Server farm by sugree on flickr
ContactPoint is an online database which contains basic information about every child and young person in England from birth to their 18th birthday. David Hoyle explores the nature of the system – and the critisicisms made of it. He asks is the scale of the threat to children and young people for which ContactPoint was Government’s prescribed solution sufficient that all children, young people and families must gift aspects of their freedoms and rights to government? In doing so, are all children and young people in England more effectively enabled to achieve the outcomes of: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being?
contents: introduction · why is contactpoint being created? · the legal basis for contactpoint · a chronology of contactpoint · how will contactpoint work? · what information will be held on contactpoint? · who will be able to access contactpoint · contactpoint, the data protection act and human rights legislation · criticism of contactpoint · what has been practitioner’s experience of using contactpoint? · “quis custodiet, ipsos custodes?” (who guards us against the guardians?) · references and further reading · how to cite this piece · about the writer
ContactPoint is an online database which contains basic information about every child and young person in England from birth to their 18th birthday. In a limited number of specific cases, and with a young person’s explicit written consent, their record on ContactPoint can be retained until their 25th birthday (unless they withdraw consent before reaching that age).
In this article I will describe the ContactPoint system – including the background to its development and deployment, provide information about the system and its operation. I also list the benefits Government intended the system to provide for children and young people in England through enabling the social and health professions and formal and informal educators to work together more effectively. To conclude I examine some criticisms that have been made of ContactPoint.
|On Tuesday June 1st, 2010 the Department for Education (the renamed Department for Children, Schools and Families) issued the following – on behalf of Sarah Teather (Lib-Dem and Minister for Children and Families) – to members of the Information Sharing Advisory Group, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, and suppliers of case management systems.|
We [the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government] are scrapping ContactPoint. We will develop better ways of keeping children safe. The investment made won’t be wasted because we can use the technical expertise we’ve acquired to protect those children most in need. But the idea of a single national IT database for all children has gone for good.The communiqué from the Department for Education contained no other information on what future arrangements might look like nor any indicative timescale for the ‘scrapping’ of ContactPoint.
Why is ContactPoint being created?
ContactPoint has been created by the British Government in response to a recommendation made by Lord Laming in the report of the Inquiry he chaired into the death of Victoria Climbié.
Recommendation 17. The Government should actively explore the benefit to children of setting up and operating a national children’s database on all children under the age of 16. (The Stationary Office, 2003)
The Government has made a significant political commitment and financial investment in the creation of such a ‘national children’s database’, arguing it:
… is a key element of the Every Child Matters programme to transform children’s services by supporting more effective prevention and early intervention. ContactPoint is one of a range of tools that will help services work together more effectively on the frontline to meet the needs of children, young people and their families.” http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/deliveringservices/ContactPoint/about
Ministers, civil servants involved in the Improving Information Sharing and Management (IISaM) national programme (of which ContactPoint is a key part) and the ContactPoint Central Services Management Team have argued the deployment of the system is fundamental to achieving better outcomes with children and young people:
- ContactPoint has been created to enable the children’s workforce – social and health professionals and formal and informal educators – in every local authority area in England to fulfil duties prescribed for their employing organisation by the Children Act 2004. Those duties are: to co-operate to improve the well-being of children in the local authority area (Section 10); and, to co-operate to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children in the area (Section 11).
- ContactPoint is intended to provide a quick way for the children’s workforce to find out who else is working with the same child or young person, making it easier for them to deliver coordinated, effective support at an early stage and prevent a child/ young person’s needs and/or difficulties escalating to a point where statutory intervention becomes necessary to protect the child/young person and/or others.
The legal basis for ContactPoint
Section 12 of the Children Act 2004 enabled the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to publish regulations which require local authorities in England to establish and operate a database, or databases, that contain information about children and young people in relation to the duties set out in sections 10 and 11 of the Act (see above).
The Children Act 2004 Information Database (England) Regulations 2007 (made in accordance with section 12 of the Act) came into force on 1 August 2007 and set out detailed requirements on the establishment and operation of ContactPoint. The regulations restate the earlier requirements on local Councils and other organisations in each local authority area to participate in the operation of the system, and also specify:
- the information about children and young people that can be held on ContactPoint;
- the organisations and bodies which must provide information to ContactPoint;
- the organisations and bodies which may provide information to ContactPoint;
- how long information can be retained on the system;
- the role of each local Council in granting access to the system by social and health professionals and formal and informal educators, and,
- arrangements for the retention and archiving of each child’s record.
