March 19, 2008

In the thrifty 50s (and 60s, but it doesn’t rhyme so neatly) Monday’s dinner was always concocted from the leftovers of the ritual Sunday Lunch – what my mother called YMCA, or Yesterday’s Mash Cooked Again. I was reminded of it by the latest bit of policy recycling spouted by the government:

Troublemakers as young as 10 years old are to be asked to sign a good behaviour contract to stop them going off the rails.

Ah, like ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contracts’ you mean? Just to give you an idea, here’s the guidance that was published in 2002 – although they were first piloted in 1999.

Ms Hughes said the project would target about 50 youngsters in each of the pilot areas – parts of the country with the biggest anti-social behaviour problems.

She told BBC News: “If you can really work in a very positive way with the 50 most difficult kids who are in danger and turn those kids around then you can have a disproportionately beneficial effect.”

Well, what a coincidence. That sounds remarkably similar to the Youth Justice Board’s ID50 scheme that’s been knocking around for 5 years or so. It’s designed to identify the 50 children thought most likely to offend so that they can be ‘diverted’ on to Youth Inclusion Programmes.

Maybe the government just forgot that they were doing it already?


Juggling with eels

March 19, 2008

At the moment we’re in the middle of preparing a report to send to the Information Commissioner about our fruitless attempts to get answers from schools on their use of CCTV. For the time being let’s just say that FOI requests to several hundred schools over the past 9 months have yielded a pathetic 16% response rate – the remaining 84% didn’t even manage an acknowledgment.

An apposite story, then, in yesterday’s Telegraph about CCTV:

Schools are becoming “Orwellian” societies where CCTV cameras in classrooms monitor pupil behaviour and staff performance, teachers will warn today.

Many of the Government’s semi-independent academies have installed cameras and two-way mirrors to let senior staff monitor pupils, they say.

Last month the European Data Protection Working Party released a paper on the protection of children’s data (pdf), including a section on CCTV:

There are places where safety is of paramount importance, so CCTV can be more easily justified, for example, at entrances and exits to schools, as well as to other places where people circulate – not just the school population, but also people visiting the school premises for whatever reason.

…On the other hand, in most other parts of the school, the pupils’ right to privacy (as well as that of teachers and other school workers), and the essential freedom of teaching, weigh against the need for permanent CCTV surveillance.

This is so particularly in classrooms, where video surveillance can interfere not only with students’ freedom of learning and of speech, but also with the freedom of teaching. The same applies to leisure areas, gymnasiums and dressing rooms, where surveillance can interfere with rights to privacy.

These remarks are also based on the right to the development of the personality, which all children have. Indeed, their developing conception of their own freedom can become compromised if they assume from an early age that it is normal to be monitored by CCTV. This is all the more true if webcams or similar devices are used for distance monitoring of children during school time.

It is extraordinary that CCTV has become accepted as a normal part of school life in the UK, but when schools don’t regard themselves as public authorities open to public scrutiny, it is inevitable that some head teachers will start to treat them as their own private fiefdoms.

update: more on this from Mark Ballard in The Inquirer

Minority Report or plain old eugenics?

March 16, 2008

The latest victim of pixie dust is ACPO’s spokesman on DNA, who opines that small children should be put on NDNAD if they show signs of becoming criminals in later life. Quite rightly, Shami Chakrabarti recommends that he:

“go back to the business of policing or the pastime of science fiction novels”.

So how, exactly, do our public masters predict that a child will grow up to be a criminal? We’ve already outlined the research that Blair seized upon to justify his “menaces to society” outburst and, rather than repeating that, recommend a quick refresher before reading any further.

It’s also important to know that Feinstein (author of the research) wasn’t just talking about the likelihood of committing crime. Included in the list of ‘poor outcomes’ that he believed could be predicted were obesity, smoking and not voting, although you have to trawl the full, lengthy research document to discover that. The heavily-spun summary version implies it’s all about crime.

