Clause 57

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 19th February 2008.

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Educational institutions : duty to provide information

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 11:45 am, 19th February 2008

I beg to move amendment No. 42, in clause 57, page 30, line 37, at end insert

‘to the extent that fulfilling such duty conforms to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.’.

The clause is another data-sharing provision, which we touched on when we debated amendment No. 97. Clause 57 is drafted similarly to clause 14, but it relates to data being shared with the local authority to enable it to supply support services to young people, rather than to promote participation. However, the principle of the information that an educational institution holds being shared with the local authority is the same.

The amendment would ensure that the data-sharing powers are consistent with the European convention on human rights by incorporating article 8 into the clause and requiring it to be consistent with that article, which deals with the right to respect for private and family life. It states:

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence...There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

The human rights aspect of the Bill, particularly in relation to information-sharing provisions, has been raised by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who chairs the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The right protected by article 8 is a qualified right that can be interfered with, as the Government have done, if that interference has its basis in law, is done to secure a permissible aim set out in the relevant article and is necessary in a democratic society. Interference must fulfil a pressing social need, pursue a legitimate aim and be proportionate to the aims pursued. That is a key aspect. The hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the human rights implications of the Bill were raised in a letter of 20 December, in which he states:

“The Bill contains information supply and sharing provisions in Parts 1 to 4 which raise potential human rights issues, notably the right to respect for private and family life. The Government has referred to some, but not all, of the information supply and sharing provisions in the human rights section of the Explanatory Notes. In particular, whilst the Explanatory Notes state generally that the provisions in Chapter 2 of Part 1 pursue the aim of economic well-being, the Government does not explain specifically, in relation to each of the disclosure provisions, how each provision is both necessary and proportionate to the achievement of that aim.”

The hon. Gentleman specifically asks:

“In relation to each and every information supply and sharing provision...what legitimate aim is sought to be protected...are the provisions necessary to achieve the aim and...are the measures proportionate to that aim?”

He goes on to ask:

“In relation to each and every information supply and sharing provision, what specific safeguards will be in place to ensure their compatibility with article 8 ECHR”?

Thus, the question is: what is the legitimate aim?

The Minister responded in another letter:

“Economic well-being of the country: the information collected will be used for improving the participation and general attainment in education and training of young people by providing appropriate support to individual young people...thereby ensuring a more skilled workforce.”

That, then, is the Minister’s explanation of the legitimate aim of the powers, which, on the face of it, could infringe the human rights convention. On the issue of whether the measure is proportionate, his response is:

“Only by the provision of this information—name, address, date of birth and other information relevant to Connexions services—by schools and colleges can the full group of young people be identified in respect of whom LAs have the duty in clause 54 to make Connexions support services available. This enables Connexions services to provide appropriate IAG”— information, advice and guidance—

“at an early stage, thereby helping young people to make informed choices that most benefit them.”

The important passage there is the one about the information being relevant to Connexions services. Clause 57(2) states that the information requested must be relevant to the provision of services. However, the information supplied can be any

“information in the institution’s possession about the pupil or student.”

There is nothing in the definition of relevant information that requires it to be confined to the purpose of providing Connexions services. Even if the provisions did confine the information to that purpose, the power would still be very wide, involving supplying details of the academic and personal problems of a student at school or college. I believe that that would be disproportionate to the aim.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

I support my hon. Friend’s general point, but if the information was about safety—the safety of other pupils—such as the fact that the student had regularly carried a knife and was perhaps the local gang leader, or had inappropriately touched other students, or something of that sort, surely it might be quite important for risk assessment.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My hon. Friend is right, and nothing in the amendment would prevent that information from being given, because an exception to the qualified right to respect for private and family life is the prevention of crime. That is one of the exceptions to that sacrosanct right. All the amendment would do is make the Bill conform to article 8 as qualified and as subject to those exceptions. My hon. Friend raises an important point, but I hope that I have convinced him that the information could be supplied if the amendment were accepted. I await the Minister’s response to those important points about human rights.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

It is important for the Committee to note that, on the front of the Bill, we have made a statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 that the Education and Skills Bill is compatible with convention rights. Clearly, the amendment tests that, and it is perfectly right that it should do so, but I want to be clear from the outset that we think that the measure is compatible with the convention.

