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Clause 15

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 19th February 2008.

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Information: supply by the Secretary of State

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

I beg to move amendment No. 20, in clause 15, page 8, line 4, at end insert—

‘(1A) Information may only be supplied under subsection (1) if the Secretary of State regards the provision of the information to be proportionate to the aims of the local education authority in the exercise of its functions under this Part.’.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 21, in clause 15, page 8, line 4, at end insert—

‘(1A) Information may only be supplied under subsection (1) if the local education authority requesting the information regards the provision of the information to be proportionate to the aims of the local education authority in the exercise of its functions under this Part.’.

No. 106, in clause 61, page 33, line 8, at end insert—

‘(1A) Information may only be supplied under subsection (1) if the Secretary of State regards the provision of the information to be proportionate to the aims of the local education authority for the purpose of the provision of services in pursuance of section 54 or 56(1)(b).’.

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

Clause 15 gives the Secretary of State the power to supply social security information to a local education authority about a young person. It is clear that that information comprises simply the name and address of the young person, or that of the parents, held by the Department for Work and Pensions. The amendment would ensure that the Secretary of State supplied data to the LEA only if both parties regarded the provision of such information to be proportionate to the aims of the LEA as defined in the Bill.

In a letter to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Minister gave as his reason for that provision the fact that young people tended to move around frequently. He said that from the age of 16 young people become a lot more mobile and that such information—the social security data—is what enables local authorities to keep track of them. However, the Bill gives no guarantee that a young person’s private information will be shared only when that proportionate needs test is met.

As drafted, the Bill says that the Secretary of State can provide any information that the local authority would find useful in carrying out the functions placed upon it. However, such information might well be transferred even when the young person in question was not frequently changing address, as the Secretary of State said should be the case, or if there was no other pressing need. If the Minister is comfortable that the power will be used only in a proportionate way, he should have no problem in accepting the amendments.

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)

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton proposes to include in the clause a specific test of proportionality. I suggest that such amendments are not necessary to ensure that consideration is given to the proportionality of supply of information.

The Secretary of State and the local authority must both act in a way that is compatible with the European convention on human rights, according to which any interference with the right to respect and family life must be necessary and no more than is necessary to achieve the desired aim. That requires a public body to ensure, before putting in place arrangements to release information that potentially infringes that right, that the information released is no more than is necessary for the purposes it will serve—that it is proportionate. That is why the powers in these clauses restrict the information that may be shared and what purposes it can serve. In clause 15, the purpose is to enable or assist local authorities to fulfil their duties to promote participation and identify young people not participating. In clause 61, the purpose is the provision of Connexions services.

The aim of increasing participation in education and training justifies the supply of information provided for in the clauses, but every public body must satisfy itself that the extent of the information that it releases to local authorities under the provisions is proportionate to those benefits. Local authorities must also be satisfied  that their requests for information are proportionate. The information that will be provided under the clauses is an essential source of basic identification information that will serve to populate the Connexions database. Together with other sources, it will be fundamental to Connexions’s ability to track young people effectively and to provide them with appropriate and timely support.

The hon. Gentleman referred again to the letter I sent to the Joint Committee on Human Rights—I am grateful to him for, as ever, assiduously doing his homework. The letter sets out our analysis and justification of the information-sharing provisions in the Bill. Local authorities are taking on new functions of promoting participation and identifying young people who are not participating so, clearly, the information sharing needs to continue so as not to jeopardise the effectiveness of the Connexions service. In the light of that reasoning, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

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

I can see no reason why the term “proportionate” cannot be included in the Bill to make it explicit and clear that the supply of information should be proportionate. However, the purpose of the amendment was to air those issues in the Committee. Having done so, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I beg to move amendment No. 22, in clause 15, page 8, line 4, at end insert—

‘( ) Information may only be supplied under subsection (1) if the person to whom the information relates has given written consent that such information can be supplied.’.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

With this it will be convenient to consider the following amendments: No. 104, in clause 61, page 33, line 8, at end insert—

‘(1A) Information may only be supplied under subsection (1) if the person to whom the information relates has given written consent that such information can be supplied.’.

