Information sharing in the safeguarding context: Home Office report

Nicola UnderdownNicola Underdown, Head of Engagement (West)
Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

The final report of the Home Office research into Multi Agency Working and Information Sharing has been published this week.

Report front coverThe final report looks in more depth at the findings which were shared in the interim report, by validating the conclusions with two expert panels, and by conducting a questionnaire of practitioners working in multi agency safeguarding settings.  The report makes for interesting reading, and sets out a number of commitments that the department is making in order to continue to support multi agency working and information sharing.  One commitment that the report makes is that the Home Office will work with the Centre, to provide targeted support to Multi Agency Safeguarding Hubs, and to disseminate the learning from those.  We’ll share more details on that work as it progresses.

The report also clarifies the situation following the ‘Haringey judgement‘, where a judge ruled that the council’s data gathering had been unlawful because consent from the data subject was not sought.  The Home Office has reiterated that, although consent is one gateway to enable processing of sensitive personal data, there are alternatives, which include the requirement to share information to enable statutory functions – such as child protection – to be carried out.  This will hopefully provide reassurance to those who were concerned that the Haringey judgement could impede information sharing in safeguarding situations.

On to the findings… what is interesting about the report is that the advantages of developing a Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub come, not from its existence per se, but from the process of setting up and implementing one – developing a MASH provides the reason to work on these issues in a multi agency setting. The benefits of a MASH are listed as more accurate risk assessment, better management of cases, greater efficiency (with few step up / step down scenarios) and better understanding between professionals, so let’s take those one by one.

More accurate risk assessment

A more accurate risk assessment relies on understanding the risk thresholds of each agency involved in the MASH – this is particularly important where thresholds might be rising, in order to manage limited resources.  Then it’s a case of working out as a partnership where the thresholds should lie in the multi agency process, establishing what information is needed to make that risk assessment, and putting the processes in place to bring the right information together, present it in the right way and at the right time to the right people.

Better management of cases (with greater efficiency)

Again, this relies on working out how the statutory duty to safeguard children is going to be discharged i.e. who is going to make the decision about what course of action is appropriate, and who is going to lead activity.  And all of these benefits are underpinned by…

Better understanding between professionals

Now, this might come from co-location, which is highlighted in the report as being a helpful factor in having a successful MASH.  Or it might come from spending time together, undertaking multi agency training sessions, such as the EASI sessions developed by Dr Sue Richardson.  The Effective and Appropriate Sharing of Information workshops bring practitioners together around a scenario, exploring the motivators and constraints which affect different parts of public services, and give practitioners real insight into why their public sector colleagues might have different priorities when it comes to sharing information.  Having a shared risk assessment process, clear ownership of cases and insight into the work of others all helps to build better understanding and more effective multi agency work, which helps to break down the cultural barriers that exist between public sector agencies.

Those cultural barriers were noted in the report as being one of the biggest issues impeding better safeguarding activity, and they are (of course) the areas where the Centre of Excellence places its focus.  The other barriers noted within the research are also worth reflecting on.  The majority of MASH-type functions have been set up to support safeguarding activity – where there is extremely high risk to individuals, and where there is a clear legal framework for intervention.  But a number of respondents noted that a similar approach could potentially bring benefits to earlier intervention work; however, the legal framework is not as definitive.  This is a message we increasingly hear, and we will be exploring it further as we develop new case studies.  Indeed the MASH in Leicestershire and West Cheshire’s Early Support Access Team both support earlier intervention.

The other risks to successful multi agency safeguarding work were around being able to monitor performance, and to resource the MASH.  In many cases, better information sharing can lead to an increase in safeguarding cases as risks are understood, which has an impact on resource requirements – and also demonstrates why earlier intervention is so important.  This shows how perverse incentives may be at work, to make improved information sharing less attractive! And the complexity about demonstrating the impact of implementing a MASH (or in fact any information sharing) is one which has been noted here on many occasions.  Hopefully, we can start to consider this in more depth in the coming months, with the input from our expanded team, and the support of the Academic Advisory Panel.