Opinion: Getting rid of ContactPoint – a great day for liberalism

I would imagine Liberals throughout the country breathed a collective sigh of relief this past week when they opened their newspapers or turned on their computers to find the intrusive ContactPoint database was to be switched off at noon on 6th August.

28th February 2010 was the beginning of the end for ContactPoint.

On this day, an emergency motion submitted to Liberal Youth Spring Conference found its way through the ballot and ended up for debate on the final day of our conference. During the debate, we acknowledged the good points of ContactPoint and, whilst we understood its flaws and noted that the intention had been honourable, the fate of ContactPoint – at least in the eyes of Liberal Youth – was clear. We wanted it gone, and we wanted it gone now.

We could not believe that the system had been approved in the first place, that the safeguards put in place were not nearly strong enough for a databank designed to house the details of 11 million children and those responsible for them, and that 330,000 unchecked people would have access. It wasn’t reasonable, it wasn’t an answer to the Victoria Climbie case, it was simply a Labour overreaction that would further infringe our civil liberties.

At a time when the federal party did not have a policy on this dangerous database, the emergency motion passed through our spring conference almost unanimously. Soon after, it became Liberal Democrat policy and appeared in the party’s General Election manifesto. Then, to our surprise and delight, scrapping it became Government policy. Now, after a long hard fight – from the party, civil liberties campaigners and the public – we have the result we were always after.

It’s time to say goodbye to ContactPoint and give a warm welcome to the return of our civil liberties.

Liberal Youth have been the leading voice against this system. If it hadn’t been switched off, we would have kept fighting, because we recognised just how dangerous this database was to us and to young people across the country.

Liberal Youth have been referred to, both internally and externally, as the ‘conscience of the Liberal Democrats’ and, whether true or false, Liberal Youth will keep fighting for our civil liberties – at conference, during Freshers’ Week, and as we approach the Freedom Bill in autumn. Expect nothing less from Liberal Youth than our full support for the abolition of intrusive databanks – from ONSET to the Common Assessment Framework to the proposed Communications Database. We believe firmly that our data was never meant to be used against us, and intend to speak out and speak loud on the issues that matter to us.

Getting rid of ContactPoint is a great Liberal Democrat success – our children are safer, our data is protected – we have taken a large step in the right direction. But, now we’ve taken one, let’s, as a party, start running. We can fight for Identification, Referral and Tracking (IRT) systems to be abolished, for Control Orders to be terminated, and for steadfast opposition to extradition to countries where a fair trial cannot be guaranteed or that have not abolished Capital Punishment.

Mark it in your diaries: 6th August, 12 noon. A great day for liberalism, and the day we started getting our civil liberties back.

* Sarah Harding is a General Executive Member and Policy Officer for Liberal Youth. She also blogs at www.southportliberalyouth.com

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  • Andrew Suffield 8th Aug '10 - 2:57pm

    And good riddance to the stupid thing. I’m still not convinced it was ever an active risk, since it didn’t contain any information that could conceivably be of use to anybody, but it was certainly a huge waste of money that accomplished nothing towards child safety, since it didn’t contain any information that could conceivably be of use to anybody.

  • @ Andrew
    so i’m assuming you’re speaking from a position of great personal experience?

    ContactPoint didn’t contain more information than the various agencies involved in the child’s life, the point was simply that without ContactPoint, no one was able to compare that data.

    ContactPoint was able to highlight where basic services were not being used (i.e. if a child’s not going to school…), what professionals were involved and if a parent or carer was moving the child around and accessing services under different names – precisely the sort of behaviour that’s been seen in various SCRs over the last 20 years.

    The arguments against contactpoint are ill-thought. The data is held anyway, what’s the problem with actually being used? And also, surely the security and practices around LA databases (who along with the NHS are the main recipient of enforcement action for data losses by the ICO) are of more concern than a database which actually required information rights training, id verification and 2 factor authentication… If you’re concerned about data, you’re fighting the wrong battle.

  • Good article.

    And @Kehaar, it is a Lib Dem policy, you can read it in the manifesto. That is the difference between this and baba.

    @Dom, you have missed Andrew’s point if you thought it was about new data. The danger is precisely the same danger that ID Cards presented: Suddenly, all in one place, you have the details and information about every child. You simply shouldn’t need it all in one place. And to do so is tremendously dangerous, especially all the data about our children. A government has no right, nor need, to do this. There is an assumption behind ContactPoint and the like, that if the system is perfect, mistakes won’t be made. But any government department or office is run by people, and people are fallible. Should you ever give one person access to all the information about any individual? No.

