Thursday, November 30, 2006

The toughest job?

Just seen this over on Spiked:

Parents are continually told how difficult parenting is – ‘the toughest thing anyone faces in their personal life’, says Blair – and how likely they are to mess up if they [don't?] seek expert advice. It makes you wonder how parents have managed through the ages before New Labour and its supernannies came into existence.

The fact is, as well as throwing up all kinds of new challenges, parenting can be immensely enjoyable and fulfilling.

Quite. As for parenthood being 'the toughest thing etc', well, staying with the same partner for decades is pretty tough at times, too. So is maintaining a close friendship through thick and thin. The truth is that worthwhile relationships also involve hard work, and it would be nice to get away from the idea that bringing up children requires some level of arcane, expert knowledge rather than love, respect and conversation.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cause for concern

We've just been looking for the list of concerns on the RYOGENS site which are used to predict whether a child is likely to become an offender. These are derived from the Youth Justice Board's 'ONSET' process. (RYOGENS, by the way, is an acronym for Reducing Youth Offending Generic National Solution)

The link we have seems to have disappeared, but fortunately the Wayback Machine has preserved it. The full list can now be seen here

The idea is that a practitioner registers a 'concern' from this list, and an alert is triggered when the concerns reach a certain level. As we said in the children's database report to the Information Commissioner, all of the pilot authorities had configured their systems to trigger an automatic alert on one concern. Victims of bullying and those who move house frequently, beware.

Unsure start

All is not well with government plans to expand Sure Start into children's centres in every area. Last week, Children Now reported:

Government officials have held crisis talks with a leading children's centre provider that is threatening to hand back the keys to 50 centres. Officials from the Department for Education and Skills met with senior figures at the Pre-School Learning Alliance last week in a desperate bid to salvage the situation.

The emergency meeting came after chief executive Steve Alexander told the Children Now Fund conference held last week that "most of our settings are being run at a loss".

This week we're told:
MPs have quizzed children's minister Beverley Hughes about children's centres amid mounting concern about the sustainability of the Government's programme. One member of the Commons' Education and Skills Select Committee suggested children's centres were "ludicrously cheap", while another suggested that they should be required to follow strict Government guidelines.

Children's Databases report

Some new coverage of our ICO report on children's databases from the main 'sector' magazines, 'Children Now' and 'Young People Now': here, here and here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Professional opinion

Computer Weekly has just published the results of a poll of senior IT professionals that asked: 'Do you trust the government to protect personal data?'

67% said 'no'.

Credit where due

Nice to see some good use of government technology:
The government has invested £40,000 in the National Cot Locator computer programme to show which hospitals in England have cots available at any given time. Some 40 neonatal intensive care units in England will be covered by the system. The system will enable clinicians and nurses to call a central helpline to receive up to date information about the availability of cots. Until now, staff have had to call various hospitals to hunt for a cot - which costs time and potentially lives.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Blogzilla's Parrot

Once again repeating Blogzilla:

Children Act regulations workshop
The Department for Education and Skills is currently running a
consultation on their draft Children Act regulations. These regulations will give DfES powers to start operating the Information Sharing Index, which will hold a range of data on the UK's young people.

As Assistant Information Commissioner Jonathan Bamford said on 22 November: “There has been a substantial growth in the information held about children and this is something we need to look at carefully. Just because technology means that things can be done with personal information, it does not always follow that they should be done. Public trust and confidence will be lost if there is excessive unwarranted intrusion into family life.”

We are holding a workshop on Tuesday 5 December at UCL to discuss the draft regulations. Participants will include Dr. Ian Brown from UCL's Department of Computer Science, Terri Dowty from Action on Rights for Children, Liberty, the Independent Schools Council and Liz Davies and Prof. Douwe Korff from London Metropolitan University. Brown, Dowty and Korff were co-authors with Ross Anderson, Richard Clayton and Eileen Munro of the FIPR report "Children's databases - safety and privacy" that was recently published by the Information Commissioner's Office.

