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Session 2007 - 08
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General Committee Debates
Education and Skills Bill

Education and Skills Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: John Bercow, Hugh Bayley
Barlow, Ms Celia (Hove) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Hayes, Mr. John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
Heald, Mr. Oliver (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)
Knight, Jim (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Lammy, Mr. David (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op)
Marsden, Mr. Gordon (Blackpool, South) (Lab)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Soulsby, Sir Peter (Leicester, South) (Lab)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Stephen (Bristol, West) (LD)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Nick Walker, Tom Goldsmith, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 19 February 2008


[John Bercow in the Chair]

Education and Skills Bill

Clause 16

Information: supply by public bodies
Amendment proposed [this day]: 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.’.—[Mr. Gibb.]
4 pm
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:
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).’.
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I trust that we are all refreshed after our short break. It might be helpful if I began by addressing the two questions raised by the hon. Member for Yeovil. He asked me, first, which provisions are currently available to pre-16s and, secondly, whether data protection legislation applies to data kept at home by employers. Section 120 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, which clause 62 replicates, already enables information sharing for 13 to 19-year-olds and indeed, those up to the age of 25 with learning difficulties. That is a direct answer to a direct question.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Will the Minister give way?
Jim Knight: I may as well answer the second question, because the hon. Gentleman may well have a question about that too. I am sure that there may be one or two hon. Members who have computer data about their constituents at home or even on their mobile phones. If anyone holds data about individuals which they use to deliver a service or to carry out a business they would be subject to data protection requirements. They would have to register, and the law in respect of data protection would apply to them.
Mr. Laws: On the first point, I hope that I am not confused, but I thought the Minister said that these powers were available under an earlier Act for 13 to 19-year-olds. Could he explain what he means by that? How are they covered and why is this further extension necessary?
Jim Knight: The clause is based on section 120 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, which enables public bodies to share information on young people with Connexions. The information supplied may include up-to-date information on 16 and 17-year-olds relating to their education, training and areas of particular need, including health, family, personal and social need, as well as changes in their educational circumstances. The clause relates to the established system that Connexions providers use, and it does not change or add to the data that that system holds.
We want Connexions to have access to exactly the same information about young people as it does at the moment. The clause meets the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998, and has been proven to do so. Access to personal data will continue to be strictly controlled in compliance with data protection laws. Without wishing to make a pun, I hope that ending with the word “laws” satisfies the hon. Member for Yeovil.
As I have set out in relation to previous clauses and in relation to this clause, it is for every public body to satisfy itself that the extent of the information it releases to local authorities and Connexions service providers under the provisions is proportionate to the benefits of increasing participation in education and training, and will enable local authorities to be satisfied that when requesting information they are acting proportionately. Without this provision we judge there to be a significant risk that a greater number of young people would become NEET—not in education, employment or training—resulting in the poor outcomes that are more prevalent in that group.
It might help if I set out briefly for the Committee the circumstances in which disclosure of information will take place under the provisions. In practice, the bulk of shared data moves from the local authority and the learning and skills council to Connexions through secure transfer. The other bodies listed would disclose information only on a case-by-case basis, when the lead professional would call on the skills of other agencies in the area to help resolve problems. For example, the vast majority of data exchanges involving the police or youth offending teams—concerns were raised about that this morning—would entail data going from that part of the criminal justice system to Connexions, not vice versa. This is therefore very much a matter of those bodies informing Connexions on a case-by-case basis of what is going on in respect of certain individuals.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Why does Connexions need such information to provide the service that it does to young people?
Jim Knight: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, as a reasonable man, will understand that the fact that a young person had got into trouble with the law or was working with the youth offending team would be relevant information for a personal adviser considering the support and advice that they needed. That is why it is appropriate that such data sharing exists and, indeed, has existed quite successfully since the 2000 Act came into force.
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again: he is being very patient. As was mentioned earlier, the explanatory notes to clause 16 state:
“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.”
To what does the latter part of that sentence relate?
Jim Knight: In the intervening period between 1 pm, when this morning’s sitting ended, and 4 pm, I looked again at that sentence, and I accept that it could be worded better. We will redraft the explanatory notes before the Bill goes to the House of Lords, we will ensure then that the wording is improved.
Clauses 16 and 62 are all about giving the public bodies to which they apply the power to share information. Without such a power in this or other legislation, they could not share information as proposed. In that sense, they would be prevented from making disclosures without such an express power. That is not the same as overriding other legislation, and the provisions are not quite as broad as the reader would think from the explanatory notes, because other legislation that, as far as we are aware, does not contain express restrictions on such disclosures cannot be overridden. Just because there is a statutory power in clauses 16 and 62 to provide information, that does not mean that bodies must not act in accordance with other relevant legislation, such as the Data Protection Act and the right to respect privacy in the Human Rights Act 1998.
Mr. Laws: For the sake of clarification, if this part of the Bill were deleted, and given the powers that already exist, what would be lost about which the Minister would be concerned?
Jim Knight: What would be lost is the transfer of functions that we are seeking from Connexions services back to local authorities: that data sharing could not proceed. As I described, we are translating section 120 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 to allow that transfer to take place. We are not changing the legislation in any other way, and it has been running, as I have tried to stress, successfully ever since that Act was brought into force.
The proportionality test for these clauses is already met by the requirement—
4.9 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
4.25 pm
On resuming—
Jim Knight rose—
Mr. Gibb : Will the Minister allow me?
Jim Knight: Of course. Given that I had not even started to speak, it would be churlish not to allow the hon. Gentleman to speak.
Mr. Gibb: I was about to intervene on the Minister when the Division bell rang. First, I wanted to ask him why information about someone’s involvement with the police should be passed to the people in the local authority who are trying to promote their education or training. I am still baffled as to why that should be necessary. Secondly, will he explain why those same people in a local authority need the health records of a 16 or 17-year-old to promote participation?
Jim Knight: By way of clarification, my understanding is that whole health records or indeed whole criminal records will not necessarily be passed from the relevant public bodies to Connexions. However, information that those public bodies think will be helpful in providing support and advice may be passed on. In the Committee’s early stages, we spent a considerable amount of time discussing the value of the personalised, informal training and support provided by the likes of Fairbridge, Barnardo’s, the Prince’s Trust and some of the other bodies from which we took evidence. If somebody has got into trouble with the law and if they are under the watchful eye of a probation officer and a youth offending team, there might be issues in that person’s life that the officers working for those public bodies would know about and that it would be very useful for Connexions to know about, too, so that it can provide support and best serve the needs of that young person.
That is what we are talking about. We are not talking about public bodies acting against young people; we are talking about support being properly tailored to the individual personal needs of those young people. Before I move on to the issue of health, it is also probably worth saying that in recent years, we have seen a rapid expansion in the number of police and community support officers, who often work closely with youth support services and may take part in case conferences on young people in which Connexions, too, is involved. If those officers are taking part in a case conference because there are problems in a neighbourhood, perhaps related to antisocial behaviour by certain individuals, it would not be appropriate for those officers to be prevented from passing on knowledge that they have about an individual, so that better support could be provided and so that those individuals could be better engaged in positive activities rather than negative ones. It is highly appropriate that they should do so and, as I said before, that has worked well since the Learning and Skills Act 2000 came into force.
