Wednesday, December 20, 2006

We Have Moved

This is officially "The old ARCH blog"

You will now find us at
http://archrights.wordpress.com/

please update any your links accordingly.

All items will be left here as long as possible, but no new content will be added.

See you on the new version:-)

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Beta Blogger stops play

Hi all
Owing to beta blogger not allowing posts from multiple IP addresses, we are now in the process of moving home, as we can't live with this.

We'll be advising people of our new address when we're unpacked either via email, web or on this blog.

In the meantime, have a happy Christmas.

Love and peace

Action on Rights for Children

Information-Sharing gone mad

Not strictly on topic for children, but our jaws are on the floor.

Take a look at the Digital Switchover Bill (short and easy to read) which would empower the government to disclose benefits information to the BBC (or a nominee) in order to identify anyone who needs 'help' in switching over to digital TV... Wha?

Every child matters?

Almost missed this (thanks, Mel!):

Nurseries will be able to operate for up to 10 years without being inspected under government plans to cut red tape and reduce costs.The Department for Education is ready to waive the requirement for creches or other establishments looking after children of up to six or seven to be inspected before being put on the national Childcare Register. Checks by Ofsted are also to be cut back. Experts said that nurseries would be able to register by simply filling out a form.

...Confirmation of the changes came just months after an Ofsted report said that while most childcare facilities were meeting required standards, at least 10,000 children had been rescued from inadequate or potentially dangerous childcare by inspections last year. More than 1,000 nurseries or childminders had fallen below the minimum standard.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Those DNA figures

I'd guess that everyone knows by now that the police take DNA samples on arrest, and these are kept on the National DNA Database regardless of whether a suspect turns out to be purer than the driven snow.

Spyblog has more on yesterday's Sunday Times report that more than a third of those on NDNAD don't have a criminal record or caution - that's 1.2 million, and a lot more than the government has previously admitted. The new figures have been gleaned from a series of written answers to parliamentary questions that have appeared over the past week or so.

Meanwhile, we are still waiting on the questions tabled by Grant Shapps a month ago on the number of children on NDNAD who have never been charged or were acquitted: so far, Grant Shapps has yet to receive an answer.

The Home Office's silence is making us increasingly suspicious that the figure of 25,000 bandied around for children who are entirely innocent will prove to be a great deal higher - if we ever get an answer, that is.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

How to spend £25K

Apparently a school in Hartlepool has just spent £25,000 on a fingerprint scanner to speed up the school dinner queue. Pippa has the full story.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The road to prostitution

Rachel and Not Saussure have both waxed eloquent on the subject of decriminalising prostitution, and I thought I’d throw some fact and figures into the debate because it’s so much a children’s issue - and something ARCH has been very involved with in the past.

According to the Home Office consultation document, ‘Paying the Price’,
‘...as many as 70 per cent of those involved in prostitution started out as children or young teenagers’
The overwhelming majority have experienced abuse, and have run away from home or local authority care. A Barnardo's project in Teesside, for instance, found that
‘the average age for women becoming abused through prostitution in Middlesbrough was between 12 and 13 years.’
97% had run away, 86% had been physically abused – 77% of them sexually.

Home Office guidance quite rightly says that:
‘...children and young people must be treated primarily as victims of child abuse and offered support and protection.’
So far so good, but it’s that weasel word ‘primarily’ that causes the problem. Because our age of criminal responsibility is 10, the Street Offences Act (s1) makes it an offence for anyone over the age of 10 to ‘loiter or solicit for the purpose of prostitution’.

Despite huge pressure, the government has resisted every attempt to amend the Act to remove under-18s. The Children’s Society, Barnardo’s and many others have been fighting this particular battle for years, and ARCH has drafted amendments on two occasions – during the passage of both the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Children Act 2004 – to no avail.

There’s a fuller version of events in our archives and you may notice that it was Beverley Hughes, now the Minister for Children, who resisted our amendment tabled by Hilton Dawson MP in 2003, just after David Blunkett had wrongly assured parliament that the Sexual Offences Act would remove children 'from any criminal liability whatever'.

