by Gary Pettengell, Founder Empowering-Communities & Architect of E-CINS
‘If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen‘ – These are the famous last words of the prosecuting barrister as he stares at you up in a court of law.
The above situation could become a reality for practitioners as the government have put forward proposals to prosecute education and social care professionals for failing to protect children from abuse.
It light of these new proposals and the Labour Party saying they do not go far enough organisations not only need to provide their staff with the means to share information securely in a multi-agency environment they need to give them the means to evidence that they did share information in an attempt to raise concerns and prevent harm.
In the Data Sharing Review report published by Thomas and Walport in 2008 they found only a few specific examples where data sharing was prevented by the legislation. They however reported several cultural and institutional barriers to data sharing such as an attitude of risk aversion, lack of IT or an unwillingness to put the necessary safeguards in place. I believe that this report and the many others that have been published since mean that Managers and Chief Executives need to give their staff the means to evidence their sharing of data in a multi-agency environment and support their staff so that they feel confident about sharing data in a fair and efficient way.
I recently met with a Child Sexual Exploitation lead who was frustrated with health professionals who were unwilling to share information. I pointed out that what might appear to be a small step by one organisation can be a massive step in information sharing for another. This is why the time has come to work together and learn from past mistakes and practices in order to bring about a cultural shift from being risk-averse to a culture of trust and of daring to share, safe in the knowledge that as long as it is done for the right reasons staff will be supported.
We all know that in just about every serious case review a lack of information sharing is cited as a contributing factor. Yet I have been unable to find a serious case review that says information sharing was a contributing factor. And we are surrounded by evidence that supports the fact that efficient, multi-agency information sharing helps victims and the vulnerable. Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs) are an excellent example of this. Here statutory and voluntary agencies share information and work together to compile a complete picture of the risks faced by the victims of domestic abuse and their children. Data published by the Home Office suggests that there has been an average reduction of 50% In repeat victimisation in those cases reviewed at MARACs.
As the Thomas and Walport report concluded the Data Protection Act’s necessary breadth and openness are open to misinterpretation, or rather, they allow too much scope to interpret the Act in different ways, while even the name of the Act gives the misleading impression that organisations should seek to protect information from use by other organisations or for any additional purposes. Consequently, the Act is frequently interpreted too restrictively or over-cautiously due to unfamiliarity, misunderstanding, lack of knowledge or uncertainty about its provisions.
As The National Archives told Thomas and Walport ‘There are many myths surrounding the Data Protection Act – it appears to be one of the most frequently cited yet least understood pieces of legislation.’ In my view if the public and the government want organisations and their staff to share information more openly and raise concerns, they in turn need to help bring about the cultural change that in some cases is needed. Because we all know that fair, timely, efficient and effective information sharing brings with it many benefits and safeguards both for the public and practitioners. It helps authorities make informed decisions in order to wrap support around victims and the vulnerable and to put early intervention measures in place.
A good starting point would be to rename the Data Protection Act to the Information Sharing Act. We can then start to lesson the uncertainty that surrounds information sharing which is often cited as one of the main obstacles preventing bodies from sharing data.