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House of Lords Hansard

Education (Pupil Information) (England) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2016

31 October 2016
Volume 776

    Motion to Regret

    Moved by

  • That this House regrets that information about pupils’ nationality and country of birth collected under the Education (Pupil Information) (England) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2016 (SI 2016/808) could be used to help determine a child’s immigration status.

  • My Lords, it is important that schools know how many of their pupils have English as an additional language. I hope that means that extra resources and support can be provided for those pupils. Indeed, schools and local authorities have been doing this for decades. However, the requirement for every school in England—by the way, we are not talking about Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales—to collect information en masse about every child’s country of birth is, frankly, unbelievable.

    These regulations were made on 20 July and laid before Parliament on 27 July, after Parliament had risen for the Summer Recess. They were rushed through Parliament in the six-week summer holiday with no debate, no proper scrutiny or, indeed, public consultation. You might have thought that the DfE would have wanted to consult, take soundings and take the views of a range of organisations before embarking on this requirement. However, that was not the case. The regulations were rushed through Parliament and that was it.

    Against a backdrop of a massive increase in anti-immigration rhetoric, as witnessed by big increases in hate crime, and at one stage the Government considering asking firms to report on the number of foreign staff they employed, there is real concern among members of different ethnic groups about victimisation and being targeted. I am afraid that this proposal has all the hallmarks of racism, particularly as language codes are already recorded for pupils with English as an additional language, as are codes on their ethnic background. We have already seen the effects of this new requirement. It became a duty for schools to collect this information this September. Some schools have asked pupils to bring in their passports. Can noble Lords imagine pupils having to bring in their passports? In investigating the school census, Schools Week found classroom discrimination whereby only non-white children were being asked to bring in their passports to school. The Independent reported that where parents do not provide information, teachers will be asked to guess the ethnicity of pupils. Is it any wonder that children and young people have felt discriminated against and embarrassed in front of their peers? The Government may say that the guidelines state such and such, but that is a very different matter from practice in schools.

    What is the purpose of collecting the information? The Minister says in his letter to me that the information will help us to understand the impact of migration on schools—for example, what extra support we may need to provide. However, there is no extra budget financing. He goes on to say that it will help us plan how we ensure there are enough good places for every child. However, knowing where a child was born has nothing to do with school place provision. The DfE says that the information will not be accessible to the Home Office, but already on 18 separate occasions since 2012 the National Pupil Database data have been handed over to the Home Office, while information has been granted to the police 31 times.

    The actions of the Government and statements from them on nationality and country of birth have also raised real concerns about the confidentiality of the school census as a whole and the child’s personal data given by parents in good faith when their child enrols at school. If information from the school census can be shared with other agencies, for example the Home Office and police, without any oversight at all or consent, what does that say about the confidentiality of such information? By acknowledging that the nationality and country of birth data are too sensitive to be kept on the National Pupil Database with other data, are the Government suggesting that that database is not a secure place for a child’s data to be stored? How does this rest with our child safeguarding responsibilities?

    I am very grateful to the Minister for his letter of 26 October, in which he made a number of key points. I hope that when he responds to the debate he will deal with some of them. He says that the new data on nationality and country of birth will be provided to schools by parents only if they choose to do so. It will be entirely optional. What is the point of all this if, at the end of the day, it will be entirely optional? How will that affect the need for extra resources or school placements?

    On the question of passing information to the Home Office, the Minister says that it is solely for internal Department for Education use. How can we have a 100% cast-iron guarantee that this information will not be passed on to other agencies? He also talks about how we currently give information to private organisations and for research purposes. Is there to be carte blanche? What checks and balances are currently in place when people ask to see this information, and how do we ensure that if we agree that information goes to a private organisation, we are happy that it will be treated correctly and properly?

    Finally, to go back to the point I made at the beginning, the Minister talks in his letter about extra support. Are we to understand that there are plans to provide extra financial support for schools which have children from different ethnic backgrounds?

