John Carvel and David Batty
Tuesday September 9, 2003
Every child in England will be given a unique identifying number attached to an electronic file of personal information about their lives, under plans announced yesterday to avoid a repetition of the murder of Victoria Climbié.
The eight-year-old from the Ivory Coast died in London in 2000 after months of torture and malnutrition. Her carers were jailed for life, but a public inquiry under Lord Laming identified at least 12 occasions when she might have been saved by social workers, police or NHS staff if they had been aware of each others' suspicions.
The proposal came as part of a wide-ranging package of reforms, announced by Tony Blair, including plans to appoint an independent children's commissioner to champion their rights.
To tighten the child protection net, a sophisticated tracking system to keep tabs on England's 11 million children has been proposed.
In 150 local authorities, where education and children's social services are to be merged into new children's departments, there will be a "local information hub" recording details of all the children living in the area.
Each will have a file including name, address, date of birth, school and GP. When a child is known to agencies such as education welfare, social services, police, or youth offending teams, the file will carry a flag, giving contact details of the professional dealing with the case. If the child is known to more than one agency, the file will state which professional takes overall responsibility.
The green paper said there was a strong case for allowing staff to register suspicions about a child's circumstances before the stage when intervention was appropriate.
"It would be a matter of professional judgment whether the combination of two or more flags of minor concern warranted some form of action."
The government said it "wants to prevent situations where a child does not receive the help they need because of too rigid an interpretation of the privacy of the child and their family".
It will consult on whether information could be included in files without consent of the child or carers and whether it could include "warning signs" within the family such as imprisonment, domestic violence, or mental health problems.
The paper proposes early legislation to remove legal and technical barriers to information sharing, allowing children to be tracked around the country when families move.
The civil liberties campaign group Liberty warned that such a national database could put people falsely accused of child abuse at risk of threats and blackmail if the information was not secure.
"It will become a bank of information about every family in the land. At the very least we will want cast iron guarantees that the only people with access to it are directly involved in child protection," said Barry Hugill, the group's spokesman.
At local authority level, education and children's social services will be amalgamated. By 2006 they will be expected to set up children's trusts to link up with the NHS and other agencies.
Francis and Berthe Climbié, the parents of Victoria, said the government was making progress, but regretted that it had not adopted Lord Laming's plan for a national agency for children and families.
Lord Laming called the green paper a "stimulating and imaginative" document but said it would take money and a lot of training for social workers, teachers and police to work.
Margaret Hodge, the children's minister, said the reforms might save money by avoiding duplication of work and intervening before problems escalated.
David Behan, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, said: "This sets the scene for strong leadership, clear accountability and tighter coordination between local authorities and partner agencies."