At least it’s honest…

March 24, 2010

Wall points out this revealing error in the government’s ‘easy read’ version of the ‘Rights and Responsibilities’ green paper:

Parliament is the group of ministers at the centre of the government who make the country’s laws.

The short and disastrous history of an IT Project

March 24, 2010

Last Wednesday, Ed Balls announced that £38m was to be made available for front-line social work:

The £23m will go into a new social improvement fund to reduce pressure on front-line social workers. There will also be £15m to improve IT systems in local areas.

On the same day, the government’s chief adviser on the safety of children warned that:

Treasury demands for cuts will seriously affect social workers’ ability to protect vulnerable youngsters at a time when greater strains are being put on the service…
Sir Roger Singleton said that the Treasury had already demanded £300m from the non-schools budget for children. The “increase in demand and higher expectations of performance is not being matched by the provision of additional resources [and] the capacity of the relevant services to keep children safe will inevitably be diminished”, Singleton said.

In other words, rather than announcing the miraculous provision of ‘new’ money, it might have been fairer to say that the government would only cut the budget by £262m instead of the planned £300m.

The mention of £15m to enable local councils to scrap their ICS systems if necessary and start again caused us to consider the history of the ‘Integrated Children’s System’ (ICS). This inept fiasco has not only cost vast amounts of public money; it has also done enormous damage to child protection services.

To begin at the beginning, 2003 saw the start of ICS, when the government invited applications from local authorities to pilot the new system:

Implementation of ICS will be part of the introduction of ‘e-social care records’ in 2005. Its development also supports wider government initiatives such as the identification, referral and tracking system *(see below for explanation), which is central to the forthcoming children’s green paper, and is intended to facilitate information sharing across children’s services.

The process over the next few years was to be micro-managed and coerced from the centre, as can readily be seen from the list of publications on the DCSF site.

In 2004, the DCSF commissioned an evaluation which was delivered to them in 2006. It didn’t see the light of day until April 2008, following 18 months of Parliamentary Questions and FOI requests. The evaluation questioned whether the ICS was fit for purpose, but these objections were brushed aside. Subsequent research confirmed the initial evaluation’s assessment, but it was not until the government’s own ‘Lifting the Burdens Taskforce’ published a review of DCSF in February 2008 that the message began to sink in:

In some cases there is good evidence that new IT based approaches undermine existing effective or good practice. For example local authority staff believe that the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) moves the focus of activity towards compliance with the expectations and needs of a standardised system, which appear to be chiefly related to data capture, and away from using effective professional approaches and analysis related to meeting the needs of the client family and child.

Finally, in June 2009, the government wrote to local authorities telling them that the plan had changed, and that

“local authorities will not be required to comply with the published specifications for ICS”

It also set out:

“…the government’s continued and enhanced commitment to supporting local authorities in the implementation and improvement of their local systems, including by helping local authorities to assess the ‘usability’ of their systems and to work with suppliers to make improvements.”

Six years on, and there were still doubts about ‘usability’! As for the cost, this has been put at around £60m, although that figure refers to central government spending and doesn’t take into account the money that has come out of local council budgets. This letter from DCSF to Directors of Children’s Services in November 2006 gives some idea of the scale of the budget – and also makes it clear that more than half of it was spent during the 3 years after DCSF had received the critical evaluation report.

Last week, Robert Fitzgerald, children’s services product manager at ICS provider OLM Systems, told Community Care that the government’s centralised approach to ICS had been disastrous.

“The government thought IT was going to solve the problem, but the way they went about it, it actually became the problem,” he said. “What councils have always needed to do is determine their needs, which is down to the people and the processes they go through. Every authority does things in different ways and the prescriptive process simply hindered innovation.”

That hits the nail on the head. If you are designing a case-management system in order to make workers’ lives easier, you start by talking to them and finding out (a) how they do their job and (b) what would help them to do it better. Instead, a shedload of money has been wasted, and now a whole lot more needs to be spent on clearing up the mess. Meanwhile, to end where we started, as the BBC points out:

“there are still 5,000 vacancies in children’s social work in England waiting to be filled.”

