Damian Green’s family meets Merlin

November 29, 2008

I’ve just been scanning the latest news on the disgraceful arrest of Damian Green, and a random thought occurred to me, triggered by this bit in the Independent:

His wife, Alicia, told friends how nine officers had looked “sheepish” as they had rifled through personal papers at the couple’s home in west London, even examining letters she and her husband had exchanged as students, and leaving with three folders of bank statements.

She had feared her husband had been in an accident when the officers asked if there were children in the house before starting the search. Her teenage daughter had burst into tears when she had come home from school to see their home filled with police.

There’s a reason for the officers’ question: the Metropolitan Police operate a database called ‘Merlin’ which records details of all children ‘coming to notice’ for any reason. As we’ve said on our old database masterclass blog, and at greater length on page 73 of the FIPR report to the Information Commissioner, one of the criteria for entering a child on Merlin is their being ‘present when police are searching premises’.

This paragraph from the FIPR report explains a bit more about Merlin:

The MERLIN system is accessible to all Metropolitan Police officers and civilian staff (once they have completed training to use it) and police in any London borough can check the entries for other boroughs. In almost all circumstances, a MERLIN notification will be faxed to the local social services department. If education or health services have signed up to an information-sharing agreement with the Metropolitan Police Services, they may also receive MERLIN information.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that Damian Green’s daughter arrived home before the police had finished.

Update: I’ve been checking whether there have been any changes to the Merlin system since the last time I looked at it in 2006. Things have moved on a bit: it’s no longer enough to complete a ‘coming to notice’ notification because it has all been tied into the ‘Every Child Matters’ framework.

A police officer must now also complete a ‘pre-assessment checklist’ or PAC when they encounter a child in the course of searching premises. This is to check whether the child is achieving the Every Child Matters five outcomes, and so the officer should assess whether the child is healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic wellbeing.

You can see for yourself here.* So did the police carry out a PAC on Damian Green’s 15yo daughter? If not, why not when it’s compulsory?

*Another update: Just been told that the link won’t work properly, and WordPress won’t let me paste the full URL. Either click on the link above and then delete ‘archrights.wordpress.com/’ when it says ‘not found’, or got to Google, put in Merlin +PAC and it should come up as the first choice.


Think of a number

November 28, 2008

We all know that 330,000 users will have access to Contactpoint, right? How do we know that? Because we’ve been told so many times. The Register has been trying to find out exactly where that figure came from and the results are, well, surprising:

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we now believe that it first surfaced in a feasibility study into information sharing carried out in 2004 on behalf of a cabinet office sub-committee – MISC9(D) – chaired by secretary of state for education and science Charles Clarke. This sub-committee was itself part of cabinet committee MISC9, which was chaired by the then chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Government appears to be placing a great deal of faith in this study. They quoted it in evidence to the Select Committee on Merits of Statutory Instruments back in 2007.

As recently as a week ago, a spokesperson for the DCSF reaffirmed the Department’s confidence in the figure of 330,000 despite the fact that it was calculated before the legislation enabling ContactPoint to go ahead had been passed, and long before it was clear as to who might be using the system. The DCSF also appeared to prefer the 2004 figure over anything based on more recent research.

Databases unravelling

November 27, 2008

It seems as if the ICS gaffe is well and truly blown:

The government’s electronic system for managing children’s social work is unfit for purpose, a local authority specialist has claimed.

Speaking at Capita Children’s Services annual conference last week, Donna Shkalla, head of management information for children, families and education at Kent County Council, claimed social workers find the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) unwieldy.

Apparently Kent is now going to conduct its own review of ICS.

Meanwhile, on the eCAF front:

The government looks likely to miss its deadline for implementing a national IT system for the Common Assessment Framework.

As for Contactpoint, we’ve heard a rumour that it may be delayed until next Autumn. Just as well because the whole ‘shielding’ business is turning into a dog’s dinner. The Register has had a couple of items recently on the continuing saga. If anyone would like to see the minutes of the meeting to which they refer, drop me an email: archrights (at) arch-ed.org

Just to help things along, local authorities have been told they have to find ‘efficiencies’ next year – newspeak for budget cuts. Hmm, I wonder where they could economise?