A chronology of ContactPoint
April 11th 2002. Privacy and Data Sharing: The Way Forward for Public Services, published by the Performance and Innovation Unit of the Cabinet Office.
The first public document to identify potential benefits in establishing a national database about children and young people.
January 28th 2003. Publication of the report of the Public Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié chaired by The Lord Laming – including Recommendation 17 cited earlier.
February to April 2003. Ten ‘Trailblazers’ were selected by Government to establish Identification, Referral and Tracking (I.R.T.) Projects. Some other Councils used The Lord Laming’s recommendation as tacit permission to introduce similar datasystems – for example, RYOGENS (Reducing Youth Offending Generic National System)
September 8th 2003. Publication of Every Child Matters. Proposals for a national children’s database were central to the effective introduction of integrated working processes and practices that were to be common across different disciplines.
December 8th 2005. Ruth Kelly – Secretary of State for Education and Skills – formally announced the Government’s intention to create a national database (working title, the Information Sharing Index)
October 2006. Following a competitive tendering process CapGemini was selected to design and create the Information Sharing Index, and to host the system until 2014.
February 15th 2007, the system was re-branded ContactPoint – replacing the working title of Information Sharing Index.
August 1st 2007. The Children Act 2004 Information Database (England) Regulations 2007 (Statutory Instrument 2182) came into force.
November 2007. Following a major breach of data security at the Child Benefits Agency, Beverley Hughes – Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families – commissioned an independent review of ContactPoint security procedures. The review was undertaken by Deloitte.
November 27th 2007. Kevin Brennan – Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Young People and Families – issued a Ministerial Statement to Parliament on changes to the implementation timetable and funding arrangements to support the implementation and management of ContactPoint
February 21st 2008. Publication – via a Written Ministerial Statement to both Houses of Parliament – of the Executive Summary of the ContactPoint Security Review and the Government’s response. [Only the Executive Summary and the Government’s response were published. The full security review was not published and is not publicly available.]
August 28th 2008. Kevin Brennan announced to Parliament that the deployment of ContactPoint was being postponed.
January 2009. Scheduled deployment of ContactPoint in 17 ‘Early Adopter’ local authority areas in North-West England and 2 National Partners (Barnardos and KIDS).
January 26th 2009. Written Ministerial Statement to Parliament by Ed Balls – The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families – announcing that the first steps in the activation of ContactPoint had begun on this date.
November 2009. Deployment of ContactPoint scheduled to begin in all other local authority areas in England.
How will ContactPoint work?
There are two distinct stages in the lifecycle of ContactPoint. The operation of the system will be different at each of these stages:
Pre-deployment and deployment
ContactPoint was established through the loading of prescribed information about children and young people from a number of national data sources (see ‘What information will be held on ContactPoint?’ (below)). The national data sources include the General Register Office, the Department for Children, Schools and Families’ schools census, the Department of Work and Pensions’ child benefit database and the NHS Personal Demographics Service. Data about each child from these different data sources has been merged to produce a ‘best view’ of the child. As the ContactPoint local team and practitioners in each local authority area use the system, any data mismatches and inaccurate information need to be resolved.
Vendors of case management systems used by practitioners in social care, health, formal education settings, early years, informal education services and youth justice services to record their interventions with children and young people, have received funding from Government to upgrade their products so they have the capability to inter-operate with ContactPoint. When the ‘ContactPoint enabled’ version of each case management system meets nationally prescribed standards, system to system links are established between case management systems used in each local authority area and ContactPoint – so that any changes made by a practitioner to a child/young person’s record in a case management system will be dynamically updated in ContactPoint.
What information will be held on ContactPoint?
The ContactPoint record about a child or young person can contain only information prescribed by Section 12, sub-section 4 of the Children Act 2004:
(a) his name, address, gender and date of birth;
(b) a number identifying him;
(c) the name and contact details of any person with parental responsibility for him (within the meaning of section 3 of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41)) or who has care of him at any time;
(d) details of any education being received by him (including the name and contact details of any educational institution attended by him);
(e) the name and contact details of any person providing primary medical services in relation to him under Part 1 of the National Health Service Act 1977 (c. 49);
(f) the name and contact details of any person providing to him services of such description as the Secretary of State may by regulations specify;
(g) information as to the existence of any cause for concern in relation to him;
(h) information of such other description, not including medical records or other personal records, as the Secretary of State may by regulations specify.” (British Government 2004)
So, it is neither possible nor legal for ContactPoint to contain case notes, medical information, exam results, or a practitioner’s subjective opinion about a child or their parents/carers. Whilst ContactPoint will include a means for a member of the children’s workforce to note that they have a concern about the well being or safety of a child/young person (see Section 12, sub section 4g (see above)), it is illegal for assessment information – for example a ‘common assessment’ using the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) – to be held on, or available through, ContactPoint.
