Issues - Protecting children from the state - Hodge
named 'worst public servant'
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."
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
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
The decision to create a "universal children's
database" was approved
by the ministerial committee on children, young people and
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
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,"
"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
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.