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Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2009

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2009.

Relevant document: 2nd report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

These regulations represent the first use of the data-sharing power under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and are part of a wider programme of work, the Migration and Population Statistics Improvement Programme, which is being taken forward by the National Statistician. This work seeks to address the problems faced by local authorities in estimating highly mobile populations, taking into account short-term migration. The Government are committed to helping to improve the accuracy of the population estimates produced by the ONS, particularly at the local level. This is in order to underpin the correct funding of local government, NHS and other public services. Both central and local government need accurate information on migrant numbers and overall changes to the size and structure of the population for resource allocation and for the planning and delivery of local services.

The ONS has evaluated the content of the school census and identified the information that it needs for essential research and methodological work on population and migration statistics. The regulations will allow the DCSF to share this information with the ONS, including pupils’ names, birthdates, addresses, ethnicities, spoken languages and dates of joining and leaving schools. Access to these specific data items will enable the ONS to evaluate current estimation procedures and, if necessary, to develop new approaches for the derivation of migration statistics, population estimates and projections. The benefits to accrue from this include better information on local populations, including areas with high rates of population turnover; better information on estimates of numbers of migrants; improved accuracy of mid-year estimates and projections of population; improved enumeration strategies for the 2011 census; better assessments of coverage of the 2011 census leading to better estimates; development of ongoing research into the use of administrative data in updating population statistics without a traditional census; and improving resource allocation, policy formation and planning and delivery of services.

When collecting school census data, the DCSF gives a fair processing notice to parents—in effect, the privacy policy for the data that it collects—which already states that information from the school census may be shared with other government departments, including the ONS, for statistical and research purposes. At present this covers only educational statistics. These regulations are designed to make it possible for the ONS to use these data to improve migration and population statistics as well. Data confidentiality and security arrangements are a fundamental part of the preparation of the data-sharing agreement between the two departments. The ONS and DCSF will put the necessary measures in place to protect these data to avoid the disclosure of any private information about individual children. The ONS and DCSF have already worked to tight confidentiality guidelines with excellent data security records. I hope that the Committee will support the regulations to help to improve the accuracy of ONS migration and population statistics. I beg to move.

I thank the Minister. The key issues that I want to test a little further relate to the security of the data to be made available and whether the data are in fact already available in other forms. I accept that the regulations have gone through a number of other channels already and that they were considered in a significant debate in the other place, and here I associate myself closely with the comments of my honourable friend Nick Hurd. Because the measure relates to pupil information, I should declare my interests as recorded in the Register: I am a director of four academies in the north of England and vice-chairman of an educational foundation.

I turn first to the issue of the data and ask whether these regulations are absolutely necessary. When any statistician is asked whether they want more data sets, the answer is always that they do. However, do they actually need them? That is what I would like to focus on. The Minister has already referred to the school census data collections. I went on to TeacherNet to look at the guidance for the 2009 collection. It states that the data are widely used by the DCSF policy divisions, other government departments, local authorities, external agencies and educational researchers. Therefore, the first question to pose is: given that that freedom already exists, why is it necessary to have secondary legislation to make that information available?

The specific requirement under Regulation 6 talks about the use of pupil names. It states that names will be used only for cross-referencing purpose, but I should like the Minister to say a little more about why it is necessary to introduce pupil names. I draw the Committee’s attention to the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee’s consideration of the draft of what became the Children Act 2004. That document refers to the confidentiality of data relating to young people. I know that that is an issue that the Government take very seriously—I do not for a moment suggest otherwise—but it would be appreciated if the Minister answered those questions about the security of data entered by schools.

Turning to other potential data sources, when I was looking at how one might get better information on migration flows, I was interested to note that on the internet, where there is a huge amount of information on such things, the UK Border Agency has already produced its estimates of migration flows, especially from eastern Europe. It seems to track them very closely, which is encouraging. Again, if that is the rationale behind introducing this secondary legislation, what contacts and communication does the Minister have with the UK Border Agency on utilising the data that clearly already exist? The agency could refer to the fact that 32,230 people were removed from the UK, a rise of 6 per cent. That is a granular level of detail. If the regulations are about trying to track migration flows within the UK, one ought to look at the data sets already available in the public domain.

When it comes to pupil information, which is specifically what is dealt with by the regulations, many websites—all the school and local authority websites—give ample information about the number of pupils registered at a particular school. One can then track that backwards to see whether the number of pupils registered is increasing. For personal affinity purposes, I happened to look up the great town of Middlesbrough in the north-east of England. I was able to see the pupil roll not only at the King’s Academy, of which I am a director, but at the feeder primary schools. There is lots of detail, even down to the level that there are 17 nationalities at the school speaking 16 different languages. That level of data is quite rich by any stretch of the imagination.

