Declining standards

February 5, 2008

I’ve just been sent the link to a transcript of a speech given by Lord Bingham in 2006 on the subject of the rule of law. This bit is wonderful:

The British Government, through one entity or another, is very frequently involved in litigation. It is usually successful, but not invariably so. When unsuccessful it is displeased, being driven like every other litigant by a belief in the rightness of its cause but also no doubt by a belief that the public interest is best served by its succeeding. In the past the convention was that ministers, however critical of a judicial decision, and exercising their right to appeal against it or, in the last resort, legislate to reverse it retrospectively, forebore from public disparagement of it.

This convention appears to have worn a little thin in recent times, as I think unfortunately, since if ministers make what are understood to be public attacks on judges, the judges may be provoked to make similar criticisms of ministers, and the rule of law is not, in my view, well served by public dispute between two arms of the state.

Some sections of the press, with their gift for understatement, have spoken of open war between the government and the judiciary. This is not in my view an accurate analysis. But there is an inevitable, and in my view entirely proper, tension between the two. There are countries in the world where all judicial decisions find favour with the government, but they are not places where one would wish to live.

Reading that reminded me of the pleasure I got from a TV news item a couple of years ago, when one sore-loser Home Secretary or another was taking a pot-shot at the judiciary, which he accused of dangerous radicalism. As the newsreader intoned the words ‘radical judges’, the scene shifted to the Lord Chief Justice pruning his roses, his glasses perched on the end of his nose, clad in checked viyella shirt and baggy old cord trousers. A masterpiece of editing.

Corrupt disclosure

February 5, 2008

Following on from yesterday’s post, a sad illustration of the damage that corrupt data-disclosure can cause. Following a row over a car parking space:

Three people appeared at Nottingham Crown Court on Monday and denied the manslaughter of Bernard Gilbert, 79. He collapsed and died after a brick was thrown through the window of his home in Spondon, Derby, on 28 January 2007.

How did the defendants track Mr Gilbert down? Through a friend of a friend, who happened to be a serving police officer with no scruples about misusing the Police National Database.

This database has the greatest audit resource of any system, and still officers are willing and able to access it improperly. It doesn’t inspire confidence for the future security of data on Contactpoint and eCAF.

HT: UK Liberty

The Tracking Trade

February 5, 2008

The Sunday Times carried news of a recent report on forced marriages, from which this paragraph jumped out at me:

According to the report, women who go to the authorities to seek protection have been tracked down through their mobile phones or even by leaks of confidential information from government databases.

No great surprise there, I guess. One only has to remember the Information Commissioner’s 2006 report ‘What Price Privacy?’ (pdf) which detailed:

“…a flourishing and unlawful trade in confidential personal information by unscrupulous tracing agents and corrupt employees with access to personal information.”

I wonder how many girls will remember to apply to have their Contactpoint record ‘shielded’ when they run away…?

No surprises on Contactpoint

February 2, 2008

The government has published its predictable reply to the Contactpoint petition, containing all the usual mantras (mantrae?). They sound so reasonable until one actually considers what they mean:

ContactPoint will provide a quick way for practitioners to find out who else is working with the same child or young person to make it easier for them to deliver better coordinated support to children and families.

That seems straightforward enough, but hang on a minute: why can’t they ask families directly for the contact details? We’re not talking about child protection here. This is about children wanting services. Do children and their parents not already have contact details for the practitioners working with them? If not, why not? It’s pretty shoddy professional practice not to make sure that one’s clients can’t get in touch.

If it’s really a problem, how about providing each family with a card on which each practitioner writes his/her name and contact details? That way, the family gets to decide whether they want a speech therapist to know about the child’s involvement with the Youth Offending Team, or whether the person dealing with their housing problems should talk to their GP. The ‘basic details’ on Contactpoint are in fact highly sensitive information – not to mention a gateway to the highly intrusive eCAF system – and that such basic decisions about family privacy are being taken out of families’ hands can only lead to the conclusion that the government intends agencies to become uber-parents.

It’s not reassuring to read that:

Practitioners must use their professional judgement, as they do now, to decide whether it is appropriate to share any information with any other practitioner who contacts them. Obtaining consent to share information is good practice – ContactPoint does not change that.

Nonsense! It’s not a matter of good practice! It’s a matter of law! Whatever government or an individual practitioner may choose to believe, they are subject to the law. Unless there are solid child protection grounds for sharing information, or there is good cause to believe that a child is going to run amok in the shopping centre with an AK47, a practitioner must obtain consent first.

As for this:

ContactPoint will cover all children in England because it is not possible to predict accurately, in advance, which children will need additional services. Any child or young person could require the support of additional services at any time in their childhood.

Then why not wait until a family requests services and, if they prefer, give them the option at that point of being on a small index held at local authority level?

The arguments for Contactpoint simply don’t stack up. It is for parents to bring their children up – and there are compelling, historical reasons for human rights instruments to make that abundantly clear. It is for the State to offer the support and services that families need in bringing up their children, preferably in a form that doesn’t result in their feeling infantilised, exposed and disempowered.

As Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, said:

“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”