FLINT logo
Families Link International
Tel:0781 886 1724
home | issues | policies | family groups | courts | court reporters | research | law | contacts | donations | Useful Quotes |

Issues - Protecting children from the state - Hodge named 'worst public servant'

David Batty
Thursday July 29, 2004

The children's minister, Margaret Hodge, was yesterday named as Britain's "worst public servant" for backing the creation of a child database which civil liberties campaigners claim will grossly invade family privacy.

Ms Hodge won the award at the sixth annual Big Brother awards - which aim to expose threats to personal privacy from government and businesses - for her support of legislation to create a database covering every child in England.
The children bill would give the government powers to make local authorities create an electronic file on all of the country's 11 million children and allow them to include in it data hitherto regarded as confidential under common law.
Professionals would be encouraged to use the system to monitor children's behaviour including the likely risk of teenage pregnancy and potential for criminal activity.

Mrs Hodge has controversially said that the behaviour - including alcohol or drug use - of parents, other relatives and neighbours may be recorded on the files.
The government says the database will help the authorities to identify children in need of support and protection before they reach crisis point.
But opponents of the scheme, including the family rights group Action on Rights for Children (Arch), claim that the government is using concerns about child protection as a cover to introduce ID cards and invade family privacy.
The Big Brother awards are run by the pressure group Privacy International, which campaigns against surveillance and privacy invasions by governments and corporations.

Other winners at the award ceremony, held last night at the London School of Economics, included the NHS IT programme and British Gas.
British Gas was named as the most invasive company for claiming that the Data Protection Act prevented it from alerting social services to the case of an elderly couple who died after their gas was cut off.

The company claimed that it was barred by law from passing on information about George Bates, 89, and his 86-year-old wife Gertrude, who were found in a decomposed state in their south London home last October.
NHS national programme for information technology won the 'most appalling project' award for plans to computerise patient records, which were described by Privacy International as "insecure and dangerous to patient privacy".
Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International, said: "The winning nominations reflect a broad and intensified assault on the right to privacy in the UK. There is a clear hostility within government to privacy and a general antagonism to it from within business."

"The default has clearly shifted from privacy to surveillance. Almost all large government projects attempt to compromise the right to privacy. The proclaimed need for protection of children and the fight against terrorism has often been shamelessly used as the pretext for privacy invasion".

The education secretary, Charles Clarke, was runner-up in the 'lifetime menace' category for his support of the child database. He was previously nominated in 2000 when, as a Home Office minister, he oversaw the passage through parliament of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which allows the police and a wide range of other agencies to undertake covert surveillance of the public.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said it had no comment to make on the awards.

Terri Dowty, policy director of Arch, said: "We are not surprised that Margaret Hodge has been given such negative recognition. The idea that children's private lives can be discussed without their knowledge harks back to the days when adults knew best and children had no rights.

"Had the children bill been properly grounded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the government might have noticed that children, like adults, have a specific right to respect for their privacy."


All children to go on `big brother' computer
Robert Winnett and David Leppard

A NATIONAL database containing confidential details about every child in Britain is to be set up by the government. An identifying number will be assigned to each child so that the authorities can access their records. Details of the proposals affecting all 13.5m children in Britain under the age of 18 are contained in cabinet papers leaked to The Sunday Times.

All parents will receive letters from the government informing them of the plan, which will be added to the Children's Bill in the autumn.

The central electronic register will hold information on a child's school achievements, GP and hospital visits, police and social services records and home address.

It will also include information on their families, such as whether parents are divorced or separated. The database will be designed to identify problem relatives, including aunts and uncles who have a history of alcoholism or drug misuse. It will be filed under each child's "unique identifying number".

The decision to create a "universal children's database" was approved
by the ministerial committee on children, young people and families,
chaired by Charles Clarke, the education secretary, last month.

The government believes that the move will help social services and police to identify and protect children who are at risk of abuse or neglect.

However, it is likely to prove controversial. Critics claimed yesterday that it amounted to intrusive, Big Brother-style authoritarianism and would be an invasion of civil liberties.

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, expressed concern that private medical and family data could be misused and might contain inaccuracies. "This is a national ID card scheme by the back door, and as such should be open to proper scrutiny and proper checks to protect civil liberties," he said.

"As the Soham murder case showed, computer databases are not infallible. To err is human, but to screw up you need a computer."

Barry Hugill, a spokesman for Liberty, the civil liberties group, said: "They are creating a national database through the back door. You start with information about all children but in 20 years' time you've got almost half the population.

"The government may justify it in terms of child protection but it's way beyond what even the children's charities wanted or thought necessary."

The plan follows the publication last year of a report by Lord Laming into the death of Victoria Climbié, the eight-year-old who died from neglect and abuse. Laming recommended the establishment of a national database, although the government had previously played down its interest in the idea.

However, "restricted" minutes of a meeting reveal that ministers have privately agreed to the national children's database, rejecting proposals for the system to cover only those children thought to be at risk.

The minutes record: "Turning to the question of who the database should cover, the minister for children, young people and families (Margaret Hodge) said that all children should be included. This fitted with the prevention agenda and reduced the risk of stigmatisation. Information collected could also be used to support
service planning and delivery."

Parents would not have access to the database but will be able to apply to see details held on their children under the Data Protection Act.

Ministers at the meeting, including Hodge, Paul Boateng, Lord Filkin, Estelle Morris and Alun Michael, raised concerns about the technical challenge of setting up the database. The government has been hit by the failure of several new computer systems, including the Child Support Agency, Inland Revenue and the Criminal Records Bureau.

It has commissioned a feasibility study into the plans and held negotiations with several firms including Experian, which runs national credit-checking services. According to the leaked minutes: "To overcome the technical problems associated with a national database it might be better to start small and build up."

The aim of the system is to identify children potentially at risk before it is too late to help them. It would allow agencies to contact each other to discuss suspicions outside the constraints of data protection laws.

The Sunday Times
July 25, 2004

The contents on these pages are provided as information only. No responsibility or liability is accepted by or on behalf of FLINT for any errors, omissions, or misleading statements on these pages, or any site to which these pages connect, whether provided by FLINT or by any organisation, company or individual. No mention of any organisation, company or individual, whether on these pages or on other sites to which these pages are linked, shall imply any approval or warranty as to the standing and capability of any such organisations, companies or individuals on the part of FLINT. All rights reserved.