Mr. Laws: Will the Minister give way?
Jim Knight: I was just about to move on to discuss the health matter, but seeing as the hon. Gentleman is looking beseechingly at me I will give way to him.
Mr. Laws: My question is about policing. Over the lunchtime break, I wonder whether the Minister had an opportunity to reflect on the issue that we discussed before lunch, about whether or not the police would be able to give information to a local authority that would relate to the local authority’s enforcement powers rather than to its support powers.
Jim Knight: I did reflect briefly on that point. The police do not have a role in enforcement; the enforcement is carried out by the local authority. There is no scenario that I can foresee whereby the powers set out in the Bill that have been working successfully since the Learning and Skills Act 2000 came into force would be used in the context of enforcement.
Mr. Laws: But is not one of the potential scenarios a situation where a young person who is supposed to be in education or training has disappeared: they have left the home that they were in and there is reason to believe that they may be known to the police? In that situation, would it not be reasonable for a local authority to approach the police to ask whether they were aware of that particular young person so that it could take enforcement action?
Jim Knight: I think that it is more likely that the police, if they are dealing with a young person and they discover that they are not participating, may contact the local authority so that support procedures can be established. In that way, the Connexions personal adviser would know about it. If the young person was not on the records of that local authority, a conversation mighty take place between the personal adviser and the constable or the PCSO along the lines of: “We do not have a record of this person—they must have come from somewhere else. Do you know where they might have come from?” All of this is geared to support—I know that I keep saying that and that it may try the patience of the Committee—not enforcement.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Before the Minister moves on, this is an important point, because the Bill explicitly empowers local authorities to collect information in relation to duties prescribed in the Bill, including duties to encourage and enforce participation. The Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton pointed out, quite clearly empowers local authorities to act specifically in the way that the Minister is now suggesting that they are not going to act. Why not amend the Bill to reduce, limit or at least dilute those responsibilities and powers?
Jim Knight: As I have tried to explain, if we were to dilute them as set out in the amendment, we would not be able to have any of the data sharing that is extremely helpful in providing support to young people. The duty is not to enforce; it is to support the young person in fulfilling their duty. There is a power to enforce, but there is not a duty to enforce; it is important that the Committee bear in mind that difference. As we discussed earlier, it is easy for people to forget that there can be no enforcement without that support being put in place and without an attempt to provide appropriate support. If the matter goes to the attendance panel, and it finds that relevant support has not been offered, enforcement cannot take place.
Moving on to the health question which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton raised several interventions ago, health information can be particularly sensitive and the protection offered by the Data Protection Act in respect of health is particularly important. Under the principles of fairness in that Act, a young person must be informed if personal information relating to them is to be shared. They also have the right to ask to see the information that is held and to ask for it to be corrected if it is inaccurate.
There are circumstances where that can be helpful, most of them relating to teenage pregnancy and to new mothers. For example, I think that we debated on a previous Tuesday—I cannot remember the exact date—the case of teenage mothers and their need for additional support to enable them to participate. Some of that support may be health related, for example, if they are suffering from post-natal depression. The Connexions service may need access to information from health care providers so that it can assess the best way to re-engage a young person in education and training. Young people may have other mental health needs that are being addressed by the health authorities and which it is important that personal advisers know about so that they can tailor advice accordingly.
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister for his extreme patience and enthusiasm on the subject of this particular intervention. Under the Bill, will it remain an option for the health provider to decide not to supply that information if they consider that it is not appropriate, given, in particular, the use of “may” in subsection (1)?
Jim Knight: Given the use of the word “may” in subsection (1), public bodies are not bound to pass on the information. However, they may pass on the information.
Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, he has been extremely generous in accepting interventions. On a parallel point, is this not an important departure from existing practice, as the Minister made it clear that people will have the right to access the information about them that is being passed on? Passing someone’s health records on to another agency currently requires their consent. No consent will be necessary in this case—is that not right?
The proportionality test for the provisions is already met by the requirement to comply with the European convention on human rights. As I have said, records are not being transferred, as information is generally shared verbally, on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. Gibb: The Minister need not look so exasperated. This is a crucial clause and I do not think that he is selling his argument well. He needs to try harder, because it seems to me that he is looking at these clauses as though they were law and order provisions.
If a young person is engaged with the local authority, then that young person will volunteer the information about the problems they are having with the police or probation service. He or she will volunteer the problems they are having with their health. However, the Minister is assuming that the young people in question are not engaged, otherwise the information would not need to be passed behind their backs. If they are not engaged, then the swilling around of all this information will be irrelevant, and that has a sinister air to it; that this information about those people—unbeknownst to those people—will be swishing around from authority to authority, from state body to state body.
The Chairman: Order. I think the Minister has got the drift of it.
Jim Knight: I completely reject what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and we might just have to agree to disagree. I see no sinister swilling around in the way that Connexions operates under the existing powers framed in the Learning and Skills Act 2000.
I think it is appropriate for people who are trying to provide the best possible tailored advice for young people to have access to reasonable amounts of information. That is something that we learned about safeguarding following the Victoria ClimbiĆ(c) tragedy—something that is obviously being addressed in terms of safeguarding and sharing data on children—and I think that it can apply equally to ensuring that our most vulnerable young people, with the most complex difficulties, have professionals who are aware of the complexity of those difficulties and can intervene to support them adequately.
Mr. Gibb: And will those young people know that specific information about their health records has been transferred?
Jim Knight: Yes, they have the protections that are afforded them under the Data Protection Act 1998, which I have set out for the Committee. I would argue—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would disagree—that the amendments are unnecessary. I ask him to withdraw the amendment, but again I am not optimistic.
Mr. Laws: Welcome back to the Chair for this afternoon’s proceedings, Mr. Bercow. I thank the Minister for being patient and taking a lot of interventions on an extremely important clause. Judging by his answers, we have established that his view is that the powers already exist for the 13-to-19 cohort, but presumably they are used far more sparingly than may be the case if the Bill is enacted. In addition, in the present situation there is a very modest opt-out, which is covered by the Data Protection Act.
The Bill potentially extends the range of occasions on which certain information may be passed between the bodies that are set out in subsection (2) of the clause and a local authority. The major effect that the Minister says is likely to result from the clause, other than recognition of the transfer of responsibility from Connexions to a local authority, is that a much larger number of young people will come under the provisions that allow such information to be accessed.
Jim Knight: I am reflecting on what the hon. Gentleman said, and I am grateful to him for giving way. I question why he thinks there would be a great expansion. Support is available to 12 to 19-year-olds, and we have personal advisers working to engage those young people who are not in education, employment or training. We are already using these powers. We obviously want the advisers to have an improved range of provisions so that they can refer people and engage them better; but in respect of the data sharing, I am not completely persuaded by the hon. Gentleman’s argument that it will expand a great deal.