We had charitably assumed that David Blunkett made a simple error in his reply, but it became clear that this wasn’t the case. The following year, when the Home Office produced ‘Paying the Price’ it said:
'while greater emphasis is rightly placed on protection and support, we believe there are compelling arguments for retaining this offence in respect of those under 18 to underline the message that prostitution involving children and young people is wholly unacceptable.'
I don't know whose arguments proved so 'compelling', because there was in fact a barrage of protest from those working with child prostitutes, but it had no effect. In January of this year, the Home Office's new prostitution strategy said:
'Guidance will remain firmly against the use of the criminal law in respect of children involved in prostitution save in the most exceptional circumstances – as a ‘last resort’ where services fail to engage with young people and they return repeatedly to the streets.'
In other words, any child or young person involved in prostitution will be prosecuted if services fail to help them.

If I sound rather cool in reporting all this, it’s because, here at ARCH, we’ve already burned out with fury. It’s ridiculous to imagine that retaining child prostitution as a criminal offence can possibly encourage children to look for help. Rather, it gives anyone who is pimping a 13-year-old another stick to beat them with: “if you tell anyone, you’ll be prosecuted”. As for the Home Office logic of leaving children open to prosecution in order to express disapproval of child abuse, words fail us.

Instead of decriminalising children, the government’s prostitution strategy recommends using the children’s Information Sharing Index and related Common Assessment Framework to identify those ‘at risk’ (that maligned phrase again) of entering prostitution. What’s the point? Everyone already knows that abuse, being in care and running away are risk factors. It hardly needs a ‘well, duh’ assessment!

I’ll shut up now before I start using triple exclamation marks and frothing at the mouth… time to find my tablets and have a lie-down.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Strange company

While we're always pleased to find that people read this blog, we're astonished to find the CIA amongst our visitors. What word or phrase have we used during the past week that has triggered such august attention? Could it be 'leek' or 'plughole'? 'Human rights' perhaps...? If anyone knows something we don't, we'd be grateful for the heads-up.

Huh?

If you employed a builder over a period of years, during which time your house deteriorated so badly that it had to be demolished, would you invite said builder to undertake the reconstruction?

According to Kable:

The organisation which will replace the Child Support Agency (CSA) will continue with the existing contract.

EDS, the current IT provider for the CSA, will stay in the role under the present contract until 2010. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed the position as it announced that the CSA will be replaced with the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (C-MEC) as a non departmental public body.

The DWP went on to provide some technical detail:
"We envisage a new system will be built to incorporate enforcement. We will probably use bits of the old system and create new bits for the new system and merge them together to create the new simpler system."
How very reassuring - and good to see government so in tune with the recycling zeitgeist.
The IT system has been blamed for severe problems at the CSA and to date has cost around £539m to roll out.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Privacy going cheap

It's good to see that some notice is being taken of the Information Commissioner's May 2006 Report 'What Price Privacy' on the brisk trade in confidential data - plenty of it obtained from government databases. Most of it is bought by journalists, but in some cases local authorities themselves are using these thoroughly dubious means of gathering information.

Blogzilla's Ian Brown mentioned this at our LSE conference on children's databases in June, and showed a horrifying slide of the 'going rate' paid by private investigators - see slide 7 of his presentation (pdf) (We wonder what price tag will be placed on information from the children's Information Sharing Index? Or any of the other children's databases?)

Incidentally, while you're looking at Ian's slides, you might also want to check out slide 6, which details the Evaluation Assurance Level - in other words the security - of government databases. There is nothing in the UK's list above Level 4+ which provides a 'moderate to high level of independently assured security'.

Small wonder the government thinks it necessary to exclude 'celebrity children' from the IS Index.

DNA again

I see that Longrider has saved us the trouble of replying to Commander Dave Johnston's wizard wheeze of taking babies' DNA at birth. Couldn't have put it better.

It reminds me to mention that we're holding a workshop with the Information Systems department at LSE next week on police retention of children's DNA. We still have 4 places left - more information here.

DNA fob-off

Reassuring to see that the exponential growth of profiles on the National DNA Database is being monitored so carefully:

Lynne Featherstone: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many people who have been arrested but not charged or cautioned for any offence have their DNA profile stored on the National DNA Database; and what proportion of these people are from each ethnic minority background. [101190]

Joan Ryan [holding answer 23 November 2006]: Data on whether persons with a profile on the National DNA Database (NDNAD) have been charged or cautioned for an offence is not held on the NDNAD, but is held on the Police National Computer (PNC). The information requested could only be obtained at disproportionate cost by cross-searching approximately three million records retained for such persons on the PNC.