On the basis of its consultations, Government decided that information about some aspects of children and young people’s lives should not be available on ContactPoint – even to the members of the children’s workforce who have undergone the required screening process before being granted access to the system (see ‘Who will be able to access ContactPoint?, below). ContactPoint includes features intended to protect the privacy of children and young people who access specific services and/or ensure that information is not available which could compromise their safety and well being. These features are ‘sensitive services’ and ‘shielded records’.
As a group ‘sensitive services’ are those services where consultation indicated there is a strong public expectation and practitioner culture of information only being shared when informed, explicit consent has been given by the young person (if they are Gillick/Fraser competent or, if not, their parent/carer). In the context of ContactPoint ‘sensitive services’ are defined as:
- Sexual Health – Information, advice and treatment for pregnancy, abortion, contraception; sexually transmitted infections including services related to HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis B or C; rape crisis or sexual violence; sexual abuse and services related to Gay/Lesbian or Trans-Gender issues;
- Mental Health – tier 2, 3 and 4 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services including referrals to, and assessment and treatment by, community based and in-patient teams dealing with, for example, sexual abuse and eating disorders; and
- Substance Abuse – information, advice and treatment for drug, alcohol or volatile substance abuse (glue, aerosols and butane gas)
Before any practitioner involved in providing one (or more) of these ‘sensitive services’ indicates involvement with a child/young person on ContactPoint, she/he must obtain the informed, explicit consent of the child/young person. The only exception is if the worker has a strong reason to believe there is sufficient justification to override consent (for example, where the child or young person is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm).
If a young person gives their consent to involvement by the service being displayed on ContactPoint, neither the name, nature of the service nor any contact details will be displayed. ContactPoint will simply display: “One or more specialist and targeted services have been recorded”. (DCSF, 2008, paragraphs 3:16 to 3:19 and C29)
ContactPoint includes a facility to ‘shield’ a child/young person’s record. A shielded record will display only the child or young person’s name, their ContactPoint unique identity number, their gender and their date of birth. This means an authorised user of ContactPoint can verify that a record about the child exists in the system, but not identify the whereabouts of that child because:
the child’s address details are not displayed, or;
information is not displayed which might allow a user to deduce the likely whereabouts of the child (for example, by displaying a service address/location such as a school or G.P. practice address).
A child/young person’s record will only be shielded where a practitioner has strong reason to believe that if a child/young person’s current whereabouts are displayed, or could be deduced from information on the record, this is likely to:
- place a child at increased risk of significant harm;
- put a child’s placement at risk (in the case of adoption);
- place an adult at risk of significant harm (for example in the case of domestic abuse), and/or
- prejudice the prevention or detection of a serious crime.
- Examples of situations and circumstances when it would be appropriate to shield a child’s record include:
- a child/young person who is adopted and where there is little or no contact with birth parent(s) or wider family members;
- a child/young person and/or their parent/carer are fleeing abuse, domestic violence, so called ‘honour based violence’ or Forced Arranged Marriage; and/or
- a child/young person and/or their parent/carer or family member are subject to police protection (for example, a witness in legal action who may be subject to intimidation).
National guidance recognises that a need to shield a child/young person’s record may also arise in a limited number of unique circumstances. So, a decision to shield a record will need to be made on a case-by-case basis. (DCSF, 2008, paragraphs 4:36 to 4:39)
Who will be able to access ContactPoint?
Social and health professionals and formal and informal educators will only be granted access to ContactPoint by the Council for the local authority area in which they work if their manager agrees that the use of the system is integral in their work to improve outcomes with children, young people and their families. In addition, local Councils or a ‘national partner’ (see below) can only grant access to ContactPoint where such practitioners:
- Work in an organisation that has successfully achieved accreditation of a set of mandatory and optional policies and processes against Government prescribed conditions and standards;
- Have been authorised by the person who manages/supervises their work;
- Have an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) certificate which is less than three years old;
- Have completed approved ContactPoint training;
- Have been allocated a username, PIN, personal security token and a password; and
- Have completed other training which the local Council (or national partner) deems appropriate i.e. about the Common Assessment Framework; information sharing; etc., and
- Formally agree to comply with guidance on the use of ContactPoint issued by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families – by signing a ContactPoint ‘End User Agreement’ (a copy of which will be held on their personnel record).
