Not Saussure

November 22, 2006

The Information Commissioner’s study slams the Children’s Database

Filed under: civil liberties, Law, UK — notsaussure @ 10:07 pm

Today’s Telegraph reports

Parents will be devalued and family privacy shattered by the mass surveillance of all 12 million children in England and Wales, says a report today commissioned by Parliament’s Information Commissioner.

In what is likely to be a major embarrassment to Tony Blair, it says proposals for a £224 million database containing details of every child will waste millions of pounds, undermine parental authority and actually put children in more danger.

While neither the Information Commissioner’s Office’s ‘Issues Paper: Protecting Children’s Personal Information’ nor the Foundation for Information Policy Research’s report on which it is based, Children’s Databases – Safety and Privacy, seems to say this in terms — though the report might well so do; it’s almost 200 pages long, so I’ve only skimmed it — neither can make comfortable reading for the government.

So they’ll probably ignore it all, of course.

The report paints an alarming picture of government and departmental confusion about data protection law, quoting copious examples of advice to various different child protection agencies about the law on data sharing, and who’s consent is required to do what with the shared data, that’s either wrong in law or highly tendentious. Did you know, for example, that children as young as 12 or 13 are supposedly — at least according to government guidance, though certainly not the settled law of the land — able to give their consent for data they’ve volunteered about the supposed drinking and drug-taking habits of their siblings, friends and parents to be shared with any number of third parties? Not just the police, but umpteen different social welfare agencies, without the people about whom this information is collected being consulted in any way, not even about its accuracy?

The confusion stems in part, it would seem, from simple ignorance of the law — in particular, the implications of the Victoria Gillick case, which said children under 16 can consent to being given contraceptives (and medical treatment generally) without their parents’ consent or even knowledge if they specifically ask for their parents not to be involved. The report’s authors explain,

Taken as a whole, the advice from different government departments on consent is incoherent, and likely to cause confusion to professionals, parents and children alike. The need for consent to be voluntary is frequently misunderstood, with some documents recommending asking for consent as a condition of providing a service; the authors appear unaware that coerced consent has little legal effect (and may have the reverse effect of that intended). The biggest single consent issue, however, is the practice of asking children to consent to data sharing without consulting their parents. The settled law of the land – Gillick, confirmed by Axon – is that parents should be consulted unless the child disagrees and is mature enough to understand the consequences of that decision. It is widely misinterpreted as carte blanche to obtain (perhaps coercive) consent from children without informing their parents. A key concern here is how Section 12 of the Children Act 2004 will be regulated. p 129

It also seems to stem from a basic confusion between the separate issues — with their separate data protection and consent requirements — of child protection and child welfare. The government’s Every Child Matters initiative, which is the basis for the proposed mega-database, seeks to shift emphasis from the former to the latter; and, as the report indicates,

‘child protection’ … relates to the 50,000 children in the UK believed to be “at substantial risk of significant harm” and ‘child welfare’ … refers to perhaps 3–4 million children at some disadvantage such as poverty, ill-health or poor school performance. (p 1)

Significantly, the database is often sold on the basis it’s an aid to child protection, particularly in the wake of the Victoria Climbié case. To quote the report,

When the proposal for the Children’s Index was first introduced to Parliament by Baroness Ashton, she linked it explicitly to its role in child protection, citing the recent murder of Victoria Climbié by her great aunt and the great aunt’s partner after months of abuse and neglect: “I believe that this system might have helped Victoria Climbié. It might have saved her life.” ( p 31)

As they explain earlier on,

The Climbié case has been seen as providing justification for the sharing of information and the development of computer databases to achieve this more efficiently. Indeed, some people mistakenly believe that the IS [information sharing] Index arose from analysis of the defects in Victoria’s care. p 14

This is certainly the impression given by the Every Child Matters website itself, by the way. However, they continue,

However, the plan to establish what was initially referred to as an Information, Referral and Tracking system (IRT) had already been announced by John Denham, Minister for Children and Young People at the Home Office in August 2002. It was intended to identify children at risk of offending, drug taking and teenage pregnancy. The Laming Report [into the circumstances surrounding Victoria Climbié’s death] did reveal major problems in practice but these lay mainly in the quality of the judgements and decisions made: that is, they showed poor professional expertise. The practitioners in contact with Victoria knew of each other’s involvement and shared considerable amounts of information. The crucial errors arose from individuals either not paying attention to the information, or giving it a benign interpretation so that the risk to Victoria from abuse was not seen. p 14).

