Education and Skills Bill

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Clause 71

Revenue and Customs information
Mr. Hayes: I beg to move amendment No. 119, in clause 71, page 44, leave out line 37.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 120, in clause 71, page 44, leave out line 40.
No. 121, in clause 71, page 44, leave out line 41.
No. 122, in clause 71, page 45, leave out line 1.
Mr. Hayes: The clause allows for the sharing of information by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to be included in the “information gateway”. It would allow information to be shared with devolved authorities. Put simply, our amendments would specifically prevent the disclosure of information relating to income tax and tax credits.
Again, earlier we spoke at some length about the sensitivity that is abroad about data and information sharing, not least because of some of the scandalous errors that have taken place over recent months. It would be unkind and unnecessary to speak at length about the Government’s embarrassment or to blame the Under-Secretary personally for the profound incompetence shown by the Government, although of course he accepts collective responsibility. With those few words, and not wanting to exaggerate that point, I await the Minister’s no doubt ready response.
Mr. Lammy: Sandy Leitch, as has been said, correctly identified the need to improve the integration of employment and skills as an important policy agenda. That would serve the goal with which the Committee has been occupied over the past few weeks, of moving more people who are out of work into learning and then into long-term employment.
Clauses 71 to 75 will provide an all-important means for us to assess, in a joined-up way, whether we are delivering on that goal. The intention behind the clauses is simple: to enable data to be made available to researchers in Government and beyond, and in the devolved Administrations in Wales and Scotland, so that that assessment can be made. The data will be used for two forms of analysis: first, to determine whether low-skilled individuals are moving into sustainable employment and then progressing in work, rather than falling back on to benefits; and, secondly, to explore the economic returns on the qualifications and skills that individuals achieve. Current legislation puts a duty of confidentiality on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions in relation to the data that they handle. Unless the disclosure is lawful for other reasons, or the information is in the public domain, an express legal provision is required to enable data to be shared outside HMRC. That takes the form of information gateways, which the Bill creates.
All of us as constituency MPs have come across people who might be in employment for a month or two, but then fall out of employment simply because they do not have the skills to progress in and hold on to their jobs. The clause provides a means by which we can analyse those data to see whether our qualifications and the routes set out by Sandy Leitch are working, and whether we are getting the progression we want. We all share those aims. For that reason, I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels able to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Hayes: These are sensitive issues. People’s tax affairs are private matters, which one would expect to be handled with appropriate discretion—hence our amendments. We do not have time, nor would it be appropriate, to debate the tax credits system now, but we all know from our constituency casework that it is a nightmare. In the light of what has occurred in recent months, there is fear in every hearth and home in Britain that the Government are about to spread personal data far and wide.
Having said that, this is not the time to press the amendments. Our case has been made; the sensitivities that I have described will no doubt ring loudly in the ears of Ministers and, one hopes, these matters will be handled with greater discretion in future. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Clause 72 stand part.
Clause 73 stand part.
Government amendments Nos. 201 to 205.
Government new clause 7—Benefit and training information.
Government new clause 8—Revenue and Customs information.
Government new clause 9—Use of information.
If no one wishes to speak, I will put the Question that clause 71 stand part of the Bill. As many as are of that opinion, say “Aye”.
Hon. Members: Aye.
The Chairman: It is not for me to direct the Committee, but the Government Members may have misheard what I said. The Question is that clause 71 stand part of the Bill. As many as are of that opinion, say “Aye”. To the contrary, “No.” I think the Noes have it.
Mr. Lammy: Clause 71? Aye.
The Chairman: My understanding, having read the amendment paper, is the Government want to delete clause 71. May I proceed?
Mr. Lammy: Yes, Mr. Bayley. Aye.
Hon. Members: No.
Mr. Lammy: Mr. Bayley, can I move my amendment?
The Chairman: No.
Mr. Lammy: We have just had a debate on clause 70.
Mr. Gibb: Clause 71.
The Chairman: For clarity, let me say to the Committee that we have just had a debate on amendments to clause 71, which the Committee decided to give leave to be withdrawn. I made it clear to the Committee that the next Question for debate was that clause 71 stand part of the Bill, and I read out a list of other measures to be debated at the same time, which are listed on the Chairman’s selection list. My understanding is that the Government wish to replace clause 71 with a new clause; therefore, unless I misunderstand their intention, when I put the Question that clause 71 stand part of the Bill, the Government Members would say “No.”
Mr. Hayes: On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. We voted on clause 71 stand part and, as far as I could tell, it was passed.
The Chairman: My fear was that Government Members misunderstood on what clause I had put the Question, which is why I made it clear that we were dealing with clause 71. I shall put the Question again.
Question put and negatived.
Clause 71 disagreed to.
Clauses 72 and 73 disagreed to.