Each Council is accountable for effectively managing use of the system in its local authority area. This means each Council is legally accountable for granting access to the system and for suspending and terminating user accounts irrespective of the organisation in which a ContactPoint user is employed. ContactPoint national partners are accountable for the management of employees in the organisation who are ContactPoint users. National partners are: KIDS; Barnardos; The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; NCH; Church of England Children’s Society; The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre; and, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS).
ContactPoint, the Data Protection Act and Human Rights legislation
Since Lord Laming recommended that Government create a national children’s database, the media and other commentators have suggested such a system will enable social and health professions and formal and informal educators to practice in ways that seriously compromise children, young people and their families’ rights to privacy under legislation such as the Human Rights Act. However, ministers and civil servants with responsibilities for the IISaM programme have continuously argued that ContactPoint neither compromises nor erodes rights to privacy offered by various legislation,
As with all legislation we have sought the necessary advice on the relationship between ContactPoint and the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Data Protection Act 1998 and are confident that it is consistent with both. The rights of children, young people and families under the Data Protection Act will not be affected by ContactPoint. Proper procedures will be in place to allow people to see the information that is held about them and to have inaccurate information corrected or removed.
While a great deal of the criticism has been misinformed, government statements such as this offer an interpretation of the rights and liberties of young people (and their parents/carers) which is narrow, technical and convenient for Government: a child/young person’s rights to see information held about them and to have corrected anything which is inaccurate, but not to challenge the ethics of information about them being held. Any erosion of children, young people and families’ private space has moral, ethical and philosophical implications. Indeed, research on behalf of the Office of the Information Commissioner has found children and young people to have concerns about the erosion of their privacy, which may lead them to turn away from seeking help and information from ‘official’ agencies (Hilton & Mills, 2006). Research undertaken for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust concluded that the system cannot be made compliant under the European Convention on Human Rights without substantial redesign (Anderson et. al. 2009).. The researchers highlighted privacy concerns and legal issues around maintaining sensitive data with no effective opt-out. They also concluded that the security was inadequate (having been designed as an afterthought), and that it was disproportionate because it provides a mechanism for registering all children that complements the National Identity Register
Criticisms of ContactPoint
In the United Kingdom inter-agency practice with, and communication about, children, young people and their families by social and health professionals and formal and informal educators is underpinned by ‘child centeredness’, a world-view:
- Described in a recent paper as meaning children/young people are, ‘treated as a precious object, and parents as custodians whose moral worth as parents may in principle be subject to scrutiny’ (Peckover, White and Hall, 2008, p.377); and
- Reinforced by the British Government, which has stated that Children’s Trusts in each local authority area should undertake a: ‘reconfiguration of services around the child and family … and [listen] to children, young people and their families when assessing and planning service provision, as well as in face-to-face delivery’ (Paragraph 1:2, p 4)
The introduction and operation of a technocratic – technology driven bureaucratic – system such as ContactPoint into fields of practice saturated by this world-view is inherently problematic, and the system has been a focus for diverse and far ranging criticisms. Such criticisms can be grouped broadly into those which focus on the practicalities and cost of the system and those which focus on the philosophical, ethical and moral aspects of the system becoming positioned as intrinsic to effective inter-agency work with children and young people by the children’s workforce in England.