Please come along if you would like to hear more about the regulations, and to contribute you and your organisation's perspective to the debate. We hope that the afternoon will be particularly invaluable in informing responses to the DfES consultation, which must be submitted by 14 December.

The meeting will be held from 2-4.30pm on Tues 5 December, in room 6.12 of the Malet Place Engineering Building at University College London. (NB this is an updated venue from our intial announcement.) You can find directions at

Please e-mail I.Brown at to let us know you are coming.

On confusing science with RE

It's worth reading Bookdrunk on the subject of teaching creationism in school 'science' lessons.

First they came for the children

In our report on children's databases to the Information Commissioner, we said:

A further sanity check is to translate child-welfare claims to an adult context and ask whether they make sense. For example, if a town had a problem on Saturday nights with drunken fighting, then the authorities might reason that fighting is associated with alcohol intake, with living in poor housing and with being in a community where hitting people is a badge of honour.

The logical conclusion would be forcible collection of data on alcohol consumption and its correlation by postcode; obtaining lists of suspects from pub landlords and police; and then a program of alcohol-awareness programs, anger-management classes and so on which all men scoring over a certain level would be required to attend regardless of whether they had ever been in a fight.

Examples like this make it clear that a distinction must be drawn between preventing crime where there is a specific, identified threat, and generally discriminating against groups of people in the name of general prevention.

And then, this morning, the Times says this:
Criminal profilers are drawing up a list of the 100 most dangerous murderers and rapists of the future even before they commit such crimes, The Times has learnt. The highly controversial database will be used by police and other agencies to target suspects before they can carry out a serious offence.
Sheesh, we were only joking! We didn't realise they were already planning the very thing we were holding up as ridiculous example. Perhaps if everyone paid a little more attention to what's happening to children, they might recognise a pilot project when they see it. Local Authorities have been identifying the '50 most likely to offend' amongst children for the last few years. We can safely say that all of the initiatives that are now alarming adults have already used children as crash-test dummies.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Oh! ye'll take the high road...

El Reg reports that:
Work has begun on a social care equivalent of the care records guarantee for medical records, paving the way for merging health and social care records. The plans were disclosed as part of a debate at the annual Care Records Development Board meeting in London, yesterday.
The plan to merge records has actually been under discussion for several years. We're particularly fond of the poetic position statement contained in a 2003 document from the Department of Health:
"The relationship between the ESCR and NHS CRS might be described as a journey both parties are setting out on, both broadly know where they are going, but expect incidents en route, do expect to meet eventually, but are not sure either who will get there first or when they will meet up."
Awww, sweet.

Matters of fact

Yesterday's Telegraph carried a letter from Beverley Hughes attacking our report to the Information Commissioner on children's databases.

Our reply is published today.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The curmudgeonry prize

Looks as if someone needs to get out a bit more:
Two high court judges were asked to decide "what is football?" after neighbours fell out over a kick-about in an exclusive, residents-only garden. Christopher Fleming-Brown, 46, from Kensington, west London, was taken to court by Paula Lawton, 63, after playing ball with his son, aged five. She accused him of turning the lawn garden into a recreation ground and breaching local by-laws.
Even more extraordinary is the fact that Ms Lawton has spent two years pursuing the case!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Children's DNA retention

A flier for a workshop/briefing session on police retention of children's DNA:

Workshop: Should the police keep children’s DNA?
2-4pm 18th December 2006
London School of Economics

ARCH/LSE Information Systems are holding a workshop on a subject of increasing concern: the collection and storage of children’s DNA samples on the National DNA Database.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 gave the police wide powers to take and store DNA samples from those arrested for most criminal offences. This data is retained on the NDNAD even if the suspect is not charged, or is later acquitted.

Children are particularly affected by DNA retention because of police focus on dealing with ‘volume’ crime. In 2004/2005, almost a quarter of all arrests were of 10-17-year-olds.

