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Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Higher Education Student Information) Regulations 2009

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 8 July 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 Higher Education Student Information) Regulations 2009.

Relevant Document: 18th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

These regulations are the second use of the data-sharing power under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 to make possible the sharing of data on students in higher education that otherwise could not be shared. These, and previous regulations that permitted the sharing of data from the school census, are part of a wider programme of work—the Migration Statistics Improvement Programme—which is being conducted by the National Statistician. The programme seeks to address the problems faced in estimating highly mobile populations and takes into account short-term migration.

Access to administrative data that are collected and held by government departments and their agencies is essential if the Office for National Statistics is to meet increasing demands for new and improved population and migration statistics. The Government are committed to doing all they can to help to improve the accuracy of the population estimates, particularly at the local level. Both central and local government need accurate information on migrant numbers and the overall changes to the size and structure of the population at the local level. This is required for resource allocation and for the planning and delivery of local services.

Long-term public expenditure planning, including the calculation and distribution of the formula grant to local authorities, and resource allocation to the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, depend on population statistics. The ONS has evaluated the content of the student record and has identified the information which it needs for its improvement work on population and migration statistics. The regulations will allow the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which collates the information on behalf of the higher education funding councils in England and Wales, to share this information with the ONS. This includes the name, date of birth, gender and ethnicity of the student, and details of their home and term-time postcodes as well as the information to facilitate an understanding of when moves take place. Access to these data will enable the ONS to refine and develop new approaches for the derivation of population estimates and projections.

The benefits of sharing this information include better information on estimates of the number of migrants, improved accuracy of mid-year estimates and projections of population for local areas. These will include areas with high rates of population turnover, improved resource allocation, improved policy formulation and improved planning and delivery of service, as well as the development of ongoing research into the use of administrative data in updating population statistics without a traditional census. In addition, access to those data will help the ONS to improve the enumeration of students in the 2011 census and improve assessment of the quality of the statistics on students taken from that 2011 census.

The regulations also make provision for the ONS to disclose records of students living in Scotland and attending higher education institutes in England and Wales to the General Register Office for Scotland, and the records of students living in Northern Ireland and attending higher education institutes in England and Wales to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. This information will be used by these organisations to improve population and migration statistics in Scotland and Northern Ireland which will then be provided to the ONS so that it can produce UK-level migration and population statistics.

Data confidentiality and security arrangements are being assessed as a fundamental part of the preparation for the data sharing agreement between the organisations concerned. The ONS and the Higher Education Statistics Agency already work to tight confidentiality guidelines and have excellent data security records. They will put the necessary measures in place to protect data and avoid the disclosure of any private information about individual students. Information will be available from the ONS to Scotland and Northern Ireland via the secure Virtual Microdata Laboratory. During the debate held in January on schools census regulations, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised concerns about the large number of students resident in many cities who are not reflected in the numbers used for resource allocation. In supporting these regulations today, the Committee will help the ONS ensure that students are better represented in the statistics, leading to an improvement in the accuracy of those statistics. I therefore commend the draft regulations to the Committee.

I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations, and perhaps I may add to the welcome given to the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, earlier. When a similar order was debated last January, my noble friend Lord Bates asked the Minister to say a little more about why it is necessary to introduce children’s names. In making this rather modest request, my noble friend mentioned the Children Act 2004 which refers to the confidentiality of data relating to young people. The Minister replied by saying that only 20 statisticians will have that information. Lacking the charm and tact of my noble friend Lord Bates, I should like to ask the Minister that question a little more bluntly. Why is it necessary for children’s names to be disclosed? The student number is included in the information being requested, so what is the necessity for further information that would enable individuals to be identified?

I would also comment that only one person is needed to leak information, so while restricting the names of students to 20 statisticians reduces the chances of abuse, it does not necessarily prevent it. Statistics are about preparing numbers and percentages, so it is difficult to see why names need to be included for the purpose of producing a series of statistics. The long list of information that can be requested under this order makes me wonder whether information is being collected simply for the sake of it. Does such a mass of information end up being a help or does it become a hindrance, causing the end user to get swamped by unnecessary details?

Who is going to pay for producing all the information that educational establishments are being asked to provide? It will be a long, arduous task to retrieve and collate everything, and it will be a burden on the relevant establishments. They are not so overburdened with funds and personnel that they will find it easy.

I, too, thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. We live in an age when data can be collected and stored very easily. This has enormous benefits, administratively and functionally, for recording and planning, but there are also concerns and cautions, as the Minister has laid out. We read too often of personal or sensitive information going astray, with all the dangers of infringement of civil liberties and possible misuse or abuse of information. There is a further concern that data may be inaccurately represented or analysed, with consequent damage to individuals or institutions. I note with interest the noble Lord’s comments on security.

The Minister set out clearly that the regulations are designed to help in measuring, monitoring and understanding populations of students, with particular reference to migrant students. The funding councils collect information from the student record of each higher education institution, amounting to some 2.5 million students, a massive amount of data. With these regulations, the Statistics Board would be enabled to share information with counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland, purely for statistical purposes. However, we on these Benches endorse the comments that have just been made. Why is all the personal information disclosable if the data are solely for statistics? What assurances can the Minister give that personal information, as listed in Article 4(i)(a), will not be shared so widely as to infringe privacy and personal liberty?