Use of ContactPoint by the children’s workforce
The government’s goal is for social and health professionals and formal and informal educators to regularly and actively use ContactPoint to, ‘find out who else is working with the same child or young person, making it easier for them to deliver coordinated, effective support at an early stage’. However, in their study of a ContactPoint prototype in one Trailblazer, Peckover, White and Hall found various practical obstacles hampered practitioners’ use of the system. One school nurse commented, ‘Last week I had a bit of time so I went in, got my password and everything. And I thought right I’ll just log that I am working with all these kids. And I think I tried 6 kids and not one was on the system” (cited in Peckover, White and Hall, 2008, p.384). The benefits intended for children and young people from the use of ContactPoint will only be realised if the system is actively used by the children’s workforce. A deep interdependency exists between users and the system. If ContactPoint is to gain any trust from the children’s workforce in fulfilling the claims made on its behalf, when the system is found by a practitioner to have ‘failed’ in those claims, that practitioner’s confidence in, and willingness to use, the system is inevitably eroded. In turn all of this may confirm any previously held prejudices about the system – and their future attitudes to and use of the system
Practitioners were found to need to be continuously persuaded that the system was easy to use, and it met generally accepted standards within the professional cultures which underpin the provision of services for children, young people and their families. The researchers identified a number of accidental and deliberate strategies which meant practitioners became unable to use the system. These included: becoming ‘locked out’ of the system for extended periods because they had forgotten or mistyped passwords and/or answers to security questions; and, simply not using the system because they found the system complex, time consuming and that it yielded little useful information (Peckover, White and Hall, 2008, p.381).
Peckover et.al’s study highlights arguably the most significant practical obstacle to the use of ContactPoint by the children’s workforce. The study illustrates the impact of social and health professionals and formal and informal educators perceptions about the nature of their ‘work’ on their use of the system – and an explicit distinction which practitioners drew between what they perceived a ‘real’ ‘work’ (seeing children and young people; meeting other practitioners, etc) and the tasks they regarded peripheral or incidental to their ‘work’ – including the use of information systems such as ContactPoint to record such ‘work’. For example, “One health visitor explained she had not used [the system] because she had ‘practical work to do, you know making phone calls and getting on with the job’” (Peckover, White and Hall, 2008, p.391).
In addition, the designers and creators of ContactPoint have not incorporated pro-active alerting – a feature that could have significantly enhanced use of the system by the children’s workforce. Pro-active alerting means if a change is made to information held about a child or young person, the system would automatically generate an alert to inform practitioners involved with the child/young person that a change has been made to the record. Instead, the operation of ContactPoint is reliant on practitioners remembering to find time to regularly access the system to check whether any changes have occurred in the records of children and young people with whom they are working.
Relationships between ContactPoint and the I.T. systems used by practitioners
In ‘steady state operation’ the reliability of ContactPoint will be wholly dependent on a highly complex information transfer chain: from the intervention/interaction between child/young person and practitioner; to the recording of that event by the practitioner on their case management system; to the system to system connection between that case management system and ContactPoint; and back again from the impact of information recorded on ContactPoint to interactions between other practitioners and the child/young person. Quite simply, the spatial, temporal, technological and human transactions inherent in this information transfer chain offer innumerable opportunities for delays and inaccuracies to occur in the information displayed about children and young people and their situations and circumstances.
A further problem is a dissonance that is created between the ‘real’ child/young person as she/he is known to social and health professionals and formal and informal educators and the ‘electronic child’ or ‘avatar’ embodied by the ContactPoint record. The legislation, system architectures, technical infrastructures and the elements of case management systems used to record work with children and young people are insufficiently flexible to capture and represent a dynamic, rich complexity immanent in the lives of children and young peoples in contemporary England. The scant information displayed in ContactPoint reduces the richness and complexities in children and young people’s situations and circumstances to an extremely shallow, superficial set of characteristics (or so called ‘indicators’). The scale of such reductionism may have negative outcomes for children and young people deemed to be ‘at risk’, ‘vulnerable’ or having ‘additional needs’ – where such characteristics underpin intervention to meet their ‘need’. Indeed, if a child or young person is deemed not to be behaving in accordance with professionals’ expectations of that ‘category’ the child/young person may be deemed ‘undeserving’ of particular services or resources, or no longer require ‘protection’.
Regular and active use of ContactPoint by practitioners to support and inform their work will also be constrained by a range of ‘digital divides’ across the children’s workforce. In Council services, partners and other bodies where ContactPoint will be deployed there are complex funding, management, organisational and technical constraints in which some practitioners may have sole use of a modern workstation with broadband access to the internet, while others have mobile access from a laptop, and others will only share an ‘old’, ‘slow’ computer with several colleagues.
The financial cost of ContactPoint
The cost of establishing ContactPoint was projected to be 224 million GBP for the three year period beginning in December 2005. This means ContactPoint was expected to cost 81 million GBP a year for each of the three years to December 2008 (when ‘Early Adopters’ of the system were originally expected to access the ‘live’ system). Future operating costs for the system have been projected as £41 million GBP per year – or approximately £270,000 for each local authority for staffing a ContactPoint Local Implementation Team, training members of the children’s workforce in the local authority area, and maintaining user administration systems.