Police retention of DNA - especially of children’s DNA - has attracted a great deal of media attention during the past year, the more so because reports suggest that samples are also being used for research purposes.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recently launched a consultation to gather opinions on DNA retention. This will run until the end of January 2007 and they are keen to have responses from as many interested people and organisations as possible. We have several expert speakers to give a thorough briefing on all of the issues. These include:

  • Dr Helen Wallace Deputy Director of Genewatch
  • Dr Mairi Levitt Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre for Economic & Social Aspects of Genomics (CESAGen)
  • A representative of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (tbc)
As places are very limited, please let us know if you want to attend by emailing:

Children's Databases: Safety and Privacy

The Information Commissioner has published our report into children's databases. Ross has links to some of the press coverage.

Astonishing that the DfES claims to have: "serious reservations about this report's objectivity and evidence base" when the most cursory glance at the extensive footnotes will show that we were scrupulous about using the Government's own documents!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The New Statesman's loss...

An excellent piece from Dave Hill on the children's Information Sharing Index. It's accurate (which is rare), considered and well-written, which makes it all the more astonishing that the New Statesman didn't publish it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Sign here...

Over on Pippa's blog, details of a petition from MP Tom Watson calling for the regulation of children's biometrics in schools.

Shy sister of the IS Index

While just about everyone knows about the children's Information Sharing Index, few words have been spared on its parallel assessment system: the Common Assessment Framework (CAF for short).

CAF is an in-depth assessment that has to be completed when a child needs extra services, or when any practitioner thinks a child isn't progressing towards the government's 'five outcomes'. It's supposed to be voluntary, but we have anecdotal evidence that some local authorities are insisting a CAF be completed in full before a child can receive services. Bear in mind that the government envisages that around one third of children will need extra services.

The assessment is grouped into areas that look at a child's physical and mental health, education, development, relationships with others, environmental factors and parental competence. Under each heading is a list of factors to consider - too exhaustive to copy, but here are just a few highlights:
  • nature and quality of early attachments
  • lifestyle and self-control (including participation in reckless activity and need for excitement)
  • substance misuse
  • stable and affectionate relationships with parents or caregivers
  • sibling relationships
  • age-appropriate friendships
  • The ambitions of the child or young person, whether their aspirations are realistic
Then there are the: "parent or carer’s feelings about looking after this infant, child or young person" and whether they are: "modelling appropriate behaviour and control of emotions" or providing: "appropriate guidance, boundaries and discipline" - or whether they are: "chaotic", abuse drugs or alcohol and engage in criminal activity.

All this just to get a bit of speech therapy! The full list occupies a 7-page Annex in
this document (pdf).

The CAF is being electronically enabled to create the 'eCAF' system. This will hold all of the assessments. An item today in Public Technology Net says:

The benefit of e-enablement of CAF is being witnessed on a daily basis by Wandsworth. A main rationale for CAF is to ensure that any child assessed and identified as requiring additional needs is dealt with in the most efficient and confidential manner possible. The eCAF system holds the assessment form securely in a central place, avoiding the need to make multiple copies for each children’s’ service provider.

...The development of the eCAF system has always run hand-in-hand with the underlying requirements set down by the DfES. Recognising this, Wandsworth Council received capital grants from the DfES in August 2006, to further develop the eCAF system with CPFRS and achieve full DfES compliance by March 2007.

And there's the rub: each local authority has to set up the eCAF from its own budget with the help of grants from DfES. One advantage of doing it this way is that the true cost of meeting those "requirements set down by the DfES" remains unknown. It seems that the government learned one thing from the ID Cards debacle: to make it as difficult as possible to work out just how many millions are being thrown at technology providers.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Children Act regulations meeting

As Blogzilla says: The Department for Education and Skills is running a consultation on their draft Children Act regulations. These regulations will give them the powers to start operating the Information Sharing Index, which will hold a range of data on the UK's young people.