Mr. Laws: I am interested in the Minister’s point, and I may be getting it wrong, but my instinct is that the measure is likely to lead to greater data transfer. Does the Minister have any evidence of the extent to which the existing powers are used? I asked him earlier—he kindly responded—whether powers of that type were used routinely for young people under the age of 16 who might have an absenteeism or truancy problem in the school setting. I am not persuaded, through my limited knowledge of the matter, that the powers would be used routinely in such a setting, but I would expect the process of compulsion for 16 and 17-year-olds to lead to greater data transfer, and we are concerned about that.
We have other specific concerns about those significant powers. One relates to the role of the police. The Minister said a moment ago that it is all geared around support, but when he was pressed on the subject, it turned out that that appears to be his intention. I see nothing in the Bill to prevent those powers being used for an enforcement purpose. If, perhaps later in Parliament’s scrutiny of the legislation, the Minister were willing to accept an amendment to subsection (1)—for example to insert “support” before “functions”, to make it clear that the provision is to be used only for support purposes—it might clarify the matter.
I was not persuaded by our exchanges on the potential role of the police. The Minister was rather ungenerous to local government officers, some of whom he described as jobsworths—I am not going for the local government vote in saying that—as they will have to deal with the enforcement provisions.
Jim Knight: To clarify matters, I think that I said that I did not think that there would be such jobsworths.
Mr. Laws: We shall have to check the record; I am not sure that that was what the Minister said. The impression that I gained was that he felt that it would be unreasonable of anyone in local government to seek to use those powers to ask a police officer or superintendent for information that might be used for enforcement purposes. However, I do not find that an unlikely scenario, for reasons that I put to the Minister earlier.
I can easily envisage there being a number of young people who may not want to be in education or training, or anything else that the Minister might have in mind, who do not have a permanent and stable residence. They may be in the habit of going to the homes of various relatives or friends. They may be even more inclined to do that when they discover that legislation has been passed to cover such a situation. Some individuals trying to flout the regulations may be known to the police. I would have thought that any local government officer who took his or her responsibilities seriously and who was as passionate as the Minister is about having all those young people in education and training on a compulsory basis, might decide that if a young person who was clearly not compliant and was known to be unwilling to comply with the Bill’s provisions, it would be sensible to ask the local chief superintendent if he knew where Mr. X, Mr. Y or Miss Z was, because they were not turning up to their college, school or learning setting. Perhaps it would be likely that the police have some awareness of where that individual is, particularly if they are in the habit of committing low or even high-level offences.
4.45 pm
I do not think that it is at all unreasonable to think that the powers may be used for enforcement purposes. Whether they should be so used is a separate debate. If the purpose of the clause is to enable a support function, it would be useful to have that in the Bill, rather than have the Minister giving us his interpretation of the measure. Perhaps he will go so far as to make it clear that that is the only purpose for which the provisions can be used.
We are in a strange position, notwithstanding the alleged protections afforded by data protection legislation, regarding the opt-outs that apply to different clauses in the Bill—the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings raised that issue. As I understand it, there will be a power for the parent of a young person who is under 16 or over 16 to deny the local authority even routine information about their educational success, achievements and background in a school setting. Even when such information is routine and even if it is publicly available, there will be a power to opt out, although it might not be a satisfactory power. Yet, apparently, information held by a primary care trust or strategic health authority, or by the police, which is potentially far more sensitive, could be handed over without an opt-out mechanism of sufficient force in place.
For example, we could end up with a situation in which a young person afforded protection in respect of a piece of information held by a school would not be afforded the same protection if the information was held by a primary trust. Information about a sensitive issue such as child abuse, for example, might be held by a GP and also by a school. I wonder whether that is satisfactory.
The Chairman: Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, and I do not want to distract him from the development of his argument, but it came to my attention earlier that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings had in his possession a book titled “The Specious Origins of Liberalism”. I can now see the front cover of the offending tome. I say in all courtesy to the hon. Gentleman that he should not be reading the book, even chapter 11, entitled “The Divine Right of Majorities”—it is not appropriate reading matter for the Committee. The hon. Gentleman, who is ordinarily an immensely courteous man, is being inadvertently discourteous, both to the hon. Member for Yeovil and to other members of the Committee.
Mr. Hayes: On a point of order, Mr. Bercow. I was looking at a particular aspect of the book regarding the issue of compulsion and consent, which we have been debating today. It was from that that my reading stemmed.
The Chairman: It was a nice try.
Mr. Laws: I am grateful, Mr. Bercow, for your guidance to the Committee. I am reassured that any critical volume on liberalism is likely to be a short piece of work, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is coming to the end of his reading in any case.
I am concerned that there is a mismatch between the force of the opt-out available for information held by a school, whereby even routine educational information cannot be provided to a local authority, and the extraordinary powers that are available under the measure that we are debating. I note with interest the possibility that totally different judgments could be made about sensitive information by different providers. The Minister confirmed in response to an intervention I made earlier that subsection (1) gives the listed providers the ability or power to release such sensitive information; it does not impose an obligation. Therefore, it is inevitable that different primary care trusts, for example, throughout the country, would take different views on what is relevant to a local authority in discharging its responsibilities. They would probably be right to do so, because as our earlier debates highlighted it is unclear what information would be considered relevant and what would not.
I think that we would find very different information would be released about many young people, depending on whether their GP was inclined to take a wide or narrow view of the responsibilities and powers in the Bill; or perhaps on whether they thought that it was none of the local authority’s business, in which case they would be empowered under the proposal simply to shove the letter in the bin. That confusion about their responsibilities and the mismatch in powers in relation to consent are two unsatisfactory aspects of what is already an unsatisfactory clause.
I am afraid that I am not so far particularly persuaded by the Minister’s arguments, but I await with interest an indication from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton as to whether he intends to press his amendments.
Mr. Gibb: I am concerned about the clause and therefore keen for the amendments to be adopted by the Committee. The Minister has based his whole argument on the fact that the clauses are lifted from the Learning and Skills Act. I think that that is part of the problem. It would explain the inconsistency between these information-sharing provisions and those that relate to education information, which have presumably been drafted specifically for the Bill.
The Minister has based his arguments on the fact that the measure is merely providing useful information for a limited support provision service, but that is not what it says in the Bill. It may well be his intention, and it will be interesting to see the guidance when it is published, but we are here to scrutinise the Bill, which states clearly in clause 16(1) that the information is to enable the local authority
“to exercise its functions under this Part.”
Part 1 of the Bill comprises clauses 1 to 53. Those clauses include all the enforcement provisions of the Bill, such as the parenting contract, the parenting order, written and attendance notices, and financial penalties. Therefore, the bodies listed in clause 16(2)(a) to (g) will be able to supply information to a local authority for the purpose of enforcing participation. Given that that is repeated in clause 62, relating specifically to support services, it is clear that the intention of the draftsmen, if not of the Minister, was that the provisions would be used to enable a local authority to help it to enforce participation. Therein lies our concern.
