Education and Skills Bill

[back to previous text]

Clause 61

Information relating to young persons: supply by Secretary of State
12.30 pm
Mr. Gibb: 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.
Jim Knight: 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.
Mr. Heald: 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.
Jim Knight: 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.
Mr. Gibb: 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?
Jim Knight: 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.
Mr. Gibb: 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.

Clause 16

Information: supply by public bodies
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 23, in clause 16, page 8, line 44, at end insert—
‘(1A) Information may only be supplied under subsection (1) if the relevant person or body mentioned in subsection (2) regards the provision of the information to be proportionate to the fulfilment of the aims of the local education authority in the exercise of its functions under this Part.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 24, in clause 16, page 8, line 44, at end insert—
‘(1A) Information may only be supplied under subsection (1) if the local education authority requesting the information regards the provision of the information to be proportionate to the aims of the local education authority in the exercise of its functions under this Part.’.
No. 113, in clause 62, page 34, line 5, at end insert—
‘(1A) Information may only be supplied under subsection (1) if the request for information is proportionate to the purpose of providing services in pursuance of section 54 or 56(1)(b).’.
One might think that there were rules and regulations to prevent certain aspects of a person’s health records from being disclosed, but we then have the chilling words on page 10 of the explanatory notes, which state:
“Clause 16 sets out which other public bodies may share information about a young person with a local education authority in order for it to fulfil its duty. The purpose of the clause is to allow public bodies to provide information to local education authorities where other statutory provisions would prevent their doing so.”
All the sections in all the Acts over the years that were designed to safeguard the confidentiality of sensitive personal information held by GPs, hospitals, the probation service and the police will therefore be rendered worthless for 16 and 17-year-olds as a result of this one clause in the Bill.
As we have debated, the provisions in clause 16, together with all the other information-sharing provisions, have attracted the interest of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Committee is looking at the Bill and is concerned about whether such provisions are consistent with the right to respect for private and family life.
The Minister responded at length to those concerns, but on whether the measures in clause 16 are proportionate to the Government’s aims, he said:
“The information that public bodies hold is crucial to ensuring that the data in the database used by Connexions is accurate. Not having this information leaves a risk that the support offered is not the most appropriate for a young person; some agencies may have dealings with a particular young person but would be unable to share that information with the Connexions service.”
The implication is that the data are simply being used by Connexions to help advise young people. If that were the case, it would still be disproportionate and would, at the very least, necessitate the young person’s consenting to information about his health or involvement with the police being supplied. Clause 16 is not, however, just about the Connexions service; that would be the case if were debating clause 61. Clause 16 relates to
“enabling or assisting the authority to exercise its functions under this Part”—
that is, its duty to promote participation. That is far wider than the duties in clause 54.
The Minister says:
“some agencies may have dealings with a particular young person but would be unable to share that information with the Connexions service.”
Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 introduced into clause 16 the requirement that the information requested is proportionate to the Government’s aims, and amendment No. 13 introduces a similar provision into clause 62. Article 8 of the European convention on human rights protects the rights to private and family life, and that is a qualified right, as we debated on the previous clause. The Government can breach that right, provided that the breach has a basis in law and is done to secure one of the permissible aims set out in paragraph 2 of article 8. According to that paragraph, a breach may be made for reasons of
“national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The other condition is that a breach is
“necessary in a democratic society”,
which means that it must fulfil a pressing social need and must be proportionate to the Government’s aims, and that is the consideration that the amendments would introduce into the Bill. They introduce a requirement that a breach of article 8 must be made for wider social aims and be proportionate to those aims.
It is interesting that the Government have included that requirement in clause 35 on parenting orders. Clause 35(8) says:
“The second condition is that any interference with family life which is likely to result from the attendance of the parent at a residential course is proportionate in all the circumstances.”
That is a clear reference to the human rights legislation for a lesser breach of human rights—attending a residential course—than that contained in the sharing of sensitive personal information.
12.45 pm
The Minister said that that provision was superfluous in relation to these clauses. Is it not, therefore, superfluous in relation to clause 35? Perhaps the drafters of the legislation in chapter 4 have a more profound understanding of the importance of human rights and the right to a private and family life than the drafters of this part of the Bill, who take a less sanguine view of the importance of these matters.
Mr. Laws: I am not sure I would say that I am terrified by the clause because it takes an awful lot to terrorise and terrify a Liberal Democrat. However, I am extremely worried about the contents of what is a sweeping clause, as the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton explained. I am very attracted to the amendments that he has tabled. If we do not receive a satisfactory response from the Minister, I hope that he will press the amendment to a Division.
I would like the Minister to clarify two points. Will he indicate which of these powers are currently available for young people below the age of 16? In other words, are there powers such as these for under-16s who are not in education or training—they may be persistently absent or truanting—so that information from such bodies can be accessed in order that educational establishments can exercise their existing responsibilities?
On a specific point, is information held by employees of the organisations that are listed in the clause that is held not in their workplaces but at home addresses covered by the data protections that the Minister indicated earlier? There have been cases in my constituency where very specific and sensitive allegations have been made about young people, often in relation to child protection issues, and data have been held in a home setting by employees of organisations such as those listed. Will the data protections that the Minister referred earlier relate to such data?
I hope that the Minister will respond to the wise words of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and his cautionary note and that, by the end of the Minister’s speech, we will be less terrified, or in my case less moderately worried, about the contents of the clause. If not, it may be necessary for the hon. Gentleman to press the amendment to a Division.
