The government said it had today finally begun training local authority officials to run the new ContactPoint database, which will contain personal information all 11m children in England and Wales, after months of delays and political controversy.
About 300 council workers will learn how to adminster the database, and will be responsible for the quality of the information it contains, officials said. From spring, people who work with children in 19 "early adopter" organisations* will be trained as the first ContactPoint users.
ContactPoint should be fully available nationwide early next year, a spokeswoman added, but how quickly to adopt it will be up to local authorities. DCSF officials were keen to stress a flexible and "incremental" approach, after the project attracted criticism for two delays for redesigns last year.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have called for the system to be scrapped, claiming it will be insecure and vulnerable to government data loss. Built by CapGemini at a cost of £224m, ContactPoint is the government's main response to the negligence surrounding the abuse and murder of 8-year-old Victoria Climbié in 2000.
"We have seen from recent Serious Case Reviews that the lack of proper and timely information sharing can have tragic consequences," said secretary of state for children, schools and families, Ed Balls in a statement, alluding to the recent Baby P inquiry.
"No system can ever guarantee that all children will be safe but we know ContactPoint will make a real difference."
The database is loaded with data from existing government systems and will record the name, age, gender and address of every under-18, along with their guardian's contact details. This will then be associated with the contact details of their GP, school, health visitor and school nurse. No case or "subjective" information will be held on any child, officials said.
Where children are involved with "sensitive" branches of local government, such as mental and sexual health services, they or their guardian will be asked for consent to include contact details for those services in their ContactPoint file.
The DCSF estimates that 390,000 people will have access to ContactPoint. They will be required to undergo criminal record and identity checks, and be verified on the system by username, password, token and PIN.
It's planned that ContactPoint will make it speedier and more efficient for different agencies and charities to contact each other. Major communication failures were identified in the inquiry into Victoria Climbié's death. Baroness Morgan, the children's minister, today claimed ContactPoint will also save 5m hours and £88m annually.
The plan to "shield" some records on ContactPoint so that only very basic information is displayed about a child to users has proven controversial. To contact other users about a shielded child, ContactPoint users will need to make a case to the local authority to put them in touch.
Officials estimated that "hundreds" of children will be shielded by each local authority in an ongoing process due to start as soon as administrators are trained.
Morgan said shielding would protect families fleeing domestic violence or in witness protection and was not designed to guard the privacy of policitians and celebrities. She added she "would certainly not expect" her own children to be shielded, and that inclusion on ContactPoint will be universal.
Concerns have also been raised about police access to ContactPoint and the potential for profiling young people as potential criminals. Asked what forces would use it for, Morgan said: "That's a matter for the police."
She added that police will be required to go through the same checks as other users.
Claire Tickell, the chief executive of the charity Action for Children, welcomed the start of ContactPoint training, saying the delays to the system had allowed it to be made more secure and "child-centric". Her organisation has been approved to access the system.
Lord Laming, the crossbench peer who ran the Climbié inquiry, said: "ContactPoint won’t change the world. It will not replace the need for children's services organisations to ensure effective working across teams, across services and agencies, including sharing information where this is appropriate.
"But, in time, I believe ContactPoint will be an important tool in supporting this practice... and therefore contributing to the armoury of measures that we need to support children's services."
The Tories want ContactPoint to be replaced with a database that only includes information about children identified as vulnerable. ®
*17 local authorities in the north west and the children's charities Barnardo's and KIDS.