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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Illsley
Blizzard, Mr. Bob (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Bone, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough) (Con)
Clarke, Mr. Charles (Norwich, South) (Lab)
Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
George, Mr. Bruce (Walsall, South) (Lab)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Leigh, Mr. Edward (Gainsborough) (Con)
Moffatt, Laura (Crawley) (Lab)
Purnell, James (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab)
Roy, Lindsay (Glenrothes) (Lab)
Smith, Angela E. (Minister of State, Cabinet Office)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole) (Con)
Williams, Stephen (Bristol, West) (LD)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 20 October 2009

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Draft Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Higher Education Student Information) Regulations 2009
10.30 am
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Higher Education Student Information) Regulations 2009.
It is a pleasure to serve again, Mr. Illsley, with you chairing the Committee with your customary fairness and good humour.
The regulations are the second use of the data sharing powers under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, and make possible the sharing of data on students in higher education. They are not about new data collection, but further utilisation of data that have already been collected. Without them it would not be possible for the Office for National Statistics to have access to the relevant data on students in higher education. It may help the Committee to know that the regulations were debated and approved in another place on 8 July.
The regulations and the previous regulations, which permitted the sharing of data from the schools census, are part of a wider programme of work—the migration and population statistics improvement programme—being taken forward by the national statistician. The programme is intended to deal with the problems encountered in estimating highly mobile populations, taking into account short-term migration. Providing the ONS with access to administrative data that has already been collected, and which is held by Government Departments and their agencies, is essential if the ONS is to meet increasing demands for new and improved population and migration statistics.
The Government are committed to doing all that they can to help to improve the accuracy of the population estimates, particularly at local level. That is in direct response to concerns that have been raised by local government and others, including the Treasury Committee, about the accuracy of population and migration statistics. Both local and central government need accurate information on migrant numbers and the overall changes to the size and structure of the population at local level, for resource allocation and the planning and delivery of local services. In supporting the regulations, the Committee will help to ensure a fairer allocation of resources to local authorities and to other bodies in future years.
The ONS has evaluated the data being collected on students in higher education and has identified the information that it needs for improvement of population and migration statistics. The regulations will allow the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the body that collates the information on behalf of the Higher Education Funding Councils for England and Wales, to share the information with the ONS. It could not, otherwise, be shared. The information includes the name, date of birth, gender and ethnicity of the student, details of their home and term-time postcodes, and information to facilitate understanding of when moves take place. All that information is set out in the regulations.
Access to the data will enable the ONS to try to develop new approaches for its derivation of population estimates and projections, including better estimates of the number of migrants, improved accuracy of mid-year estimates, projections of populations for local areas, including areas with high rates of population turnover, and development of continuing research into use of the administrative data in updating population statistics without a traditional census. In addition, access to the data will help the ONS to improve the enumeration of students in the 2011 census, and to improve the assessment of the quality of statistics on students in that census.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Who will define the ethnicity—the person preparing the statistic, or the individual concerned? In some instances there may be a variance.
Angela E. Smith: It is important to stick to the established procedure which is that the person filling in the form defines their ethnicity.
Regulations also make provision for the ONS to disclose the records of students living in Scotland and attending a higher education institution in England or Wales to the General Register Office for Scotland, and to disclose records of students living in Northern Ireland and attending higher education institutions in England or Wales to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.
The information will be used by those organisations to improve population and migration statistics in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Those will then be provided to the ONS so that it can produce migration and population estimates for the UK as a whole. I assure the Committee that data confidentiality and security arrangements have been fully assessed as a fundamental part of the preparation of the data sharing arrangements in the organisations concerned. A privacy impact assessment carried out by the ONS concluded that the proposed disclosure of data is lawful and does not breach any statutory provisions. That assessment has been approved by both funding councils and by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
I can also assure the Committee that the ONS and the Higher Education Statistics Agency work to tight confidentiality guidelines and have excellent data security records. They will put the necessary measures in place to protect the data and avoid disclosure of any private information about individual students. Information will be shared by the ONS with Scotland and Northern Ireland, via its secure virtual microdata laboratory.
The sharing of data under the regulations is supported by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property and Jane Hutt, Welsh Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills. They both gave their formal approval to the final proposal before the draft regulations were laid. By supporting the regulations, the Committee will allow data that are already collected on students by the Higher Education Statistics Agency to be shared with the ONS. Without the regulations, the ONS would be unable to access that data. Providing the ONS with that access is essential, to help it improve the accuracy of migration and population statistics without having to perform a new and expensive data collection. The improved statistics will better inform policy making and funding allocation, and improve the quality of the next census. I therefore ask the Committee to support the regulations.
10.36 am
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. This is a first for me, so I do not propose to test the qualities of fairness and good humour to which the Minister referred. I shall keep my comments brief.
