The government's proposal to protect at-risk children by developing local information sharing systems will need as much money as the NHS IT programme.
Government plans to set up a national database of all children and develop integrated IT systems to help prevent a repetition of the events that led to the murder of Victoria Climbie are at risk. They face challenges ranging from underfunding and problems with data quality to data protection issues.
Eight-year-old Climbie was killed by her carers. Care agencies knew she was at risk but the inquiry into her death found that poor systems and lack of information sharing meant no agency took responsibility for her.
Following the inquiry into Climbie's death, the government asked councils to develop systems that would enable data on at-risk children to be shared across a range of organisations, including the NHS and police.
The government's green paper, Every Child Matters, which was released in September, made clear what was expected of the public sector. A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said, "The government's response to the Victoria Climbie inquiry, set out in the Every Child Matters green paper, proposes the development of local information sharing systems based on national data standards." The government would examine the IT challenges involved in this, she said.
Sharing information across disparate computer systems is not easy, particularly in the public sector. Last year the government allocated £1bn to overhaul IT within the criminal justice network, and £2.3bn is being devoted to building a new health service technology infrastructure.
David Johnstone, director of social services at Devon County Council, warned that the government would have to boost its funding levels if its strategy for sharing information on vulnerable children was to work.
"The NHS has a £2.3bn investment programme for IT - if we are going to talk about the creation of these massive new information systems for the protection of vulnerable children you would need a figure in that region," he said.
Bernard Diamant, director of corporate services at the London Borough of Brent, echoed Johnstone's concerns. "The scale of this job, if it is to be achieved successfully on a national basis, will require resources far above those currently identified."
The government has not made a firm commitment about future funding levels. The DfES said the processes outlined in September's green paper were not just about spending money. "It is also about how we can do better with existing resources," a spokeswoman said.
DfES officials have confirmed that the long-term financial implications of the green paper would be considered as part of the government's 2004 spending review.
Certainly, the cash allocated so far nowhere near matches the scale of the task set out in the green paper. Each local authority is to receive £100,000 to help share information between agencies. Whitehall has also identified 10 trailblazer areas, which will each receive £1m in 2003/2004 and another £1m in 2004/2005 to develop the Identification Referral Tracking (IRT) project, which is a key part of the government's efforts to build child protection systems.
The IRT scheme, which involves 15 local authorities, aims to create a national framework within which locally managed systems can share information effectively.
As well as looking at the content and compatibility of IT systems and processes for efficient information sharing, the project aims to provide guidance and best practice models for local authorities.
In addition to the technology and funding challenges, the IRT scheme will also need to overcome significant legislative hurdles if it is to be a success, said Johnstone.
"IRT is difficult to implement because of regulations and statutes such as the Data Protection Act, but also because of the practicalities of defining what is legitimate information to include," he said.
The report, Electronic Safety Nets: Technology Systems to Safeguard Children, published by data provider Headstar last month, presented the results of a survey of 80 local authority directors of social services and revealed the scale of the challenge.
It found that most councils were unlikely to meet the December 2004 deadline to have in place an IT system capable of recording and monitoring children's contact with welfare and law enforcement organisations.
More than 85% of social services directors lack the necessary management information to check which agencies are working with a child before a home visit takes place. Nearly 8% of councils said it would take more than five years to put the necessary systems in place.
The report also highlighted a number of barriers perceived by local authority social services directors in implementing child protection systems. These included interoperability with the government's proposed national children's database (48.7%), sharing information with the health service (38.5%), uncertainty over data protection and freedom of information legislation (30.8%) and lack of funding (30.8%).
The government recognises there are technical and legal issues still to be resolved. "We have given a commitment in the green paper to legislate at the earliest opportunity to remove legal barriers to information sharing, and are currently consulting on whether a too rigid interpretation of privacy laws gets in the way of a child getting the help and support they need," the DfES said.
If the legal barriers come down, data quality issues could still remain. When Hammersmith and Fulham Council in west London compared 55,000 records in its social services department with the local NHS database it found 48% did not match, including 3% where there was disagreement on whether a person was alive or dead.
Few areas of the public sector need effective information sharing systems as badly as child protection teams. Getting those systems in place looks like being extremely difficult.
The government's 10 IRT trailblazer areas
- East Sussex in partnership with West Sussex
- Gateshead in partnership with Newcastle upon Tyne
- Kensington & Chelsea
- Leicester in partnership with Leicestershire and Rutland
- Shropshire in partnership with Telford & Wrekin.