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Schools: Biometric Data

Volume 690: debated on Monday 19 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What regulations they propose to make regarding the collection and storage of the biometric data of children in schools.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to make regulations on the collection and storage of the biometric data of children in schools. Biometric data, like all data, are covered by the Data Protection Act 1998.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but is he aware that the practice of fingerprinting in schools has been banned in China as being too intrusive and an infringement of children’s rights? Here, it is widespread. We have even had a head teacher tricking three year-olds into giving their fingerprints by playing a spy game. Will the Government ban schools from carrying out this practice, unless parents specifically opt into the system following full and independent information about the so-called benefits of the system and the dangers of identity fraud?

My Lords, as I said, biometric data are covered by the Data Protection Act, whereby subjects must be given fair processing notices regarding the data and the purposes for which they will be used. Although children are by law the data subjects, it is normal, particularly in primary schools, for parents to be informed of data collected on their children. My department issues fair processing guidelines for schools, which is explicit about the need to see that such information is made fully available to parents.

My Lords, notwithstanding the assurances given by the Minister, does he not recognise the genuine concerns to which these issues give rise? These are serious matters of principle. What safeguards are in place to ensure the security of the data once collected? Are there any plans to link these data to the children’s information-sharing index?

My Lords, these data can be held only by the schools. They cannot be shared more widely. The guidance, which my department issues to schools, says:

“Data controllers have to provide data subjects with details of the data that they hold on them, the purposes for which they hold that data, and any third parties to whom it may be passed on. This is referred to as a ‘fair processing notice’”.

The arrangements are set up fully in the guidance. We believe that the controls are adequate.

My Lords, can the noble Lord explain the exact purpose of this activity? I think that most people would be somewhat alarmed by the idea of having fingerprints taken and would connect it with criminal offences. If no research is being undertaken into why these figures are being collected, it seems a little bit vague.

My Lords, biometric technology systems are normally used for three specific purposes in schools: library systems, attendance records and cashless-catering for school meals. The use of biometric systems of this kind can, for example, facilitate the take-up of free school meals, as there is no perception of those who are and who are not taking free school meals and therefore there is no social stigma attached. There are very good reasons why these processes are used and I think that most noble Lords who reflect on the matter would regard them as beneficial.

My Lords, the Minister usually displays a great understanding and sympathy of what it is to be a child. Is he not concerned about the impression that children will get of what it is to live in a free country and what it is to be British if, in order to get the right school meals and other things, they can have their fingerprints taken? That seems completely astonishing to me. I suggest that the Government think hard about this and change their minds.

My Lords, I would be happy to go with the noble Baroness to a school that operates these systems without any contention whatever. So far as the pupil is concerned, once they have provided this information, they have a card that they can use to access library services, free school meals and attendance registers in a more accessible and less intrusive way than was previously the case. As I said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, in the case of pupils who are eligible for free school meals, there is a great deal less social stigma than used to be attached to people having to show special forms for that purpose.

My Lords, how many schools hold records of children’s fingerprints? What plans do the Government have to ensure that these records are not used in identity fraud?

My Lords, we do not have the data on individual schools. We regard it as the duty of the school to see that the material is properly safeguarded.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned third parties and therefore implied that third parties may have access to the data. Could he delineate what sort of third parties might have access to the data?

My Lords, only those to which clear authorisation has been given by the school. I am happy to specify to the noble Lord the precise circumstances in which that takes place.

My Lords, is there any truth in the articles that I have read—I am sure that all noble Lords have read them—that children in the sixth form whose parents wish them to go to university will have to advise someone that their parents themselves had gone to university? According to the articles that I have read, this could have a detrimental effect on their passing out to go to university.

My Lords, my noble friend is referring to a different issue, which was raised last week by my honourable friend the Minister for further and higher education. It is indeed the case that we are looking to provide more information on the backgrounds of students who are going on to university, but not in any way to dissuade them from proceeding on to higher education.

My Lords, the Minister has made much of the need for biometric data for school dinner cards, otherwise known as smart cards. Does he accept that you do not need biometric data on them anymore than you do on a John Lewis loyalty card for them to be effective and not to stigmatise the take-up of free school meals?

My Lords, this has been found to be a reliable way of ensuring that the services can be made available. The onus is on those who think that it is not a reasonable way of proceeding to make their case.

My Lords, while I have enormous respect for the Minister, his answer smacks of considerable complacency. This is widespread across the country. Children are being fingerprinted without their consent or their parents’ consent. They are being victimised if they do not comply by not being allowed to use the library, by being threatened with exclusion and by being made to go to the back of the dinner queue if they do not have one of these cards. Will he look into this and find out what the real situation is rather than the theoretical one that he has so reasonably outlined?

My Lords, there is a certain amount of scaremongering in the noble Baroness’s question, which I simply do not accept on the basis of the information that has been made available to my department.