Don’t look at us

November 21, 2008

Ed Balls pointed at Haringey again yesterday:

There is “clear evidence” mistakes were made “singly and collectively” in the Baby P case, according to Children’s Minister Ed Balls.

Shouldn’t he wait for the results of the inquiries, or is he tacitly acknowledging they’re more about damage limitation than substantive analysis? Perhaps it was yesterday’s Ofsted report pointing out the alarming extent of significant harm to children that prompted another round of “look over there!”

The government’s determination to press ahead with the detested Integrated Children’s System, in the teeth of social workers’ opposition, has already been aired – and this article is well worth the reading.

Today, the Independent is flagging up the massive hike in the costs of taking care proceedings to court.

…more than 600 fewer court applications were made by local authorities to take children into care in the past six months compared with the same period in 2007.

Lawyers blamed the 20 per cent drop on a 32-fold increase in the court fees charged for care proceedings imposed by the Government, which rose from £150 to £4,825 from 1 April.

In last Monday’s Panorama I pointed out that Haringey isn’t a single rotten apple in a barrel. In fact it’s the barrel itself that is falling apart. Government policy has had the effect of watering child protection down in its quest for ever more cost-cutting and data-sharing. Rather than asking Lord Laming to look at whether the Every Child Matters agenda is being put into practice, they should find the humility to examine whether that agenda was the right one to find needles in haystacks in the first place.

Henry Porter on CiF

November 20, 2008

Almost missed this one:

The government has a near complete contempt for children’s rights and privacy. How else are we to explain the access to be granted to a million people to the children’s database ContactPoint, which launches in January, or the 1 million children now on the Police National DNA database.

Singalong time

November 17, 2008

From the Register:

Parents concerned that new government databases might lead to their children’s data being lost or stolen were this week able to pilot the experience courtesy of a Leicester-based nursery, which appears to have “misplaced” a data stick containing details of children in their care. At time of writing, Leicester City Council, which is responsible for the nursery, could not confirm whether the stick was lost or stolen…Sheila Lock, the council’s chief executive said

OK, all together now:

“We take the issue of data security extremely seriously.”

Thinking required

November 17, 2008

It’s profoundly worrying that some bloggers, believing the hogwash that the order preventing identification of ‘baby P’ is on wishy-washy, ‘human rights’ grounds, are insisting on publishing names and photographs of the baby’s mother and her boyfriend.

I’d recommend that they read this and pause to consider that there could well be important reasons why the order is in place for the time being.

Please, if anyone you know is considering joining these enthusiastic defenders of free speech, just tell them it’s a Very Bad idea that they may come to regret.

The heart of the problem

November 16, 2008

Eileen Munro in the Independent today:

The Government has lost sight of the basic nature of child protection work. We can begin to understand the dynamic flow of a family’s life and detect abuse only by spending time with parents and children. We can improve childcare only by forming relationships and working with parents. The organisation needs to be centred on supporting that human contact with the family. Instead, what we have now are organisations centred on feeding the Government’s ever-growing appetite for hard data at the expense of the complex and subtle information social workers actually need to form a realistic assessment of child welfare.

You might want to refresh your memory of the problems with the new ‘Integrated Children’s System’ and the Government’s resistance to social workers’ objections.

Lost for words

November 2, 2008

Apparently we have to allow the government to use our data as they see fit, and accept that it may end up in a pub car park.:

Gordon Brown has made a frank admission that government cannot promise the safety of personal data entrusted by the public.

The Prime Minister was speaking hours after it emerged that a memory stick containing the passwords to a government website used submit online tax returns had been lost.

“It is important to recognise we cannot promise that every single item of information will always be safe because mistakes are made by human beings. Mistakes are made in the transportation, if you like in the communication, of information.”

He makes it sound as if we didn’t know that already and were the ones begging to have our data harvested.

Perhaps the ‘consent’ forms that children and parents sign when an eCAF is carried out should contain an extra question:

Where would you prefer us to lose your personal information?
(a) on a train
(b) at a disco
(c) via the post/courier service
(d) in a car park
(e) other

PS. I guess it’s appropriate that the Minister responsible for the Government Gateway is the same one who left confidential correspondence from his red box on a train.