Numbers don't add up

7th April 2006 at 01:00
I read with dismay the recent reports that the Scottish Executive is to launch a scheme to allocate a unique number to every child in primary and secondary education. The rationale is that they will, in some way, provide protection against harm and abuse, especially for children starting and moving school. That this is a worthy aim is without doubt. However, the proposed scheme appears to me to be a bureaucratic nightmare in the making.

Having been a specialist in the analysis of data throughout my professional life, and being currently involved in assisting organisations to identify fraud, I am only too aware of the absence of any way of uniquely identifying an individual.

NHS Scotland has already allocated each member of the Scottish population with a unique number, the community health index number, so why does each child need an additional number which will be administered separately?

Furthermore, a National Insurance number is allocated to a child when a child benefit record is created for that child. At that time, the number is known as a child reference number (CRN). Before the child reaches school-leaving age, the CRN becomes an NI number and is issued to the child on an NI number card. Why is another number needed at all?

If John Smith moves from Wick to Dumfries, how will the school in Wick know to which school in Dumfries John Smith is moving? Will there be a statutory duty for Smith's parents to tell the Wick school?

If Smith does not attend his new school on the anticipated day, presumably the school will be required to inform someone - the local social services department, perhaps. How, though, will they go about tracking down the missing boy?

It seems odd that, in order to resolve an issue which arises within the social services sphere, the already overburdened education sector is going to have to perform yet more administration.

It would be preferable for the number to contain some degree of relationship to the individual as driving licence numbers do - they include the first letters of the surname, the date of birth in jumbled format, initials and a sex indicator. Incorporating a check digit which enables the accuracy of the number as a whole to be confirmed whenever it is keyed in is also extremely useful as it helps to minimise errors.

The case cited in the reports of the new scheme is that of Danielle Reid.

Subsequent to her death, it was found that her mother had withdrawn her from school in Inverness and told the authorities that the family was moving to Manchester.

At the end of the day, how would the existence of the Scottish Candidate Number scheme have helped poor Danielle one iota? Any parent wishing to remove their children from the attention of the authorities will simply say that they are moving out of Scotland and no one will be any the wiser.

This scheme appears to serve only to be the scapegoat which ministers can blame when the next body of an unfortunate child is found in the Caledonian Canal. To my mind, it is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The movements of hundreds of thousands of children will be monitored in order to keep track of just a handful of them.

Surely the answer is either to bring social services from being a local to a national service, or consolidate the existing, fragmented records of local social services into a single system.

But why stop there? Perhaps now is the time to begin the long overdue process of bringing together the myriad different official "numbers" for individuals and consolidate them into a single unified Scottish Identity number.

Designed correctly at the outset, this could provide ministers with a historic opportunity to show leadership which would transform the lives of the people of Scotland by simplifying the countless ways in which they interface with government both locally and nationally.

Alan Livesey


D.A.T.A. Solutions

Chertsey, Surrey

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