*’Identification, Referral and Tracking’ was the name of the information-sharing project that gave birth to Contactpoint and eCAF. It was announced in August 2002, and subsequently re-branded as a ‘response’ to the Laming Report in the ‘Every Child Matters’ green paper published in November 2003.

The distorting mirror

March 15, 2010

I’ve just been reading a fascinating paper called ‘Becoming a Problem: how children develop a reputation as ‘naughty’ in their earliest years at school’. It describes the process by which children learn compliance, and how they learn that they are bad if they fail to do so. It really is worth reading. As a taster, here are a couple of excerpts:

Disparate frames are granted coherence with reference to the assumption, derived from developmental psychology, of a normal developmental course (Walkerdine 1988). Children who fail to act, or to be recognised as acting, in accordance with expectations of what is normal for children of their age are at risk of being judged a problem.

…There is a constitutive circularity in the discourse of normal development: specific child behaviours come to be read as signs of deviation from the normal path; yet the integrity of the normal path is consolidated by the identification of deviations. Individual acts by children are read metonymically, as ‘standing for’ the bigger problem; while the status of the bigger problem is constituted in the iterations of the acts that ‘stand for’ the offence. This has practical implications for children who become subject to such framing, as it may lead teachers and other arbitrators to orient to ‘offending’ behaviours and pay less attention to those that stand ‘outside’ the frame. Once a child’s reputation has begun to circulate in the staffroom, dining hall and amongst other parents, it may be very difficult for her behaviour not to be interpreted as a ‘sign’ of such imputed character traits.

And if you’ve ever wondered about the role that bullying plays in school discipline, this might provide some insight:

The classroom is an important site for the production of problematic reputations. The public nature of discipline, conducted under the imperative to form a crowd of children into the collectivity of a ‘class’, means that children who diverge from the rules are identified as ‘different’ in plain view of other children and adults. There are undoubtedly good reasons for classroom rules – courtesy, democratic participation, safety, a congenial learning environment. However these rules are operationalised in ways that marginalise a minority of children, who become examples against which the preponderance may recognise itself as ‘normal’.

Written Ministerial Whisper

March 12, 2010

You could be forgiven for missing the announcement that the national eCAF database is going live, made in a written ministerial statement yesterday:

CAF information is currently recorded using a paper format or on local systems. A new system to electronically enable the CAF, called National eCAF, will be made available from 22 March 2010 to a small group of early adopter organisations who have applied to take part in this scheme. They comprise four local authorities—Birmingham, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Walsall, and two voluntary organisations—Barnardo’s and Kids. Information will be held on National eCAF, as with the CAF, only with the explicit consent of the child or young person, or their parents or carers as appropriate.

If you’re still not sure what a CAF (‘Common Assessment Framework’) is, it’s a personal profiling tool to be used on children and their families when a child needs services. The Practitioners’ guide can be downloaded here (pdf) and we recommend that you scroll down to Annex D on p.71 to get an idea of the kind of information that is sought. That weasel word ‘appropriate’, designed to disguise subjective opinion as non-judgmental, makes 21 appearances, as when a practitioner is invited to consider whether the child has ‘age-appropriate friendships’ and ‘appropriate behaviour’, or whether parents offer ‘appropriate’ sensitivity, warmth, guidance and support.

And, yes, they are planning to put this information on a single, national database.

As for consent, we have been told repeatedly by those working in children’s services that, in practice, if you want services you had better agree to the CAF process. When it comes to who actually gives this ‘consent’, to quote from our research report on the subject:

The Government asserts in guidance that children in England can generally be presumed able to consent to the sharing of their personal and sensitive data from around the age of 12. Many local authorities repeat this advice. It has no basis in English law.

Unaccompanied children need privacy, too

March 9, 2010

A fairly flat-out piece of research has resulted in our latest report, ‘Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum: Privacy, Consent and Data Protection’.