    [Mill: ‘A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development.’ – ContactPoint impedes.]

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Aug '10 - 5:27am

    ContactPoint was able to highlight where basic services were not being used (i.e. if a child’s not going to school…)

    ContactPoint does not add anything here because we already had a working system for that. Pointlessly duplicating existing systems is not “making children safer”.

    what professionals were involved and if a parent or carer was moving the child around and accessing services under different names

    You cannot determine whether two different names refer to the same individual using a database. That’s just silly.

    ContactPoint didn’t contain more information than the various agencies involved in the child’s life, the point was simply that without ContactPoint, no one was able to compare that data.

    Of course they can compare it without ContactPoint. It’s perfectly possible to look at more than one piece of paper at a time. Only somebody who was trying to sell you an unnecessary database would claim otherwise.

  • Andrew…
    1) There isn’t a system for tracking a child that schools don’t know exists – the point about the universality of the system was that it would have helped identify children not already known to all of the statutory services – i.e .if they’d presented at a surgery, but were otherwise unknown.
    2) You’re wrong – because the database looked at more than just names, there was a good chance that it could have done precisely that. And some workers have already said it had already done that in several cases.
    3) Yes, of course you can look at multiple bits of paper at the same time, but if you don’t know who’s holding them, how are you supposed to do that?

    @Henry, sorry, are you saying it’s better to have the data largely unchecked, unverified and inaccessible to fellow professionals by continuing to hold it on local databases…? I repeat, Local Authorities already do this, and what they hold is far more scary. ContactPoint was a minimal dataset, with no case information, merely confirming basic details and professionals working with the child – this is not consistently available anywhere else. You’re also talking about children at risk, but more children are abused in the home than anywhere else… precisely the point that CP was aimed at helping to address.

  • @Kehaar – at least you know Locke 🙂 But no, my point was merely a specific about your reference to baba. I think Lib Dem = our best approximation of Liberal, but obviously it is diverse and you may not agree. (Your point on Defence was a little left-field btw.)

    @Dom – ‘fellow professionals’ etc… precisely my point. However, I think you extrapolate too far from what I was saying, I don’t oppose inter-agency working, as you seem to imply.

  • @Dom

    I have a number of issues around CP, although I’ll focus on just one behavioural point now.

    The best way to protect children is if those state bodies engaged with them are actually working together in a joined up way. With fairly extensive experience working alongside the public sector I’m concerned that the CP database essentially disincentivises that joined up working. The information is in the database so it can be gained when it’s needed, rather than not needing the database as the various bodies are all familiar with one another anyway. The information can be more meaningfully held locally as that way it reflects local needs, in some areas policing or probation may act to lead engagement, in others it may be health or education.

    There are real data protection issues around the system, security was an afterthought.

  • As you may have pieced together, i’m a DPA professional working in the voluntary sector alongside public sector partners…
    Henry – never said you were against joined up working, merely that it’s been proved time and again in SCRs that professionals don’t always know who information should be shared with, or do so in a timely fashion. ContactPoint was a way to quicly see who else was involved with a child and get everybody needed around the table – i’m not saying that it’s the only way, but experience suggests that it doesn’t always happen.

    Alistair – you’ve just described a key tenet of both information sharing AND contactpoint, and some of the key partners. Yes this can happen without contactpoint, but again, it doesn’t always. I’d also like to know how making the information more available disincentivises agencies? Surely actually knowing who to speak to in Children’s Servcies is a big step forward from having to spend ages ringing round to find out…?

  • Also not forgetting that the ICO greenlighted the system

  • @Dom

    My main specialisation is IA and compliance, in particular DPA and FOIA. I trained with CESG. I’ve also got a lot of experience in working with public sector, and third sector, clients trying to improve how they do business, whether that exploits technology or not. As such it’s probably inappropriate to go any further around why I’m extremely cynical about the use of technology in the public sector.

    It’s also worth observing that while the ICO approved the system, there were a number of caveats.

    From experience, when one is trying to improve joint working and collaboration, in particular in the public sector, buying shiny toys is rarely an effective solution.

  • Andrew Turvey 9th Aug '10 - 9:17pm

    Three cheers and good riddance!

  • Alistair, i understand your concerns and it’s sounds like we’re working in very similar areas. but the bottom line is that the technology is already there, and there are far more concerning uses of data to be addressed.

  • Is it a great day for Liberalism when the Lib Dem-Tory govt announces plans to pay Experian to check benefit claimants bank accounts?

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