"Yet more alarm bells are sounding. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned in an article in The Times earlier in the year that we risk
"sleepwalking into a surveillance society".
Tim Loughton (East Worthing & Shoreham, Con) We now come to what could be, barring the smacking debate that we shall hold later, the most contentious part of the Bill and the one about which the Opposition have the most concerns. I want to talk to clause 12 as a whole. Amendment no. 46 would delete it, but other amendments in the group, as well as new clause 4 itself, would improve and make acceptable the whole section about databases. This is an important part of the Bill. In Committee, we spent more than a morning on it, rightly, yet at the end of that time we had few assurances from the Minister for Children, Young People and Families about how the provisions would work, so we subsequently decided to vote against the whole clause. The upper House made some improvements to the clause, but although they were welcome they did not go nearly far enough.
In Committee, the Minister mentioned that she hoped our fears would be assuaged by the publication of the consultation document on the whole database system, which duly took place last week. We are grateful for that consultation document, but that is all it is—a consultation document. It is not a White Paper; it does not show a firm direction for the Government to take. The responses will not be in until the end of January, yet we are being asked, at this late stage of the Bill's progress, to write the Government a large blank cheque to set up powerful databases that would include each and every one of the more than 11 million children in this country.
The 10 trailblazer projects—pilots—being set up to try to investigate how such schemes could work are only halfway through their task. That work is being extended until March 2005 and the projects have just been granted second-tier funding, yet we are being asked to give the Secretary of State enormous powers to set up databases, about which there remain a lot ofunanswered questions. The Government do not even know what the final identity and nature of those databases will be.
Even more worrying is the fact that only in the last week or so have we started to hear details about the Government's integrated children's systems, which, I gather, are to replace child protection registers by December 2005. They will be more detailed than child protection registers and will contain children's social care case records. They will operate in parallel with other case record systems, such as the NHS care record system for health practitioners.
The Minister has pledged £30 million to the project over the next two years, yet that was not mentioned once during the entire proceedings of the Bill in the upper House, on Second Reading or in Committee. Not once did the Minister allude to the fact that another much larger database is being constructed, for which money is already committed, and which will replace child protection registers.
Why was that not mentioned? How will the new system interact with the databases that we are discussing in the Bill? How will information be transferred? What arrangements have been made for security of access under the new systems? In answer to my written question
"what arrangements are already in existence to register children on a national register",
the Minister replied:
"There are no arrangements in existence to register children on a national register."—[Official Report, 13 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 634W.]
Why was that?
What is this proposal if it is not a national register? We need much more information than we have been given so far.
Yet more alarm bells are sounding. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned in an article in The Times earlier in the year that we risk
"sleepwalking into a surveillance society".
The arrangements have already been referred to as "Big Brother for children" in The Guardian. Children Now magazine recently warned:
"We need to avoid making professionals slaves to technology by placing undue burdens on them to record information. And we should question whether the benefits of storing copious information about children are offset by the disadvantages of information overload and creeping surveillance."
I share those worries.
We said from the start that we are not against the principle of databases. We need databases to protect vulnerable children, but they should contain only minimal information and should not be a substitute for professionals talking to each other. Their scope should be limited to vulnerable children, rather than every single child in the country, because the system will otherwise be impractical and unworkable.