We are going to run a short workshop at UCL on the regulations so that interested organisations can discuss the details in order to help formulate their own consultation responses. I'll announce the speakers shortly once they have confirmed, but if you would like to put the details in your diary now the meeting will be 2-5pm in Drayton B19, Gordon Street, UCL on Tuesday 5 December.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Voice of reason

Simon Davies has delivered a nice, measured and intelligent answer to Polly Toynbee's rather fatuous item in defence of surveillance last week. Well worth a read.


It's coming up to that time when the UK Government has to submit its report to the UN (by July 2007) on progress towards implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in order to receive its regular pasting for non-compliance, which will later be passed off as "raising issues of good practice or best practice with us rather than non compliance".

Fortunately the government gets to go first, the NGOs read what they've written and, having picked themselves up off the floor, pile in with their own, joint varnish-stripping report to the UN.

Still, cycnicism aside, this time around the government is actually canvassing the views of children and young people themselves before preparing its own report, and that's certainly to be encouraged. There's an online questionnaire for everyone aged under 18. Well, better late than never.

Not for the likes of you, sunshine

On the Guardian site, a fascinating audio/slide show of what happened when four teenagers attempted to go to the Lowry Centre in Salford. Needless to say, they didn't get past first base.

I wish I could say such discrimination is unusual, but I've seen it at first hand. A couple of years ago, I saw four lively, noisy but perfectly pleasant young people turned away at the door of the William Morris Museum in Walthamstow with the words: "There's nothing for you here". I got short shrift from the staff when I asked why. On another occasion, when we visited Hackney's Geffrye Museum with a small party of children - one of whom has partial hearing and tends to shout - we were sternly rebuked by the unwelcoming person on the desk with: "We only like nice, quiet children in here". Another one off the list!

It seems that 'open to the public' is a rather conditional term.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Humanity and the Home Office

Warning: a blood-boiler on the Community Care blog.

Can't think how that happened...

According to Beverley Hughes, parents are feeling 'disempowered' (and therefore need a new 'parenting academy'):
In an interview with The Observer, Hughes voiced alarm that parents have much less faith than previous generations in their abilities to raise and guide their children, and wanted help to deal with their conduct.
Carlotta has plenty to say on the subject.


The Joint Committee on Human Rights has delivered a necessary smack to the government today:

Government ministers are using the Human Rights Act to hide administrative failures in their departments, a scathing new report has warned.

The joint committee on human rights finds Tony Blair, home secretary John Reid and other senior ministers guilty of blaming human rights laws for government failures – and in doing so making public scepticism about the act worse.

It's the same kind of thing that went on during the Bichard Inquiry into Soham, when Humberside Police attempted to blame the Data Protection Act for their failures.

It's very hard to trust any authority that is so ready to sacrifice civil protections in order to please the red-tops and cover its own back.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The darkest closet

In all the furore about teenage sexuality, spare a thought for those who are asexual. As today's Telegraph points out, it's not as rare as you might think:

A 1994 survey of sexual practices in Britain questioned 18,000 people about their sexuality; one per cent of respondents chose the option, "I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all". This indicator of the prevalence of asexuality slipped under the radar because the survey was geared towards understanding the spread of Aids.
Young people are under huge pressure to have sexual relationships (even the 'forbidding' lobby implies that everyone's at it like rabbits) and asexual teenagers can find themselves feeling isolated, freakish and ashamed - or pressured into sex that they don't want.

All of the old arguments against homosexuality are used against asexuality: "It's not natural" "It's a psychological problem" "He'll grow out of it" "She just hasn't met the right person yet". While it's hard enough for a young person to come out as gay, an admission of asexuality is well-nigh impossible.

Update 14.11.06 Bookdrunk has some more about this

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Contemptuous government (again)

It's worrying that the 'patient tsar' deals so dismissively with concerns about the confidentiality of the Summary Care Record on the NHS data spine:

Harry Cayton, patient tsar and chair of the Care Record Development Board, tells the newspaper that "Dr Finlay’s days are over" and that the SCR will not damage trust between GP and patient.