Also, even if the purpose of the measure were only to help a body to provide careers guidance services, I do not understand why the organisations concerned would need to provide details of a 16-year-old girl’s medical record, such as whether she has had an abortion, or of whether a young man has had a sexually transmitted disease. I do not see why that information should not remain confidential for those young people. It may well have an impact on whether that young woman can pursue a career or training but, none the less, the information is confidential and should remain so.
Jim Knight: I am probably wasting my breath but I will stress that it is not whole records that are being transferred. Only that information that will assist in exercising the statutory function would be shared.
Mr. Gibb: But it may well be that some individual in those local authorities may regard the fact that a girl has had a baby, or has had mental health problems, as pertinent to whether she should be engaged in education or training. Such information is confidential and should remain so. It should not be spread around a local area simply in order for Connexions, the careers advisory service, to perform its function better. That is an important point of principle.
The Minister says that information will be transferred from the law enforcement body to Connexions under the law and order provision. Again, if the young person is engaged with Connexions, they will give voluntarily all the pertinent information about their circumstances—they will explain that they cannot attend a particular training course because of an attendance requirement under a probation order. If they are not engaged, all this information is irrelevant unless it is being used to enforce participation, because the young person will not be turning up to interviews. All the information about the young person’s medical records, police record and the suspicions that the police have about them will be completely irrelevant if the young person is not engaged with Connexions and does not want to pursue a career and training.
Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend is making a persuasive case. The lifeline that we threw to the Minister, which he might have grasped, is the one to which my hon. Friend alludes—consent. Consent is the critical point that would check these powers. Does my hon. Friend understand why the Minister will not grasp that lifeline but simply wants more water thrown over him instead?
Mr. Gibb: I just think that not enough thought has been put into the drafting of the Bill. The Minister started his response by saying that if this provision is not passed, a greater number of people will become NEET, but that is the old argument of the end justifying the means. He can make that argument about the most draconian measure in any Bill. If the overall objective is x, he can always say that that is the purpose of a draconian measure. It is wrong always to rely on the Data Protection Act for these protections, because that Act is designed to protect the individual from the overweening, overarching power of the state. It is not there as the principal measure; it is there to protect us from the state when it is abusing its power. The Bill itself should contain the protections; it should not purport to want to supply information without the consent of the young person. No provision in clause 16 says that the person will be informed that the information has been supplied or that the young person has to give consent. Always the Minister refers to the Data Protection Act, which is there to protect people from private companies, private individuals and state bodies that are using information in a way that does not protect the privacy of individuals.
Jim Knight: I hear the hon. Gentleman saying that the Data Protection Act protects individuals from the overweening power of the state. Is that not exactly what he is worried about and what he has been arguing in respect of the clauses? I am saying that there are protections for those individuals in the Data Protection Act. He has just said that that Act is there precisely to provide those protections, so what is wrong with that?
Mr. Gibb: Because the Minister should not be trying to do things under the Bill that the Data Protection Act will catch him out on and prevent him from doing. The Bill should not be seeking to do things that the House has said on other occasions are unacceptable. People may well ignore those other provisions and just rely on what is in this measure. If people are not even informed that information is being supplied about them behind their backs, they will not even know that they have a data protection problem—that there are data that need protecting. The Minister should not be seeking to do things that on the face of it contravene the principles and spirit of the Data Protection Act, but the Bill, because of the way it is drafted, does just that.
Jim Knight: We are not seeking to do anything that goes against the principles of the Data Protection Act. That Act will govern the behaviour of the public bodies listed in the clause and affect their behaviour in the same way that we hope other clauses in the Bill will affect other people’s behaviour. We are not setting something up to conflict with another Act. That is just palpable nonsense.
Mr. Gibb: The way the Bill is worded at the moment means that it does. I will not repeat the debate that we had on clause 14(4), but the fact that there is a provision that says that people have to opt out of the information being supplied is a contradiction of the active consent required by the Data Protection Act. This provision does not even have that protection in it. Therein lies the concern: either the drafting is sloppy or there is an intention that the information will be supplied on a de facto basis—as an everyday practicality of life, the information will just be supplied. No one will know that it has been supplied, but it will be supplied.
I leave the Committee with this thought from the Children’s Rights Alliance. It is very concerned, as a result of a survey that it did of young people, that if children think that adults are going to share information with other people, they will stop confiding in adults altogether. That is the point. When people go to the doctor, they assume that the information that they give is confidential, even if it pertains to their possible employability or ability to engage in training. I believe that it should remain confidential, regardless of how important the Minister believes the ends that this Bill seeks to achieve are.
5 pm
The Chairman: It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman would indicate whether he wishes to press his amendment to a Division.
Mr. Gibb: I do intend to press amendment No. 23 to a Division, Mr. Bercow.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.
Division No. 15 ]
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Laws, Mr. David
Walker, Mr. Charles
Watkinson, Angela
Barlow, Ms Celia
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Griffith, Nia
Knight, Jim
Lammy, Mr. David
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 25, in clause 16, page 8, line 44, at end insert—
‘( ) Information may only be supplied under subsection (1) if the person to whom the information relates has given written consent that such information can be supplied.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 26, in clause 16, page 9, line 7, at end insert—
‘(2A) Any person about whom information is supplied under subsection (1) shall have the right to examine any relevant information requested by a local authority from a responsible person or body before that information is provided to the authority.’.
No. 27, in clause 16, page 9, line 7, at end insert—
‘(3A) Any person about whom information is supplied under subsection (1) shall be given the opportunity to correct information regarded by him as inaccurate, subject to the agreement of the relevant person or body supplying the information.
(3B) For the purpose of subsection (3A), when agreement cannot be reached on any correction to the information, the Information Commissioner shall decide what correction, if any, should be made to the relevant information.’.
No. 112, in clause 62, page 34, line 5, at end insert—
‘(1A) Information may only be supplied under subsection (1) if the person to whom the information relates has given written consent that such information can be supplied.’.
No. 110, in clause 62, page 34, line 13, at end insert—
‘(2A) Any person to whom subsection (1) applies shall be given the opportunity to correct any information regarded by him as inaccurate subject to the agreement of the persons or bodies referred to in subsection (2).
(2B) For the purpose of subsection (2A), when agreement cannot be reached on any correction to the information, the Information Commissioner shall decide what correction, if any, should be made to the information.’.
No. 111, in clause 62, page 34, line 13, at end insert—
‘(2A) A person about whom information is supplied under subsection (1) shall have the right to examine any relevant information requested before that information is provided.’.
Mr. Gibb: These amendments cover the issue of written consent and the rights of the young person to examine the information held on them and to correct any inaccuracies. A wide range of information can be shared, including information about a young person’s activities at school held by a local authority, information about a young person’s activities at college held by the learning and skills council, information about a young person’s health held by a primary care trust or strategic health authority, and information about a young person’s involvement with the police, the probation service or the youth offending team. It is astonishing that despite that huge volume of highly sensitive personal information that can be shared, there is no similar protection to that afforded by clause 14(4), limited though that protection is.
