The ethics and regulation around sharing information in Children’s Services has long been discussed and debated, in this blog Graham Bright seeks to answer some of the key questions and suggest a potential route forward.

The local authority, health and police are the three statutory safeguarding partners for Children. In 2018 these partners, their commissioned providers and the wider system were given new legal duties to improve the service provided to children via the implementation of Multi-Agency Safeguarding Partnerships (MASP). On the 30th September 2019, 131 MASP went live covering 151 local authority areas across England. The new MASP arrangements replace the previous Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) arrangements.

Does the formation of these new partnership arrangements provide an opportunity to improve information sharing?

Is there an information sharing challenge that should be addressed?

Today, each local authority area has a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) with practitioners from across agencies including the police, health, education, children’s social care, children’s early help, substance misuse, housing, probation, domestic violence etc. Information sharing protocols are in place to enable professionals to meet to discuss information that is held in multiple systems so they can build a picture of the child and their family.

Does relying on a discussion to take place represent the best approach to information sharing in a digital world?

Does the following describe a vision for improved information sharing?

The MASH will always rely on the professional judgement and decision making of practitioners from across the partners. However, if the following solution was in place it would enable the practitioners to be more effective:

  • An up to date, automatically produced summary of the risk factors across all cases to help practitioners triage which children should be discussed
  • A single view, with the press of a button, of a child and their family pulled together as a case summary from across multiple agencies
  • System generated alerts provided to the lead practitioner if the risk of a case escalating has increased in any one of the multi-agency databases
  • Advanced analysis of different interventions to estimate their impact beforehand and evaluate the impact afterwards

The technology to deliver this vision is available.

Is implementing such a solution something that the safeguarding partners should be prioritising?

What does the law say the safeguarding partners should be prioritising?

Changes to the 2004 Children Act in 2017, and the 2018 statutory guidance for Working Together present a range of opportunities for partners to be innovative and facilitate improvements in their local safeguarding arrangements, the reforms were a response to the Wood Report in 2016. Improving the sharing of information across the partnership is consistently identified as an area of focus within the recent reforms:

  • “The Department for Education should review what approaches to early cross agency intervention and intelligence gathering to identify children and young people at risk are most effective, including considering whether the MASH model offers an effective approach” – Wood Report 2016
  • “For the Home Office and Departments of Communities and Local Government, Health, and Education to issue joint advice and guidance on the critical importance of effective and speedy sharing of information and data in relation to protecting and safeguarding children. This should focus on the expectation that unless there is specific legal impediment information must be shared” – Wood Report 2016
  • “Effective sharing of information between practitioners and local organisations and agencies is essential for early identification of need, assessment and service provision to keep children safe. Serious Case Reviews have highlighted that missed opportunities to record, understand the significance of and share information in a timely manner can have severe consequences for the safety and welfare of children” – 2018 Working Together Statutory Guidance
  • “Local authorities should work with organisations and agencies to develop joined-up early help services based on a clear understanding of local needs. This requires all practitioners, including those in universal services and those providing services to adults with children, to understand their role in identifying emerging problems and to share information with other practitioners to support early identification and assessment” – 2018 Working Together Statutory Guidance
  • “Effective assessment of the need for early help. Where a child and family would benefit from co-ordinated support from more than one organisation or agency (e.g. education, health, housing, police) there should be an inter-agency assessment. These early help assessments should be evidence-based” – 2018 Working Together Statutory Guidance
  • “Effective sharing of information between practitioners and local organisations and agencies is essential for early identification of need, assessment and service provision to keep children safe. Serious case reviews (SCRs13) have highlighted that missed opportunities to record, understand the significance of and share information in a timely manner can have severe consequences for the safety and welfare of children.” – 2018 Working Together Statutory Guidance

The Wood Report clearly identifies that information sharing is a challenge that should be addressed and the Working Together guidance clearly identifies that new information sharing arrangements should be put in place by the safeguarding partnership. The guidance stipulates that once the local safeguarding partner arrangements are in place they should publish how the safeguarding partners will use data and intelligence to assess the effectiveness of the help being provided to children and families, including early help. Therefore, implementing an information sharing solution to deliver the vision outlined previously should be ONE of the priorities for each new Mutli-Agency Safeguarding Partnership.