Jim Knight: As with the other provisions that we have discussed under this chapter, local authorities will use the information that they receive from other public bodies to help them identify young people who are not participating. It will be used to identify the most appropriate support for those young people so that they can be helped back into learning as soon as possible. As we have discussed, the sharing of information is critical to the effective provision of services to young people and it enables coherent services to be delivered. The amendments propose specific references, in clauses 16 and 62, to the need for the supply of information by public bodies to be proportionate to the purpose for which it is requested. As we discussed with the amendments to clauses 15 and 61, article 8 of the European convention on human rights requires that information can be supplied only as far as is necessary and proportionate to the purposes that it will serve, which are to enable or assist local authorities to fulfil their duties to promote participation and identify young people not participating and to provide the Connexions service——
Mr. Hayes: Will the Minister give way?
Jim Knight: I will shortly, but let me finish my paragraph.
Mr. Hayes: There we have it. Having spent two hours telling us that the only purpose, or at least the only serious purpose, for collecting and sharing this information was to provide advice and guidance through the Connexions service, the Minister then reads a pre-prepared note, which I presume he wrote last night, which says that the purpose of collecting and sharing this information is to promote, and indeed enforce, participation. So it is not reasonable to suggest that this is entirely about efficacy; this is about enforcement and thus the tone of the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend—
The Chairman: Order. I have counselled against the tendency towards an increasing prolixity in interventions, of which I am afraid that was a rather distinctive example.
Jim Knight: I say to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that at no point did I mention enforcement. What I said was
“which are to enable or assist local authorities to fulfil their duties to promote participation and identify young people not participating”
so that they can be provided with a Connexions service. That is not so that something can be enforced against them but because the purpose of this whole part concerns the local authority’s duty to support young people to fulfil their duties to participate.
Mr. Hayes: The Minister is stretching the credulity of the Committee to its very limits. Is he really saying that identification of non-participants is purely to give them advice and could never be used to ensure that non-participants do participate in line with the statutory responsibilities and powers of local authorities?
Jim Knight: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the purposes of identifying young people who are not participating is to provide them with support. The personal adviser would make contact with the young person, discuss their support needs and seek to broker those support needs for them. Subsequently, at some point down the track, there may be a conversation that takes place because that person refuses that support, but that is not because of the initial transfer of data. The initial transfer of data was in order to inform their support needs.
Mr. Laws: Is the Minister saying, for example, that the provision relating to the police could not be used to ask the police to give information that would help the local authority to pursue an individual who is not complying with their responsibilities under the Bill and pursue that person, potentially through an enforcement route, for not being in the education and training sectors?
Jim Knight: In that we are going to issue guidance to say this should be used for support rather than enforcement, the purpose of the police and other criminal justice-related bodies being listed here is in order for that support to understand the circumstances of that young person. If they are involved with a youth offending team, that information is extremely relevant for people in understanding what they are dealing with and the support that is needed.
Mr. Laws: I think that the Minister is being helpful. Is he confirming that a local authority would never go to the police, in relation to a young person who was not complying with the responsibility to be in education or training and who had perhaps disappeared from their home address, to ask them to identify where that individual might be or whether they were in contact with some part of the existing police organisation in order to help the local authority to track them down and take enforcement action against them?
Jim Knight: I cannot foresee a circumstance in which Connexions personal advisers using these data would go to the police in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes. I hope that that is helpful to him.
Mr. Gibb: Clause 16 states that the information should be used to assist the authority
“to exercise its functions under this Part.”
My understanding is that the phrase “this Part” means part 1 of the Bill and that part 1 refers to clauses 1 to 53 inclusive. Within clauses 1 to 53 are all the clauses about attendance notices, written notices to participate and the penalties that go with that. Have I understood correctly what is meant by “this Part”?
Jim Knight: In so far as the hon. Gentleman has gone, clearly he has understood that. Then in clause 18 we say:
“In exercising its functions under this Part, a local education authority must have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State.”
It is in that guidance that we will set out how this measure should be used. In the same way that we are giving our initial thoughts on clause 4 and some of the issues about that, I am happy to give our initial thoughts on this measure, although not the draft guidance, to assist the Committee.
Mr. Gibb: I will be corrected by you, Mr. Bercow, if I am wrong, but my understanding is that guidance cannot overrule the provisions of primary legislation. If primary legislation gives local authorities the power to request the information—it says explicitly in the Bill that that is for the purpose of part 1, that is clauses 1 to 53—they are entitled to do that, regardless of what is in guidance that the Minister may or may not issue.
Jim Knight: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s understanding of guidance is not wrong, but he also has to understand the reality in which this measure works. I cannot foresee that some jobsworth officer in a local authority will want to incur the great cost of chasing around trying to enforce things left, right and centre. The reality is that the whole enforcement issue, which we have debated at huge length over the previous few weeks, is there as a culture change. It is there to be used in extremis, not to be used by officers going fishing.
Mr. Laws: I am astonished by what the Minister is saying. Let us say that a local authority officer was aware that a young person was not in education or training as they were supposed to be under the Bill, but was deliberately trying to duck being tracked down for that purpose. Is the Minister really suggesting that that officer would be a jobsworth if they contacted the police to find out whether they knew where that individual was?
Jim Knight: Let us say that someone is deliberately flouting the law. The legislation does not say “must”, but the local authority can, and we would expect that it would, take enforcement action. However, I do not envisage fishing trips—people casting around trying to find individuals to enforce against.
Mr. Gibb: Just taking the Minister at his own word—his own argument—what information would the Connexions service want from the police service to help it to provide careers advice?
Jim Knight: If someone has been in trouble with the law, that certainly affects their life chances. Therefore, they may have particular support needs and particular service provision may be helpful to them in preventing reoffending behaviour and getting them re-engaged in education and training.
The Chairman: Order. I apologise to the Minister for interrupting him before he has completed his answer to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, but we have reached the appointed hour.
It being One o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at Four o’clock.
Previous Contents
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 20 February 2008