That is, that even considered from the point of view of child protection, the proposed database would have made little difference, on its own, to the poor girl’s fate. That was down to incompetent, as opposed to ill-informed, practitioners.

The report also calls on us to distinguish between

measures taken for the benefit of the child and measures taken for the benefit of the community. In French, these are succinctly described by the words ‘education’ and ‘repression’. Although this distinction is emphasised much less in the UK, it is also embedded in our law: measures undertaken for general social benefit rather than for the direct benefit of the subjects must often meet tougher data-protection criteria.

Yet, the government’s whole policy thrust seeks to elide the two, combining aspirations both to help with children’s welfare and to attack the causes of anti-social behaviour. This was the rationale — discussed at length in Chapter 2 of the Report — of the Sure Start programme. Yet, in the words of the report,

Assessments of Sure Start have, however, been a disappointment. The initial evaluation in June 2002 focused on early implementation problems, while the first substantive evaluation in July 2005 showed that (compared with the rest of England) the Sure Start pilot areas showed an increase in social work activity; of benefit uptake; and of children being assessed as having special educational needs. A slight increase in immunization, and a slight fall in fertility, indicated better engagement with health services. The pilotareas also exhibited stronger economic and employment growth than England as a whole. Thus the ‘input’ factors – social, medical and economic – are all up. However, the key outcome indicators have been disappointing. Average birth weights are down, while neonatal and infant mortality are up. There is also a perception that the most needy families get little benefit, and may even suffer adverse consequences.

The question now is whether Sure Start has been doing the wrong things, or doing them wrong, or whether it’s simply too early to see the benefits. Some researchers are also becoming disillusioned, believing Government to be more interested in avoiding criticism than in learning from policy and implementation mistakes. [as if!] (p 7)

This leads them, later in the analysis, to the conclusion

We are concerned that the network of children’s databases lacks a clear policy justification. On being first elected in 1997, the Government started to follow an evidence-based policy for primary crime prevention and delinquency reduction through initiatives such as Communities that Care and Sure Start. However, it appears to have been unable to make these policies work: the evaluations of the Sure Start pilots are not positive, and CtC appears to have languished. Rather than finding out what was wrong with the implementation, ministers appear to have fallen back on generalities (“a mixture of population-based and targeted strategies”) and placed their faith in technology. The database initiative now appears to be driven by the e-government agenda rather than by child protection, child welfare, or even realistic crime-reduction goals.

The best explanation we have heard for the failure of Sure Start was that the various pilots lost their focus as they acquired subprojects reflecting assorted local and personal interests; if this is correct, then the loss of focus at the centre is serious. If no effective interventions are available then it is hard to see the justification for any privacy intrusion. p 126

The privacy issues here are very large indeed; as they say,

The core subjects of this report are thus the balance between child welfare and privacy, and between crime prevention and privacy. On the welfare side, there are many circumstances in which privacy should prevail in the interests of the child, and in which rational and caring parents will therefore refuse information sharing. For example, the stigmatising effects of social-work intervention are real, and the services offered to low priority families are so meagre, that it may often be rational for parents struggling with minor problems to simply soldier on.

