British children have nothing to hide, everything to fear

Does your child eat five portions of fruit and vegetables per day? Are they keeping up with their GCSE work? Do they attend church regularly?

If your answer to two or more of these questions is ‘no’, you could find yourself under investigation by child protection authorities thanks to a new child surveillance database scheme.

Professionals such as doctors, police officers and teachers will be compelled to alert the system to a wide range of ‘concerns’ about children. Two warning flags on a child’s record could start an investigation.

Jonathan Bamford, the Assistant Information Commissioner, said, “The cause for concern indicator against a child’s record is expressed in very broad language. For example, it could be cause for concern that a child is not progressing well towards his or her French GCSE.”

There are many reasons why the National Children’s Index could make life worse for children and parents:

  • Children would grow up with no concept of privacy, as their every developmental step could be recorded and scrutinised by everyone with whom they came into contact. This is already a recognised problem for children who are taken into care – every adult they meet knows every intimate and embarassing detail about them. This can cause long-term social problems when a child leaves care at the age of 18. The new database would force all children to cope with this issue.
  • Professionals with access to the database would be able to abuse the data. For example, a head-teacher could call up the files of candidates for a teaching post at their school and eliminate any who had less than perfect childhoods.
  • Tracking data on every child in England and Wales, rather than just those thought to be at risk, would massively increase the size of the “haystack” that professionals must sift through in search of the “needle” case children in real need of assistance.
  • Given that cases of abuse are thankfully rare compared to the number of children in England and Wales, a flag on a record is much more likely to be a false positive than a genuine case. Lowering the threshold for starting an investigation, while simultaneously applying a massive increase in the number of records to consider, will result in many more parents and children being needlessly investigated. Not only will this be a huge drain on resources, but genuine cases would be at greater risk of slipping through the net. Meanwhile, many more innocent parents will be put through the trauma of a child abuse investigation, the stigma of which can be impossible to erase.
  • Information retrieved from a database takes on a new air of authority when compared with the contextualised circumstances in which it was recorded. Relatively minor concerns on a record could be blown out of all proportion when they are subsequently reviewed by others working with the family in question. The proposals require an extensive list of minor “concerns” to be recorded for each child. This will further increase the false positive rate.
  • The database will be largely exempt from the Data Protection Act, meaning there will be little redress for parents or children if something goes wrong, for example if recorded data is incorrect or inaccurate.
  • Computer scientists do not yet understand how to properly secure such a massive, widely accessible database with so many authorised users. Unauthorised access will occur. Private and extremely sensitive information about children will leak out. Such information would be valuable to blackmailers and paedophiles, providing the incentive for professional computer criminals to steal and sell on information about children.
  • There is no guarantee that surviellance would stop once a child becomes an adult. It’s well known that people who were abused as children are more likely to go on to abuse others. This could be used as an excuse for police surviellance of the victims of abuse. More generally, the Government is likely to want to link the National Children’s Index to the National ID Register, providing for cradle-to-grave surveillance of the population.

The government seems to think surveillance databases are the only solution to systemic failures in its departments, despite the overwhelming evidence and weight of professional opinion to the contrary. Perhaps their time and our resources could be better spent addressing the real causes of such problems — the lack of adequate staff training, under-funding, poor intellegence, worse communication, unweildy and beurocratic processes and a total disregard for the individual — rather than jerking their collective knee in an illiberal direction every time the red-tops cry scandal.

Further informationLSE Conference: Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected
The Victoria Climbie Inquiry
The Children Act 2004
NSPCC briefing on the Child Protection System in EnglandOther news articles

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