We are particularly alarmed that information given to social workers by children for one purpose is being used for an entirely different purpose by UK Border Agency. If you don’t have time to read the full report (or even the Executive Summary at the beginning) two articles, one in CYP Now and the other in Community Care, explain what we mean.

Once again the old problem of consent rears its head, too. Despite our efforts, the government’s erroneous belief that 12-year-olds can be presumed competent to give consent to data-sharing persists unshaken. In case you’re wondering, that assumption has absolutely no basis in English law. It has been made up. Or, as one of the lawyers contributing to our earlier report on children’s consent said, plucked ‘out of the air’.

Sacrificing education to health and safety?

November 24, 2009

We’ve often criticised the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda on the basis that, as well as being an outrageous intrusion into children’s and families’ privacy, it sets up a dangerous confusion between child protection and more general child welfare concerns.

In today’s Guardian, an interesting comment piece points out the effects of ECM on education:

The French philosopher Montesquieu observed in The Spirit of Laws that education systems seem to transmit a main principle which informs both individual behaviour and a corresponding system of government, a principle for what Foucault would call “the government of self and others”. Education transmits the principles of honour in a monarchy, virtue in a republic and fear in a tyranny. If Every Child Matters is anything to go by, we can say that today’s society is ruled according to the principles of health and safety.

Well worth reading.

DNA issues

November 24, 2009

Some confirmation of something those of us working on DNA issues have long suspected:

Police officers in England and Wales have made arrests just to get people on to the DNA database, a retired police superintendent has claimed. He told the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) this was the “norm”. It wants new guidance for police to regulate when it is appropriate to take a sample of DNA

On the subject of the HGC, they currently have a consultation out on the development of a code of practice for the supply of DIY gene-testing kits. This is a particularly thorny issue where children are concerned: should a parent have the right to consent on a child’s behalf to gene-testing that is purely for ‘recreational’ purposes, rather than because of medical necessity? The HGC suggests:

p12 5.10 With the exception of paternity tests, genetic tests in respect of children when, according to applicable law, that child does not have capacity to consent should normally be deferred until the attainment of such capacity, unless other factors indicate that testing during childhood is clinically indicated. If postponement would be detrimental to the child’s health, or the management of the child’s health may be altered significantly depending on the test result, then testing should be organised by a genetics health professional who has responsibility for ensuring that any medical intervention or screening indicated will be arranged and proper arrangements made for any subsequent care.

To our minds, this doesn’t go nearly far enough. ‘Capacity’ is only one factor in obtaining a child’s consent; in order to be valid, consent must also be informed and voluntary. We will be addressing this in our response to the consultation.

Targets good, privacy bad

November 17, 2009

A couple of years ago, a great deal of fury was expressed at the intrusiveness of Ofsted’s ‘TellUs’ surveys. At the time, we said:

If schools and parents are angry now, we must warn that things can only get worse: LAs are planning to issue their own surveys in order to gather performance-indicator data

You need to go back and look at that post in order to understand what we meant, but, basically, we were warning that children’s services would need to step up their data collection so that they – and Ofsted – can assess whether they are meeting their PSA targets, derived from the ‘five outcomes’, the government’s aims for children:

Being Healthy
Staying Safe
Enjoying and Achieving
Making a Positive Contribution
Achieving Economic Wellbeing

(The latest full list of PSA targets and indicators can be downloaded here.)

Today, the Register gives an example of the way in which the task of PSA target-checking is being tackled:

The government obsession with collecting data has now extended to five-year-olds, as local Community Health Services get ready to arm-twist parents into revealing the most intimate details of their own and their child’s personal, behavioural and eating habits.

The questionnaire – or “School Entry Wellbeing Review” – is a four-page tick-box opus, at present being piloted in Lincolnshire, requiring parents to supply over 100 different data points about their own and their offspring’s health. Previously, parents received a “Health Record” on the birth of a child, which contained around eight questions which needed to be answered when that child started school.

The Review asks parents to indicate whether their child “often lies or cheats”: whether they steal or bully; and how often they eat red meat, takeaway meals or fizzy drinks.

