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by Robert Winnett and David Leppard
An identifying number will be assigned to each child so that the authorities can access their records. Details of the proposals - affecting all 13.5 m children in Britain under the age of 18 - are contained in cabinet papers leaked to The Sunday Times.
All parents will receive letters from the government informing them of the plan, which will be added to the Children's Bill in the autumn 2004. The central electronic register will hold information on a child's school achievements, GP and hospital visits, police and social services records and home address.
It will also include information on their families, such as whether parents are divorced or separated. The database will be designed to identify problem relatives, including aunts and uncles who have a history of alcoholism or drug misuse. It will be filed under each child's "unique identifying number". The decision to create a "universal children's database" was approved by the ministerial committee on children, young people and families, chaired by Charles Clarke, the education secretary, last month.
The government believes that the move will help social services and police to identify and protect children who are at risk of abuse or neglect. However, it is likely to prove controversial. Critics claimed yesterday that it amounted to intrusive, Big Brother-style authoritarianism and would be an invasion of civil liberties.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, expressed concern that private medical and family data could be misused and might contain inaccuracies. "This is a national ID card scheme by the back door, and as such should be open to proper scrutiny and proper checks to protect civil liberties," he said. "As the Soham murder case showed, computer databases are not infallible. To err is human, but to screw up you need a computer."
National Database on Kids
Barry Hugill, a spokesman for Liberty, the civil liberties group, said: "They are creating a national database through the back door. You start with information about all children but in 20 years' time you've got almost half the population. The government may justify it in terms of child protection but it's way beyond what even the children's charities wanted or thought necessary."
The plan follows the publication last year of a report by Lord Laming into the death of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old who died from neglect and abuse. Laming recommended the establishment of a national database, although the government had previously played down its interest in the idea. However, "restricted" minutes of a meeting reveal that ministers have privately agreed to the national children's database, rejecting proposals for the system to cover only those children thought to be at risk.
The minutes record: "Turning to the question of who the database should cover, the minister for children, young people and families (Margaret Hodge) said that all children should be included. This fitted with the prevention agenda and reduced the risk of stigmatisation. Information collected could also be used to support service planning and delivery." Parents would not have access to the database but will be able to apply to see details held on their children under the Data Protection Act.
Ministers at the meeting, including Hodge, Paul Boateng, Lord Filkin, Estelle Morris and Alun Michael, raised concerns about the technical challenge of setting up the database. The government has been hit by the failure of several new computer systems, including the Child Support Agency, Inland Revenue and the Criminal Records Bureau.
It has commissioned a feasibility study into the plans and held negotiations with several firms including Experian, which runs national credit-checking services. According to the leaked minutes: "To overcome the technical problems associated with a national database it might be better to start small and build up."
The aim of the system is to identify children potentially at risk before it is too late to help them. It would allow agencies to contact each other to discuss suspicions outside the constraints of data protection laws.