The recent media frenzy surrounding the safety of personal information has pushed data protection and information sharing back into the spotlight. We consider whether the risk of losing children’s information should make us review our methods of sharing it

Is there any guidance available on how to share information?
Yes, there is. In April 2006 The DfES (now the Department for Children, Schools and Families) introduced information sharing guidance specifically aimed at those who work with children: Information Sharing: Practitioners’ Guide (click here to read).

Representatives from a wide range of professional and regulatory bodies including health, education, social care and police, and both statutory and voluntary agencies, were invited to share their views on the guidance prior to its release.

The thrust of the guidance was to cut through the fog of uncertainty surrounding the Data Protection Act and its Schedule 1 and 2 exceptions and provide simple guidance that told everyone working with children exactly what information could be shared and in what circumstances to share it.

Why was this guidance implemented?
We all know that sharing relevant information about children is essential, not only to protect them from harm, but also to promote their welfare and to ensure that children with additional needs get the services they require. The government appreciated the importance of information sharing and made it the cornerstone of its Every Child Matters strategy.

Information Sharing: Practitioners’ Guide was the first guidance for practitioners across the whole of the children’s workforce. In the introduction it specifically states that the guidance should be used ‘by everyone who works with children and young people, whether they are employed or volunteers, in the public, private or voluntary sectors. It is for staff working in health; education; early years and childcare; social care; youth offending; police; advisory and support services, and leisure.’

Does this guidance provide simple, practical advice that is easy to follow?
Yes. The guidance is simple, succinct and practical. For example, the six key points on information sharing should be on every practitioner’s notice board. This helpful summary breaks down everything one needs to know about sharing information into six simple steps that can be applied to most information sharing situations:

  • Explain proposed info sharing, and seek agreement (unless it creates risk of harm).
  • Child’s welfare and safety is paramount concern.
  • Respect wish for confidentiality, but override it if there is ‘sufficient need’.
  • If in doubt, seek advice.
  • Keep info up-to-date, accurate, relevant and secure. Share only with those who need it.
  • Record reasons for your decisions.

Following on from the recent high-profile incidents of data loss, should information sharing now be considered only as a last resort?
Absolutely not. The high profile cases involving HMRC were to do with the inadequate storage of information, not the sharing of it.

In fact, the information commissioner himself, Richard Thomas, says in the introduction to the guidance that ‘ensuring that children and young people are kept safe and receive the support they need when they need it is vital. Where information sharing is necessary to achieve this objective it is important that practitioners have a clear understanding of when information can be shared. It is also important for them to understand the circumstances when sharing is inappropriate. The Data Protection Act is not a barrier to sharing information but is in place to ensure that personal information is shared appropriately. This guidance is welcome as it sets out a framework to help practitioners share information both professionally and lawfully.’

So should we still look to share information where we think a child is at risk?
Yes. Remember that you have a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Sharing information with other agencies such as social services and the police is vital if you have concerns that a child may be at risk. Following the principles and advice set out in the guidance will help ensure that you share the information efficiently and effectively.

Should I keep a record of the information I have shared?
Definitely. If you have concerns that a child is at risk and shared that information with the appropriate agencies, it is imperative that you keep an accurate record of exactly what information you have shared, with whom you shared it and why you shared it. Not only is this good practice for data protection purposes, but it will also serve as an excellent contemporaneous note of your decision making process months down the line.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2008

About the author: Mark Blois is the editor and author of Legal Expertise. He is a Partner and Head of Education at Browne Jacobson. Before becoming a Partner in 1996 he was awarded third place in The Lawyer Awards in the ‘Assistant Solicitor of the Year’ category. Having various disabilities himself has led Mark to commit his career to providing practical advice, support and training to schools, colleges and Local Authorities on the full range of legal issues.