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CHILD SAFETY DILEMMA

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Legality of 'at risk' database threatens Blair's protection programme...
Legality of 'at risk' database threatens Blair's protection programme

By Nick Golding

Tony Blair has ordered local government to support the troubled children of tomorrow, just as councils warn their ability to identify today's vulnerable children is at risk.

Children's and social services departments face a barrage of targets to prove they are committed to early intervention, following the prime minister's call for extra help for young people likely to experience

difficulty, such as those in care or with alcoholic parents.

But councils' key strategy to better identify vulnerable youngsters in the first place is under threat, as the legality of the computer database designed to let professionals share concerns about any child in the country has been called into question by the Information Commissioner.

The Children's Index database, developed at a cost of£224m to enable teachers,

social workers and doctors to interact, was intended to overcome the deficit in information sharing which contributed to the death of Victoria Climbié.

Due to go live in 2008, it was billed as the centre point of the Every child matters protection programme.

However, the office of the Information Commissioner, an independent watchdog reporting to Parliament, has raised concerns that the system could breach the Data Protection Act or be subject to abuse.

In a statement it said it had 'concerns about retaining information on so many children irrespective of risk'.

Andrew Webb, the co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services' children and families committee, said: 'Some of the progress on Every child matters will be lost if we don't have the database underpinning it - this is particularly true of the most vulnerable children.

'If you ask parents of disabled children what information we should hold they say that the worst thing is when we have to go through the same story over and over again - they can't understand why the agencies don't talk to one another.'

Chris Waterman, executive director of the Confederation of Children's Services Managers, said: 'One would assume that there have been discussions at the highest level between the Information Commissioner's office and the government to obviate any problems over data protection.'

'Sharing information between professionals is integral to developing the Every child matters outcomes for children.'

Paul Fallon, Barnet LBC's director of social services, said professionals would have to phone around other local agencies to share information. 'This isn't as smart as the database - it takes a lot longer to do.'

A spokesman for the Department for Education & Skills insisted the issues cited by the information commissioner could be overcome.

'There will be extremely strict controls around access to information. No one other than practitioners such as police, GPs and social workers with Criminal Record Bureau checks would be able to access any information,' he said.

But concerns about the database intensified this week as Mr Blair called for an expansion of schemes in which lead professionals hold budgets to support children in care, and for local area agreements to tackle information sharing between agencies involved with social exclusion.

He said the local government white paper would 'drive out poor performance' on social exclusion, comparing the new focus to the government's drive against poor teaching.

However, John Coughlan, Hampshire CC's director of children's services, said additional resources were required to ensure children's social care underwent a similar transformation to teaching.

'The core issue about standards of performance will be to do with driving up the standard of the workforce. That comes down to training and pay,' he warned.

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