We—certainly my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and I—have been here before, to discuss similar regulations that flow from section 47 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. The fact that we have been around this track before and have established some of the principles for discussion does not mean that we should skip over the main reason we are here, which is Government failure: the 2001 census failed to measure the population accurately. That matters, as the Treasury sub-committee counting the population made extremely clear. Many local authorities do not recognise the population profile that they have been presented with. My local authority of Hillingdon falls into that category, not least because of the problems arising from Heathrow airport. Therefore, the accuracy of the data matters because money flows from them and resources are allocated as a result. It is extremely important that the data are accurate; in 2001 they clearly were not and problems have arisen from that.
We have no objection to the principle, and to the process under way to try to ensure that the data are more accurate in future, but it would be wrong to let the Committee pass without placing on record some of the concerns that most of our constituents—certainly those in my area—have about how the Government handle sensitive data. There is a concern about increasingly big and intrusive government, a concern that has been exacerbated by the cavalier incompetence with which personal data have been handled by this Government. I will spare the Minister’s blushes by not reading out the various headlines, such as “Top-secret files on Al Qaeda and Iraq’s security forces left on commuter train” and “Personal details of thousands of criminals lost”. The list goes on, and the Minister will be aware of it. There are considerable concerns out there and the Minister paid lip service to them in her remarks. I would like to press her for more detail on the Government’s approach to improving the security of personal data. I imagine that few students will be aware of the regulations, but if they read them they would be concerned about their personal data being shuttled around Government, and they would have the same question as I do: “Why is that absolutely essential?”
Michael Fabricant: There is a sensitive area to the matter, as well, in that the term-time accommodation postcode is one of the items that would have to be submitted as part of the form. Often students live in one large building, to which one postcode applies—in other words, one can identify from the postcode precisely where they live. If a large number of people of a particular ethnicity lived in such a building they might in some circumstances, unfortunately, feel threatened if they thought that that information would get into the public domain.
Mr. Hurd: My hon. Friend raises an important point. There will be sensitivities about such matters in this day and age. I ask the Minister to be a little more forthcoming in explaining why the provision is essential—a must-have rather than a nice-to-have—and a little more explicit about the safeguards, both for security of data and against the risk of mission creep, which is all too evident.
The Minister discussed recovery measures, and talked vaguely about something called a virtual data laboratory. That meant nothing to me and I expect that it would mean little to any students who were concerned about the issue. We shall not oppose the regulations, but I press her to be more forthcoming in attending to the concerns that people have about the way the Government handle data. She was silent on that in her speech.
10.40 am
Jenny Willott: Like the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley, and I will not detain you too long today. I have never seen such a large gathering interested in a set of regulations. I did not realise that regulations on statistics were quite so popular.
We welcome the provisions. As I mentioned in debating the previous set of regulations under the Act, which related to schools census data, accurate information is crucial. The issue of higher education students affects my constituency seriously. We have five universities in Cardiff and, as the hon. Gentleman said, accurate data are needed.
The last census was not accurate in many areas, and Cardiff was one area in which the number of people was seriously underestimated. That had serious implications for funding for the local authority, and thus affected local residents and taxpayers. It also affected students, because, for example, there were not enough GP places. There are serious implications for everyone living in an area where census data are not accurate. I hope that the regulations will make a difference to cities throughout the country.
However, I should like the Minister to clarify a couple of questions. The first is about data security, which the hon. Gentleman just mentioned. How will the data be shared? Will they be biked around or sent over the internet? Some methods have in the past proved significantly more secure than others. I accept that there have been fewer data losses—certainly that we are aware of—in recent months than there were about 12 months ago, but that will not necessarily reassure those whose data are being shared.
Have any issues been raised as a result of the schools census data regulations? Has their implementation been reviewed or monitored to see how it has been working? Have issues been raised, or have there been concerns, about the security of the shared data?
I find it worrying that the Government are not sure that the ID numbers are actually unique. If cross-checking is an issue, I do not understand why the full name must be used. Surely something such as the postcode of the home or term-time address would give enough accuracy to identify the person as unique, and would give a measure of security that a person could not readily be identified from the data being shared.
Michael Fabricant: I was listening to the hon. Lady’s argument with considerable interest. While I would sympathise with the Government if they were saying that they wanted a belt-and-braces approach, and having two factors would help in that, I agree with the hon. Lady from the point of view that some people from abroad share similar names, such as Patel, just as we have Smith—both are common names. Using the postcode idea that she has suggested might be a more accurate way of doing it, while at the same time, ensuring the secrecy and security of the individual concerned.
Jenny Willott: As a Member for a Welsh constituency, I have a significant number of constituents called Williams, Evans and Jones, so there is an issue there. I should be grateful if the Minister would answer my points, but I support the regulations.
