UK: Children Bill to introduce surveillance of every child and record "concerns" about their parents


On 4 March 2004 the government published its "Children Bill", largely a response to the public enquiry that exposed the buck passing in the case of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, a murdered child abuse victim. If adopted it will play a central role in the future ID card scheme the prime minister and home secretary are intent on introducing. All children in England and Wales will be given a unique identity number at birth, and entered on to a database where their personal files will record every "concern" that a professional has about them. It will also record "concerns" about their parents. The Bill will allow this to happen without the knowledge or consent of children and parents.

The information-sharing goes far beyond concerns that a child is at risk of significant harm. It is the Government's intention that it should include youth offending, educational issues and medical information about each child. It will also include information about other family members that may be considered relevant, such as suspected drug and alcohol misuse or mental health problems.

To give an idea of the scale of information that will be recorded: one of the front-runners to operate the system is RYOGENS ("risk of youth offending generic solutions": www.ryogens.org.uk). They have just completed pilots for a scheme to identify children who may be potential criminals, and are expanding the scheme to encompass the Government's full Identification, Referral and Tracking (IRT) project. RYOGENS provides a checklist of the issues that should cause a professional to "flag" a child's record. These include, "frequently moving house", "non-constructive spare time/easily bored", "criminal area of residence", "negative home influence on education" and "Poor General Parenting Skills": full list.

Clause 8 of the Bill empowers the Government to establish one or more databases - which does not preclude one national database. It also empowers the Secretary of State to define by Regulations what information should be held on the database. There is no limit to this power, and there seems to be nothing to prevent the Secretary of State from ordering that all agency files be held centrally.

Clause 8(7) will overturn the common law presumption of confidentiality. A statutory duty will be placed upon all agencies, including GPs, to co-operate, and other organisations can be included in the scheme by Regulation of the Secretary of State. The Government has said that it "won't" use the full extent of its powers, but this is hardly reassuring. It is also doubtful whether the proposals are compatible with the Data Protection Act, the right to privacy under Article 8 of the ECHR and the UN Convention on the Rights of Child.

The group Action on Rights for Children (ARCH) are also concerned about data security and have called described the Bill as "an open invitation to abusers". Terri Dowty of ARCH comments:

The case of Victoria Climbie, who died despite being known to numerous 'protection' agencies, is a tragic example of abject failure on the part of professionals who did nothing to intervene in circumstances where a child was known to be at serious risk. How, therefore, can the surveillance of the entire child population - with its related resource implications for child welfare agencies - be justified, when that small minority of children who genuinely are at serious risk continue to fall through the safety net?

Documentation

1. Full text of Children Bill (pdf file)
2. From public meeting held at the London School of Economics on April 6th 2004 to discuss some of its implications: http://tracking-children.lse.ac.uk (link)
3. Action on Rights for Children: ARCH website (link)


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