“The NHS is not a set of personal private contacts,” he says.

How very modern, but research has repeatedly shown the importance of old-fashioned confidentiality to young people, and it's pretty clear that if it isn't guaranteed, many will simply vote with their feet. The implications for both personal and public health are enormous.

The uncomprehending in search of the intangible

I've just been reading an interesting report, Nurturing Creativity in Young People, which gets it absolutely right in its admonitions that the creative process is not top-down, that process and risk-taking are as important as product, and that creativity can't always be measured or produced to order.

So far, so good. But then I get
The Government published its response to Paul Roberts' report - Nurturing Creativity in Young People. One of the immediate actions the Government is taking is to setting up a new Creative and Cultural Education Advisory Board. This board, jointly sponsored by DCMS and DfES, will have representatives from all the major stakeholders working in this area. It will have the responsibility for implementing the actions agreed as part of the Government's response to the Roberts report and building a more coherent creative and cultural offer for all young people.
And when I read the DfES' press release, a nervous tic develops:
The Creative Economy Programme, launched in November 2005 has identified education and skills as one of the main drivers to the productivity and growth of the creative economy.
Please, no! Not a 'creativity hour'...

Friday, November 10, 2006

Kudos to Hong Kong

News on Pippa's blog is that Hong Kong's privacy commissioner has banned school fingerprinting.

School Census having a growth spurt

Looks as if the School Census is on the march again: it will be carried out 3 times a year in all schools, nurseries and early years provision from 2007, with several new personal data items to be collected - amongst them a requirement to fill in a pupil's 'mode of transport' to school.

Exclusive education

The Education and Inspections Bill, which we've written about before, has just received Royal Assent. Despite ferocious opposition from education, disability and children's NGOs, a new offence has been created for parents of allowing a child excluded from school to be in a public place during school hours - and parents are entirely reponsible for their child for the first 5 days of any exclusion. An extension to police truancy powers means that the police also have a new mandate to detain in a 'designated place' any excluded pupil encountered during school hours.

We're having one of those "have they gone mad?" moments. Most exclusions are of children with special needs, eg 21% of those on the autistic spectrum will be excluded at some point. The National Autistic Society points out:
It is our experience that for the vast majority of children with ASD, exclusion represents a failure on the part of their educational setting to provide appropriate support and training to effectively manage their behaviour. In many cases, exclusions result from a lack of understanding on the part of teachers, learning support staff and supervisory staff of the social and communication impairments experienced by children with autism.
In other words, we have an 'inclusive' education system that can't actually deliver for disabled children, and now the responsibility is thrown back on parents, who have been handed a criminal liability for good measure.

And how is it acceptable for the police to detain anyone, child or adult, who has not committed a criminal offence, and can't even be suspected of having done so because no offence exists? Whenever we have challenged the DfES on police truancy powers, the fall back position has been that good old standby: 'child protection' but that is utter nonsense. How can a child only need 'protection' between 9am and 3.30pm on weekdays? Is this an especially dangerous time for children? In any case, the police already have child protection powers at any time of day where a child is genuinely in need of help.

Pity the autistic or severely hyperactive child banged up at home in a flat on a hot summer day, unable even to visit the park. And pity the parent who not only has to cope, on pain of a fine, but also risks losing his/her job because of the need to take 5 days off work. Welcome to compassionate, modern England.

Pervasive computing

Blogzilla is talking about pervasive computing technologies - something particularly relevant to children, given the burgeoning market in gizmos to track and monitor their every sneeze (or mobile phone call).

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Cooking the evidence

A new report from Parliament's Science and Technology Committee has punched a few holes in the Government's tendency towards selective use of 'evidence' in policy-making:

Ministers should not disguise policies based on their beliefs as being based on scientific evidence, the science and technology committee has said. The committee's report, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, raises serious questions over the validity of the evidence behind several flagship programmes including Asbos, ID cards, Sure Start, and the decision to ban junk food in schools...

