ContactPoint switched off but child welfare concerns remain

6 August 2010 by

In happier days

A database which was to hold the details of every child in England will be switched off at noon today, but the uneasy relationship between social services, the government and the courts in child protection matters still remains.

The closure of the £224 million scheme marks a victory for human rights and privacy campaigners as well as the fulfilment of a longstanding promise by the coalition partners.

The ContactPoint Database was set up in the wake of Lord Laming’s 2003 Victoria Climbié Public Inquiry, which recommended, amongst other major changes in child protection policy, that the government should investigate the setting up of “a national children’s database on all children under the age of 16.” Victoria Climbié died in 2000 at age 8 after being abused by her guardians. In the trial of her guardians which followed her death, the judge described the response of local authorities as “blinding incompetence”.

The aim of the database was to join up child support between otherwise disparate agencies and medical providers, so that vulnerable children’s welfare could be tracked. Victoria Climbié had been seen by different hospitals but they had failed to communicate with each other.

The database has always been controversial, with privacy campaigners such as Liberty arguing that a national database of such size and scope was a disproportionate response to the problem it sought to address. A significant worry as the database was being built was that the government would simply not be competent enough to be trusted with such sensitive data, and that even if it was well run, it would be accessible by too many people.

The current government agrees that the problem of communication between different child support agencies needs to be addressed. In the Ministerial Statement announcing the decommission, Tim Loughton MP, Parliamentary under Secretary of State for Children and Families said

Experience shows the potential value of a quick and reliable means of discovering whether another professional has worked with such a child. It is worth considering a national approach to that issue.

However, that ‘national approach’ will not be ContactPoint, but rather “a new national signposting service which would focus on helping practitioners find out whether another practitioner is working, or has previously worked, in another authority area with the same vulnerable child.” It is not yet clear what this will entail, but it seems likely that the intention is to build a ‘ContactPoint Lite’, only containing the details of vulnerable children and only accessible to a “strictly limited group of practitioners “. This would limit the database to thousands rather than the millions.

Shadow of Baby Peter

The scrapping of ContactPoint marks another step on the very rocky road of child protection, but it is difficult to say at this stage whether it is forwards or backwards. The privacy concerns relating to Contact Point were real, but it would be a great shame if the primary reason for getting rid of it was the last government’s incapability in keeping information secure, rather than its effectiveness as a child protection measure.

The looming background presence here is the case of Baby Peter, which is still spreading shock waves through the child protection system as well as the courts. These coals may be further raked by a high-profile inquest into his death, yet to be confirmed.

Following Baby Peter’s death, Lord Laming was asked to write a Climbié Inquiry follow-up report, in which he criticised leaders of social services for failing to translate policies into day-to-day practice, and argued that the scale of the task of child protection had not been fully realised.

Clearly, there is only so much a public inquiry can be expected to achieve in the face of the Sisyphean task of fixing child protection, and the switching off of ContactPoint represents a victory for those who said that it represented an overbearing response to the problems identified in the Climbié case.

Public scandals as policy drivers

Public scandals such as that surrounding Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter seem to happen fairly regularly, but it is questionable whether the intense but short-lived public scrutiny which follows them helps or hinders social workers and health professionals to do their job. Public Inquiries and government reviews represent a more sober reckoning of problems, but sometimes policies can be overtaken by a new public scandal.

A public scandal can also have unintended consequences. The Fostering Network, a children’s charity, has recently released a report claiming that the care system is under unprecedented pressure due to the continuing rise in children needing foster homes following the death of Baby Peter and the chronic shortage of foster carers.

The courts then often end up picking up the pieces of poor policy. In recent years, judges have found themselves holding public authorities to account in child abuse cases, but have also recognised that the courts are not the most effective arena for ensuring children (and parents) are protected. Sir Mark Potter, the influential former president of the Family Division, recently told the Guardian that the court system “is becoming overwhelmed in the face of an increasing workload and inadequate resources”.

The Climbié Report made a number of recommendations which where generally taken up, and it was probably inevitable that only some would work.The Coalition Government is now seeking, as it is entitled to, a fresh start on child protection services, and to that end, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, has asked Professor Eileen Munro, a professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, to lead the a “fundamental” review (see our post).

The news from the new government won’t be all good for privacy campaigners, however. Sarah’s law, a national database of sex offenders accessible to parents, is being gradually rolled out across the country. It seems that some widely accessible national databases are better than others.

It is difficult to see how budget cuts to social services and practically everything else can be squared with better child protection, and it is a shame that hundreds of millions of pounds appear to have been wasted on a useless database which must now be destroyed. Sadly, there seems to be little prospect of policies – especially those as controversial as ContactPoint – being given much time to succeed in such a febrile atmosphere, and this will only be reinforced when the next shocking scandal breaks.

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