Clause 74

Wrongful disclosure of information
10 am
The Chairman: We have already had the opportunity to debate amendment No. 201. I therefore ask the Minister to move it formally—
Mr. Gibb: On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. I would have liked to hear the Under-Secretary’s explanation of Government amendment No. 201 before the Committee moved on to a new clause.
The Chairman: I called the amendment, but no one rose to speak.
Mr. Gibb: If the Government have tabled an amendment or new clause, do they not have an obligation to explain its purpose to the Committee?
The Chairman: I have to say that that is what normally happens. However, I read out the group on the selection list that includes Government amendment No. 201. I paused for quite some time, but no Member on either side of the Committee rose to speak. We therefore proceeded to votes. The opportunity to debate the measures has now passed.
Mr. Gibb: On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. My understanding of what has happened here is that clause 71 was voted on and was passed. You sensibly took the view that the Government Members had misunderstood what was happening, so you put the Question again. My point is that that was the Government’s opportunity to move their amendments, but they failed to do so because again, I believe, they misunderstood what was happening.
The Chairman: I understand why the hon. Gentleman is concerned that we have not fully debated this part of the Bill. Committee procedure when amendments are grouped is that we have a debate on the group, and amendments to later clauses are moved formally when we reach the relevant clause. The opportunity to debate the Government amendments to this clause has now passed. Of course, it is possible for hon. Members to debate the matter further on Report, but the opportunity to do so in Committee has passed.
Mr. Gibb: In this case, I do not agree with your ruling. I clearly heard you put the Question to the Committee, and clause 71 was passed. We all know what happened—the Under-Secretary of State misunderstood what was going on, so you sensibly allowed the matter to be reopened. I do not see why you allowed that, but did not allow the Government to properly explain their new clauses and amendments.
The Chairman: Mr. Gibb, I am trying to be fair to all members of the Committee. Normally when the Chairman puts a Question, he says, “As many as are of that opinion say ‘Aye’; to the contrary ‘No’” After the Chairman has heard the “Ayes” and “Noes”, if the outcome is clear to him, he says, “The Ayes have it, the Ayes have it,” or, “The Noes have it, the Noes have it.” On this occasion, for reasons we both understand, the outcome was not clear to me, because it appeared to me that some members of the Committee had misheard the Question I put. I therefore put it again.
I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman is concerned that the opportunity for the Committee to debate these amendments has gone, but I am constrained by the rules of procedure, which require me to deal formally with the Government amendments and new clauses when we reach them.
Mr. Hayes: On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. I am sorry to drag the matter out, and I intend no discourtesy to you, but during the exchanges that you described, in which there was some confusion, the Minister clearly asked, from a sedentary position, “Can I move my amendment?”
The Chairman: He can move them, but he has to do so formally.
Mr. Lammy: On a point of order, Mr. Bayley.
The Chairman: Before I take any further points of order, let me say that I understand hon. Members’ frustration, but if there is fault on the part of members of the Committee, it is on both sides, because when I called the group for debate, there was a pregnant pause; I waited, but no Member on either side of the Committee rose either to speak to amendments or to ask the Minister to comment on them.
Mr. Gibb: On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. I had no intention of taking part in that debate. I wanted to hear a Minister explain why the Government had tabled the new clauses.
Further to my original point of order, the Question was put and Government Members voted “Aye”. It was only someone outside the Committee who said “No”, drawing attention to the fact that these matters were not properly ordered. I contend that that expression of “No” from outside the Committee was not in order, that clause 71 has therefore been passed, and that the best approach now would be to return to the matter on Report, where the Minister can explain why the new clauses are needed.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Bayley.
Mr. Lammy: On a point of order, Mr. Bayley.
The Chairman: Order. I must answer the points of order that Mr. Gibb has raised.
First, if Opposition Members want the Minister to speak in favour of his amendments but the Minister has decided not to do so, it is incumbent on them to challenge the Minister to explain. That is why I paused. No challenge was made.
Secondly, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that the decision was made that clause 71 should stand part of the Bill. If I had felt that that was the decision of the Committee, I would have made it clear by saying, “The Ayes have it, the Ayes have it.” Because there was clearly confusion in the Committee, I waited until members of the Committee were clear on what clause I was putting the Question. When I was satisfied that all members of the Committee were clear, I took the vote.
On the final part of his point of order, the hon. Gentleman is correct: there is the opportunity to pursue these matters on Report. From what I have heard today, I am sure that that will happen. I am certain that Ministers are aware that they will need to make statements and give explanations. They might even want to discuss with Opposition Front Benchers how to structure the debate on Report.
Mr. Lammy: On a point of order, Mr. Bayley. I just want to remind the Committee that on 22 February I wrote to hon. Members explaining the nature of these technical amendments. Of course, I am happy to discuss them in detail on Report.
The Chairman: We will now move on to decision on the amendments. I am pleased to hear the Minister acknowledge that the discussion that is necessary will take place on Report.
Amendments made: No. 201, in clause 74, page 45, line 41, leave out from ‘information’ to end of line 42 and insert—
‘(a) used in reliance on section (Benefit and training information)(1)(a), or
(b) disclosed in reliance on section (Benefit and training information)(1)(b) or (Revenue and Customs information).’.
No. 202, in clause 74, page 46, line 2, leave out ‘for the purposes of that section’ and insert
‘in connection with the exercise of an assessment function of the Secretary of State or a devolved authority’.—[Mr. Lammy.]
Clause 74, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Prepared 29 February 2008