Amendments Nos. 25 and 112 propose that information can only be supplied by any of the bodies listed in subsection (2) if a young person has given written consent. It is very important that the information that we give to doctors, police or local authorities is given for one purpose and that, on the assumption that it is confidential, it is only used for the purpose for which it is given. If that principle is not adhered to, we will find that people will not disclose personal details for fear of that information appearing in another arena and damaging them. I am now reluctant to give my mobile phone number to businesses when they ask for it because I know that they may use it to make marketing calls.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does it concern my hon. Friend that there is nothing in this Bill that places a duty on any authority to make young people aware that they have the right to opt out? It is not a question of having necessarily to give written permission, but a young person has the right to require that their information is not passed on. However, there is no duty on authorities or organisations to make them aware of that fact.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important point and hope that we will be able to return to that principle, perhaps not in Committee, but on Report, because people need to be informed that they have that right. The trouble is that, in this complex and busy country in which we live, those things can go unnoticed, and that is how people’s rights become infringed and their privacy invaded.
The Bill also does not require that the conduct of the various statutory bodies should be subject to oversight by the Information Commissioner. I genuinely believe that the Government have, in drafting the clauses, taken a cavalier approach to the protection of privacy and sensitive information.
Amendments Nos. 26 and 111 would insert a young person’s right to examine the information held on him or her that has been requested before it is supplied to the local authority. Apart from in the case of ongoing criminal investigations, that is and should remain a sacrosanct principle relating to information held on an individual by a statutory body. Whether that information is health records, test scores at school or college or a criminal record, an individual should have the right to see it.
The idea that statutory bodies never make mistakes and that it is therefore unnecessary to check it for accuracy is risible. The Royal Mail has just written to people in Bognor Regis in my constituency to tell them why they propose to close a third of the Post Office branches in Bangor Regis. I am sure that the executives of the Post Office would have had a lovely day, the day they went to Bangor, but they would face a hostile reaction if they came to Bognor Regis to defend their policy. Amendments Nos. 27 and 110 would give the young person the right to correct any inaccurate information held on the various databases about themselves, and if there is a dispute with a statutory body on whether that information is correct, the matter should be referred to the Information Commissioner for resolution.
There seems to be a degree of inconsistency between the clauses’ approach to personal information. There is also, across all of the clauses that deal with information sharing, an alarming indifference to the individual’s right to privacy. The Government’s approach appears to be that they are entitled to do all that they wish with the information in pursuit of the greater aim of greater participation, but as I mentioned in relation to the last group of amendments, the dogma of ends justifying the means is, as always, a dangerous one, which I hope the Government will temper by accepting these amendments this afternoon.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that clause 16 will not be used so that all of the information held by the bodies set out in subsection (2)(a) to (g) on everyone affected by part 1 can be transferred to the local authority to create a sort of Big Brother database.
Jim Knight: I am happy to confirm that.
Mr. Heald: The second part of my question was whether the Minister can confirm that it will be an individual exercise in each case when information is sought about Fred Bloggs or whoever, and that it will not be a mass operation, even if it is done on guidelines.
Jim Knight: I am trying to be efficient and can confirm all of that. As I have said before, in the normal course of events there would be a case meeting regarding an individual, where various professionals would come together and share information.
Mr. Heald: Thank you.
Jim Knight: In relation to clauses 14, 57, 15 and 61, we have debated safeguards provided by the Data Protection Act 1998 on the disclosure of information by public bodies. In essence, there is a considerable disagreement between Government Members and Opposition Members about whether we should write all of the protections that are afforded by the 1998 Act on to the face of the Bill. I think that it should be a principle not to duplicate law. The Bill, when enacted, would and should be read with the 1998 Act and it will be clear that the 1998 Act applies.
I shall recap the principles: all public bodies are required to inform an individual if personal data relating to him or her is shared; individuals have the right to request a copy of the personal information that they believe an organisation holds on them, and; if they believe that that information is inaccurate, they can write to the organisation to set out what they believe is wrong with it and what should be done to correct it. The Information Commissioner already has powers under the Data Protection Act of the sort envisaged by amendments Nos. 27 and 110.
For the sake of clarity, I will remind the Committee of our discussion this morning. I know that some aspects of that debate were confusing, particularly on clause 14 in respect of information provided by schools. I will very briefly set out those matters. For basic identification information, no consent is required or obtained in practice. That data transfer covers all young people on the provider’s roll in year 8. For additional information, consent is presumed, so it is passed on for all young people, except for those who request that it not be passed on.
The presumed consent is ongoing, but parents are notified annually that information about their child may be passed on. That can be done through a letter or through the school’s website. On those occasions, they are also notified of their right to opt out. It is also worth clarifying that very broadly, the Data Protection Act provides the conditions that need to be satisfied before personal data can be disclosed. There are additional conditions that need to be satisfied in the case of sensitive personal data, such as information about racial or ethnic origins and physical or mental health.
One such condition is that the disclosure is necessary for the exercise of statutory functions. The educational institutions referred to in clauses 14 and 57 are under a statutory duty to provide information when requested to do so because the condition for disclosure is satisfied without obtaining consent. That informs why we need the opt-out in clause 14(4), so that there is an additional safeguard on top of the Data Protection Act because that effectively allows an exemption for disclosure. That is a recap of where we got to today. In particular, the Committee should reflect on the protections that I have summarised from the Data Protection Act.
In the light of existing provisions, it is clear that the amendments are at best unnecessary. Amendments Nos. 25 and 112 would insert a requirement to give consent before any supply of information. As with other cases that we have discussed, that would slow the system down and place additional bureaucratic burdens on local authorities and other public bodies. Amendments Nos. 26 and 111 would have a similar effect by giving young people a specific right to examine any personal information before it is passed on. That delay could be exacerbated if a young person was somehow prevented from examining or was not able to examine their information before it was provided. As I have emphasised, any delay in getting potentially vital information to the Connexions service could prevent it from providing timely, targeted and personalised support of the kind necessary to engage young people in education or training.
We have already discussed the purpose of public bodies such as those listed in clauses 16 and 62 being able to share information with Connexions. It is the most vulnerable young people who will need Connexions support the most and it is they who are most likely to benefit from this information sharing. The amendments could prevent that from happening effectively. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Gibb: There is something contradictory about the way that the Minister rattled through that response to the amendments. On the one hand, he says that they are unnecessary because all of the protections contained in the amendments are contained in the Data Protection Act, which will apply to the Bill. He cites the requirement to check the information and amend inaccuracies and that it requires there to be consent. At the same time, he says that to accept the amendments would slow down the system and would create a bureaucratic burden on the overall wonderful aim of raising participation in education and training. He cannot have it both ways. Either these protections are already in the law, in which case they will already be bureaucratic and burdensome and delay the process, or they are not. There is nothing different in the way that the amendments are drafted from the principles laid down in the Data Protection Act.
