The Department for Children, Schools and Families is trying to play down reports that its ContactPoint database of children will be used by police to prosecute offenders.
Officials dismessed a report in the Daily Telegraph that claimed the child database would be used by police officers to search for criminality and help them launch prosecutions against those on the database "even long after they have reached adulthood".
“This is scaremongering - pure and simple," said a DCSF spokesperson. "ContactPoint will improve services to young people, including safeguarding vulnerable children - it will not exist to detect crimes nor be open for users to 'trawl' for prosecution evidence."
However, the DCSF spokesperson admitted that police can access the database with permission: "To access ContactPoint to prevent or detect crime or for the prosecution of offenders, police would have to make a special request directly to the Secretary of State or local authority and make a clear, exceptional case for disclosure. This will be decided on a case by case basis."
The government’s £224m database was conceived after the Victoria Climbie case to help social workers, schools, GPs and other professionals to share information if they suspect a child is in danger. It will include the names, ages and addresses of everyone under 18 in England as well as information on their parents, GPs, schools and support services such as social workers.
But civil liberties groups have criticised the government for extending the original scope of the project to give the police access, and to store the information long past the child turns 18.
Michael Parker, a spokesperson from campaigning organisation No2ID, said: "It makes a mockery of any idea of parent-child confidentiality. It's one thing to say police need access to fight crime, it's another to create a database for the protection of children, and then use it across government. This was never about the protection of children."
Parker also lambasted government's use of IT after a year plagued by serious data breaches. "Whitehall's system infrastructure needs to undergo radical surgery before the government can be seen as a respectful user of both new technology and personal information. This government has a legacy of using technology to acquire information without vision on what it is used for, how it will be used, who will use it, how it will be stored and how it will be secured."
Liberty’s policy director Gareth Crossman said: "Liberty is concerned that putting every child on the database might make it more difficult to identify the truly vulnerable because of the vast amount of data which must be sifted through. Unfortunately it seems that increasingly the rationale behind ContactPoint is not child protection but the creation of another mass surveillance database.”
Responding to claims that data on ContactPoint will be held after children reach adulthood, the Department said, "ContactPoint records will only ever hold very basic identifying information and will not contain case notes - and young people's details will only remain on the database after their 18th birthday with their informed, explicit consent."
According to the ContactPoint website, authorised users will be able to access the database in three ways: a secure web link; through some existing case management systems; or, if they don’t have access to appropriate IT systems, through another authorised user.
ContactPoint will begin operation in October this year, as part of the government's Every Child Matters programme to improve children’s services.