No. 105, in clause 61, page 33, line 8, at end insert—

‘(1A) Any person about whom information is supplied under subsection (1) shall have the right to examine any relevant information requested by a local authority or other person before that information is provided by the Secretary of State to the authority or other person.’.

No. 102, in clause 61, page 33, line 19, after ‘unless’ insert

‘consent has been given by the person to whom the information relates and’.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

It is good to come back to our labours after a brief respite from scrutinising the Bill with the assiduity and diligence that the House demands and which our constituents deserve, is it not?

The debate this morning focused on the Opposition’s sensitivity to the storage and use of data. The Minister repeatedly assured us that the information is solely for advising young people through the Connexions service but, when pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, he was forced to admit that the information is actually about local authorities fulfilling their duties under the Bill and, of course, those duties specifically include the promotion of participation. Given that enforcement is the end of  the process, the Minister will understand that we continue to have doubts. That is why we have tabled the amendments, which we will discuss at some length, I hope.

It would probably be helpful if I said a few words about the explanatory notes on clause 15, because they make clear why we feel that the amendments are important. The notes state:

“The Secretary of State, under clause 15, may supply social security information to enable a local education authority to fulfil its functions under this Part”, as we have heard. They continue:

“The clause sets out under what circumstances further disclosure of this information is permissible, under what circumstances it is an offence and the penalty that may be imposed”.

Indeed, the explanatory notes to clause 61, which is relevant to this group of amendments, say that the powers under the Bill enable the

“Secretary of State to supply information to a local...authority or other person for the purposes of the provision of Connexions services for young people. Specifically, it gives the Secretary of State the power to supply social security information in relation to young people. In order to identify young persons, it may be necessary to use information held by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (for example, as supplied to JobCentre Plus by a young person claiming benefits). In this way, Connexions services can maintain accurate and comprehensive records”.

The point is that that can be done without the young person’s explicit consent. Amendment No. 22 would provide that the information should be supplied only

“if the person to whom the information relates has given written consent that such information can be supplied”.

Amendment No. 104 says much the same, and amendment No. 105 would provide that the young person concerned should have

“the right to examine any relevant information requested by a local authority or other person before that information is provided by the Secretary of State to the authority or other person.”

If the purpose of the supply of information is entirely to provide advice and guidance to assist the business of promoting participation, it seems irrefutable that permission should form part of the process. If someone wished to receive advice, they would be happy for information to be passed between the agencies that might be best placed to offer it. On that basis, I expect the Minister to find the amendments highly seductive. They build upon the sentiment that he has expressed that the provision is about helping people, taking them with us, encouraging them and providing them with all the guidance they need.

All the amendments would ensure that personally sensitive information could be disclosed only with an individual’s consent. That is especially important given recent history—the Committee will not need reminding of it, but I shall do so none the less. The Government have had a pretty poor track record. I do not blame the Minister, although I have no doubt that he accepts collective responsibility for the failures and the Government’s very sorry record on handling data. My wife received a letter saying that her own personal data had been spread far and wide without permission or due cause. You can imagine the shock waves that went through the Hayes household as a result, Mr. Bercow.

In that context, it is not unreasonable for parliamentarians to have doubts about the storage and transmission of sensitive data. As the hon. Member for Yeovil made clear earlier, that data may be very sensitive. I intervened on him to point out that Connexions deals not only with advice and guidance on careers, but with a number of other aspects of support for young people, including advice on drugs, sexual health and other highly personal matters. Given that the Connexions database is to lie at the heart of the process, hon. Members will understand that our concerns and doubts are exaggerated by the fact that we know that many young people currently dealing with Connexions are doing so because they have some kind of challenge or problem. The purpose of the amendment is clear, and its attractiveness to the Government should be plain.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

Does my hon. Friend envisage that the individual concerned would be able to ask for reassurances about how information would be treated in its transfer from the Secretary of State to a local authority? For example, would it be possible for the individual to say, “Look, I don’t want this just to be stuck in the Royal Mail on a disc,” or, “I don’t want it to be couriered round London on the back of a motorbike.”? Does he feel that we should ask for assurances that the information will be safe?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

Or, indeed, left in the back of a car on a laptop computer, only to be stolen. My hon. Friend’s points are reasonable. How information is stored and the security measures and protocols that are put in place are critical. The more involvement and empowerment we can offer individuals as a means of providing the necessary checks and balances that my hon. Friend suggests, the better.