Leaving that argument aside, I also think that the principles of the Data Protection Act should be incorporated into the Bill for clarity. We are trying to make the law clear. Those working in a local authority or one of the other statutory bodies should not have to have one Act on one knee and one on the other to work out what they should be doing. In a private sector company where there are internal rules and regulations and procedures for how the company conducts itself, there will be rules that tell the employees that when data are submitted, these are the things to be done to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998. The company does not tell its employees, “Here is the data. Do what you like with it. By the way, you are meant to comply with the Data Protection Act so make sure you stick a copy of that up on your noticeboard.” The company itself will have rules and regulations. The Bill constitutes the rules and regulations of these statutory bodies and of the Department. These rules and regulations should contain the principles of the Data Protection Act 1998. The Government are playing fast and loose with a very important part of their duty to protect the privacy of people in this country.
I am very disappointed again by the Minister’s response and will press the amendment to a division.
5.15 pm
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.
Division No. 16 ]
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Laws, Mr. David
Walker, Mr. Charles
Watkinson, Angela
Barlow, Ms Celia
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Griffith, Nia
Knight, Jim
Lammy, Mr. David
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Hayes: I beg to move amendment No. 28, in clause 16, page 8, line 44, at end insert—
‘( ) The provisions of section 15(4), (5), (6) and (7) shall apply to any person to whom information is supplied under subsection (1).’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 109, in clause 62, page 34, line 5, at end insert—
‘(1A) The provisions of section 61(4), (5), (6) and (7) shall apply to any person to whom information is supplied under subsection (1).’.
Mr. Hayes: I move seamlessly from diligent study of the specious origins of liberalism to studious consideration of the specious arguments used by the Minister in defence of this clause.
Jim Knight: I strongly encourage the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendments once he has heard the compelling case that I am about to make.
The measures in respect of clauses 15 and 61 relate specifically to information, including social security information. We felt it was important to be consistent in respect to other disclosures of social security information in respect of penalties, but we do not feel that we should therefore bring up the enforcement penalties for everything else to the same standard as is consistent with social security information. We should make those harsher penalties consistent with the other disclosure of social security information. That is all we are seeking to do in these clauses.
Mr. Hayes: That is revealing and interesting. What kinds of disclosure would the Minister deem of less significance and, therefore, warranting lesser penalty, given that we have been speaking today about information that might be provided by the police or via other local government departments or other local authorities?
Jim Knight: I was seeking to be brief but perhaps that is not a privilege that I can be afforded. Clearly, those disclosures of information by public bodies under clauses 16 and 62 would be subject, as things stand, to the penalties that are set out in the Data Protection Act 1998. We think that it is appropriate that the penalties should lie at that base level. If it was not for the problem of inconsistency, we would have been happy for social security information to be at that level, but we think that it is important that there should not be any differentiation in law, according to where the information has come from, around the penalties attached to disclosure of social security information. We are simply seeking to be consistent in that regard.
Mr. Gibb: I do not understand this either. It is a criminal offence to disclose information that clause 15 relates to, which in fact is somebody’s name, address and date of birth, or the name and address of their parents, but it is not a criminal offence to disclose wrongly people’s health records, police records, criminal records or education records. I do not understand why wrongful disclosure of name and address is a criminal offence and the disclosure of very sensitive information such as health records, is not.
Jim Knight: It is an offence for someone who is employed or has been employed in social security administration to disclose personal information without lawful authority; that is set out in section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. A corresponding offence provision was thought necessary where the information has been supplied to someone not covered by the offence in social security legislation. That is to maintain the same level of protection for that information irrespective of who holds it.
Disclosure of personal information otherwise than in accordance with the provision of the Data Protection Act 1998 might still constitute a criminal offence, under section 55(1) of that Act. Prosecutions for this offence must be commenced by the Information Commissioner or by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The offence is triable either way and the maximum penalty is a fine limited only by the jurisdiction of the trying court.
On the basis of trying, I hope that that is sufficient for the Committee and I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Hayes: I am not entirely satisfied, because it seems that the Minister was arguing—he may want to come back again on this point—that what the Bill does in respect of clause 15 is to create consistency with other legislation relating to the disclosure of social security information. On the other hand, what our amendment suggests is that the Bill itself must be consistent; there must be consistency across the provisions of the Bill. That is because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton implied in his pithy intervention, the type of data that is transmitted between institutions that might have a responsibility for young people’s welfare or guidance might disclose information that is as sensitive and as potentially damaging as social security information. In our earlier considerations, we heard that that information might come, for example, from the police. It would certainly include sensitive health information and it might include information from a range of other agencies dealing with highly personal data. I am not sure that the Minister’s case that the clause is designed to create consistency with other legislation relating to social security but that it is not so important to have consistency across the Bill in terms of the disclosure of information is entirely convincing.
Mr. Bercow, I do not imagine that you will allow a long stand part debate on this clause, as we have already examined it in some detail. Therefore I must say now that, if the Minister had come to the Committee today in a rather different mood and with a rather different manner and argued that collection and exchange of this information was central to the purpose of the Bill as defined at its beginning, although we may have disagreed with him, we would have regarded him as sensible. What he has actually done is to come to the Committee with an argument that is neither right nor sensible, and we have heard it time and time again as we have debated different aspects of different clauses.
I make that remark without malice, but simply to say that we need an open debate about why this information is being gathered and exchanged. It may be that the Minister makes a plausible case and that the gathering and exchange of that information is essential as part of the principal thrust of the Bill. However, I am not sure that we have heard that case put today. I think that we have had smoke and mirrors, and I do not think that that does this Committee or indeed this Bill any service.
I do not know if the Minister wants to come back again on this point, but unless he does so I am inclined to press this matter to a Division, in the spirit that my hon. Friend and others on the Committee have done so, purely and importantly to highlight what we feel is a significant weakness in this proposed legislation and in the Government’s argument.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.
Division No. 17 ]
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Laws, Mr. David
Walker, Mr. Charles
Watkinson, Angela
Barlow, Ms Celia
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Griffith, Nia
Knight, Jim
Lammy, Mr. David
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Laws: I beg to move amendment No. 60, in clause 16, page 9, leave out lines 3 and 4.
This amendment is our last chance to have a bite at clause 16 and at two of the groups that are set out in subsection (2) that can release information to a local authority. The amendment deletes the primary care trust and the strategic health authority from that list. It is essentially a probing amendment to allow me to ask the Minister a number of questions that relate specifically to bodies that have health responsibilities. I have six questions for the Minister and if I get six answers I shall be doing well, but I certainly will not need to press this to a Division.
First, the clause gives someone in a local authority the ability to secure the information from the bodies named in paragraphs (a) to (g), including the two health bodies. Are there any protections in relation to the local authority staff who will be able to access this information? In other words, because a lot of this is particularly confidential information, will there be some process of scrutiny within a local authority about who should be able to access this information? Will there be some way for those who are asked to be sure that this is being sought on an appropriate basis and with appropriate safeguards?
Secondly, the health bodies named here are the primary care trust and the strategic health authority. I am not sure what information the strategic health authority would hold on an individual of the type that we are dealing with in the Bill. I should be grateful if the Minister could say something about that. Will the duty be on the primary care trust to access the information through GPs or are we to take it that the primary care trust in paragraph (c) is essentially the proxy body for all the GP practices in the area? Would the access be directly to the GP?