Terri Dowty (Director of Action on Rights for Children (ARCH)) has argued these projections should be treated with caution:
The Government’s Chief Information Officer has said that only 30% of government IT projects can be classed as ‘successful’ (reported in Collins, 2007), and cost overruns appear inherent to Government IT projects. For example: in the first year of HM Revenue and Customs’ ‘Aspire’ programme, the cost of the 10-year contract with Capgemini (the company which created ContactPoint and will host the system until 2014) reached £539 million GBP against a projected spend of £385 million GBP. A recent cost forecast for the system is now £8.5 billion GBP, against the original projection of £2.8 billion GBP.
The future projected operating costs appear to be a significant underestimate, which means that local authorities (and their public sector partners) may need to make up any shortfall, from their existing budgets, increasing the possibility of cuts in a range of services (Dowty, 2007).
Peckover et.al. also found that the time and efficiency savings projected for ContactPoint – 88 million GBP per annum – within work with children, young people and families were unlikely to be realised; for most of the practitioners they interviewed, or who were observed during the study, use of the system added to their workload (Peckover, White and Hall, 2008, p.391)
ContactPoint and the scrutiny and surveillance of children, young people and families by the State and it’s agents
In addition to such practical problems, academics’ responses to ContactPoint – and the ‘electronic enablement’ of other aspects of work with children and young people – have been sceptical and critical. For example; Munro (2005) has argued that ContactPoint creates an ‘alarming potential for panopticism’. Panopticism is a social theory developed by Michel Foucault. In Discipline and Punish (Foucault, 1979) he describes measures taken in seventeenth century Europe by some towns affected by The Plague. The town would be closed off from the outside world, and people prevented from arriving or leaving. It would then be divided into geographical districts or neighbourhoods and guards would be appointed to patrol designated areas. Only guards could walk the streets of the town – everyone else was required, at all times, to remain in their homes. Inspections of each property and its occupants were frequent and everything observed by a Guard during an inspection would be recorded. Foucault suggests that a plague-stricken town was a place where confusion, disorder and panic could easily erupt – and the application of segmented scrutiny allowed the flawless exercise of power and discipline to maintain social order.
In her critique of the system and the ways it is intended to underpin inter-agency work with children and young people, Munro appears to suggest ContactPoint has been developed to provide Government with an instrument which allows a technically flawless means for exercising power and discipline in response to the ‘confusion’ of child abuse and the murder of children by their caregivers. In the context of her thinking, social and health professions and formal and informal educators become positioned as ‘Guards’ – where each of the practitioners involved with a child or young person has access to a system in which they can record their observations about individuals, their homes, circumstances and behaviours as a means for sharing them with other ‘Guards’.
Penna (2005) has suggested that systems such as ContactPoint are fundamental vehicles in the pursuit of broader political goals. In particular, she argues ContactPoint is central to a governance of society through a specific and particular discursive construction about children and their protection. In that construct the Children Act 2004 becomes a straightforward solution to the technical problems of information-sharing and inter-agency working that promotes children’s welfare – a construction that both delegitimises and obscures key questions about civil liberties and human rights which are raised by the Act.
Whilst these, and other, theoretical positions remain important, Peckover et al’s study suggests that they may be unsustainable in fields of practice with children and young people because professional cultures and practice arrangements “are not sufficiently malleable to be eroded by the introduction of an ICT system”. Indeed, the system itself regularly acted as an obstacle to the realisation of such fears by simply failing to work (Peckover, White and Hall, 2008, p.379).
ContactPoint as a solution within processes of the manufacture of threat and risk
A different theoretical perspective is of ContactPoint as an example of a ‘knot’ – the symbiosis between a named threat or risk to society and social order, and the policies created by Government as solutions to such risk. Žižek (2008) argues as a means for maintaining social cohesion and order in post-industrial societies Governments often directly evoke fear and anxiety amongst citizens and/or allow such fear and anxiety to be evoked by others (e.g. the media, or the Chairs of high profile Public Inquiries), so that they (Governments) can then present themselves as being active in instituting solutions to protect citizens from the threats and risks which have been manufactured into objects for their fears.
