Clause 61

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 19th February 2008.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 12:30 pm, 19th February 2008

I beg to move amendment No. 103, in clause 61, page 33, line 6, leave out from ‘authority’ to ‘in’ in line 7.

No more dulcet tones or poetry in this set of amendments, Mr. Bercow. Very briefly, clause 61 effectively replicates the provisions of clause 15, but the information shared by clause 61 is for the purpose of the Connexions service rather than that of promoting participation.

The wording does, however, differ between the two clauses. Clause 61 says:

“The Secretary of State may supply information, including social security information, to a local education authority or other person involved in the provision of services for young persons”,

whereas clause 15 says:

“The Secretary of State may supply information, including social security information, to a local education authority in England for the purpose of enabling or assisting the authority”.

The purpose of this amendment is to remove the phrase “or other person” from clause 61(1). It is too wide a description of who else can be supplied with this confidential information. Perhaps the Minister could spell out whom he has in mind and we can then refine the phrasing to incorporate the specific entity, or type of entity, he has in mind.

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 amendment would limit the transfer of information to that passed directly to local authorities. It would therefore prevent information being passed directly to Connexions service providers where the local authority is not providing the service itself. That, in essence, is my worry.

Clause 61(1) says:

“The Secretary of State may supply information, including social security information, to a local education authority or other person involved in the provision of services for young persons in pursuance of section 54 or 56(1)(b) for the purpose of the provision of those services.”

Clause 54 defines support services provided by local education authorities. Clause 56(1)(b) defines the provision of services for young persons or relevant adults.

No doubt we will return to this when we consider part 2 of the Bill, which deals with the transfer to local authorities of responsibility for the Connexions service, but it is important that we say that this transfer is planned to take place. As local authorities start planning how to deliver Connexions services, we encourage them to look for the best potential providers, including those in the voluntary and community sector and in the private sector.

Some organisations have a splendid track record with particular groups of vulnerable young people—several members of the Committee have been particularly concerned about that—and it is important we use their expertise in delivering Connexions services. Many existing Connexions partnerships were doing a good job, so we wanted authorities to be able to make arrangements with the existing partnership, if they concluded, in accordance with their procurement rules, that that was best for the area. I therefore do not want to do anything to prevent those arrangements from continuing. In addition, they are an important part of freedoms and flexibilities the centre—the Government—have promised to local government. It is vital that Connexions, whether delivered directly by a local authority or under contractual arrangements by other providers, can provide the right support quickly to young people. If the information that may be disclosed under these clauses could be passed directly only to local authorities, it would almost certainly lead to delays in the provision of that support in most local authority areas. I hope that that is straightforward enough for the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton in explaining what the purpose is behind this clause.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

Why is the word “involved” used, rather than “provided”? Why does it not say, “Or other person providing services for young persons”? What is “involved in”? That sounds a vague, loose sort of term for a Bill.

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)

My recollection is that we have used that term because there may be a contracted provider that also works with a third party, perhaps one of the organisations that we took evidence from, such as Fairbridge, to help it deliver the Connexions service. It may be appropriate for organisations that are not the direct provider but are involved in the delivery of the service to share some of this information and have it shared with them.

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

I was assured, but now I am becoming less assured. Does that mean that anybody who purports to be involved in helping young people in this field is entitled to have access to this sensitive information?

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)

No, I do not think that it is anyone who purports to be. It would have to be someone where it is relevant. We have discussed the notions of people’s responsibilities under the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 and the various responsibilities on public bodies as they pass data to be satisfied that it is proportionate and relevant. Therefore it would not be an organisation that “purports” to be  but one that is genuinely involved in the provision of the service. In respect of the word and the specific question from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, we want some form of contract in order for them to be involved. I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton too and that on that basis he will withdraw his amendment.

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

I am grateful. The Minister has hastily brought back his argument from the brink by adding that assurance that there should be some form of contract. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire so wisely pointed out, that word “involved” would enable any person who purported to be helping young people to have access to this very sensitive information. There is a tendency in all Governments to give themselves the benefit of the doubt in the wording of extensive provisions relating to powers for Government and local authority bodies. It would have been better if the provision had been worded more tightly to confine it to those that had a contract with the local authority in the provision of services in pursuance of clause 54.

The purpose of Committees is to debate these issues and get the wording tightened. I should be grateful if the Minister could think about this provision and perhaps come back on Report with tighter wording. He has to an extent defined and refined the meaning of “other person involved”. On the basis that the matter has been aired and we have some helpful words from the Minister on the record, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 61 ordered to stand part of the Bill.