§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke
I have today issued two papers for consultation on disclosure to individuals of information about them in records held by local authority social services departments. The first paper is concerned with general principles applicable to all social services records, and the second paper has particular reference to the Data Protection Bill and the procedures to be adopted for access to computerised records.
I believe guidance is needed on this very sensitive issue. The confidentiality of these records and people's right to know what is written about them have become matters of increasing interest in recent years. One authority—Liverpool city council—has recently decided to abandon most of the long accepted principles of confidentiality of records, and other authorities are contemplating similar action. The question of access is also raised by the current Data Protection Bill in relation to computerised personal records.
I believe in openness wherever possible, and there are many occasions when individuals should have access to records if they wish. But there will be exceptions. Social service departments exist to help vulnerable people and their families and unlimited access to records could reduce their ability to help. In some cases there could be serious harm to the subject of the records and to other people.
Therefore, there must be protection for those who would be harmed by reading some parts of their records —for example, elderly people may learn that they are less than welcome to their own families. We also need to protect information sources. Social services departments need a full and accurate picture of people and their problems, and it is essential that those who help by providing information such as the neighbour who suspects child abuse should not be inhibited by possible disclosure.452W
Similarly, it could be wrong for an individual to read personal information about other people mentioned in the record—such as a divorced partner or other members of the family. And there can also be exceptional cases where good professional practice requires the social worker to record judgments which must be kept confidential.
The guidance proposed in the first paper has become urgently necessary because Liverpool city council has resolved to adopt a policy of wide disclosure with effect from 1 September. Should Liverpool postpone action or its decision, the timetable for consultation on the guidance will be extended.