Dump The ContactPoint Database

5:53 pm - December 3rd 2007

by Dave Hill    

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ContactPoint is a government database-in-waiting. It is bad news for all eleven million children in England and their families, especially those in need of public service professionals’ help or protection. Formerly known as the Information Sharing Index and (colloquially) “the Children’s Index”, it is officially described as, “The quick way for a practitioner to find out who else is working with the same child or young person making it easier to deliver more coordinated support.” Others see it differently. Far from being a “basic online directory” helping teachers, social workers, doctors, youth offending teams and others keep in touch more efficiently, they believe that the very existence of ContactPoint risks making it not more but less likely that children in danger of neglect or abuse will get the support they need.

Why? A group comprising experts in child protection, children’s rights and IT security produced a report for the Information Commissioner. The core of their case against ContactPoint and other databases for the logging of information about kids is that such screening and sharing of social indicators – family circumstances, health records, school performance etc – is an unreliable predictor of children being “at risk” of harm or engaging in antisocial behaviour. What’s more, it might generate self-fulfilling prophecies by putting poorer children and their families under unwarranted scrutiny. Also, it is likely to work against creating the bonds of trust that are so vital if effective help is to be accepted by and given to those who genuinely need it. They also doubt that ContactPoint would be secure – an argument likely to carry greater force in view of recent cases of discs disappearing from HMRC and the DWP.

Last week I wrote here that campaigns against erosions of civil liberties are more likely to gain widespread support if connections are made between every day “common good” issues and the principle of protecting the citizen from state intrusion. It’s not enough to be affronted by government “nannying” or to mutter darkly about Big Brother. We need to show that the database state and other curbs on privacy and freedom do more harm – possibly serious harm – than good. ContactPoint is a clear example of this. At best the system will result in professionals whose job it is to keep vulnerable children and families safe spending more and more time chasing false leads on computer screens. At worst, it will damage those most in need.

My slightly longer piece on this subject appeared on Cif last week and I wrote about it in detail about a year ago (the latter is now slightly out of date, but the key arguments still hold). The good news is that a review into ContactPoint’s security has been ordered, enabling the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives to ask more fundamental questions about the scheme. I think it’s a dud. If you agree, sign this Downing Street petition and spread the word.

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About the author
Dave Hill is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a novelist, blogger, journalist, married resident of Hackney in east London and father of six children. His novels are about family life. Also at: Comment is free.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Campaigns ,Civil liberties ,ContactPoint

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Reader comments

1. Luis Enrique

Is this the same system that was proposed after the Victoria Climbie case, to ensure that the different branches of the social services shared information, or something else?

Very important point, Luis Enrique. This is the system you’re thinking of but its critics argue – in my view convincingly – that ContactPoint would not solve the inter-agency communications problems which were among many highlighted by Lord Laming’s inquiry into the Climbie case. Laming’s recommendations included that a standardised system for recording basic details be brought in (no. 12) and that “The Government should actively explore the benefit to children of setting up and operating a national children’s database on all children under the age of 16.” (no. 17).

ContactPoint’s opponents believe that any possible benefits of a database on children were not explored properly partly because the government had another, long-standing agenda, which was and remains, to extend “e-government” as quickly as deeply into public service delivery as possible. ContactPoint is one result of this ambition. The terrible case of Victoria Climbie has been routinely invoked by children’s minister Beverley Hughes when defending ContactPoint. Her critics believe this to be disingenuous and a sort of moral blackmail (“You wouldn’t want another Climbie case to happen would you…?”). Hughes has also been extremely evasive.

Whatever the future for database use in whatever field, there is now surely an overwhelming case for putting everything on hold until their viability, security and real value have been reassessed.

Completely, totally and utterly spot-on, Dave.

The Government is an abject case of OCD when it comes to database/software tool policy solutions, and I don’t know anybody who hasn’t remarked on the strange dislocation between the acknowledgement of a problem and the source of the solution.

I went to an event in Birmingham a 2-3 years ago (one of those large-scale consultation events about the future of health service delivery). I made around half a dozen suggestions about practical ways of overcoming stresses in the system, one of which made it all the way through to the final list. What was it? The importance of the portability of patient records and the way that consistent delivery could be achieved through smart cards. It was a fag-packet last minute addition and they leapt on it.

Just when is it going to occure to Brown that some decent ideas are actually being ruined by the delivery method?

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