The following is a short article I wrote that was published in Youth Work Now Magazine (A supplement of Children & Young People Now) last week. In addition to the print copy, it can be found online here.
Good riddance to ContactPoint
The coalition government plans to scrap the controversial ContactPoint database that holds the personal details of all 11 million children and young people in England, and personally, I’m quite relieved.
ContactPoint had been stumbling forwards for the past few years despite numerous concerns. It was originally proposed as a way to improve safeguarding after the tragic murder of Victoria Climbie in 2000 and, in theory, makes a lot of sense as there are undoubtedly some great benefits from having one central system. Workers can quickly look up a young person’s contact details or find out what other services are working with them.
But there are also some inherent problems in storing this kind of personal data. The Daily Telegraph reported in January that there had been at least four serious security breaches of ContactPoint before it had even been nationally available to practitioners.
Last year, The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust published a report on the state of UK databases. It found that a quarter of all major public sector databases are fundamentally flawed, including ContactPoint, which it issued with a “red warning” for its privacy concerns, inadequate security and the legal issues with maintaining sensitive data with no effective opt-out.
The report also found that this kind of data sharing across agencies can be a barrier to more socially responsible activities. For example, it can deter teenagers from accessing health advice for fear of the request being recorded and tracked.
This view of data sharing was also reinforced in a conversation I had with one youth work professional who admitted actively dissuading his own children from giving personal information to statutory youth workers. He felt that workers accessing information on a database was akin to “googling” the young person’s name – it gives them access to extra, perhaps invasive information. I believe he has a point.
Generic youth work is based on the voluntary principle: that a young person is free to choose to engage with a worker or activity. This empowers young people and they are able to provide as much information about themselves as they wish. A level of trust has to be built. However, if a worker is able to look up that young person’s address and see what other agencies have an involvement, it destroys that trust.
Of course, we all need to monitor our work and will often have to write up reports and record information, but there should be a balance between that necessity and the wishes of the young people on what information we hold on them. ContactPoint did not give them any choice.
Working together for the benefit of children and young people is vitally important and may well save lives. Perhaps now we can find better ways to do this that aren’t so invasive or that run counter to good youth work practice.