Tomorrow’s Fish and Chips Paper asks exactly how ACPO’s spokesman proposes to determine who is exhibiting potentially criminal behaviour. For that, we need to turn to the ‘predictive’ tools in use.

The most obvious example comes from RYOGENS -‘Reducing Youth Offending Generic National Solution’. This also has the advantage that its ‘checklist’ is available on the web, albeit in archives. It used to be on the RYOGENS website but vanished shortly after we referred to it in the FIPR Report on children’s databases.

As an aside, RYOGENS was developed by Deloittes with ODPM funding (the same Deloittes that carried out the recent independent research on behalf of the government into the security of Contactpoint). It has since been handed over to Esprit Soutron.

So, here’s that RYOGENS checklist, derived from tools such as ONSET, a Youth Justice Board system also designed to ‘predict’ offending behaviour. It makes sobering reading. While one or two of the items on the list would undoubtedly be worrying signs, what about the clear bias against those who are poor? We have, for instance:

– Living in high crime area
– Lack of facilities / equipment
– Financial and/or housing difficulties
– Substance availability
– Frequently moving house

These are problems of poverty. Yes, we already know that there is a clear link between poverty and crime. We also know that putting resources into deprived areas has a beneficial effect. But that’s one hell of a long way from being able to say that a child growing up in poverty will become a criminal. The idea that criminality can be predicted is not just insulting to families struggling on the breadline; it is repulsively eugenic.

Is ACPO really saying that children living in poverty on abysmal estates should automatically be entered on to the National DNA Database? Because if they really want to use ‘predictive’ tools to decide which children should be on it, that is the inevitable result.

It was the elves…

March 13, 2008

Someone has to be telling porkies here:

A patients’ group said it is astonished that three inquiries into how medical records came to be strewn on a road failed to find anyone responsible.

The records belonged to patients from London’s Whipps Cross University Hospital and St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and London Ambulance Services (LAS). The papers were found in Northaw, near Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, in January.

Probes by the hospitals trust, LAS and by Bywaters waste management company found their procedures were “robust”.

Talking of disclosure…

March 13, 2008

I’ve just received an email from the Home Affairs Committee about an evidence session for their ‘surveillance society’ inquiry. instead of BCCing it, they sent it in an open email CCd to around 60 other people…Doh!

Mutual disclosure

March 11, 2008

Recommended reading: Bruce Schneier refuting the myth that:

“In a world of ubiquitous surveillance, you’ll know all about me, but I will also know all about you. The government will be watching us, but we’ll also be watching the government.”

As he says, it depends on the relative power of the protagonists:

If I disclose information to you, your power with respect to me increases. One way to address this power imbalance is for you to similarly disclose information to me. We both have less privacy, but the balance of power is maintained. But this mechanism fails utterly if you and I have different power levels to begin with.

It occurs to me that, in the interests of reciprocity, practitioners using Contactpoint might like to disclose to children whether they’re visiting an obesity clinic or have attracted unfavourable attention from the police. Maybe when they’re carrying out an eCAF, they could reveal whether any of their friends is alcoholic, when they last bunked off work or if their marriage is in a parlous state. It would redress that power balance a bit.

Cruel cuts

March 11, 2008

Let’s hope the media pick up on this alarming report:

Members of the Health Joint Liaison Committee have said falling student numbers, decreased contact time with staff and increasing workloads are a direct result of cuts in funding for health educators. A snapshot report of health professionals by UCU has revealed a spate of devastating cuts across the country resulting in staff trying to do more for less, a drop in student numbers and a rise in the student:staff ratio.

Two-thirds of institutions responsible for training midwives, nurses, physios and occupational therapists report having to reduce student numbers.

Pixie news

March 11, 2008

The Home Secretary’s speech to Demos on ID Cards and their related databases has been thoroughly taken apart over at UK Liberty, but I couldn’t help noticing this astonishing assertion:

“I should make it clear that none of the databases will be online”

Well of course they will! How else can checks be carried out? The fact that joe public won’t find them via a google search doesn’t mean they’re not online. You know, it would be funny – if only the government’s level of IT literacy weren’t so frighteningly low.

