Why the delay in launching database?
Government blames glitches, but critics say whole system could put children in danger. Janet Murray reports
The sudden postponement of the government's flagship ContactPoint database last week was immediately shrugged off by ministers and civil servants as being due to technical problems. Embarrassing, perhaps, for a project costing the taxpayer pounds 224m, but simply a matter of taking a bit more time to iron out glitches such as drop-down menus.
But an investigation by Education Guardian reveals much more fundamental concerns about hundreds of vulnerable children being put at risk because of flaws in the whole system, and raises questions over whether the government will ever get its ambitious project to work.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) insists: "We are working hard to iron out glitches before it goes out to users. This is not about security issues."
But whether the database goes live next month as planned or in January, as children's minister Kevin Brennan rather shamefacedly informed MPs last week, security issues surrounding data on children are precisely what a lot of teachers and social workers are deeply concerned about.
The database, which had already been postponed once last year, will contain details of every child in England, listing their name, address and gender, as well as contact details for their GP, school and parents and other carers, and will be accessible by some 330,000 vetted users.
Where the risk to a child outweighs the benefits of sharing information between practitioners, ContactPoint users will be able to partially "shield" records - for example, hiding their home or school address. This might apply to families who have relocated because of domestic violence, those involved in witness protection schemes or sensitive fostering or adoption cases. Shielding may also be necessary to ensure the safety of children of celebrities or well-known people.
At present, only local authorities can apply to shield records and 17 of these - known as "early adopters" - were due to go live with ContactPoint next month. But Education Guardian has learned the government has not taken adequate steps to shield the data of vulnerable children.
Early last month, just weeks away from the proposed launch, a letter was sent to all directors of children's services asking them to identify vulnerable children in their local authority as a matter of "urgency".
One local authority source said: "I'm not surprised to hear ContactPoint is being postponed again - it was clear that local authorities just weren't ready. Identifying and shielding vulnerable children in every local authority is a mammoth task and first off there needs to be a sustained public awareness campaign. But I'm not convinced three months is long enough to make it work. I suspect the government may actually be stalling before the whole project is shelved."
Professor Ross Anderson, an expert in security at the University of Cambridge, is not surprised that the issue of shielding vulnerable children is being tackled as an "afterthought". "It is a shocking way to go about building a system," he says, adding: "The public sector wastes huge amounts of money on software that ultimately doesn't work. The most likely explanation is that they can't get ContactPoint to work."
Anderson argues the issue of shielding should have been addressed well before the database was populated. "Shielding was clearly something tacked onto the idea of ContactPoint when MPs started asking whether their children or the children of celebrities would be on the database. Now the system has been built, you've got everyone faffing about trying to shield children, do you really think this is going to be done promptly and competently?"
"Protecting children is already challenging enough," said one local authority employee. "Our internal data systems are already unreliable and this will just make things worse. It's unbelievable to think they've overlooked the need to safeguard vulnerable children."
The aim of ContactPoint is to link up professionals to provide a better service for children and families. Plans for the database - formerly known as the Child Information Sharing Index - followed Lord Laming's 2003 report into the death of Victoria Climbie, which concluded that the eight-year-old's death could have been prevented had there been better communication between professionals.
While ContactPoint will not contain case notes of individual children, it will indicate whether a child has had contact with particular services, for example social workers or the children and adolescent mental health service (Camhs).
In principle, educationists welcome the idea of ContactPoint, says Chris Keates, the general secretary of the Nasuwt. "Our members are keen to find ways of sharing information with other services without having to chase or replicate data. In a school setting, having a central database of information on children could be invaluable. For example, at the moment, when a child moves school, it can take months for their records to turn up. Knowing whether a child has had contact with social services or has additional learning needs as soon as they join a school means you can offer them any support they might need, right from the outset."
But for Anderson, knowledge can be dangerous. "The more teachers know about children, the lower the expectations. In Germany, for example, teachers are not even allowed to know whether a child has been top or bottom of the class when they move schools. Children should have the right to start afresh."
What has also been overlooked by ContactPoint developers is that, for a variety of reasons, vulnerable children are not always known to their local authorities. Under the data protection act, local authorities are required to issue fair processing notices outlining whose information is held on ContactPoint and for what purpose. But there is no facility for members of the public who believe they may be vulnerable to identify themselves to local authorities.
In fact, the public is largely unaware of what is happening, says Terri Dowty of Action on Rights for Children. "Local authorities cannot possibly be aware of every child that needs to be shielded. This is why the government and local authorities need to say, 'Look, this is what we're doing. If you think you need shielding, get in touch.'"
A DCSF spokesperson said: "Local and national communications, using the media and other approaches, such as leaflets and web-based information, will help ensure that information is available to the public about ContactPoint nearer to the time it is first deployed to early adopters. It will be for local authorities to decide how best to undertake this in their area." But placing the responsibility for fair processing on local authorities means knowledge about ContactPoint is patchy.
Essex county council is planning to send out information to schools and doctors' surgeries and via their magazine, which goes out to all residents. Halton will promote ContactPoint to the public through posters, leaflets and the internet.
Most local authority websites now con tain information on ContactPoint, but it is generally hidden away and accessible only to those who know what they are looking for.
A string of high-profile data losses has left public confidence in government data-handling low. ContactPoint was originally due to be launched in spring this year, but it was put on hold when the government announced an independent security review after the loss of child benefit discs by HM Revenue and Customs, with the personal details of 25 million people, last November. While the government has played down the findings of the Deloitte security review, claiming it made only "minor recommendations" for additional security actions and controls, there was strong criticism from opposition parties for refusing to publish the full report and there were calls to scrap the pounds 224m database. The database was relaunched as ContactPoint last year, but the government has been unable to halt the negative publicity.
The Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), previously open in its criticism of ContactPoint, is nervous. "With any system like this, there are always going to be issues to iron out," says ADCS spokesperson Richard Stiff. "But I defy anyone to stand up and say we don't need data of this type. It's ironic - we've been criticised for not taking enough action to safeguard children, but when we take steps to change this, we still get criticised."
Anderson disagrees: "If you allow large numbers of people access to sensitive data it's never going to be secure. You can't protect it. ContactPoint should simply never have been built."