As I said, the amendments are clear; their attractiveness to the Government is plain, and I believe that they are extremely helpful. Given the tone and tenor of today’s debate so far—my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, who is well known in this House and increasingly in this Committee for his generosity, even temper and measured approach to all that he does, became at some point if not alarmed then certainly gravely concerned—I think that the Minister had better accept these amendments as a way of re-establishing the measured mood that my hon. Friend normally exemplifies.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire 12:15 pm, 19th February 2008

May I make just one point? It is one thing for this type of information to be transferred from the Secretary of State to the local authority if somebody has gone missing and if it is an individual case where it is necessary for, say, the Connexions service to have information about where someone is. I would not be so concerned personally about an individual exercise of that sort. However, if what is being proposed is that all the information for all the young people in the age group concerned will just be sent en bloc to local authorities right around the country, without any event that triggers that transfer such as a person not being able to be found or whatever, I would be concerned.

Can the Minister give some assurance that the exercise will concentrate on individuals, that the information transferred will be the information relating  to an individual, and that this process will not just involve mass transfers of information between Government Departments? While he is at it, can he also assure us about the security of the method of transfer? I ask that because, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, there have recently been some examples of very shoddy security.

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 obviously a delight for the Committee to listen again to the dulcet tones and poetry of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings after such a long interlude, and we were all sad to hear of the loss of Mrs. Hayes’s data.

Provision in clause 61 empowers Government Departments to pass information about a young person to the Connexions service in order to support young people to participate. Amendment No. 105 would mean that the young person would have the right to examine that information before it was released. As I have explained in relation to previous amendments, young people already have rights of access to personal data held about them under the Data Protection Act 1998, and they can make a request under the Act for a copy of any personal information held by any organisation. They could make this same request of Jobcentre Plus and the Connexions provider before or after any information had been passed.

Let me address the question about data transfers that the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings and for North-East Hertfordshire have raised. In practice, the social security information that is shared is that of 16 and 17-year-olds and it takes place locally between the local Jobcentre Plus and the local Connexions service. It is shared on an individual basis, when a 16 or 17-year-old turns up at the local Connexions or Jobcentre Plus offices. It is a requirement if someone is in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance that they are registered with Connexions. Effectively, the individual must have a form stamped by Connexions that says that they have been registered with the service; that is a mechanism by which that transfer of information takes place, via the individual themselves. There is also a national feed on young people aged 18 and 19 on a consent basis.

That information is uploaded on to the national Connexions customer information system website, which is managed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the data are then separated into individual area files and distributed via the website to local Connexions services. The website is, of course, secure and not open to public access. Only named individuals with appropriate access rights within the Connexions service are able to access data for their own area. All CCIS databases conform to the requirements of the Data Protection Act. I hope that that gives hon. Members all the information that they need on data transfer.

Turning to the matter of obtaining young people’s consent before disclosing information, as I said in response to previous amendments and just now, it is a condition of 16 and 17-year-olds claiming certain benefits that they are in contact with Connexions, so that we can be sure they are getting the help and support that they need. On the vast majority of occasions, the young person is happy to register voluntarily with Connexions, so personal information does not need to be passed without their consent. Where a young person is reluctant  to register, it is necessary that Jobcentre Plus has the power in the clause to pass to Connexions these young people’s name, address and date of birth without obtaining consent. This enables Connexions personal advisors to contact the young person to ensure that they have access to appropriate support. That will be increasingly important as we move towards full participation.

