Fri, Mar 27, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The hidden risks of databases on children

Among a proliferation of government databases in the UK, the three causing greatest concern over legality, privacy and consent were set up to protect children

By Liz Lightfoot  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

“A childminder contacted us to say she had been on an afternoon’s training course and was told she had to fill in CAF forms,” Dowty said. “She said she was paid to look after someone’s children, she was not there to sit in judgment on their parents and didn’t feel she had the expertise to comment on their family situations and relationship with the child.”

Those filling in the CAF forms are told to consider such things as the nature and quality of early attachments, stable and affectionate relationships with parents, whether children have clean and appropriate clothing, appropriate physical contact such as comfort and cuddling, praise and encouragement, effective discipline and whether they are overprotected. The form also seeks detailed information about the family, such as routines, any serious difficulties in the parents’ relationship and ways in which the family income is used.

“It worries me because it implies there is a right way to bring up children, when the most we can say from the evidence is that there are one or two bad ways of doing it,” Dowty said. “It’s like laying down a national person specification.”

The plan is to archive material on ContactPoint when children turn 18, but some people’s records will stay until they are 25, says the DCSF, which adds that records will be held in the secure archive for six years and then destroyed.

The report’s authors, however, fear that once the data is in place, the government will not want to delete it.

“Children have the right to reinvent themselves when they grow up,” Dowty said. “They can go through difficult times, sometimes in their teens, and they need to be able to shed that background and get on with their lives.”

Security is another concern. Arch’s research into local authority data protection policies has uncovered what Dowty describes as “a cavalier attitude” to the protection of confidential information. Its survey of 94 local authorities found only eight of their security policies mentioned encrypting sensitive data before transmission. Two of them instructed staff to lock confidential client files in the boot of their cars if leaving them unattended, and another said it was safe to e-mail sensitive data in a Microsoft Word document, as long as it was password protected.

It is important that the need to protect vulnerable children is balanced against the wider problem of data protection and personal freedom, says John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

“The problem schools have had in the past has been the unwillingness of social services to share data with them. The situation should be better now, and I hope it is. But the laudable wish to make information available to everyone working with a child who has a problem may have unintended consequences for the child later on in life that we don’t yet know about,” he said.

“The other issue is the lack of confidence in the security of information. The bigger the database, it seems the greater the chance it will turn up on a train seat somewhere,” he said.

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