    Children are children, and to use their personal information for immigration enforcement is disingenuous, irresponsible, and not the hallmark of a tolerant, open and caring society.

  • My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for introducing this Motion and I agree with his concerns.

    There are two aspects to this. One is concern over whether school census data might be passed to the Home Office for immigration purposes, and the other is whether the gathering of these data oversteps the bounds of privacy, whether or not there is any usefulness for education. I have to say that but for the perseverance of campaign groups such as Against Borders for Children and Jen Persson of defenddigitalme, we would be none the wiser about the sharing for immigration purposes of the National Pupil Database between the Department for Education and the Home Office that has already gone on.

    It has taken two freedom of information requests by Pippa King as well as Parliamentary Written Questions from Caroline Lucas to uncover, for instance, that in the last 15 months alone, requests to a total of 2,462 pupils have been made by the Home Office. I therefore feel that it is already very difficult to trust any reassurances that the Government now might make for the future. These revelations also contradict the statement that the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, made in this Chamber on October 12 when he said,

    “I reassure the House that the information is kept within the Department for Education and is not passed on to the Home Office”.—[Official Report, 12/10/16; col. 1890.]

    This is clearly untrue, and I hope that this statement will be retracted. So far, the Government have said nothing about these disclosures.

    We learned at the weekend from the report in Schools Week that the noble Lord, Lord Nash, has said that the nationality and place of birth data would be kept in a separate database. This raises a number of questions, not least whether this is a tacit admission that the NPD is not a secure place already in terms of data sharing—and of course we know now that it is not. But I would like to know what would be so special about this separate database. What is the precise wording that will ensure that these data will not be shared with the Home Office? Will this be a legally binding agreement? That these data would be on a different database seems to me to be meaningless in itself. What, then, of the NPD? Can the Minister assure us that those data, aside from nationality and birthplace, will not be shared in the future with the Home Office? What is the wording of any agreement which will ensure that?

    Parents are upset, not just about how this information might be used but because these questions are asked at all. They are fundamentally intrusive in the same way that the listing of foreign workers would be. We also know that the same questions are also being asked of school governors. If it is unclear how pupils’ data can be used for the improvement of their education, it seems that the same information on school governors does not have anything at all to do with either a good education or good governance.

    One of the things that ought to be emphasised is that these questions are in one important sense mandatory. You cannot leave them blank and, despite what it says in the guidance, parents have been asked for their passports for the simple reason that when the department asks a school to do something, they will naturally try to do so as effectively as they can. It is true that you can currently put “Refuse” as an answer, which parents are quite rightly doing out of protest at being asked these questions, but for many parents this will appear a provocative response. Can the Minister say whether there would be a straightforward opportunity for parents who are unhappy about having already given the information to have it retracted? Having “Refuse” as an option is a telling recognition that this is a sensitive area and, if these regulations continue, it will not surprise me at all if in a year or two that option is removed.

    As everyone in education knows, it is a hard job to get pupils who may be excluded from mainstream education by circumstance into education. We need to get all our children into school, not frighten them away. In a sense, the Minister let the cat out of the bag in answer to a question from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, that,

    “it better enables us to monitor immigration issues within this country”.—[Official Report, 12/10/16; col. 1889.]

    How is that a function of the DfE? Data gathered by the DfE should not be used to monitor immigration issues. Teachers are not border guards.

    This is a children’s rights issue. Many parents are against the provision of these data and campaign groups have displayed serious concerns about it. The regret Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, is unfortunately well founded.

  • My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Storey in his regret Motion. He talked about an anti-immigration rhetoric, and we have seen the increase in hate crime, for example, which has occurred post-Brexit. However, it goes further than that.