Wonder horses

Oh good grief:
Leading figures from the Higher Education, Business and Education sectors were yesterday announced by the Department of Education & Skills as Diploma Champions for the new Diplomas and wider 14 -19 Reform Programme.
Do they get a shiny gold badge, or a Special Hat, perhaps?


Rather than indulging a penchant for puerile language, it would be more to the point if the government had listened to educationalists and found the courage to implement the Tomlinson Report two years ago, rather than worrying about middle England's perceived attachment to the 'gold standard' of GCSEs and A Levels (and as one of ARCH's younger members said at the time: 'wasn't the gold standard abandoned because it was inflexible?')

Tomlinson proposed one single diploma that eliminated the divide between academic and vocational qualifications, and allowed young people to select the elements that actually interested them. Physics, french and plumbing? Why ever not?

Instead, though, we are to have a series of 16 single-subject diplomas. It seems that fears that the government might 'cherry-pick' the Tomlinson Report, expressed by Barry Sheerman, Chair of the Education and Skills Select Committee, have been realised.

Dear Tory MP...

Carlotta has composed an excellent letter on children's databases and 'Every Child Matters':
It rather looks as if yet again, the lovely warm glow that emanates from a New Labour initiative, this time the ECM, will reveal itself to be yet another chimera. Families in dire need will continue to suffer and may indeed find that their situation worsens, since social workers will be even more hard-pressed to sort out those who are at risk from those who could get by, and will be even more out of pocket for having to spread resources about so much more.

Insider dealings

Over on B2fxxx, comment on the conviction for child pornography offences of someone employed by the Home Office to set up VISOR (Violent and Sexual Offenders Register)

Monday, December 11, 2006

Diversionary tactics

The government has announced plans for a name'n'shame website for parents who don't pay maintenance, a tactic that sounds perilously close to the age-old defence of blustering one's way out of awkward questions.

Don't get us wrong: we have scant sympathy for anyone who uses hindsight as a basis for deciding that they don't want children and will therefore wash their hands of responsibility, but we're equally appalled that the government uses tabloid headlines and shouts of "look over there!" to dodge what should be a volley of criticism for the great IT disaster that is the CSA.

The system was introduced in 1993, and as the DWP's permanent secretary, Leigh Lewis, told the public accounts committee a
couple of months ago:
"It started with a design that was too complex, which was introduced too quickly, with IT which was never until recently effective, and with too many changes of course and direction"
Attempts were made to reform the system in 2003, and went ahead - despite an official audit that found 14 critical defects with the new IT system. Needless to say, the reforms were useless:
"The task was more complex and difficult than anyone realised - it was probably at the edge of being undoable"
And that's the real problem with government IT projects: a dangerous combination of hubris, impatience and fantasy about the capabilities of IT. Just take a look at this review from Computer Weekly to get an idea of the scale of the problem.

Undaunted, the government proposes to press ahead with its system of interlinked databases containing the details of every child in England. Not only the 'basic details' that will go on the Information-Sharing Index, but the entire record of a child's interactions with social services (the Integrated Children's System) and the results of a comprehensive personal profiling process (the eCAF database).

In an astonishing display of either ignorance or arrogance - it's hard to say which - the government also proposes to push through the regulations that will allow the creation of the Information Sharing Index before consultation on the rules that will govern the security of the database has even finished - in other words, parliament will be asked to sign yet another blank cheque, trusting that the government will get it right. Quite honestly, the omens aren't good.



Sunday, December 10, 2006

Publish and be damned

Today's Independent says that a DfES report on racism within the education system has been "quietly shelved". The as-yet-unpublished report points out that Black pupils are three times more likely to be excluded than white, and five times less likely to be on the official register of gifted and talented students:
Although couched in careful Whitehall language, it makes for uncomfortable reading. "The exclusions gap is caused by largely unwitting, but systematic, racial discrimination in the application of disciplinary and exclusions policies," concludes the report by Peter Wanless, the director of school performance and reform at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), and two other officials.
The government is reportedly anxious not to repeat the MacPherson Report experience, when the Metropolitan Police service was branded 'insitutionally racist'. (Where has 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' disappeared to all of a sudden?)