If the technology exists then what are the barriers to making this happen?

Are there any barriers to improving information sharing?

Firstly, there is often concern whether the information governance arrangements in place are robust enough to ensure data is captured, stored and accessed in line with the principles, as provided for in the Data Protection Act 2018 and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Whilst practitioners should have due regard to the relevant data protection principles which allow them to share information, it has been proven possible, to implement information governance arrangements that enable information sharing across agencies.

Secondly, safeguarding partners are often cautious as to under what circumstances they can share personal information with other agencies. The Data Protection Act 2018 contains ‘safeguarding of children and individuals at risk’ as a processing condition that allows practitioners to share information with other agencies. This includes allowing practitioners, under certain circumstances, to share information without consent.

The Working Together guidance states that “Fears about sharing information must not be allowed to stand in the way of the need to promote the welfare, and protect the safety, of children, which must always be the paramount concern.”

What other drivers are there for improving information sharing?

Does the Coronavirus pandemic increase the priority for improving information sharing?

Under the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) circumstances, DfE know that local safeguarding partners will want to continue to meet their statutory duties as far as they can, but there will be times when this is not possible. Due to this, DfE has issued guidance:

  • Partners should be risk-assessing and reviewing the circumstances of every family they are currently working with
  • Partners should be prioritising support and resources for children at greatest risk and informed by the evidence available
  • Practitioners will be aware of the importance of sharing information in a timely way, particularly in the current circumstances.

The solution outlined above would enable partners to efficiently and effectively review all the risk factors to children and their families on a regular basis, this would help them assess and triage where they should be focusing their resources.

What do Ofsted think about information sharing?

What does a good multi-agency safeguarding partnership look like to Ofsted?

Ofsted are still finding examples of confusion and poor practice when it comes to information sharing. One shocking example was a school that reported to an inspector that they could not share information about domestic abuse unless they had the parents’ permission.  This demonstrates the confusion and lack of understanding that exists regarding the interpretation of data protection and consent laws within the context of child protection.

Ofsted has developed the Joint Targeted Area Inspections (JTAIs), the JTAIs have helped identify what the components are for good multi-agency working. One of the eight key components that Ofsted will evaluate the partnership against is whether they have ‘good systems for information sharing which professionals are confident and knowledgeable about’.

Who can help the safeguarding partners to improve their information sharing?

What are the vehicles for supporting the improvement of Information Sharing?

There are a number of innovation and change programmes working across multiple local authorities that could provide a vehicle for improving information sharing. However, it requires either the policy makers (DfE, MHCLG, Home Office or Department for Health and Social Care) or a group of local authorities to determine that implementing a more automated digital approach to information sharing across the agencies should be a priority for innovation and change.

So where does this leave us?

In conclusion…

The Multi-Agency Safeguarding Partnership model provides a delivery framework that enables the partners to deliver on their new legal duties, including improving information sharing. Ofsted will be looking for evidence that the partnership has good systems for information sharing.

There are perceived barriers to information sharing regarding Information Governance and Consent, however, the guidance from the Children’s Act reform is clear that this should NOT stand in the way of improving a child’s health and wellbeing. I will write a separate blog to address the information governance, consent and ethical concerns that some individuals present as a barrier to information sharing.

The MASH provides a working solution to manually sharing information which will be considered good enough by some. However, there are automated digital solutions to information sharing that increase the efficiency and effectiveness of children’s services.

The pressure on the system due to COVID-19 provides another driver for automating information sharing. The lockdown of families and subsequent easing of lockdown restrictions will have changed the risk profile of many families; the sector is expecting to see a surge in referrals. Therefore, the scale of review required across all cases would benefit from an automated digital solution for triaging and discussing cases.

To make a step change improvement in information sharing, it will require either forward thinking safeguarding partners to make this a priority or a centrally funded programme with improved information sharing as a key policy focus.

In June, I will be hosting a webinar bringing together Xantura with professionals from the sector to discuss this topic, please sign up when the webinar details are published.

by Graham Bright