    In addition to the Government’s attempt to require companies to report the number of foreign staff they employ, which my noble friend mentioned, under the Policing and Crime Bill currently going through this House the Government will require people who are detained by the police, where the police suspect the individual not to be a British citizen, to produce their passport. I cannot tell which group of people who are arrested will be required to produce their passport, but I suspect that it may largely be dictated by the colour of their skin. What happens if the individual is a British citizen who does not have a passport? I raise this issue because it paints the picture of where the Government are going as regards immigration.

    Under a provision in the Immigration Act recently passed by this House, when the police stop somebody driving a car whom they suspect not to be a British citizen, the police can search that person’s home for their driving licence without a warrant. Again, the question has to be raised: which drivers will be stopped by the police and taken to their home address to search for their passport? The whole thing shows the direction of travel that this Government are going in, which unfortunately not only provides—to use the current term—a hostile environment for illegal immigrants but does so for people who are here legally, and indeed for those who are born here but who do not appear at first glance to be British. So the charge my noble friend Lord Storey makes that the provision in the regulations smacks of racism is supported by these other measures that the Government have passed and continue to put through.

    The Government say that the details that are asked for will be only for Department for Education use. The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, made reference to the website Schools Week, which reports:

    “The government has refused to release a new agreement that prevents the Department for Education from passing pupil nationality and country of birth data to the Home Office”.

    All that the Department for Education would say to Schools Week was that,

    “an old agreement that allowed the Home Office to access certain information from the national pupil database had now been ‘superseded’”,

    but it refused to release the wording of that new agreement without a Freedom of Information Act request. If the Government are absolutely sure that none of this information will be shared with the Home Office, can the Minister please explain to the House why they will not publish what the guidance is and why they require a Freedom of Information Act request to secure it?

    In a letter to my noble friend, the Minister apparently said that this information is intended to enable schools to receive more support. Can the Minister say why in London—where not only is there a higher proportion of low-income pupils eligible for free lunches than in any other region in England but around 42% of the city’s students do not have English as a first language, compared with the national average of just over 15%, and the schools overwhelmingly have larger class sizes than the national average—the schools are doing far better than schools in other, comparable regions in the country? What extra support are these schools going to need because they have pupils who are foreign nationals?

    Unfortunately, all the evidence points to this being an immigration tactic rather than having anything to do with trying to improve the education of young people or supporting our schools.

  • My Lords, there has been a historic tradition of separating school education from the state in the United Kingdom. Leaving aside the issues of selection by ability and admission arrangements, it has been accepted that, subject to a place being available, a child can attend a local school without any test of right of residence, nationality or language spoken at home. So the new requirement to collect information on nationality and country of birth could well be a tipping point, as these data could be used to assist the Government in pursuing their immigration policies.

    It is safe to assume that, when the DfE decided last year to add these new components for the 2016-17 school census, it did not anticipate the furore that that would cause. After all, the DfE has collected data on pupils’ ethnicity for many years. Human rights groups would probably have raised questions, but the DfE might just have been able to fend them off with an appeal to “trust us”. However, that was last year and last year was, literally, another world, because in the intervening period we have had a referendum and now we are in the very messy process of extricating ourselves from the EU. The fact that the regulations appeared on the day before Parliament went into recess in July is probably an indication that the realisation had dawned within the DfE that this had become a politically sensitive issue.

    Two effects have combined to cause the furore. One is that, despite the fact that schools are not allowed to ask to see children’s passports or birth certificates, there are reports that some have reacted to the new questions on birth and nationality by doing just that. The DfE has made it clear that parents are not obliged to comply, yet fears remain. What steps will the Government take to ensure that all schools make that information available to parents?

    The fears emanate from the second effect—the fall-out from the referendum. The vote in favour of leaving the European Union has left the immigration status of EU nationals living in the UK much less clear than it was 12 months ago. Indeed, the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, has suggested—in my view, appallingly—that they could be,

    “one of our main cards”,

    in the negotiations on leaving.