As part of that long second question, would the Bill automatically include—I assume that this would be the intention—other health bodies that might be partnerships of some of the constituent parts of subsection (2)? For example, the drug and alcohol service in Somerset is run by Somerset Drugs Service, which is accountable to a drug action team and is a multi-agency body. I assume that that organisation and, for that matter, the Somerset Partnership, which is the mental health body covering Somerset and is a partnership of social services and the national health service, would also be required to give information under the clause.
How will this information be requested? Will it be necessary for the individual in the local authority to go to the GP, the primary care trust or the strategic health authority, if that ever happens, which seems unlikely, and say, “We are concerned about this individual and their medical or mental health problem of this type. Could we have information on this discrete issue?”? Or could the local authority go on a fishing expedition, saying to the PCT, “We are very concerned about this person. He is not compliant with the Bill and is not in education or training. Give us all you’ve got on his medical background and any other information that you think might be relevant.”? It is important to know whether the local authority should seek something specific or whether it could go on a fishing expedition. That might also determine what information they end up with, and how widely ranged it is.
5.30 pm
Will the Minister say what conditions might meet the relevancy criteria? GPs and PCTs keep a huge amount of information on people’s health circumstances. Much of it will be extremely sensitive and some might be directly relevant to people’s ability to discharge their responsibilities under the Bill.
For example, would a GP be required to give information on pregnancy, especially for someone who was so much in the early stages of pregnancy that individuals close to her might not have been informed about it? I presume that mental health problems would be covered, but how serious would they need to be? Would someone being treated for drug or alcohol addiction automatically be included? If the condition was not so serious as to constitute an addiction but was in the early stages of addictive behaviour, would that count? Would the sexual abuse of another person count? Would a sexually related disease count? Would being HIV-positive count? Would a host of personal health problems that might impact on a person’s ability to be in stable employment or educational environmental count? Will guidance be given to local authorities and those who need to consider whether the information is relevant as to what type of health conditions ought to be considered relevant?
We are now on question five, Mr. Bercow, in case you have lost count. It is a power granted to those bodies to give up information; it is not that they must do so.
Jim Knight: It is not that they are required to give it, as I said earlier.
Mr. Laws: They have the option to give that information. I cannot remember what I said earlier, Mr. Bercow; it is difficult to believe that so much time has passed.
Some entities may decide not to take up the offer to provide information. For instance, health-related bodies are more prone to stick up two fingers metaphorically at the Bill’s provisions than many others. They often resent having to give information that involves a bureaucratic burden and expense. They routinely charge for answering requests for health-related information. A primary care trust may say, “We’re terribly sorry but we’re not going to waste our time doing that unless you pay”, or even, “We are not going to waste our time doing this because far too many burdens have been imposed on us by the Government.” Will the Government do anything about it? Will it be acceptable for a PCT to decide for itself to ignore the provisions of the Bill, effectively allowing its GPs to opt out as a group, or, returning to the earlier question, is it likely that the local authority would directly seek the information from a GP?
My final question has been touched upon time and again by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. How will the consent work in practical terms? We know that the Minister thinks that protection comes under the Data Protection Act 1998. If a highly vulnerable young person has some of the conditions that I mentioned earlier, the local authority may be worried that it will get in the way of that person complying with the duties under the Bill—or that person may not have taken up the duty, and the local authority is considering what support mechanisms need to be put in place. If the PCT or the GP phones up and says, “Give us all the information on this guy. We know he’s got mental health problems and drug addictions and a whole series of other issues”, how in practice will the GP or PCT seek the approval of the person in question? Over what time period will a request need to be dealt with? Does it have to be the GP or PCT that seeks the information? Would it have to be in writing? Is there a period of time in which a person can reconsider their option to give the information?
The ability of an individual to opt out or opt in seems to be extraordinarily weak. In practice, many of the individuals involved could be vulnerable, and they may not realise that their data are protected unless they are explicitly told otherwise. They might feel under pressure when they are contacted by people to give information and, in certain circumstances, they might not even understand what is being asked of them. I would like to know more about how in practice consent will be sought from an ordinary individual in those ordinary circumstances, to know whether the protection to which the Minister keeps referring will be effective, or whether, as some Opposition Members fear, it will be a protection on paper that is not effective in practice.
Mr. Hayes: May I support the hon. Gentleman briefly on the amendment? There is a need for greater clarity on what the Government envisage as a result of the legislation. I take the view that, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, such information is of a personal nature and that it is by convention held in trust by health authorities of one sort or another, on the understanding that it will be disclosed only with the explicit consent of the individual. It may be of even more profound concern to people who have mental or sexual health difficulties, or acute medical problems that affect their lifestyle and opportunities. It should only be exchanged when absolutely necessary and also, in my judgment, with the consent of the individual.
Jim Knight: In a discussion on an intervention at the beginning of the sitting, we discussed health-related matters, so many of the principles behind the amendment have been debated. However, the hon. Member for Yeovil hopes that I will answer his questions, which I will do as best as I can.
Incidentally, I shall repeat—I am given to wonder why—for the sake of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings in the hope that it will get through, that we are not opening a hornets’ nest, because the measures are already in place through the Learning and Skills Act 2000. He fears that a hornets’ nest is being opened, but it is already open and has been for some years. If you were going to be stung, Mr. Bercow, you would already have been stung by those hornets.
The first question that the hon. Member for Yeovil was whether local authority staff accessing the information would be scrutinised and what kind of confidentiality could we be assured about. Only those people involved in the provision of support to young people who are supported in participation will be able to access the information. Obviously, there are the offences in respect of the wrongful disclosure of the information that would then govern the way that the local authority used it for other people. It might be worth the Committee noting that those people responsible for enforcement would not be able to access this information. As I understand it, it is only those who are responsible for support.
Mr. Laws: Where is that assurance in the Bill or elsewhere that this will only be for those people providing support rather than for enforcement? The Minister has made that point a number of times, but we want to know that it is a cast-iron, bankable guarantee.
Jim Knight: I will seek to come back on that if I need to in respect of the Bill. As I have set out before, the specification on the information system is significant in this regard. It is very clear in the specification. There may be something in respect of having to have regard to that specification somewhere in the legislation. If I can think of where it is, I will let the hon. Gentleman know. The specification is clear on the role-based security. The personal data can be accessed only by the appropriate person. The lead professionals’ code of conduct covers the proper use of data and that would have effect in this regard. I refer the hon. Gentleman to clause 55(2)(d) as the relevant part of the Bill that informs the use of the specification.
Mr. Hayes: I do not want to open any more hornets’ nests for the Minister, but would the person be informed as and when their information was requested, however often that is? If so, in what way?
Jim Knight: I will come to that question when I respond to the sixth question of the hon. Member for Yeovil. It is helpful to answer questions in the order in which they are put.
Mr. Laws: On question two, is the Minister saying in relation to these case conferences that the local authority could not exercise its powers under the Bill to simply write to a GP direct and ask them to provide that information in the form of a letter?
Jim Knight: I am not saying that. It would be possible under these measures for other communications to take place. It may be one-to-one telephone calls in which some information might be shared that would be governed by these clauses. In most cases multi-agency case conferences would discuss the individual needs of vulnerable people.
