Sunday, January 23, 2011

GUEST POST Children and the surveillance state: Will the Coalition keep its word?

Terri Dowty is director of ARCH - Action on Rights for Children

You should have seen our high-fives back in May when the coalition agreement was published. Not just one, but three of our long-fought campaigns looked as if they would at last cross the finishing line. We were promised that Contactpoint - the central database of every child in England – was heading for the scrapheap; that the retention of children’s DNA on the national DNA database would be drastically reduced, and that parental consent was to become mandatory whenever schools demand that children provide their fingerprints in exchange for library books and hot meals.

We threw a party on the day that Contactpoint’s plug was pulled, and will rustle up something fizzy just as soon as we’ve seen whether the content of the imminent ‘Freedom’ Bill lives up to expectations.

Here at ARCH Towers, there are plenty more reasons to be cheerful: we’ve said goodbye to ID Cards and the costly dog’s dinner of an NHS IT project, and hello to a root and branch reform of child protection in the shape of the Munro review, which might just give us a coherent system after a decade of ill-considered and counter-productive policy.

It feels a bit churlish, then, to say that our jubilant mood is increasingly overshadowed by a nagging uneasiness: do these obvious (at least to us) improvements signify a fundamental shift in attitude, or do they simply deal with a few high-profile issues without challenging the underlying illiberalism that created the problem?

Before the election, both the Liberals and the Conservatives signalled their disapproval of the way in which so many intrusive measures had been introduced via regulations - and sometimes with no scrutiny whatsoever.

In their IT manifesto, the Conservatives went so far as to promise that no new database would ever be constructed without primary legislation. From that statement, one could reasonably assume that they deplored sweeping data-gathering powers being granted to ministers, so we felt optimistic that the powers already in existence would be revoked.

That simply isn’t happening and, so far, we haven’t been able to get any assurances that it will. Thus, s12 Children Act 2004, which empowers the Secretary of State to create children’s databases via regulations, remains in force and construction of Contactpoint’s nasty little sister, the eCAF database, continues. This is to hold and share the personal profile, or CAF, of every child seeking council services – around 4m children a year.

Attempts have been made to justify eCAF on the basis that it is consent-based, but this is moonshine. If consent is to be valid, it must be freely-given and we have lost count of the number of families and practitioners who have told us that the rule in their own area is: ‘no CAF, no services’. It also requires that the person giving consent has the legal capacity to do so, but 12 years old has inexplicably emerged as the blanket age at which a child can consent to data-sharing in their own right. There is no basis in law whatsoever for this assertion. It is nonsense. It has been made up.

The thrice-yearly school census, the details of which are specified in regulations, will continue to hoover personal data from school management systems about every state-funded school pupil and dump it on the National Pupil Database. This is a permanent data collection that includes information about behaviour and attendance. Exclusions for bullying, substance misuse and sexual misconduct each have their own codes, forming a permanent record of offences that were probably committed in the view of a headteacher- because the test for excluding a pupil is that the alleged behaviour occurred ‘on a balance of probabilities’.

To make it worse, the power to collect this information was gained via a last-minute, smoke-and-mirrors amendment at committee stage of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. It took just ten minutes.

If the coalition disapproves so heartily of draconian powers exercised via secondary legislation, why does it continue to use them? ‘No new databases without primary legislation’ sounded pretty promising, but we’re beginning to suspect that we missed a muttered: ‘because we have quite enough powers already, thanks’.

We don’t want to stop feeling optimistic that children and families might regain some of their privacy, but it’s hard not to feel that, yet again, we’re watching some horribly familiar shadow-boxing and semantic games.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice


Sheila said...

It might be worth looking North of the border to see the shape of things to come. A lot of money and effort has gone into presenting Scotland as being the epitome of privacy friendliness when nothing could be further from the truth.

The Scottish surveillance scandal - don't think this is too strong a word - has recently been exposed very eloquently by Kenneth Roy, an old school investigative reporter with his own online publication.

I have posted all the recent coverage from Kenneth and others on this forum thread:

Sheila said...

Interesting comment from Open democracy:

"In addition to the intrinsic importance of what happens in Scotland, there are two reasons why everyone across the UK should be alert to warnings of this kind. OurKingdom and openDemocracy played a big role in the 2009 Convention on Modern Liberty. This was a"wake up call" about the dangers of the database state. The evidence it brought together shows that there is a driving state-culture pushing for the penetration of information on citizens and central control of that information, while people are far too complacent and trusting about what this process is, which is being developed with minimal publicity. This is the first reason. Second, from the Poll Tax to the Scottish Consitutional Convention, in both bad ways and good, what happens in Scotland today can impact on what happens in London tomorrow. This is a warning!"