    Then came the Tory party conference, with the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, saying that companies could be forced to reveal how many foreign workers they have. Then the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced plans to train more British doctors to replace overseas medics already here. With the Prime Minister also using her party conference speech to focus on immigration, there is now an unambiguous government culture of making foreign nationals feel unwelcome.

    It is within that context that the implications of the SI we are discussing today are viewed. That is why DfE denials of any ulterior motive do not sound convincing. In a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, last week, the Minister stated that,

    “given the sensitivity of the new information being collected we will not add this to the NPD, so no-one outside the department will be able to access it”.

    That is a welcome development, and I am willing to accept it at face value on a personal basis. The problem for us on these Benches is that the Minister cannot speak for other government departments, nor can he control what might happen in terms of the Home Office gaining access to the information, should circumstances, or that department’s needs, change.

    Given that a recent FoI request revealed that the NPD had been accessed by the Home Office on 18 occasions, will the Minister tell noble Lords what information about individual pupils will be provided by the DfE to the Home Office in future? And why has the DfE said that it will not make public the agreement with the Home Office that will prevent the passing of pupil nationality and country-of-birth data to UK Visas and Immigration? If the Minister wants noble Lords to have confidence that he can deliver what he says, why not produce the proof? Unless it has a statutory footing, any new agreement will have limited validity and lack clear oversight. Will the Government consider giving the new arrangement a statutory basis? That at least would prevent it being altered by a change of policy in the future.

    Given that the department already collects information on the number of students with English as a second language, can the Minister explain in more detail how the addition of country-of-birth data will further assist the department in supporting schools with children who have English as a second language? Will holding country-of-birth data result in more resources being directed to schools with higher numbers of children with English as a second language?

    Before announcing the new components of the census, what assessments did the DfE make of the additional burdens on teachers, school administrative staff and parents, and the additional costs involved?

    The school census is clearly beneficial in assessing the impact of migration on schools, but academics and journalists conducting research also make extensive use of the database. The Government now intend to restrict such access to important statistics on schoolchildren. In future, those who use the database must not write anything about the data without first showing it to the Government, with 48 hours’ notice. With commendable candour, a government email admitted:

    “This will reduce the risk that DfE are caught off guard by being asked to provide statements about research the appropriate people have not seen”.

    Can the Minister say how many similar arrangements apply within the DfE or in other departments?

    It is clear that the Government did not think through the political implications either of collecting data on pupils’ country of birth and nationality or of transmitting named pupil information, to be held by the DfE, which can be matched with data in other departments. Any difficulties they are now experiencing are entirely of their own making.

    It is not too late for the Minister today to assuage the concerns of many noble Lords, and I hope that, by providing answers to the questions that I and other noble Lords have posed in this debate, he will be able to do that. My noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie attempted to give notice of our questions to the Minister last week through the Government Whips’ Office but I understand that that did not succeed. Fortunately, I was able to give the Minister a few hours’ notice of them this afternoon. If he cannot give the assurances we seek, he should be aware that my colleagues in the other place will be pursuing these issues with vigour.

  • My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for tabling this Motion. Today’s debate will help shine a light on our reasons for collecting these data and dispel some of the myths and fearmongering that have taken hold in some parts of the media and in other places, with talk of anti-immigration rhetoric and so on. To deliver a world-class system that works for everyone, we need the right data and evidence to develop strong policy. We will use information on pupils’ nationality and country of birth to understand how we can give all pupils a better education—one that caters to their individual needs. This is about children’s needs first and foremost.

    In its eighth report of this Session, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee drew this instrument to the special attention of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, referred to the timing of this instrument. In its report, the committee noted that the timing for the parliamentary passage of the instrument did not respect our undertaking to schools to have a term’s interval between laying and coming into force.

