Police are trying to get access to teenage girls’ sexual health records under plans to tackle child grooming gangs, The Independent has learnt.
Officers want information from sexual health screening databases in a bid to prevent gangs like those which preyed on girls in Rochdale and Derby taking hold elsewhere.
But forces face a fight to convince health professionals, who are worried both about patient confidentiality and deterring young people from getting tested.
Police in Manchester say that anonymised chlamydia and gonorrhea testing data will allow them to identify areas in which gangs may be operating. Officers believe that gangs get young teenage victims tested regularly to ensure they are “clean”, and that getting access to records would help them to spot spikes in sexual health tests in one area – indicating that a gang may be active and allowing detectives to launch earlier investigations.
Health professionals are willing to work with police on the plans to access a city-wide chlamydia and gonorrhea screening database for under-25s, with talks underway, if at an early stage.
The database, currently only available to clinicians with the patient’s permission, details: the date of each test taken; what was screened for; the patient’s age group; the broad area they come from and their ethnicity.
Nothing which personally identifies patients is liable to be handed over but health professionals are desperate to avoid scaring potentially vulnerable people away from using the walk-in centres.
“The ability for police to be able to speak in confidence and with confidence to doctors would assist us,” said one officer close to the negotiations.
He added: “There are opportunities for us to intervene more effectively and quickly if we have all the information. There are [legal] structures in which that information can be exchanged, assessed and acted upon which will not breach the law. If we could build confidence among health professionals, it would be a huge step forward for us.”
Officers said that experience shows high levels of testing for sexually transmitted infections in a particular area can suggest that a gang is grooming young people – mainly women – for sex.
“We are seeing an increasing number of negative testing which indicates that it is quality assurance,” said a police source.
Gangs move their victims around, and specialist officers would look for patterns in the data in a bid to identify areas where young people may be at risk.
Besides the ongoing negotiations with staff at Central Manchester Foundation Trust, other NHS Trusts in the area would have to be notified if the information they feed into the database was to be shared with police in any way.
Around 8,000 tests are undertaken each month in the Greater Manchester area’s sexual health centres. Any deal would have to conform to strict rules governing sharing of data in the public sector.
Medical records can, in some circumstances, be shared with police. General Medical Council guidance states that the “disclosure of personal information about a patient without consent may be justified in the public interest if failure to disclose may expose others to a risk of death or serious harm. Such a situation might arise, for example, when a disclosure would be likely to assist in the prevention, detection or prosecution of serious crime, especially crimes against the person.”
Officers argue that the law is on their side when it comes to vulnerable children’s medical records because the Children Act 1989 places the child’s welfare as the paramount consideration. Police can also seek a court order, requiring doctors to give them access of records, while Section 29 of the Data Protection Act 1998 allows officers to request voluntary disclosure.
The plans were welcomed by the British Medical Association, which said, if they were used properly, the data could help in the fight against sexual grooming: “The BMA supports hospital trusts sharing anonymised data about sexually transmitted infections with the police to help them target gangs involved in sexual grooming. It is essential that no identifiable data is made available, however.”
Derbyshire Police’s Detective Superintendent Debbie Platt, who led the investigation which broke a sex abuse ring in the area, was also supportive. Speaking at a conference on sexual grooming, she said that police were often “the last to know” when it came to sexual grooming cases.
“If you do not go looking for group cases, you are not going to find them, no child is going to walk into a police station and tell us. It is the gum clinics and even when children stop turning up to school which give us indications,” she said.
“[As a doctor,] I would rather stand in front of a High Court judge and tell them I let the police know about abuse because I wanted to protect a child than stand in front of a coronor’s court and say I kept quiet because of patient confidentiality, and now we have a dead child,” Detective Superintendent Platt told the Safe and Sound conference.
Speaking to The Independent, she added: “I would not want to know what they have gone in for. But we do need to know more general information that is related to sex crimes.
“If police knew that women from a certain area are going into clinics with specific injuries regularly, they could target that postcode.”
Manchester Central Hospital refused to comment. A spokesman for Greater Manchester Police was unavailable for comment.