"Of course, not all policies need to be evidence-based and the committee recognises that political judgement is often exercised – but ministers should not disguise conviction-based policies as evidence-based," Mr Willis (Committee Chair) said.

..More worrying were accusations of "policy-based evidence making", which the committee's report claims could be seen as amounting to "scientific malpractice".

Working Together to safeguard data

One very positive outcome of the international conference of data protection and privacy commissioners held last week:

At the annual Conference of Data Protection and Information Commissioners, held last week in London, a joint set of objectives was adopted by the international commissioners aimed at tackling what they see as a growing international issue of constant citizen surveillance.

"The protection of citizens’ personal data is vital for any society, on the same level as freedom of the press or freedom of movement," said the communiqué adopted by Commissioners. "As our societies are increasingly dependent on the use of information technologies, and personal data are collected or generated at a growing scale, it has become more essential than ever that individual liberties and other legitimate interests of citizens are adequately respected."

The full
communique (pdf) identifies the current threats to data protection, including the fact that regulation often lags far behind rapid technological developments. One paragraph that caught our eye as especially relevant to ARCH's child database concerns:
DPAs must constantly remind the public and governments that creating databases with ever-more personal information does not solve all problems. The sacred aura of the supposedly infallible computer file must often be portrayed as a delusion. In addition, as more and more personal information is processed, the risks increase of false matches, out of date information and other mistakes. These can cause real harm to the life chances, the health, the prosperity, and even the liberty, of individuals.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Nothing new

Some comment pieces lift the spirits:
"Relaxation of parental control, decay of religious influence, and the transplantation of masses of young persons to housing estates where there is little scope for recreation and plenty for mischief ... The problem is a serious challenge, the difficulty of which is intensified by the extension of freedom which, for better or worse, has been given to youth in the last generation."
No, not from the IPPR report, but 'The Needs of Youth' published in 1939.

On the other hand, some comment pieces... Is this a Guardian special PLU week?

About that IPPR report

It's worth reading Howard Williamson, (of the Youth Justice Board) laying into the much-trumpeted IPPR report on young people:

I have nothing against extending provision of and opportunity to take part in more structured youth activities. I encourage young people to get involved in them. It is unlikely there are going to be negative outcomes from learning a musical instrument or joining a sports club.

IPPR's press release towards the end of October talked of "badges and belts" -hinting at mechanisms for recognising achievement through structured provision. It also suggested parents should be fined if they did not enrol children in provision and make sure they attended.

All this, no doubt, will appeal to the worst nature of an increasingly authoritarian and interventionist state.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

EDM on Data Intrusion

The following Early Day Motion has been tabled: EDM 2911
That this House notes with concern the increasing incidence of data intrusion or `data rape' as it is increasingly becoming known, the process whereby personal and hitherto confidential data is transferred to central databases established by the Government which can then be made available to third parties, such as police and security services, without consent being required; notes that the operation of the new national medical database will require medical records, which until now have remained in the confidential custody of general practitioner practices, to be uploaded to the Spine, a computer which will collect details from doctors and hospitals; supports the British Medical Association in its demand that patients should be asked for their explicit permission before their files are transferred; further notes with concern the reports of plans to establish and expand national databases in relation to the identity card scheme, DNA and the national census; and calls on the Government to establish a legislative framework that will safeguard access to personal data which has as its foundation not only the requirement for explicit consent but the right to know which agencies have a right to, and have requested access to, personal nformation.
If you agree with it, you might want to ask your MP to sign up to it.