We recognise that it may be useful and productive to track the movement of students for demographic or employment or other purposes, but does the Minister agree that safeguards are necessary if we are not to move towards a society where freedom of movement is tracked and, as a result, restricted? Why is disclosure of information required to be backdated to 1 August 2000?

We welcome the internal review after 12 months. Will the Minister give assurances that the results of this review will be brought back to your Lordships’ House for consideration?

We support the regulations, and with those comments and questions I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I am grateful to my noble friend for his patient exposition. Is each student informed of these regulations, which permit the disclosure of information about that given student? If so, in what way are they informed? Where does it say that students will be informed that these details are likely to be made available? How can we be assured that these details are safe? What process will ensure that only a given office has these details? They seem to be priceless in some respects, when one considers the great detail that is listed. It would be helpful if we could have assurances on these matters.

Are the details of the student ever likely to be made available to other interested bodies? Other noble Lords have mentioned the bodies whose responsibility is to the security of the state. There is not a great deal of information in the order to answer questions such as these. I declare an interest as a university chancellor.

I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate for the interweaving of questions around two areas of concern which are well understood. The questions are: why is a lot of personal information required; what is the risk; and what are we doing to ensure that it is secure? One of the problems that the Government have taken on themselves is to make all leakages of data immediately known to the public, which gives the impression sometimes that there are lots of leaks in government circles and no leaks anywhere else. Most of us know that in the commercial world there are many leakages, but they are not publicised for the very good reason that they would either damage customer confidence or provide information which would be of value to commercial competitors. But they are the genuine concerns that a lot of people have.

On identifiable information—names and so on—we believe that access to recording and identifying information will be essential for data-linking and matching. That will allow the ONS to cross-check the plausibility of information from different sources in order to refine and improve existing methods of estimation. Ensuring that students are counted only once and recorded in the appropriate place—that is, at their term-time address—is again a part of making the information that we have as accurate as possible.

I was asked what the information will be used for. As I have said, it will provide information to the ONS to improve population migration statistics, including small area population estimates, some national population projections, internal migration estimates, international migration estimates, and assessment and adjustment for the 2011 census. This could include linking of the data to other survey and administrative data; for example, the 2011 census GP registers and school census. My noble friend fears that this information could be used for other purposes. The order is specific and we have been specific in saying what the information will be used for. Therefore, it would not be possible for it to be used in any legal form for any other purpose.

As to what will be disclosed to other parties, the regulations would enable onward disclosure, but that is limited to the disclosure of information from the student record in the way that I have mentioned to Northern Ireland and to Scotland through secure systems. My noble friend Lord Jones asked about the review in 12 months’ time and whether it would be brought back to your Lordships' House. The ONS will be responsible for reporting the benefits of this to the Migration Statistics Improvement Programme Board and the Minister overseeing it. It would not, as part of this order, be referred back here because no further legislative proposals would be required. But I am sure that the point about people wanting to be reassured would be sufficient to provide an impetus for us to put information in the public domain.

On how the students are informed about the regulations, the first principle of the Data Protection Act 1998 requires fair processing of the information collected about students via higher education institutes. These institutes provide information to students about the use that is made of these data, which confirms that students will be informed that this information is being collected and, more importantly, in order to reassure students, why it is being used.

I was also asked why data are being collected back to 2000 and who is paying for this. The data are already collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency from higher education institutes to assist the funding council and the Secretary of State in the allocation of funds. The ONS will pay for anything additional from the HESA. It comes down to the fact that the work is already being collected and the ONS will be responsible for additional finances.

It is worth repeating that the ONS has asked only for information that it believes will be essential to support its work in improving migration and population statistics. Twenty-six student-level data items have been requested, which provide basic information. A full higher education institution record has something like 150 items of information, so in that sense the ONS is seeking not to burden itself with data that it does not need and does not share.

On security issues, people well understand the nervousness about private information being held, whether by banks, by the Government, by the local authority or by anyone else. I can offer only the assurance that security is now recognised as of paramount importance in this. All those involved in this work are committed to meeting the data transfer, storage and handling standards specified by the information assurance arm of the Government Communication Headquarters as the UK’s national technical authority for information. I give the assurance that the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Wales will not share any identifiable information to the UK Statistics Authority until it is satisfied that these standards, and any other specific requirements, have been met.

The other safeguard that we have is that any people who are found to have breached confidentiality will be liable to prosecution. The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 contains a confidentiality obligation with a potential criminal sanction for revealing or sharing any information unlawfully. I hope that those safeguards show the Government’s determination to protect this information.

On the question of why records are being backdated to 2001, the answer is to provide comparison with data from the 2001 census and to provide a sound and reliable base for assessing change over time and, where appropriate, revising estimates.

I hope that I have satisfied noble Lords on the questions that they have asked. I will review Hansard tomorrow and, if I have missed any, I will write to the noble Lords concerned.

Motion agreed.