds of schools in England as part of a drive to reduce knife crime.

I don’t know if it’s going to be possible to have any kind of rational debate about this without pointy-fingered accusations of not caring about children’s safety, but even if we leave aside ethical considerations, how exactly does this work?

Here’s a brain-teaser: a comprehensive school of 1500 pupils installs 2 security arches. If it takes 5 seconds for each pupil to pass through an arch, how long does it take to get everyone into school? The answer is 62.5 minutes. That’s on the generous side because 5 seconds per pupil assumes that nobody sets off an alarm, that everyone arrives at the arch with pockets efficiently emptied and then walks briskly through with a minimum of fuss.

Where will the arches be sited? If they are inside the school door, how is a pupil prevented from dumping a knife in the school grounds and going back for it later? On the other hand, if the arches are at the school gate, a lot of people are going to get very wet when queuing for 62.5 minutes in the rain. And even then, what’s to stop someone throwing their weapon of choice over the wall before going in, or persuading someone to pass it through the fence later on? Maybe schools will need to build 20ft walls and mount CCTV cameras and watchtowers along them.

The Home Secretary says:

“I want young people to know that it doesn’t make them safer to carry a knife. It actually makes them more likely to be a victim.”

It would be good to see the evidence for that statement. It may be that young people who are stabbed are more likely to carry knives, but does that necessarily mean that those who carry knives are more likely to be stabbed? Does it take into account under-reporting of weapons amongst those who never use them and are never caught with them?

The whole policy doesn’t sound very well thought-out, and it is, in any case, only tackling a symptom. If it’s true that growing numbers of people are growing up with the impression that stabbing people is the way to resolve arguments, we need a rather more radical solution than frisking them at the school gates. Perhaps we could start by dismantling impersonal, factory-sized schools that make them feel so threatened or angry in the first place.

Losing laptops

January 20, 2008


From today’s Independent:

Official figures revealed through parliamentary answers show that in the last year all government departments reported at least 208 laptops, and a number of PCs, stolen. By far the worst culprit is the MoD. Since 2003 it has reported 420 laptops stolen. An MoD spokesman yesterday said he could not say whether the laptops contained sensitive information or not.

“This has to be seen in the context of a department which employs 300,000 people,” he said.

By coincidence, that’s around the same number of people who will have access to Contactpoint and, presumably, the national eCAF database.

Last October we found ourselves accused of ‘alarmism’ by the government. Amongst our (many) concerns aired in a Lords debate was this:

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I will be brief. One of the big concerns is that people are filling in eCAF forms on laptop computers. This is highly sensitive information that flags up that a child is vulnerable. Will he please look into this before he responds to us?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I have undertaken to look into it, but the advice that we have been given is that the processes are secure. We do not believe that the concerns that have been raised are valid

Believe me, it will give me no pleasure whatsoever to say ‘told you so’.

Reminder: Contactpoint EDM

January 19, 2008

The first of yesterday’s data debacles:

Hundreds of documents containing sensitive personal data have been found dumped on a roundabout in Devon. Details of benefit claims, passport photocopies and mortgage payments were included in the confidential data.

Followed by:

The personal details of 600,000 people who had expressed an interest in joining the armed forces have gone missing after a laptop belonging to a Royal Navy officer was stolen, the Ministry of Defence said last night.

In another breach of government security, police are investigating the theft of the laptop, which was stolen from a vehicle in the Edgbaston area of Birmingham this month and contained, among other information, passport, and national insurance numbers and bank details.

It’s time to give your MP a nudge about signing up to the Contactpoint Early Day Motion.

…and way beyond Whoops

January 17, 2008

This one is gobsmacking:

A break-in at Middlesbrough Council has resulted in the loss of nine laptops containing sensitive case files on up to 63 vulnerable children.

The laptops, used by social workers to keep case records about vulnerable kids and their families, were password protected and protected by “some encryption”, the BBC reports.

“some encryption”?!

Whoops again

January 17, 2008

A bit more sensitive data goes walkabout:

An investigation has been launched after an NHS hospital lost 20 years worth of payroll data on its staff.

Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, south-east London, has informed police about the data, which was lost when a room was cleared for office space.

Fatal attraction

January 16, 2008

Just what is this chemistry between defence contractors and the public sector? We have Anteon supplying fingerprint systems to schools, Vosper Thornycroft running local Connexions partnerships and promoting multi-agency working… and now it emerges that Lockheed is in the running to carry out the 2011 UK Census.

Census Alert explains why this is a Very Bad Idea.