When we then look at the Office for National Statistics database—as a bit of an anorak when it comes to data, I am sad to say that I find it really enjoyable to mine into that—we find that quite a lot of data sets are already there. When it comes to people and society, population and migration, the Office for National Statistics website, under the heading “Neighbourhood statistics”, has 31 data sets available—this is for the local authority of Middlesbrough. A lot of those data sets are not linked back to the 2001 census, which shows the important need for updating the information. There are data sets from as recently as 2006-07.

This is about testing the security of the information, particularly given that this is sensitive information about children. I also want to put on the record our view that the list in the instrument of the variables that will be input should be the limit and that the department should not be coming back for more variables and more personal information.

The second point relates to the current availability of statistics. Given that this is 2009 and the last census was in 2001, a census cannot be seen as the panacea for all issues. As the evidence to the Treasury Committee inquiry on counting the population—this is in volume 1 of its 11th report from 2007-08—stated, often the take-up for the completion of a census can be as low as 60 per cent or 70 per cent. The people who are least likely to complete the census are migrant workers, for obvious reasons. I question the reliance on the idea that the census will provide the answer; it will give some of the answers.

Finally, we are now in 2009 and the next census is in 2011. Could the data that will be required not wait? Could the extra page that is proposed be put into the census form to capture all this information, so that people have that security?

For the school census data, there is a requirement to stipulate whether parents have given approval for the data to be released and to be moved on; there is a requirement to say whether parental approval has been given. I can happily come back to the Minister to refer to the specific section in the guidance for schools, but I should like him to comment on that.

The guidance document talks about the uploading of fields to Connexions, the Jobcentre people. It states that it must be stipulated, “Yes, permission has been given by a parent or guardian for the information to be shared”, “No, permission has been refused by the parent or guardian”, or, “UNS”, which is unsought. The SNR field should be used when the school has sent out fair proceeding notices but no response has been received from the parent or guardian. Those are pretty important safeguards, particularly when we are talking about children. Will they apply in the uploading and the use of data by ONS?

This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of debating with the noble Lord, Lord Brett, and I am delighted to be able to do so, albeit from the further reaches of the Moses Room. I fail to see, when there are only three people in the debate, why we on these Benches have to be sent to the far end of the Room. Maybe it is in a vain hope that our arrows will fall short. I can promise the noble Lord no arrows today.

We understand the purposes of the regulations. Given the very mobile population that we have today, it is essential that statisticians have sufficient information to ensure that local authorities are properly resourced to look after those people who move into their area at fairly short notice. However, when we are talking about the data on children, I share the Conservative spokesman’s concern about security. Only this week, we have been told that the number of people who will have access to the ContactPoint database will be in the region of 400,000—a figure that we did not have when we debated this issue in your Lordships’ House. Will the Minister say how many people are likely to have access to the information about which we are speaking today? Can he also assure us that the data will be used only for the purpose for which they were collected? That may be the case at the moment, but I understand that the Coroners and Justice Bill, which is on its way down the track, will allow wider data sharing without consent. In other words, the data will be used for purposes beyond those for which they were collected. Will these regulations be affected by the measures in the Coroners and Justice Bill? If so, will they return to your Lordships’ House for discussion at that time, because that would certainly widen the effect of these regulations considerably?

I looked in some detail at the various items of information about each child that are to be collected and shared. Will the Minister say why it is necessary to provide the child’s full address? If the purpose is to ensure that local authorities are properly resourced to look after the various needs of the child, I see no reason why the full address needs to be given. Why not simply give the local authority ward in which the child lives? That would be quite sufficient. Given that the child is most vulnerable to any paedophile when his or her full address is known, it strikes me that, if there is any way at all in which the usefulness of these data could be undiluted while avoiding giving the full address, which may be provided under Regulation 4(b), that would be highly desirable.

The regulations clearly relate to children of school age, because the information comes from the school census. When this was debated in another place, a question was asked about young people who are just above school age and whether there were any proposals to address the fact that, in many cities, there are large numbers of students above school age in both higher and further education who are not counted until they leave the city, which is too late for the city to be given any resources to look after their needs. I am afraid that, when I read the Minister’s reply, it was not terribly clear whether there were any plans to deal with this. I realise that this is slightly beyond the scope of the regulations, but the noble Lord might be able to help me on it.

