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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Joan Humble
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Brennan, Kevin (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office)
Cruddas, Jon (Dagenham) (Lab)
Curry, Mr. David (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
Davidson, Mr. Ian (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
George, Andrew (St. Ives) (LD)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Hain, Mr. Peter (Neath) (Lab)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Leigh, Mr. Edward (Gainsborough) (Con)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham, South) (Lab)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 20 January 2009

[Mrs. Humble in the Chair]

Draft Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2009
10.30 am
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Kevin Brennan): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2009.
I think that this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble, and it is a great pleasure to do so.
The regulations are the first use of the data-sharing power under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. They are part of a wider programme of work—the migration and population statistics improvement programme—undertaken by the national statistician that seeks to address the problems faced by local authorities when they estimate highly mobile populations, taking into account short-term migration, which I am sure many hon. Members have come across. Access to the administrative data that are collected and held by a number of Departments will be essential if the Office for National Statistics is to meet increasing demand for new and improved population and migration statistics.
The Government are committed to helping to improve the accuracy of the population estimates produced by the ONS, particularly at a local level, to underpin the correct funding of local government, NHS and other public services. Local and central Government need accurate information on migrant numbers and overall changes to the size and structure of the population for resource allocation, and the planning and delivery of local services. Long-term public expenditure planning, including the calculation and distribution of formula grant to local authorities, and resource allocation to the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, are both dependent on population statistics.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The one concern that my constituents would have is that the data sharing in the measure is epidemiological, as it were, in that it involves general data and numbers rather than personal data regarding individual schoolchildren. Will the Minister give me an assurance that that is not what is intended by the regulations?
Kevin Brennan: I can give such an assurance to the hon. Gentleman. The statistics are already collected by Government, but the ONS is not allowed to use them for the purpose of helping with population and migration estimates, because they are generated under the Education Act 1996 and subsequent Acts. The regulations allow the ONS to use information that is already collected and available to give a better estimate of population, and for that purpose only—the information is not for any general use elsewhere. The measure is tightly drawn, and the ONS is extremely aware of the need to use the statistics for the purpose that Parliament will, I hope, today allow.
The ONS has evaluated the content of the school census, and identified the information that it needs for essential research and methodological work on population and migration statistics. The regulations will allow the DCSF to share the information with the ONS, including, to elaborate for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman, pupils’ names, birth dates, addresses, ethnicities, spoken languages, and dates of joining and leaving schools. Access to those specific data will enable the ONS to evaluate estimation procedures and, if necessary, to develop new approaches for the derivation of migration statistics, population estimates and projections.
The expected benefits of the measure before us include: better information on local populations, including areas with high rates of population turnover, of which I am sure the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central is aware; better information on estimates of numbers of migrants; improved accuracy of mid-year estimates and projections of population; improved enumeration strategies for the 2011 census; better assessments of coverage of the 2011 census, which will lead to better estimates; development of research into the use of administrative data in updating population statistics without a traditional census; and improved resource allocation, policy formulation, and planning and delivery of services.
When collecting the school census, the DCSF gives a fair processing notice to parents, which means there is in effect a privacy policy for the data they collect. It already states that the information from the school census may be shared with other Departments, including the ONS, for statistical and research purposes. At present, that covers only education statistics. The regulations are designed to make it possible for the ONS to use that data to improve migration and population statistics as well.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Will the regulations cover internal migration? I am thinking particularly about seaside towns with large numbers of caravan parks and houses in multiple occupation, where vulnerable children move from inner cities and towns. They stay in caravan parks and HMOs. Getting the ONS statistics from those types of dwelling is very difficult, particularly caravan parks. Once the information is collected, will it be sent to the relevant Departments? Will the information go to the Treasury so that those children and their families are counted as far as funding for local government is concerned?
Kevin Brennan: It will not be distributed around Departments, but it can be used by the ONS to produce the sort of statistics that could be useful to Departments and local government for those very purposes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The measure is designed to help improve population estimates for the more mobile population that we have these days, including in areas such as his constituency, where people live in caravan parks and move around. It will give a more realistic estimate than we can get every 10 years with a census, for example, or with other information that the ONS already uses such as general practitioners registration, which can be quite unreliable. It will add a further layer of information, which will assist the ONS in producing better population and migration statistics.
Today’s order applies to England, but my hon. Friend’s constituency is in Wales. In future, the ONS will come forward with a similar order for Wales, and it will have to go through this House to be enacted. Wales is not included in today’s order, because there is a different method for collecting school census data in Wales. However, there will be a further measure in due course which will assist the Welsh Assembly Government to do a similar thing with school census data in Wales.
Chris Ruane: May I make a further suggestion about how Departments may feed into the ONS? Since 2005, the Department for Communities and Local Government has collected statistics on the number of out-of-county placements for vulnerable adults and children. It has recorded the number of such individuals placed outside the county but I do not believe it has recorded their destination. If that destination were recorded, it could be fed into the ONS and it would show whether there was any social dumping from inland authorities to seaside towns. Each authority might say that it was sending only 50 vulnerable children to Rhyl, but if 10 or 15 authorities send children to Rhyl or to other seaside towns, they usually send them to the same ward, the same caravan park and the same HMO, which is not in the best interests of those vulnerable children. It might be good for the social services department and for the slum landlord or the caravan park owner, but it is not in the best interests of those children.
Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend has been assiduous in pursuing statistics issues to make sure that they accurately reflect his own constituency and the movements of population and the services that are required in such a constituency, which contains a seaside town and a mobile population. I am sure that his comments, which range a bit wider than this order, will be noted by the appropriate officials at the ONS and at other Departments. To re-emphasise the point that emerged from his earlier intervention, provided that children are in schools they will be counted for the school census. As I said, there is a slightly different system in Wales from the one in England. The measure will allow internal movements to be better understood, because access to details of addresses and so on will be available to the ONS from the census. To reassure the hon. Member for Lichfield further, the information will be used only for statistical purposes. No individual data will be used to take action in any way with regard to any individual. I hope that he finds that helpful.
Data confidentiality and security arrangements are being assessed as a fundamental part of the preparation of the data-sharing agreement between the two Departments. The ONS and the DCSF will put the necessary measures in place to protect this data and to avoid disclosure of any private information about individual children. The ONS and the DCSF already work to tight confidentiality guidelines, with excellent data security records. I hope that the Committee will support these regulations, which will help improve the accuracy of the ONS’s migration and population statistics.
10.41 am
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): This is definitely the first time I have spoken in Committee under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble—it is a memorable career milestone. I am sorry that the Minister’s memory bank was so fuzzy on that score.
The Minister read out a fairly passionless brief, which was designed to numb the senses. The truth is that we are discussing something quite important this morning: the legislative basis for Government Departments to share personal data about every child in England as a first step. That will worry a lot of people. If the Minister were to come to Ruislip on a Saturday morning or, I dare say, to Lichfield, and ask, “How comfortable are you about the Government sharing personal data about your child?” The answer would be, “Not very,” followed by the question, “Why is this absolutely necessary?” The honest answer from Government would be, “Because we failed.”
We are here, because the 2001 census has failed properly to measure the population, and because we cannot get an accurate picture of migration impact, as the Minister’s speech made clear. The root of that problem is Department and policy failure. The Department is the Home Office, which is still reeling from its being famously described by a former Labour Home Secretary as “not fit for purpose”. The policy is the migration policy, described recently by the Government’s own Communities Secretary as a “free-for-all”.
The task of measuring migration impacts is hard enough, but under this Government it has proved impossible. I know that this is not the place to discuss migration policy, but the point that I am trying to make is that we are discussing the granting of a big freedom to Government in relation to the handling of data about our children. People are entitled to ask whether it is worth the additional risk to personal freedom and security—sharing increases risk—if the Government are not going to learn from the failures of the past and do something about the root problem, which is the difficulty of measuring uncontrolled immigration.
The question on most people’s lips is, “Will this make any difference?” The answer is important, because as the Minister said, the accuracy of the census matters because money follows it, and because it guides decisions on how resources are allocated by central Government to local authorities, and by local authorities in the communities that they serve. When data are wrong, it leads to big problems and stokes resentment. I know that from my own borough of Hillingdon, where there is cross-party consensus that the official numbers which drive the central grant systematically underestimate the impact of Heathrow airport on the number of people living in Hillingdon and requiring public services.
It is clear that this is a nationwide problem. That comes through most clearly in the Treasury sub-Committee inquiry, “Counting the population”, which received 24 submissions from local authorities and councils, arguing that the UK was not measuring population changes well at a local level. The Local Government Association submission cites case study after case study of councils that cannot recognise their own communities in the statistics presented by the ONS: Newham, Manchester, Leicester, Westminster and Slough all reported serious under-counting in the official statistics. In the case of Slough, the matter was so serious that the town organised a lobby back in 2005, arguing that under-counting of the population would cost £7 million to £8 million over three years, which is equivalent to a 19 per cent. increase in council tax.
The Treasury inquiry stated Professor Martin’s view that
“such demonstrably inaccurate basic population counts could call into question the entire edifice of resource allocation decisions, target-setting, prevalence rates and area profiles which were essentially reliant on such key population data.”
We therefore have a problem, to which we are told that the regulation before us is part of the solution. As the Minister said, it is ground-breaking regulation and the first use of regulation-making powers in section 47 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. It is possibly the first step on a journey that will give the Statistics Board access to more personal data held by other Departments. Given public concern about increasingly big and intrusive government, the erosion of civil liberties and personal freedoms and the cavalier incompetence with which Whitehall has handled personal data in recent years, it is worth pausing and asking a few questions that the public might wish to ask.
First, why will the regulations make such a difference? Are they a must-have or a nice-to-have? Why is the information essential for work on improving population statistics? The Minister used the word, “essential”, and it is in the explanatory memorandum. Are these regulations the first because they are the most important? Are there more regulations to come? Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield asked in his opening questions, what information will be shared? In this party, we have a principle that we cannot see any reason why personal details should be collated that are not strictly necessary for census information. Is that the Government’s view? The regulations appear to confine the information being shared to name, date of birth, gender, ethnicity, address and school address, but the explanatory note uses the phrase “such as” with that list, which prompts the question whether other information might be sought. I would be concerned, for example, if the measures extended to religion, academic results, behaviour, health, police records and so on. Will the Minister confirm on the record that the boundaries are exactly those set out in the statutory instrument and that there will be no mission creep from that point?
Thirdly, what are the controls on how the data will be disclosed? Particularly disturbing is the explanatory note to regulation 6:
“Personal information may only be disclosed by the Board if it is under a statutory or Community obligation to do so”.
Considering that section 11(2) of the Children Act 2004 imposes a duty to share information for the purpose of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, and section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 gives each local authority the power to do anything that promotes the economic, social and environmental well-being of its area, is the Minister not concerned that such data could be shared by administrative law quite freely and widely?
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Prepared 21 January 2009