The move comes after ministers admitted that the current advice fails to allow professionals to balance their responsibility to protect patient confidentiality with the need to share information to protect children at risk of harm.
A Department of Health (DH) spokeswoman confirmed that the new statutory code would be published by May, based on the findings of a review into patient confidentiality being carried out by Dame Fiona Caldicott.
Royal colleges, including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) are also helping draft the code, which will apply to health and social care professionals working with children.
The DH spokeswoman said: “We need to have effective information sharing, within the law, so that we can identify and protect the victims of child sexual exploitation. We know how important it is to protect children.
“The current system can be confusing and that’s why the DH has commissioned a review, led by Dame Fiona Caldicott, to advise on the appropriate balance between keeping confidential information safe and sharing it, in the interests of individuals and the public more generally. This will help the NHS, the royal colleges and others to develop a new statutory code of practice.”
During a parliamentary debate in December last year, Ann Coffey, the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children, said information sharing between health agencies was crucial to combating child sexual exploitation.
In the same debate, health minister Anna Soubry told MPs that less than two thirds of primary care trusts had responded to a request for data on young people attending sexual health clinics, a key indicator of child sexual exploitation. “This is clearly a good example of confusion,” Soubry said.
Dr Emilia Wawrzkowicz, RCPCH’s representative on the government’s child sexual exploitation steering group, said health professionals, particularly those working in sexual health clinics, are currently anxious about how and when to share confidential information about young people.
“They worry that patients will be less likely to attend clinics if they know their information is being shared with other agencies,” she said. “This makes it even harder to identify children and young people at risk of child sexual exploitation and puts their health in danger.
“Health professionals in these types of settings may often see the same patients repeatedly and may not necessarily know how to approach a situation where there are safeguarding concerns, particularly with reference to child sexual exploitation.
“This is why the development of this new guidance is so important. It will act as a clear reference point for professionals, offering detailed guidelines on particular aspects of information sharing to protect children.”