The comments of head-teachers' associations are particularly enlightening.
Mick Brookes, the general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said he believed the findings of the report were spurious. " Pupils will be disciplined for bad behaviour if they exhibit bad behaviour," he said. "In my experience as a head teacher my colleagues have always shown absolute integrity in how all young people are treated."
In other words: don't be silly, there isn't a problem. Far worse, though, is this:

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents secondary school heads, rejected suggestions of institutional racism: "I think schools are very racially tolerant places in comparison with what can happen in society outside their gates."

On the question of schools' failure to identify as many gifted and talented black children, Dr Dunford said: "So many of these children have very few educational advantages at home." He added that, in many cases, their parents took less interest in education than parents in Indian and Chinese communities.

Just read that second paragraph again - it beggars belief!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Not playing the game

In 2001, Labour made an election promise to ringfence £200m of New Opportunities Fund money to improve children's play facilities. Frank Dobson was duly detailed to conduct a survey and make recommendations about how the money should be spent, and his report: 'getting serious about play' appeared in January 2004.

It painted a dismal picture of 'neglected' play projects and 'run down and degraded' public spaces, and recommended that the £200m should be used to: 'open up thousands of high quality play opportunities', concentrating on the most deprived areas. It also recommended that:
NOF should use an allocation process for distributing most of the funding, rather than a bidding process. This is needed to ensure that the funding reaches the areas where the need is greatest, not just those who are best placed to make an application.
So far, so good.

A long silence followed until, in November 2004, it became apparent that the terms 'ringfence' and '£200m' were in fact rather loose. The ringfencing was removed and the figure was reduced to £124m, for which local authorities and play projects would have to bid individually.

We now learn that:

The Big Lottery Fund has not given any money out to help local authorities develop their play strategies...The news follows the announcement of the fund's £124m Children's Play Programme last spring.

The first group of local authorities applied for cash in July and were expecting to hear whether their applications had been successful within three months. However, not one of the 19 submissions by local authorities has met the fund's criteria.

We can't help wondering if a lottery-funded project to increase local authority uptake of ASBOs would have run into quite so many delays and difficulties.

The ICS debacle

Dave Hill has more to say on the Integrated Children's System that we blogged about on Wednesday.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Justco

Just found a topical verbal reasoning game on BBC Bitesize. Set in the future, when the world is run by a corporation called Justco, 'non-adults' are only allowed out if they buy a permit, skateboards must be licensed, young people must not go within 10 metres of any 2 other 'non-adults', and the only fast food they can buy is at 'Leek-u-like' or 'Veggie Variations'.

You've got to try it to get the full effect.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Technology seeks market

Not sure how you write a heavy sigh:
Paranoid parents can now track their children even if the little dears give the nanny the slip or escape from the loving embrace of the Chelsea tractor. i-Kids is a new handset being launched by Mobiles2Go, along with a service specifically aimed at providing parents with the ability to track their children on demand using an in-built GPS receiver.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

£89.1m down the plughole

We seem to be in a facts and figures mood here at ARCH today. (Perhaps we should put it to good use and get on with the companies house return? eeurghh)

The disastrous Connexions Card scheme for young people (dreamed up by government, run by Capita) was finally scrapped earlier this year when it became apparent that take-up of this 'incentive' scheme for learning was a mere 3.7%.

Yesterday's PWAs included the following:

Sarah Teather: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what estimate he has made of the total lifetime contract cost of the Connexions scheme contract with Capita. [107146]

Mr. Dhanda: It is estimated that the total lifetime contract costs of the Connexions Card scheme will be £89.1 million (of this £83.1 million relates to payments to Capita Business Services Ltd.)

Or to put it another way, it has cost about the same as the wages bill for 500 social workers or teachers over the same 5-year period.

Cracks in the children's agenda

The Integrated Children's System (ICS) - a parallel database to the Information-Sharing Index - has problems before it has even properly begun:

Local authorities will miss en masse the Government's deadline for launching a computer record of children in contact with social services.

Jeanette Pugh, director of the Department for Education and Skills' safeguarding group, made the admission in a letter sent to children's services directors last month.

Despite confirming that the 1 January deadline for implementing the Integrated Children's System remained in place, she conceded that very few local authorities would achieve this.

It should be remembered that local authorities have to fund this system themselves, and also the third member of the trio of 'Every Child Matters' databases - the electronic Common Assessment Framework (eCAF) system.