    The committee acknowledged our explanation that the delay was unavoidable due to the referendum purdah and subsequent change of Administration. However, a concern remains whether schools were prepared. The department regrets that we were outside the normal practice of providing schools with at least one full term’s notice. But the commitment that all school-related regulations would have a common commencement date of 1 September was met. Guidance was made available to schools on 4 May this year. We informed the committee that we had received no complaints about the compressed timescale and I reassure the House that this is still the case. As part of its report, the committee also made available to the House letters it has received from campaigners with comments about the department’s policies on access to our data.

    Our schools educate pupils from a huge variety of backgrounds and we already ask for information on points such as disadvantage and special educational needs. This information enables us to target and ensure that our policies support all children so that they get the most from their education. There is nothing new in schools collecting information about their pupils. We have been asking them to do this for over 10 years through the school census. These regulations allow DfE to start collecting information on nationality, country of birth and English proficiency through the school census for educational reasons. Questions on nationality and country of birth are standard demographic information that is routinely collected in many data collections.

    Let me be clear on a number of points. The new information collected has not been and is not shared with the Home Office. The DfE has no way of determining a child’s immigration status, nor would we seek to do so. Providing this information is entirely optional; parents can refuse to do so if they wish. This is clearly stated in our guidance. The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, asked about the ability of parents to retract this information and I will certainly take that back and consider it.

    There is no requirement for schools to request or see evidence of nationality or country of birth. We know that some schools have not followed the guidance and have asked for this, so we will be working with them to ensure they do this properly in future. To address any uncertainties regarding how information should be collected, an information note is in the House Libraries and is on our blog for schools and parents. It is with these new data, which are to be used only by the DfE, that we can work to have a better understanding of what is going on and how to work with schools to deliver the best for all the children, regardless of where they have spent their prior years. The decision to collect these data was taken in 2015, long before Brexit, and followed approval by the Star Chamber Scrutiny Board, which is an external panel of schools and local authorities representing the sector. I reassure the House and repeat that these data items will be used for research, evidence and analysis within the Department for Education only.

    Children of foreign nationals can face additional challenges on starting school in the UK. The education system that they have arrived from may be very different from the English system, so they may not be up to the same level as their classmates. This puts pressure on the pupils, teachers and schools. I visit schools constantly up and down the country where they have had substantial, and in some cases very substantial, influxes in-year of pupils with no or little English, or who are new to English—NTE, as it is becoming known—into the school system. They have to educate these pupils in separate classes until they can speak enough English to engage with lessons. That is expensive and they are not specifically funded for this.

    One school that I visited recently distinguishes between whether pupils have enough English to engage with maths, which will be earlier than when they can engage in English classes. A colleague visited a school recently where he spoke to a pupil and the pupil next to him said, “He doesn’t speak any English, but I do. I’m from the same country and I’m his interpreter”. That is another approach. We need to understand this behaviour and its impact on our pupils from different educational jurisdictions and the impact on our whole school system.

    The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, questioned our motives on this. We know that white pupils on free school meals are some of our lowest-performing pupils, particularly in areas of intergenerational unemployment, whereas once EAL students can speak English they can be particularly aspirational. That has had a positive and significant impact, as he said, on our school system in London. But that is once they can speak English. In the meantime, it can be very time-consuming and resource-intensive for schools and we need to understand different approaches. EAL is also a very blunt instrument in that many pupils characterised as EAL are fluent in English because it is their second language and these factors are not currently included in our accountability measures. We need to consider whether they should be, but we need more information first. Any noble Lord who doubts that should visit some of these schools. I would be delighted to recommend some that they can visit to see this in action.

    The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the impact and burdens on staff. That is exactly why we seek to get this information—to understand. In short, we do not currently understand the impact of migration on the education system and we should. Understanding nationalities helps us to put the right policies in place to help these children.

  • I have a particular interest in this subject because my grandchildren attend a primary school in east London, which has a large number of children from different ethnic backgrounds. I want to ask a practical question. The Minister has laid great emphasis this evening and previously on the fact that this is optional. If a number of parents in the school my grandchildren attend take the option not to give this information, how reliable will the information be?