On the crime-reduction side, there are other issues relating to proportionality. We cannot believe that a police force is justified in sharing information without consent about a nine-month-old baby on the grounds that it might grow up to be a villain. Measures that may be justified in the face of specific and identified threats lose their justification when they become statistically-based measures against subpopulations. p 127

In a wonderful example of the crassness of some of the crime-reduction claims, they offer the following:

A further sanity check is to translate child-welfare claims to an adult context and ask whether they make sense. For example, if a town had a problem on Saturday nights with drunken fighting, then the authorities might reason that fighting is associated with alcohol intake, with living in poor housing and with being in a community where hitting people is a badge of honour. The logical conclusion would be forcible collection of data on alcohol consumption and its correlation by postcode; obtaining lists of suspects from pub landlords and police; and then a program of alcohol-awareness programs, anger management classes and so on which all men scoring over a certain level would be required to attend regardless of whether they had ever been in a fight.

Examples like this make it clear that a distinction must be drawn between preventing crime where there is a specific, identified threat, and generally discriminating against groups of people in the name of general prevention. p 129

Where, then, does all this leave the parents? A poor second to the ‘experts’, it would seem. As the report asks,

What is the threshold at which a practitioner can and should allow his or her judgement of what is in the child’s best interests to override the child or parent’s judgement? The significance of this decision is often missed in government documentation by the habit of talking about the child’s well-being as if it were an objective fact rather than a matter of judgement, thereby obscuring the fact that it is a subject on which people can and do rationally disagree. There is no one proven theory about the best way to raise a child, nor is there one clear pathway that children should follow to reach a healthy adulthood. At best, there are some useful theories about child rearing with some empirical support.

There is also a range of aspirations that people have for children. The government has stated its aspirations in the five outcomes it has specified in [Every Child Matters] ECM. The five outcomes themselves are expressed in such broad terms that it would be hard to disagree with them but, at the level of the performance indicators, parents’ aspirations for their own child may, at any one time, not coincide with the government’s views. Nor may the parents’ views of their child’s progress towards those five outcomes coincide with the practitioner’s assessment. This is an area where values, facts and theories are all significant in reaching a judgement on a child. The ECM agenda appears to be assuming that the government’s and practitioners’ views should be dominant, with the child and parents being overridden if they disagree. There are several significant child protection cases where courts have strongly disagreed with this view. p 36

In the meantime, considering the whole system,

If one considers the sum total of personal information that might be written on these forms, when combined with the personal information on other forms in the wider system, there seems little space left for a private family life. p 38

In this, as in so much else, we seem to have a well-intentioned government, terrified of bad headlines, and convinced that it can improve everything — and, it seems at times, abolish sin — with better management and interventions and with a bigger and better IT system. As its well-intentioned grand interventions fail, as fail they must because we live in a fallen world, it avoids addressing the causes of its failures — or even, at times, avoids acknowledging the failure in the first place, be it in Iraq or social policy — and, I fear, throws more and more money, along with more and more intervention and regulation, to make the bloody citizenry behave as they’re predicted to.

It’s not the role of government, I submit, to make us better people, or to make our children better. Primarily, at least in social policy, it’s to let people get on with their own lives in their own ways with as little as possible interference from government or anyone else, and to concentrate on intervening when our individual pursuits bring us into conflict, as bring us they inevitably must.

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  1. […] The Information Commissioner’s study slams the Children’s Database […]

    Pingback by The Sharpener » Blog Archive » — November 23, 2006 @ 12:22 pm

  2. […] (hat tip: Not Saussure) […]

    Pingback by Ministry of Truth — November 23, 2006 @ 6:27 pm

  3. […] First, I’ve come across a very valuable resource for anyone who’s interested in the issued raised by The Information Commissioner’s Study of the Children’s Database:    this is the Database Masterclass, a blog project designed to give you your very own cut-out’n’keep guide to all of the children’s databases (note the plural). Because it’s complicated, we’ve built it up in steps. Start at #1 and work through to #14. […]

    Pingback by The Children’s Database… and an answer for Polly « Not Saussure — November 23, 2006 @ 7:40 pm

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