10.46 am
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Illsley. I have a couple of quick questions for the Minister simply for accuracy. When will the regulations come into force, and what steps have been taken for the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments to consider them?
Big government is certainly a concern to Conservative Members. The Government’s record on releasing private information into the public domain has been lamentable. It seems to me—I recall some work on this issue—that statistical sampling is more effective than just trying to have everyone’s information because of duplications and things going wrong. The information required is detailed: we talked about ethnic groups, but now details are sought on the mode of study and the sort of room people live in. All that information can be gathered much more efficiently and accurately by statistical sampling. I wonder if the Government have considered that rather than the regulations.
10.47 am
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): We all know that there is something called studification, where many students have an impact on the housing and rental markets, which sometimes causes difficulties in certain areas. Presumably, the information that goes to the ONS will be available to local authorities, housing authorities and other providers of housing, because some fairly relevant information will be collected.
10.48 am
Angela E. Smith: I will do my best to do justice to the comments that have been helpfully raised. I can tell the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central that since the previous regulations no issues have been raised on the sharing of information regarding school pupils.
First, it might be helpful if I emphasise to Committee Members—there may be some confusion on the part of the hon. Members for Lichfield and for Wellingborough—that the regulations are not about collecting new information, but about the sharing of information with the Office for National Statistics. That should address some of the concerns, but I will deal with this in more detail. The comment that I was paying lip service to security was an outrageous slur. The reputations of the organisations concerned and the procedures that are being put in place, which I will come to, should reassure hon. Members today.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood perhaps saw the opportunity for a little bit of sport when he talked about the failure of the census and issues around statistics. The census has been going on since 1801. In that time, we have learnt that things have changed. The population moves much more quickly and we are much more mobile around the country than we were in 1801. In addressing the concerns that have rightly been raised, it is helpful to have additional studies and share information between organisations. I find it difficult to accept some of the criticism when the regulations address some of the concerns that have been quite rightly raised.
On the issue of data being lost or at risk in any way, we can assure hon. Members present that the Government take the issue extremely seriously. We are transparent if information is lost or mislaid, but the idea that, in the words of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, information is shuttling around Government does a disservice both to the Government and to the public and creates unnecessary alarm. The points raised by others, including the Treasury Committee and local authorities—the hon. Gentleman has stated that local authorities do not have accurate information—are what make these regulations a must-have and not a nice-to-have.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about mission creep is unjustified. If he looks at the legislation, he will see that there is no possibility of mission creep. The legislation and the explanatory notes clearly state exactly what information will be shared and how it will be used.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough asked when the regulations will come into force. That will happen as soon as the Committee agrees upon them today—it has indicated that it will—and Ministers sign them; in other words, they will come into force immediately.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central asked how the 2011 census would be improved. The census will be discussed in the House at a later date, but I will suggest three sets of improvements, namely coverage access, adjustment in the validation of information and a better basis for estimating local moves, which is what the regulations under discussion also address, to improve the methods of population estimates.
It is essential to have information on students because they are among the most mobile sectors of the population and there are problems with enumerating young people, which was one of the problems identified in the 2001 census to which the hon. Lady has referred. Better information on students is vital and the existing source is inadequate in providing details about international and internal migration. The regulations will help provide that information.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood asked about safeguarding the transfer of data. It is important to understand that the data under discussion are not being passed from organisation to organisation; it is a new system. He also asked about the laboratory that I mentioned, which I am happy to discuss in detail. The ONS will be able to use a special identifying number to download an encrypted file on one occasion only, so it will not be available to anyone else. In order to download that file a second time, a further identification number will be required. It will not therefore be possible to print the information or transfer it to another computer, but it will be accessible to the ONS, which is undertaking the requirements of the Communications Electronic Security Group, which is the information assurance arm of GCHQ. The hon. Gentleman nods, so I understand that he is assured and fully conversant with the virtual microdata laboratory.
Michael Fabricant: I understand what the Minister is saying about encryption and the once-only code to access the data, and I also understand the regulations that are in place, but is there anything to prevent someone from downloading data on to a mass storage device such as a CD-ROM or a memory stick?
Angela E. Smith: The procedures are in place for that. If anybody misuses the data or tries to access them, they are quite rightly subject to prosecution, which is a significant threat to anybody who wants to bypass or abuse the system. I hope that I have addressed the general concerns that have been raised.
Jenny Willott: I should be grateful for a response to my question about the use of full names and whether other information could be used instead.
Angela E. Smith: The issue has been looked at, and it was decided that the use of full names is a double-check on information. As someone who shares a name with another MP, a full name is sometimes not quite enough, as the other Angela Smith in the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough, will confirm. The full name is the double check to ensure that the information is totally accurate.
Question put and agreed to.
10.54 am
Committee rose.

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