5.45 pm
The third question that the hon. Member for Yeovil asked was how the information would be requested. Although he thought that his last intervention referred to question two, I would have interpreted it as referring to question three. Is it in respect of an individual or a whole body—was that the question?
Mr. Laws: I do not think that I made question three clear enough. The question was, in respect of a single individual, could there be a fishing expedition about all their medical problems or would the query have to be specific?
Jim Knight: No, it could not be a fishing expedition. Specific information would need to be requested, and it would then be up to the public body whether to provide it. Fishing, in the context that we are discussing, and probably in respect of other matters, is not allowed under the Data Protection Act. In practice, we are talking about shared face-to-face disclosures of information.
The fifth question relates to the use of the word “may” in clause 16(1). If the public bodies decide not to disclose the information, can they ignore the provisions? Yes, if they judge the information to be irrelevant, they do not have to provide it. That is extremely clear.
Finally, question six addresses how the consent will work. Obviously, that also relates to the intervention of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings. The young person does not have to give consent. The principles of fairness contained in the Data Protection Act mean that it is necessary to inform the young person if personal data relating to him or her is being shared, if notification is practicable.
The Act allows for sharing without consent between two public bodies where it is necessary in order for the recipient of the data to carry out its functions. However, data are shared only when it is in the interests of the young person, rather than in the interests of the public body. That is highly relevant in this respect and in that of the concerns consistently expressed by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings about the measure being used for enforcement. I hope that that answer helps him.
Mr. Heald: I am concerned that a risk of crime can be tackled. If someone was a drugs pusher and there was a need to try to educate them, but to keep a weather eye open and ensure that they were not corrupting other youngsters, would that not still be possible? Could information from the police or the health authority about that also be used for those purposes?
Jim Knight: We are talking about data sharing for the purpose of supporting the young person. A public interest justification for sharing data for other purposes may crop up during a one-to-one conversation or during a case conference, in respect of potential serious crime. However, it is important that we hang on to the principle that the measure is to support young people. If their criminal behaviour that was known to the police was significant in relation to designing the individual support to be provided, obviously that would be relevant and it could be disclosed.
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way one last time on the final issue of consent, because he rather rushed what he said. Could he take us more slowly through how, in practice, a young person whose GP has asked for personal health information will be notified and give approval for the information to be released? What will be the time period? Did the Minister say something about approval where practicable? I might have missed the phrase that he used, but I thought that I heard those words.
Jim Knight: I shall repeat something that I said earlier, then I shall add something and then, given that the hon. Gentleman said that that was his final intervention, I shall seek to sit down and the Committee’s view can be taken.
On the question of whether the young person can prevent their information from being shared, the principles of fairness in the Data Protection Act mean that, if personal data relating to the young person is shared and notification is practicable, it is necessary to inform them. The Act allows for sharing without consent between two public bodies where that is necessary for the recipient of the data to carry out its functions, and only where that is in the interests of the young person. Where an obligation of confidence applies, such as between a doctor and a patient, the information can be used without the individual’s permission only for the purpose for which it was provided. That is all part of the law on processing personal data. I hope that that helps the Committee.
Mr. Hayes: A few moments ago the Minister said that data sharing was not a problem because it is already established practice. Now he tells us, in the form of guidance that has been gifted to him from the ether, that that is not the case, and that without the express permission of the young person the information can be used only for a very particular purpose. Our concerns have been exacerbated by the complacency on the part of the Minister under questioning from Committee members who want only to get things right, and who speak only in defence of the interests of individuals.
Jim Knight: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I have tried to give the information that the Committee wants. I was asked six specific questions, and although the hon. Member for Yeovil did not seem optimistic that I would attempt to answer all six, I think that I have made a fair attempt to do so. I have learned more about the Data Protection Act today than I knew about it this morning, and I have tried to impart that to the Committee. I hope that I have been helpful and that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Laws: We know that the Minister’s Department does not like external testing any more. However, to prove that external testing can be as good as the self-certification of which Ministers are normally in favour, I sought to mark the Minister on the six questions as he went through them.
Jim Knight: I hope that the hon. Gentleman notes that continuous oral assessment works very well.
Mr. Laws: Sometime it does. I mark the Minister highly on his attempt to answer the six questions. He gets six out of six for that, and that is high praise indeed. Unfortunately, the mark for the quality of his answers is rather lower.
Although there is a tendency to think of enforcement as something draconian, the Government’s whole approach is that enforcement of the obligations in the Bill is in the interests of the young person. The Minister responded to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings earlier and cited the assurances in the Data Protection Act that data could be revealed if that was in the interests of the young person rather than of the institution. Unfortunately, it is the Government’s view that all that information and enforcement is in the interests of the young person, and that is precisely why we have a Bill to force through compulsion with regard to education and training for 16 and 17-year-olds. Such an assurance therefore does not give us a great deal of comfort.
We then discussed how the information will be accessed, and the Minister gave us the impression that it would be within a comfy and responsible multi-agency meeting of the type with which we are all familiar and which tends to go on for a long period of time. It all sounded responsible and sober until he was pressed on that point, and acknowledged that there was no reason why a local authority could not simply write directly to a GP to get that information. I think that he also mentioned talking about some of those issues on the telephone with a GP. Such communications might be valuable in finding out something about a young person’s needs, but they might also compromise to a large extent the ability to keep information confidential or to allow the young person to check what information was being imparted.
I have a similar concern about the issue of specific information versus a fishing expedition. The Minister gave us an assurance that the information had to be specific, as opposed to a fishing expedition of an entire range of ailments going back to German measles. I cannot imagine that such a range would be offered, but I can imagine a GP being asked about the circumstances of a young individual with multiple health problems, such as mental health problems and drug addiction. I can imagine a question that, while seeming to be quite specific, would essentially require the GP to give a whole range of information to provide a serious response.
As for conditions, the Government confirmed that the provision is open-ended and that there is wiggle room to reveal different conditions. We discovered that primary care trusts in some parts of the country can essentially flick two fingers at those provisions by deciding not to bother to give any information at all if they think that it is too burdensome, which is not reassuring. We then dealt with consent, which concerns Liberal Democrats the most and which the Minister rather rushed through, hiding again behind the Data Protection Act. His response lacked detail as to the practicalities of how the information will be sought and the safeguards about which I asked, including the time scales for response and protection for vulnerable people. The Minister repeated the words “if practicable” in relation to obtaining information from a young person, and one wonders in what circumstances it would not be practicable to obtain that permission. There are some vulnerable individuals whose permission, it might be argued, is not easy or practicable to obtain.
6 pm
The Minister therefore gets six out of six for seeking to answer those questions, but major questions remain as to how the clause will work in practice and we will, no doubt, wish to return to that at a later stage. For the time being, however, I will not press this modest probing amendment to a Division, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 69, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 6.
Division No. 18 ]
Barlow, Ms Celia
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Griffith, Nia
Knight, Jim
Lammy, Mr. David
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Laws, Mr. David
Walker, Mr. Charles
Watkinson, Angela
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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