In the context of Žižek’s thinking, the establishment of ContactPoint may express a need of the British Government to be seen to be active in implementing a solution that prevents the deaths of children and young people because of the actions, or inaction, of their parents and/or carers. In turn, such a solution will also engender social cohesion by enmeshing ‘normal parents’ in that self-evident, laudable goal – whilst covertly eroding civil liberties and freedoms. However, whilst the murder or abuse of any child provides a tragic commentary on an ongoing failure by Government, the media and communities to make sense of, and respond effectively to, the situations and circumstances from which such events emerge, the manipulation of such events as central in the manufacture of risk that has been used to legitimate ContactPoint is deeply flawed. Events which are fundamental in the legitimation of the knot that is ContactPoint are deaths of children such as Victoria Climbié and the 74 children since 1944 whose deaths have been the subject of Public Inquiries. Yet, statistics illustrate that the deaths of children do not seriously concern the British Government: more children die in the UK every year in road traffic accidents; from suicide; prematurely because of health disadvantage and other reasons than die from abuse. Yet the numbers of children who die for these reasons does not attract the levels of media attention or the political and financial investment that underpin the creation of ContactPoint.
The knot that is ContactPoint also provides a networked and mediated space for Government within which actions and interactions amongst practitioners in the social and health professions and formal and informal educators engaged in the art of helping young people become available for monitoring, scrutiny and audit. A further criticism is that ContactPoint offers a dangerous illusion of safe, certain and predictable social and political relations between public sector organisations, practitioners and disciplines; a construct and phantasie that systematically excludes the messy, unpredictable realities which are immanent in inter-agency work with children, young people and families and the complex situations and circumstances in which they exist. All of which, in turn, is geographically, financially, emotionally and socially distanced from the privileged and advantaged lives and understandings of Ministers, politicians, civil servants, journalists and senior managers in public services.
What has been practitioner’s experience of using ContactPoint?
Members of the children’s workforce – social and health professionals and formal and informal educators – in Early Adopters (the local authority areas in North-West England that have been introducing the system ahead of other areas) have now been accessing the system for some months. In a report and in bulletins the ContactPoint national team has been publishing the views of these practitioners, during what are still the early days of implementing ContactPoint. The following represent a sample from those views:
ContactPoint is a very easy tool to use. It allowed me to rapidly access relevant information about a child in whom there was suspected non-accidental injury. This information was invaluable in guiding further management and the whole process took less than five minutes whereas previously a lot of time would have been spent making phone calls and trying to track people down for information. Consultant Paediatrician (DCSF, 2009)
I’ve used ContactPoint for a range of different queries and in each case I have been able to quickly get in touch with the right people. More importantly children received the support they required. For example, one young person referred to me was missing education. He had left his school, and the family had moved out of the borough, and left no forwarding address. I learned from ContactPoint that the child was not attending any school. I would never have obtained this information without ContactPoint. Carol, Education Welfare Officer (DCSF, 2009)
ContactPoint has been useful in a number of my cases. For example, a health visitor referred a case to me. She raised concerns that the child she was working with may be the sibling of another child – known to our local authority – who had sustained serious injuries. ContactPoint helped me to establish that the child was not a sibling but that they were related. I’ve also used ContactPoint to check details of a child where there were concerns that he was living in a brothel and may be a trafficked child. Through ContactPoint I was able to quickly identify and contact other professionals working with the child. Social worker (DCSF, 2010)
Quis custodiet, ipsos custodes? (Who guards us against the guardians?)
Since humanity’s earliest social groupings, at times when the survival of their community has been in jeopardy or their collective lives have been in danger, members of those groups have needed to gift aspects of their freedoms and rights to an individual (e.g. a monarch) or government. In 2004, the British Government made a decision that the brutal cruelty of her carers against an eight year old girl provided the necessary and sufficient evidence of the wider risks to children from parents in England that required such a gifting of personal freedoms. An outcome of subsequent processes of constructing risk/threat to children and young people has been Government’s commissioning of a twelve table database from CapGemini, which will radically change the nature of the relationship between the state and children, young people, their families and practitioners in the children’s workforce working with them to achieve better outcomes.