When the government happily chirrups that they only need to spend £224m, they are referring solely to the Information-Sharing Index. The (substantial) cost of the other two databases come from local authority budgets, and is thus not included in government cost estimates. True, they are making grants available to local authorities towards the cost of ICS and eCAF, but they have already been warned that these fall far short of requirements. Local authorities are expected to perform the feat of implementing the government's policies without putting up council tax, and at a time when they are struggling to fund essential services.

In another example of government dependency on other peoples' pockets to finance their 'flagship' policies, the CE of the National Day Nurseries Association warns that:

...private and voluntary day nurseries supported the principle behind the free early years entitlement but said "they worry an extension will mean further impact upon their already fragile financial position".

Earlier this year, the association warned that private and voluntary nurseries face bankruptcy unless the Government ploughs more cash into the free entitlement or allows them to charge parents a top-up fee.

It's so easy to be grand with someone else's money.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Human Rights Awards

Oooh! ARCH has been short-listed for a Human Rights Award!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Gawd bless the judiciary

Not Saussure has quoted from a High Court judgment on the appeal of a young man charged under the Criminal Justice Act. The following passage, where the court has been grappling with the results of yet another bout of legislative diarrhoea, is wonderful - try reading it aloud in the voice of Peter Cook's 'Secret Policeman's Ball' judge summing up in the Thorpe trial:
So, yet again, the courts are faced with a sample of the deeply confusing provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, and the satellite Statutory Instruments to which it is giving stuttering birth. The most inviting course for this Court to follow, would be for its members, having shaken their heads in despair to hold up their hands and say: "the Holy Grail of rational interpretation is impossible to find". But it is not for us to desert our judicial duty, however lamentably others have legislated. But, we find little comfort or assistance in the historic canons of construction for determining the will of Parliament which were fashioned in a more leisurely age and at a time when elegance and clarity of thought and language were to be found in legislation as a matter of course rather than exception. In our judgment, as sensible an approach as can be achieved to the part of this legislation presently under consideration is as follows.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Virtual Strip Search

ARCHy types will know that we've had past dealings with the Metropolitan Police and the DfT about the use of 'virtual strip-search' scanners on children.

A couple of weeks ago, Spyblog reported that Canary Wharf was introducing a new 'see through your clothes' terahertz scanner system, and so we contacted their security to remind them of the law in relation to indecent images of children.

We've had a reply offering us:
"...complete assurance that the system we have is not capable of producing any indecent images of children or indeed adults. The scanning system does not reveal anatomical details. This particular system was, in part, deliberately procured rather than, for example, the backscatter or millimetre wave systems to which you refer because of this feature."
If anyone has more information (and/or images) about this sytem, we'd be grateful for it.

Friday, December 01, 2006

NHS 'opt-out'

First we have Polly Toynbee disparaging:
"the fuss over Big Brother CCTV cameras or the fear of better NHS computer records..."
...on the basis that the News of the World has done far worse things, and now:
The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has written a letter to all GPs and hospital medical directors telling them that if patients try to opt out of the central collection of their medical data, the Secretary of State must be told.
The full story is over on light blue touchpaper. Hmm, there seem to be a lot of veiled threats in the air today.

Update 2.12.06: More in the Guardian 'GPs angered by call to reveal names of NHS database rebels'

Stop the regulations or the dog gets it!

Apparently the Bishop of Rochester and various other members of the clergy have been issuing dire threats that projects will be closed and "It will be the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers" if churches have to comply with regulations to prevent discrimination against gay people. Bookdrunk has more on this Daily Mail spectacular.

(Whatever happened, by the way, to the CofE's guidance, 'Some Issues in Human Sexuality', which encouraged churchgoers to consider whether an "unhealthy" obsession with sex prevented them from focussing on "...commercial greed, poverty and inequalities of wealth"?)

As one of the commenters on the Daily Mail article says: "I feel angst for all the gay teenagers whose parents are committed Christians knowing that equality in relationships will be denied them. Equality IS Love."

Amen.

Children's data is safe with us

Dizzy heard David Miliband on the radio, joining in the general scepticism about government IT competence. Shame he didn't voice his doubts earlier!

While I'm on the subject of children's databases, Ross Anderson was interviewed for Outlaw's podcast about the Information Sharing Index. Listen in here.