Tell us something we don't know

An extraordinary piece from Polly Toynbee today, berating everyone for being silly and middle-class about surveillance, but showing a poor grasp of the real arguments. A shame she can't recognise her own screamingly middle-class bias in comments such as this:
Surveillance conspiracy mania is a symptom of something else - the wish for the middle classes to be victims too. This is a middle-class obsession by those who are least likely to be surveyed.
Well of course the middle classes are the least likely to be monitored. I have it on unimpeachable authority that a senior civil servant described the 'Every Child Matters' agenda as aimed not at the 'worried well' of the middle classes, but at the child of the mother 'who works in Tesco', who will inevitably be under-stimulated. And take a look at the myriad schemes to identify children who may become offenders: they target those living in areas of poverty and deprivation. When Blair talks about future 'menaces to society', he doesn't have in mind the babies of Altrincham or Hampstead

It's a breathtaking piece of spin to represent the age-old middle class preoccupation with turning the lower orders into 'People Like Us' as some kind of enlightened social reform, whilst dismissing those who object to the unwarranted interference in other people's lives as meddling, elitist know-nothings.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Double Mornington Crescent

A historical moment: this may well be the first instance of joined-up shroud-waving. Until now the Government has used terrorism to justify the National Identitiy Register and child protection to justify the children's IS Index, but just look at this:
"The National Identity Register will help improve protection for the vulnerable, enabling more effective and quicker checks on those seeking to work, for example, with children."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Advanced hide and seek

While Bridlington is congratulating itself on being the first town to set up a 'pillar of shame' containing the photographs of children issued with ASBOs, Marina Hyde has an interesting take on the situation:

John Reid is a glass-half-full sort of chap - water, of course - but even a pessimistic home secretary could not fail to be encouraged by one element of this week's Youth Justice Board study, which suggests that Asbos are widely perceived by teenagers as a badge of honour. "You are inviting little Johnny Smith to... run over the imaginary line, then run away from police," one police officer said of geographical exclusion zones. "You've actually invented a game for the kids to play."

This seems a genuine achievement - Mr Reid's department has sent out self-congratulatory press releases for less - given that one timeworn cry is that these youngsters are disaffected because they have nothing to do. Conventional wisdom requires us to see them as loitering in some kind of civic no man's land - too old to be diverted by rusting playgrounds, and too young to drink in pubs (you do have to admire the far-flung horizons of our social ambition).

Happily, such ennui appears to have been addressed by this exciting variant on British bulldog.

Meanwhile Jonathan Calder give short shrift to Polly Toynbee's idea that the answer to 'antisocial' behaviour is to keep poor children at school for ten hours a day.

Farewell to a champion

An online memorial has been set up to Katarina Tomasevski, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, who died last month.

Katarina was a remarkable woman who was passionately committed to free education for all children. Ultimately she took the UN on directly over their lack of commitment to mainstreaming the right to education, delivering a blistering resignation speech. That speech can be seen along with her other writing and reports on the Right to Education website that she established.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Not just a load of net curtains

It’s been an extraordinarily busy couple of days as surveillance and DNA retention both hit the headlines. I’ve been reading Dave Hill and also reflecting on a workshop about information-sharing at UCL yesterday (See Spyblog for a good summary) where I watched the jaws of several overseas information and privacy commissioners dropping at the extent of this government’s statutory powers to share information.

An interesting discussion started up on whether the real struggle over information-sharing was in fact a straight conflict between utilitarianism and privacy. We have a problem in the UK with that word ‘privacy’. As Dave points out, it has connotations of net curtains. We believe that privacy is equated with furtive behaviour, secretiveness and a guilty conscience (nothing to hide etc) but privacy is actually about far, far more than that.

Privacy is the mechanism by which we regulate our relationships with others. By deciding what we will or won’t tell someone about ourselves, we control intimacy and draw lines. Privacy is bound up with our sense of self. Alan Westin is far more articulate in his ‘Social and Political Dimensions of Privacy’:
“Changing personal needs and choices about self-revelation are what make privacy such a complex condition, and a matter of personal choice. The importance of that right to choose, both to the individual’s self-development and to the exercise of responsible citizenship, makes the claim to privacy a fundamental part of civil liberty in democratic society. If we are ‘switched on’ without our knowledge or consent, we have lost our rights to decide when and with whom we speak, publish, worship and associate.”
Viewed like that, privacy becomes one of the most fundamental human rights – it’s about whether we have the right to define ourselves.