Article 8, as the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said, provides for the right to respect for private and family life and that is an important right. I assure him that we have looked closely at the duty in the clause to provide information against that article. I am grateful to him for quoting at length annexe A of  my letter responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, because it saves me having to do so. On behalf of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, my hon. Friend asked me to set out the aims that we sought to protect and to confirm that, in my view, the provisions were necessary and proportionate. I did that in the letter of 14 January.

The aims of the clause and of other information-sharing clauses that we are discussing are strongly linked to the economic well-being of the individual and of the country, as the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has explained. The information that is collected will be used to increase participation in education and training by providing appropriate support to individual young people, as provided for by clause 54. That is the context in which clause 57 should be understood. Support services will be provided by local education authorities, which will thereby ensure a more skilled work force, as well as benefits for the individual and society.

It is necessary for educational institutions such as schools and colleges to provide basic information on individual young people to those involved in the provision of support—in other words, to Connexions. Without that, Connexions would not have basic information about its core client group and would be unable to provide young people with information, advice and guidance tailored to their needs. We know that receiving appropriate information, advice and guidance is essential to achieving the aim of increasing participation and that it meets a pressing social need. Our witnesses reinforced that message, even if we were not already convinced of its importance.

It is only by the provision of basic information by educational institutions, as set out in the clause—name, date of birth, address, and name and address of parent—that Connexions service providers can identify the full group of young people to whom local authorities have a duty to provide support under clause 54. Information other than that basic information must not be released to Connexions when pupils or students over 16 or the parents of under-16s have instructed the institution not to release it, as we have discussed at length.

In all cases, whether we are dealing with the basic information or the further information, I stress that it must be relevant to the provision of the Connexions service and it may be provided only to a person involved in the provision of the Connexions service. The passing on of the information is under the control of a “responsible person”, as defined in subsection (5); for example, in a school, that would be the governing body. Those provisions, together with the ability of parents and young people to withdraw their consent for the passing on of all but the basic information, are very important safeguards.

In addition, the Data Protection Act will govern how Connexions service providers can use the information that they obtain under the clause, including how they acquire, store and dispose of it. Any unlawful disclosure or use of the information will be subject to the offences and associated penalties under the Data Protection Act. We will discuss amendments that deal with offences in relation to data sharing later.

As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was content to sign the necessary statement under section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998. We are satisfied that the information flow is justified by our aim of improving participation in education and training, and that the provision of information is no more than is necessary to achieve that aim. My conclusion is that the amendment would not add anything to what is already provided in the Human Rights Act. On the basis that it is superfluous, and that we do not think that superfluity in legislation is a good thing, I invite the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

If superfluity were excluded from legislation passed by this House, Bills would be significantly shorter. However, I say to the Minister that to say that the statement on the front of the Bill is evidence that it complies with the Human Rights Act is rather odd. He could not exactly write a statement on the front of the Bill that in his view its provisions are incompatible with the European convention on human rights, so of course he is going to say that it is compatible. We have yet to hear from the hon. Member for Hendon whether the Joint Committee on Human Rights believes that the Bill is consistent with the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act. The Minister confirmed in his response to the debate that the protection available to the pupil or student is provided by an opt-out rather than by active consent, just as he said in evidence to the Committee a few weeks ago.

I hope that the Joint Committee will examine our proceedings, particularly our sittings today and immediately before the recess, before coming to a conclusion about whether the Bill is compatible with the Human Rights Act and the European convention. It would be better to incorporate the amendment into the Bill, because when interpreting it the courts would have an explicit provision to ensure compliance with article 8. However, the purpose of the amendment was to air the subject, and I see no need to press it to a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 57 ordered to stand part of the Bill.