My colleague in another place asked whether there would be any other benefits of this kind of data sharing—for example, the ability to track tendencies such as girls being taken out of school and going abroad to be married. I can think of other trends that might be picked up by the statisticians and which could be an additional benefit of this kind of sharing without contravening the narrowness of the purpose for which the information was collected.

I have a question about the younger age range. Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Notes tells me that, at the younger end of the age range, the only institutions from which the information will be called in are the maintained nurseries and the direct grant nurseries. There are lots of early years settings other than those two categories. Of course, local authorities provide a great deal of resource and have an obligation to ensure that there is enough provision, not just in terms of what they provide but also from the private sector, the voluntary sector and other organisations. As they have this obligation, I should have thought that it was necessary to collect information about children in the early years setting age range. Currently this provision is available for three year-olds but some state-funded provision will soon be available for two year-olds from the poorest families. Therefore, local authorities need to have the relevant information. If that were collected, it would certainly help them to fulfil their obligation to ensure that sufficient provision is available in the area. Is there any proposal to extend the collection of data to cover those very young children in order to assist local authorities to demand appropriate resources from the Government?

I thank the noble Baroness and I am grateful for her kind good wishes. I was absolutely terrified to find that the noble Lord, Lord Bates, is truly fascinated by databases—things that send horror and shivers through my spine. The questions posed by noble Lords self-evidently require simple and clear answers. However, some go beyond the scope of this rather narrow secondary legislation.

As regards why information is required, we think that it is essential in order to assess the plausibility of existing assumptions about school-age children. It is also a question of understanding change over time—we are talking about censuses which are 10 years apart—improving existing methods for estimating the school-age population, monitoring variations in number and characteristics of migrant children and data linkage and matching. I shall come back to security. It is easier to deal with the questions on which I can give clear reassurance.

The key thing to note is that this legislation provides for information to be used only in a particular way. The problem we have with the school census is that it does precisely the same thing. It allows the statistics collected therein to be used for education purposes only. This legislation allows it to be used to study migrant populations as well. The noble Lord asked the simple and seductive question, “Why not wait until 2011?”. We believe that more and better information is required for the next comprehensive spending round in 2010, but information from the census will not be available until 2013. Therefore, collecting information through this secondary legislation will be very important in that area.

As regards whether this constitutes a final list, further secondary legislation would be required if things needed to be added. The ONS has asked for all the data that it needs, and therefore there are no plans to seek any extension thereto but, if there were, your Lordships would have to be consulted, as further legislation would be required.

On security, the statisticians who will receive the information once it is transferred will number no more than 20. Therefore, we are talking about a very small number of people. The data transmission will be conducted at a high security level with the information being encrypted or sent in another secure manner. The Government and every parent are rightly concerned about the transfer of information regarding their children. The ONS has a very good record of retaining and holding on to information, and we believe that there is no reason for great concern in this area. However, we are not complacent. A series of incidents has reminded us of the need for improvements to be made in the transfer of data. That issue will be taken on board.

The noble Baroness referred to the coroners Bill. What is provided for in this secondary legislation can be used only for the purposes of this legislation. It is not possible for it to be used for any other purpose without further secondary legislation being introduced, as I said.

The other thing that I should say is that there is no link whatever between the 400,000 people having access to the contact point and the regulations in respect of the school census which, as I said, is restricted to a number of statisticians in the ONS numbering no greater than 20. On parental permission for sharing, the fair processing notice already advises parents that the data may be used for statistical purposes only. In that sense, the parents’ notification at an early stage meets the point raised.

I am sure that I have not answered adequately a number of points raised by the noble Baroness in particular, but some of them seemed to go beyond the provisions of the regulations. I am more than happy to take them on board and seek to respond in writing. She made a number of linking points to other legislation. I can be categorical about this secondary legislation, but I am happy to look at those points and respond further, and to respond to the noble Lord on the points that I have missed. If he wants to respond on a major issue, he may by all means do so.

When the Minister writes to me, will he perhaps address the issue of whether it is necessary to give the full address of the child, rather than just the local authority ward?

I have one question that it would be useful to get on the record. On TeacherNet, under the school census data, where the field has been completed by the school as, “No, permission refused by parent or guardian for data to be used and passed on”, can that specific data be used by the ONS?

First, the noble Baroness asked why we need a full address. That is required in order to make the necessary data linkages. No information will be seen by anyone other than the 20 named—or, at least, numbered—statisticians who will examine the data, but it is needed for data linkage purposes. The simplest, shortest and sweetest answer that I can give is to the noble Lord. I can give him the assurance he seeks: the answer is no.

Motion agreed.