Experts specialising in looking after Scotland’s most vulnerable youngsters have urged First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to consider issuing children with a personal ID number to help monitor their health, education and interactions with social work.
Research involving the Scottish Government-funded Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland (CELSIS) has suggested the introduction of a personal number would help tackle the health and education disadvantages suffered by children in care.
Experts behind the research acknowledge that introducing an ID number that is common to health, education and social work records and is retained throughout an individual’s life would prove controversial for those concerned about potential breaches of privacy.
But they argue that the proposal should be explored by Sturgeon’s review into Scotland’s care system because it would make it easier to link data across services to build up a picture of how children are coping.
People in Scotland already have a variety of reference numbers to access services. Introducing a single number like the “personnummer” in Sweden would make it easier for professionals to connect data for individuals across education, health and social work.
A paper involving experts from Strathclyde University-based CELSIS found that it was difficult to compare the health of looked-after children’s teeth with those of children not in care. A child’s looked-after status did not tend to come up on health records.
It concluded: “The inclusion of a unique ‘citizen number’ on routine administrative data from all sectors would present further opportunities to explore the health and healthcare of these groups, although any such developments would need to carefully balance the benefits of enhanced analysis opportunities against potential privacy risk.”
Among the contributors to the report were experts from CELSIS, which works with social workers, teachers, nurses, charities, the police, local authorities and the Scottish Government.
Another contributor was Professor Phil Wilson of Aberdeen University, who believes the Scandinavian approach should be explored in Scotland.
He said his research in partnership with CELSIS was the first attempt to link data sets between agencies to monitor the health of children in care.
The paper, just published in the Public Health Journal, noted that routine monitoring of looked-after children was “lacking” and demonstrated how challenging it was to get a complete picture for each child.
Evidence suggests the health, educational and wider social outcomes of looked-after children are generally poorer than those of children who are not looked after.
Although the Scottish Government has said it has “no plans” to introduce personal ID numbers, Wilson said the idea would enable professionals to improve services for the most vulnerable and therefore should be looked at by Sturgeon’s review into children in state care.
The First Minister announced the review during an emotional speech at the SNP conference last year when she spoke of how she had been moved by the plight of looked-after children.
Wilson said the research had shown that Scotland had exceptional data in a variety of areas, but it was difficult to get an overview of an individual because they were held in different systems.
“We have got all these fantastic data systems, but they don’t talk to each other. What we are saying is it would be better to link data in the interests of public health but there needs to be a public discussion about how we do this in a way that doesn’t threaten people’s privacy,” he said.
“We should be in a position to use data to improve services, but there are some barriers. We don’t have a shared identification number, in effect, which would allow us to do that. But it seems to me a bit odd that we have got different numbers for health, social work and education. Why can’t we have the same number? I think this is something that Nicola Sturgeon’s review should look into.”
Sharing of information about children, however, is a political hot potato. The Scottish Government’s controversial named person scheme fell foul of European human rights legislation, which objected to sharing of information without permission.
Yesterday Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said he opposed the idea on the grounds that it could risk individual liberty.
Rennie said: “Whilst the citizen number proposal may have emerged from a genuine desire to improve the lot of looked-after children, it should be rejected. We don’t need an identification number for everyone to prove that looked-after children need extra support.
“The SNP government has had an unhealthy attraction to super databases without wider consideration of the risks to individual liberty or security of personal information. We have seen the inherent insecurity of government and business IT systems in recent months. That should be a warning to any government.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We know that opportunities for children and young people in care are often not the same as other young people in Scotland. The care review will look at how we create a system that puts love for the children it cares for at its heart and improves outcomes and their quality of life.
“There are no plans to introduce a system of ID numbers for looked-after children.”
The Swedish example
Personal ID numbers have been part of life in Sweden since 1947 and the “personnummer” was probably the first scheme of its kind. Similar systems were later adopted in Norway and Denmark.
The 12-digit “personnummer” covers the total resident population of the country and is used by a huge range of services including healthcare, schools, universities, banks, insurance companies, the tax authorities and even store cards.
The number is also used by businesses to check credit card records.
Individuals are assigned a number at birth, which remains with them throughout their lives. The link between a person and the identity number is established through the civil registry and identity documents.
Over the years, the idea of so much information being linked to a single number has prompted concerns of a Big Brother state and fears that privacy could be compromised if security is breached.
However, the system has become embedded and its supporters praise the way it provides ease of access to a host of facilities.
Closer to home, plans for a computer database south of the border came under fire when they were proposed about 12 years ago.
The proposal for a Child Index register containing the name, address and school of everyone under 16 was condemned as a “Trojan horse” for ushering in “ID cards for kids” via the back door.
A similar outcry led to the scrapping of NHS England’s scheme to store patients’ medical information in a single database.
The Care.data scheme was
axed following the publication of two reports that supported far greater transparency over what happened to the information,
and opt-outs for patients who wanted their data to be seen
only by those directly caring for them.
It emerged that nearly one million people who had opted out of the database were still having their confidential medical data shared with third parties.