  • Obviously, it will not be as reliable as if they had, but it will be better than nothing. At the moment we just do not know and we are seeking a better picture. Frankly, many schools and, I am sure, parents, will understand why we want this information. Parents want their children to be educated better and they want them to be integrated into our school system better. We need to be better at doing that.

    Having these data also helps us shine a light on where good practice is taking place. The new data on English proficiency will allow the department and individual schools to explore whether there is a better way of targeting specific children who need additional language support. I repeat loud and clear that the data on nationality, country of birth and language proficiency are not and will not be shared with the Home Office or police. There is a memorandum of understanding in place to this effect, to which a number of noble Lords have already referred. The MoU sets out the terms for sharing data with the Home Office and it reflects the need for practical arrangements between departments of state. It would be disproportionate to put this arrangement on a statutory footing. So far as our apparent refusal to publish this MoU is concerned, we anticipate publishing it shortly.

    Where the police or Home Office have clear evidence of illegal activity or fear of harm to children, limited data, including a pupil’s name, address and some school details, may be requested. To be absolutely clear, this does not include data on nationality, country of birth or language proficiency. We have shared data with the Home Office in relation to 520 pupils in the past 15 months, set against 8 million pupils in our school system. It is a very small fraction, but a none the less valuable contribution to the Home Office fulfilling its duties of law enforcement.

    Separately from the new data items, the DfE does support the reuse of our data by third parties such as academics and education research organisations when the use of it is both secure and in the interest of adding to the evidence of what works. Recent examples include independent academic analysis of the performance of academies, and others unpicking the recent improvement in outcomes for London schools to ensure that we can maximise what the data tell us about the best things to do next to improve education outcomes.

    The data are also reused on websites such as schoolsguide.co.uk and in the Good Schools Guide, which help parents make sense of these complex data when making vital choices. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about our procedures in this regard. We give extracts of our national pupil database out, but only under strict controls. We do not share nationality and country of birth data as part of this process. Access to sensitive data is strictly controlled by the DfE Data Management Advisory Panel, which is comprised of senior experts on the data and legal issues associated with the release of data.

    The noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, suggested that perhaps our NPD data are not secure. We believe that they are very secure because we have not had a leak in 16 years. However, we take data protection extremely seriously. All staff who work with data comply with the requirements of the Data Protection Act and undertake mandatory annual data handling training. In addition, all information assets are appointed an information asset owner to ensure that access to data is restricted to only those people who have been vetted and approved. All department systems used to collect, store or transfer personal data undergo regular IT health checks to ensure that they are secure, and these policies and the processes within them are regularly reviewed by the Government Internal Audit Agency to ensure that they are appropriate and effective.

    I have responded to the point about this being optional by saying that it is better than what we have by a long way. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked whether financial support would be available to schools. Let us first get the information and analyse it so that we can work that out. I have already responded to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, about the circumstances in which the data would be made available to the Home Office. They can be requested only where there is a reasonable expectation that a crime has been committed or fear of harm. I hope I have reassured noble Lords about the intended use of the data that these regulations will collect and that I have allayed the fears and dispelled the myths that have grown up around them.

  • My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his detailed response and he has given us quite important information about some areas of this matter. The truth is that I do not think he or the Government realised the effect collecting such data would have on schools. We have seen some of the most appalling practices such as, “Hands up if you do not live in England”. That is not conducive to good race relations or to how schools work.

    On the question of resources, we already collect information about pupils’ ethnic backgrounds so that we can provide them, but the notion of saying to children, “We want to know where you live and where you were born because at some time in the future we may provide some resources”, just seems batty to me. This is not about shining a light; quite frankly, this is just inept. I am disappointed that the Government did not retract what they had done when they realised how stupid all this is. So I am afraid I am not convinced. I know that this will not have any effect on what has happened, but it is important that people stand up and be counted, and therefore I want to test the opinion of the House.

  • Motion agreed.

    Sitting suspended.