We appear to give away our human rights and civil liberties far too easily in this country. Maybe the English Channel gives us a sense of untouchability; certainly it has protected us from close experience of what real oppression looks like. Maybe the 50 years since human rights instruments were framed is too long ago for anyone to remember just why they were thought necessary.

The last few years have seen a growing trend towards ‘blank cheque’ legislation, the details to be filled in later with whatever regulations a Secretary of State decides upon. A particular victim of this type of law-making, which sweeps away privacy by allowing practitioners to share information “notwithstanding any common law duty of confidentiality”, has been our right to choose who can access our private lives.

Apparently David Aaronovitch believes that we can prevent a totalitarian government from misusing these sweeping powers simply by not electing it. But how do you spot such a government? Those who are convinced that they are so right that citizens must be dragged into line, kicking and screaming if that’s the only way to do it, don’t necessarily advertise in advance. Rather, they erode liberties incrementally, or with appeals that draw on instant emotional reaction, or they exploit those loopholes left for them by predecessors who believed they were acting with the best of intentions.

Returning to the utilitarianism v privacy debate, as far as children are concerned, ARCH’s objections to the network of databases, with the Information Sharing Index at its hub, are on both utilitarian and privacy grounds.

What greater good can come of it? It’s not even as if it were intended for children ‘at risk of harm’ (although that particular piece of spin has been remarkably pervasive). The definition of ‘at risk’ has been expanded so dramatically that, by the DfES’ own admission, it covers 1 in 3 children. ‘At risk’ now means any child in need of services in order to prevent her failing educationally, becoming an offender or joining the teenage pregnancy statistics.

On the other hand, a great deal of harm can come from labelling babies as the future ‘menaces to society’ or identifying a child as an educational disaster zone. Meanwhile, this welter of information about so many children will inevitably hide the child who really is ‘at risk’ in the generally understood meaning: a child in danger of abuse and neglect.

Yesterday, Ross Anderson outlined a fundamental principle of good security engineering: you can have scale, security or functionality in a database. If you are really good at your job, you can build a system that incorporates two of these factors. Three is not possible. The Information Sharing Index is certainly on a large scale, so which of the other two factors can be dispensed with? Lose functionality and the most vulnerable will not get their services or protection. Lose security and you potentially put all children at risk of harm.

As for privacy, how do we help children to develop personal boundaries if we are sharing data on everything from their choice of school dinner to their aspirations for the future? You can’t tell children that they belong to themselves, and that they can say “no” to unwanted intrusions, if you are also probing their secrets and making them the objects of other peoples’ judgments. Respect for children’s privacy is essential to empowering them to protect themselves, and to enabling them to form healthy relationships.

So, utilitarianism v privacy? The Information Sharing Index fails on both counts, and nothing that’s been said in the three years since the grand plan was unveiled has persuaded me - or any of us at ARCH - otherwise. At best it will be an expensive waste of money that should be spent on genuine child protection and frontline services. The at worst doesn't bear thinking about.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Children on NDNAD

The other story this morning is on DNA retention: the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a consultation to gather views on the National DNA Database which you can access here.

Our particular worry is the number of unconvicted children on the database. As we mentioned on Monday, figures from the Home Office and Youth Justice Board indicate that last year around 50,000 children were arrested but no further action was taken. Another 100,000 were given reprimands and warnings - which are not a finding of guilt in law.

Privacy and flying pigs

As we mentioned the other day, the 'opt-out' from the NHS records database isn't what it seems. See the Guardian headlines today for more on the demise of the oh-so-unmodern idea that patient data is confidential.