However, the interrogation is not limited to intimate details of a child’s health. Parents responding to the survey are asked to provide details about their health and their partner’s health, whether they or their partner are in paid employment, and even to own up to whether or not their child is upset when they (the parent) returns to a room.

All of those questions link to PSA targets. The child’s foodie and health questions come under ‘being healthy’. The parental health questions are more likely to be about ‘staying safe’ – and also ‘enjoying and achieving’ because the answers may indicate that a child has caring responsibilities. Behaviour questions are almost certainly connected with spotting children of potentially criminal disposition for referral to early intervention projects (the ‘making a positive contribution’ strand, which requires children’s services to reduce the number of entrants into the youth justice system). Family income and housing questions are about ‘achieving economic wellbeing’.

The register article continues:

Completing the review is, according to a spokeswoman for Lincolnshire Community Health Services (CHS) “entirely the choice of the parent”. However, the letter accompanying the review states: “Please complete the enclosed questionnaire …and return it to school in the envelope provided within the next 7 days.”

There is no indication on the letter of a parent’s right to opt out, and parents we have spoken with have expressed fears that failure to fill out this questionnaire might mean their child’s access to health services would be diminished.

That’s disgraceful, but not surprising. As we discovered during the course of the ‘informed consent’ project, attitudes to consent/data protection in some local authorities can be perfunctory to the point of indifference. To give a recent example of what I mean, I bumped into this quote from a practitioner who has just started using Contactpoint and says that it has saved time:

“It’s useful to have all the information on one screen rather than having to ask the parents – they can find it frustrating and question why you want to know,”

In other words, perish the thought that parents should inconvenience practitioners by questioning their right to collect and share data. Who on earth do they think they are?

Compare and contrast

November 16, 2009

From Tony Collins we hear that:

An NHS trust at the forefront of work on the £12.7bn NHS IT scheme has called in police after a breach of smartcard security compromised the confidentiality of hundreds of electronic records.

Meanwhile, on another planet:

Millions of patient records are to go online in London after long delays to an NHS IT upgrade in the city.

…The records, which contain details of patient medications and allergies, will go live on Thursday following pilot studies across England.

It is hoped the system will allow data to be shared more easily.

I’m sure it will. The problem is, with whom?

Another one for the ‘at risk’ list

November 16, 2009

NICE is consulting on sharing information to identify families who live in the kind of homes where children might have an accident

Recommendation 1: identifying and prioritising households at greatest risk

Who is the target population?
Children and young people aged under 15 years at greatest risk of an unintentional injury, their parents and carers.

Who should take action?
Local strategic partnerships (LSPs), children and young people’s strategic partnerships (where they are not part of the LSP), local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) and children’s trusts.

What action should they take?
• Use local information to identify and prioritise households where children and young people aged under 15 are at greatest risk of unintentional injury. Factors could include overcrowding, a low income and a lack of appropriately installed safety equipment. The data could come from surveys and needs assessments and existing datasets (such as hospital episode statistics). Or data could be gathered as part of routine practice (for example, during home visits by community practitioners).

• Consider establishing or using an existing database to share information on high-risk households with other statutory agencies. For example, social workers, GPs and health visitors could identify overcrowded dwellings and notify others via a database accessible to all statutory organisations.

Yet again, it seems that poverty trumps Article 8.

The consultation closes on December 2nd.


October 30, 2009

For anyone following the media stories about increasing concern over the ‘Prevent’ programme, a new report: ‘Spooked: How not to prevent violent extremism’ is a compelling read.

‘Prevent’ is another government initiative from the at-risk stable. It is meant to target those, particularly young people, who are deemed likely to become terrorists. The government gave out £140m of funding last year to local prevention and ‘de-radicalisation’ projects and, as the report points out, the funding is in direct proportion to the number of Muslims within a local authority area, rather than being based on any specific evidence of risk. Thus we are potentially seeing the creation of a new offence to rival ‘driving whilst Black’: that of ‘being Muslim whilst young’.

In return for funding, the youth workers, YOTs and voluntary orgs are asked to sign an Information Sharing Agreement in order to supply the police with information about participants in the various schemes – hence the accusation that this is nothing more than an intelligence-gathering exercise.