Eighteen to 19-year-olds do not have to be in contact with Connexions in order to claim certain benefits. It is none the less vital that Connexions learns about them from Jobcentre Plus as soon as they claim, as they will invariably not be in employment, education or training. We will have the best chance of re-engaging them if Connexions is in a position to provide them with appropriate support without delay. Although in practice the vast majority of 18 and 19-year-old claimants, like other young people, view the service provided by Connexions positively and give consent, there are a few young people—often those most disaffected—who may be more resistant. The power provided by the clause means that Connexions can identify and inform them again of the type of support available.

Accepting the amendments would add bureaucracy and complexity to the system, and could delay or prevent Connexions from intervening to support young people. For the Connexions service to work effectively, it needs accurate and up-to-date information on who young people are, what they are doing and how to contact them. The information that Jobcentre Plus provides is particularly valuable because young people become much more mobile from the age of 16 and are therefore more difficult to track. In essence, we can intervene much earlier if we have early information transfer rather than having to go through a process of obtaining consent in every case.

Returning to the point made about the Data Protection Act, in my view, the protection is adequate and we do not need to add to the legislation, either by explicitly requiring consent or by inserting other forms of protection in the Bill. I hope that, in light of my reasoning, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who is a reasonable man, will withdraw his amendments.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I do not buy the Minister’s argument because the essence of his case was that when someone claims jobseeker’s allowance, there is an automatic process by which they are referred to Connexions, which is about trying to marry them with appropriate opportunities. However, they are making an application for jobseeker’s allowance: by their own choice, of their own will, they are beginning a process which is, understandably, about both receiving a benefit and attempting to get a job, with the advice that goes with that.

My anxiety about the provisions in the Bill is that the duties in the Bill on local authorities are not solely about providing advice and guidance; they are about promoting and, indeed, ensuring participation. The process is therefore very different, and it is not entirely reasonable to apply the same logic to such a very different process. The measure is not necessarily about the voluntary acceptance of advice; it is about the promotion of a duty to participate. To that end, I think that the protection—the check and balance, as I described it—of asking for people’s permission to share information about them is entirely reasonable.

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)

I will have one more go at persuading the hon. Gentleman. Does he accept that, by definition, someone who is claiming benefits is not in education, employment or training and that it is desirable for them to be so? If he does, he will acknowledge that it is desirable to ensure that we have taken every opportunity to give them the support that they need. Therefore, a simple transfer of information, so that we can intervene as early as possible to give them support and to get them off benefits and into reasonable training, with or without work, is good. The provisions are therefore proportionate.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I start from the assumption that increasing participation is good. We have established that in our deliberations thus far. We have found common ground because we think that it is good for young people to be trained, guided and advised, to encourage them to increase their employability. There is no doubt about that, but the issue that has created disagreement throughout the Committee is compulsion. The reason why there is sensitivity this morning about information is the relationship between information and compulsion—the way in which the information might be used. That sensitivity has permeated the discussions about amendments this morning.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

That is what the Minister said when he intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton half an hour ago. The Minister described the clarity of the guidance that he will offer. However, the amendment would introduce an extra protection to the Bill, and given that he has told us that the vast majority of young people would readily agree to the information being shared because it would be in their interests, and so, given that he is dealing only with a few—those were his words—young people who might be recalcitrant, he is effectively saying that he would resist the amendment, which would check the excessive use of information and power that it might engender, for the sake of a handful of young people who would not agree to have the information shared anyway.

Participation is best ensured by the encouragement, willingness and commitment of young people to engage—to be part of a process. A critical part of that process is advice and guidance, and part of advice and guidance is sharing information properly. Of course, we believe all that, but we are not sure that a degree of commitment is not assisted by an amendment suggesting that if one does not want the information shared, it will not be, and that if one does, one has to give written permission.

That is not such a big deal; it is not an alarming change to the Government’s proposals. It is a modest, sensible and cautious change that the Government might be wise to accept. Unless the Minister can offer to me more than he did to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, which was a fairly woolly pledge of guidance, we shall press amendment No. 22 to a vote, as a means of illustrating that sovereignty in such matters lies with young people, and that their rights must be protected.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Division number 14 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 15

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.