None of this is to suggest that ContactPoint was conceived with anything other than the most laudable of intentions. Indeed, the system and its establishment were extensively debated in the House of Commons and House of Lords and have been fully endorsed by all political parties. However, to paraphrase the late Professor Roger Needham, “if the Government thinks I.T. [ContactPoint] is the solution [to the problem of children being abused and murdered by their parents], then it doesn’t understand I.T. and it don’t understand the problem either.” Quite simply, ContactPoint is an outcome of a fundamental lack of understanding amongst ministers and civil servants both about the art of helping children, young people and their families by social and health professionals and formal and informal educators and about the capabilities of ICT systems to effectively support such work – in a context where they (Ministers and civil servants) are under intense media and public scrutiny to been seen to ‘do something’ within a complex set of inherently paradoxical imperatives:
- To be seen to do something that will prevent children being murdered by their parents/caregivers;
- To deliver better public services at less cost;
- To make effective use of Information and Communication Technologies; and
- To exercise more effective oversight, regulation and audit of the actions of the vast and diverse workforce who work with children, young people and their families.
In conclusion, as both a system and concept ContactPoint is something quite different in the relationship between the individual (whether as user of, or practitioner in, social, health, formal and informal education services) and the state. The lives of children and young people will be represented in a 12 table record aggregated from masses of data collected about them from a range of sources and shared beyond the purposes for which such data was originally collected. The effective operation of the system itself is contingent on a complex system of technical and social relations that:
- absorbs significant resources (money and time) at both national and local levels;
- will meet overt and passive resistances to its introduction amongst the children’s workforce;
- is embedded in complex bureaucratic procedures and processes that greatly distance it from the realities of practice with children and young people; and
- poses fundamental and unresolved ethical and philosophical questions about the nature of the relationship between citizens, public services and the state in contemporary England.
- Whilst outcomes intended for the system are beyond reproach, the means for achieving such ends – the implementation and deployment of ContactPoint – represents fundamental professional, ethical and moral dilemmas both for every member of society in contemporary England and for social and health professions and formal and informal educators.
Is the scale of the threat to children and young people for which ContactPoint is Government’s prescribed solution sufficient that all children, young people and families must gift aspects of their freedoms and rights to government? In doing so, are all children and young people in England more effectively enabled to achieve the outcomes of: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being?
“About ContactPoint (undated).
[http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/deliveringservices/contactpoint/about. Accessed October 25, 2009]
British Government (2004). Children Act 2004, [http://www.opsi.gov.uk/Acts/acts2004/ukpga_20040031_en_1 Accessed January 5, 2010]
Children’s Trusts (undated). Statutory guidance on inter-agency cooperation to improve well-being of children, young people and their families. [http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/_files/F9E3F941DC8D4580539EE4C743E9371D.pdf (accessed July 15, 2009) now moved to http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/everychildmatters/resources-and-practice/IG00346].
ContactPoint: legislation [http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/deliveringservices/contactpoint/legislation. Accessed March 12, 2010].
DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families), 2008, ContactPoint Guidance (v.1, July 21, 2008), London, Department for Children, Schools and Families,
DCSF (2009). ContactPoint: Early Adopter phase. Key learning from practitioner feedback. London: Department for Children, Schools and Families.
DCSF (2010). ContactPoint: Practitioner Feedback. London: Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Dowty, T. (2007) in Anderson. R., Brown, I., Clayton, R., Dowty, T., Korff, D. and Munro, E. Children’s databases – safety and privacy: a report for the information commissioner. Wilmslow: Information Commissioner’s Office.
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Munro, E. (2005).’ What tools do we need to improve identification of child abuse?’ Child Abuse Review, 14:6 pp 374 – 388.
Peckover. S., White, S. and Hall, C. (2008) ‘Making and Managing electronic children: E-assessment in Child Welfare’, Information Communication and Society, 11:3 April 2008, pp 375 – 394.
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The Stationary Office (2003) Report of The Victoria Climbié Inquiry. London. [http://www.victoria-climbie-inquiry.org.uk. Accessed October 18, 2009]
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Acknowledgement: The picture – server farm – is by sugree and is reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence. See http://www.flickr.com/photos/sugree/3024637789/.
About the writer: Dr. David Hoyle is a research active leader and practitioner who has worked, and continues to work, in different fields of practice with children, young people and their families. He received an M.Sc. from Lancaster University in 1998 and a Ph.D. from the same university in 2007. On the basis of his practice and research, David continues to develop a systemic critique of the thin rhetoric and sound-bite politics that, in his opinion, has characterised the social and educational policies of successive governments in respect of children, young people and their families since the mid 1980s.
How to cite this piece: Hoyle, David (2010) ‘ContactPoint. Because every child matters?’ the encyclopaedia of informal education. [www.infed.org\socialwork\contactpoint.htm]
© David Hoyle 2010
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