The report also points out:

The atmosphere promoted by Prevent is one in which to make radical criticisms of the government is to risk losing funding and facing isolation as an ‘extremist’, while those organisations which support the government are rewarded.This in turn undermines the kind of radical discussions of political issues that would need to occur if young people are to be won over and support for illegitimate political violence diminished.The current emphasis of Prevent on depoliticising young people and restricting radical dissent is actually counter-productive because it strengthens the hands of those who say democracy is pointless.

Go and read it, and pass the URL on to everyone you know because it’s a smashing piece of research that deserves a wide audience.


October 28, 2009

As we were saying the other day, the Home Office is doing everything possible to avoid complying with the Marper judgment. Today the Guardian reports:

More than 90,000 innocent people have been added to the national DNA database since a landmark human rights ruling that keeping indefinitely the profiles of unconvicted suspects was illegal, according to new figures

While the Telegraph points out that we’ve passed the 10% mark:

Police forces in England and Wales have taken the profiles of 5.5 million people, meaning the proportion of the population on the system has passed a tenth for the first time.


October 28, 2009

I’ve just been reminded why ‘responding to government consultations’ sits at the bottom of our to-do list. The one on P2P file-sharing closed barely four weeks ago but, rather like the decision to appoint the new Children’s Commissioner regardless of anyone else’s views, the government appears determined to do exactly what it intended in the first place:

People who persistently download illegal content will be cut off from the net, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson has announced.

Speaking at a government-sponsored forum to debate copyright issues he said the UK would introduce a similar policy to France. It means persistent pirates will be sent two warning letters before facing disconnection from the network.

In the chorus of objections the government ‘consultation’ received, here are some of ours. On reflection, it appears that taking the dog for a walk should have been the higher priority.

Update: We’ve just received this link to the ‘Don’t Disconnect Us‘ campaign, started by Talk Talk, which has plenty of information about the disconnection proposals.

Business as usual

October 19, 2009

This item about the National DNA Database is tantalising for what it doesn’t say:

Civil liberty campaigners claimed a victory today after the government announced it is dropping current proposals to retain the DNA profiles of innocent people on the national database.

The Home Office has announced that its plan to keep the DNA profiles of those arrested – but never convicted of a crime – for between six and 12 years depending on the seriousness of the offence has been dropped from the policing and crime bill that is going through parliament.

To be honest, ‘claiming victory’ is putting it a bit strongly. We’re all wondering what it means in practice. Yes, it’s good news that the Home Office has – for now – abandoned plans to allow the Secretary of State to set out such ridiculous retention limits; moreover, in secondary legislation.

The bad news is that for the time being there appears to be no change to the current policy of hanging on to the DNA profiles of innocent people. Promising to introduce revised plans in the next session (Dear God, not another Crime Bill) is pretty meaningless because the likelihood is slim of such a Bill getting through before the election. Indeed, if the next set of proposals are anything like as draconian as the last lot, the government may prefer to avoid courting controversy in the election run-up.

All of which means that, despite all the noise about intending to comply with the European Court judgment in Marper, by the time anything actually gets done we will quite possibly be approaching its second anniversary without the Government having done anything whatsoever about taking innocent people’s DNA off the database – and in fact having added another few hundred-thousand innocent profiles.

About images

October 14, 2009

To follow on from our blog yesterday, The Register has picked up on the unlawfulness of making indecent images of children.

It’s extraordinary that anyone can argue that these are not really ‘images’. As one of our legal advisers has just pointed out: if a Rapiscan operator beamed what he could see to Piccadilly Circus, nobody would dispute that they were seeing images. And if they displayed people’s genitals, can you imagine the police would say “oh, it’s OK – they aren’t really images”?

Update Ah, a friendly phone call from someone at Manchester Airport this afternoon to say that they have decided to obtain legal advice and in the meantime children won’t be using the scanner. Since we’re fortunate enough to have a fair number of experienced lawyers in ARCH, we’ve offered them our assistance.