Children on NDNAD

March 9, 2008

Some helpful coverage of our latest look at children on the National DNA Database in today’s Observer.

The whole report can be viewed on our website.

Those links again

March 7, 2008

I’ve just had an email asking where links to our Youtube films on the national Contactpoint and eCAF databases have gone. They’re permanently in the sidebar under ‘ARCH films’, and here they are again:

Contactpoint (the children’s branch of the National ID Register)
eCAF (the personal profiling tool for all children seeking services)
‘Lost in the System’ (an examination of some of the risks of the two systems)

If you prefer the written word, our joint briefing with 5 other NGOs on children’s databases is here.

Excluding the ‘included’

March 7, 2008

Following on from our post on the growing number of children with SENs permanently excluded from school, we have this from the Association of School and College Leaders:

Schools are excluding more children permanently for bad behaviour because of difficulties in arranging support for them, head teachers say.

ASCL president Brian Lightman told his union’s conference in Brighton: “Earnest efforts to address the immense challenge of providing for the education of our most vulnerable young people are being undermined by the difficulty of accessing appropriate support services.

“This has begun to force schools to resort to permanent exclusions instead of longer fixed-term exclusions which might have enabled them to help these students.

Apparently 40% of schools report that it takes 3 months to access mental health services for pupils.

Nero fiddles

March 7, 2008

An excellent piece in the Times from Ian Angell, Professor of Information Systems at LSE. He captures nicely the magical thinking of the IT-ignorant:

Ms Smith is also yet another Home Secretary who subscribes to the “pixie dust” school of technology: computation is a magic substance to be sprinkled over problems, that, hey presto, then vanish. Little wonder that Britain has an appalling record in government IT projects.

Although the subject-matter is the latest announcements on ID cards, this also has relevance for Contactpoint, eCAF et al:

The only property that all systems have in common is that they fail. And the bigger the system – 60 million entries on a compulsory ID card database – the greater the opportunity of failure. Systems are much like any life form: they degrade over time, they entropy. In the case of databases, the pick up errors and then build data error upon error.

For the last few years, whenever I’ve thought about the government’s ceaseless preoccupation with the fantasy of the omniscient database, a few lines of an Auden poem have kept popping into my head:

O dear white children casual as birds
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did

Government demonstrably doesn’t understand the fundamentals of IT, but have they even considered for a moment the social impact of their bungling attempts at taking our private data and putting it on joined-up systems? Once our data is ‘out there’ it can never be retrieved. Frankly, government policy feels about as safe as visiting a hobby brain surgeon.

SEN exclusions

March 3, 2008

Just bumped into a written answer from last week on school exclusions: the latest figures show that 67% of permanent exclusions last year were of children with Special Educational Needs. The highest it’s been in the 6 years for which the government has provided figures.

It would seem that the SEN system is even less fit for purpose than it was 18 months ago.

Economical answers

March 3, 2008

Some rather strange evidence given by Meg Hillier MP to the Home Affairs Committee last Tuesday at the ID Cards session. See if you can spot the problem with these answers:

Q81 Ms Buck: Is it (DNA) also taken from minors who are arrested?

Meg Hillier: Yes, minors are held on it. Again, parents have to give permission, but if a child is arrested and convicted, then that information is taken.

Q82 Ms Buck: If they are arrested and not charged or convicted, is it taken?

Meg Hillier: It is taken, but there has to be parental consent, and I have actually asked that the consent forms are looked at in terms of their design to see that it is very clear that people know what they are signing up to.

And the problem? It’s nonsense. Parental consent is not necessary – in fact no consent at all is necessary: if you don’t co-operate by giving a DNA sample, the police will simply pull some of your hair out by the roots. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 says they can, and they will.

‘Consent forms’ for DNA sampling when you’re arrested? It isn’t a matter you can ‘consent’ to – and everyone is treated exactly the same, regardless of whether they’re 10 or 100. We know that because we asked every police force in the country just a few months ago.

Does the Home Office actually read the laws it makes?