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19 Mar 2007 : Column 1008

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the noble Lord may be correct about the purpose behind the lack of progress from the Republic of Cyprus Government. However, we feel that the most productive way to get this issue resolved is to make representations to the United Nations and to the Government.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, is not the real answer that the British Government should be more robust in making representations to both communities on the island of Cyprus, and to the administrations in both parts of that country, to come to an honourable and just solution so that the country can again be reunited?

Lord Drayson: Absolutely, my Lords. I agree totally with my noble friend. However, while that is happening we must urgently address our troops’ accommodation.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, has the Minister suggested that we might consider removing the troops?

Lord Drayson: Of course, my Lords. We look at all options.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, what has been the response to the representations made since the Minister’s right honourable friend’s visit last September? It is now March.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, given that the situation has not improved, it is clear that the results have not been satisfactory. What we really need is action to improve the accommodation in the Ledra Palace Hotel. That is what will address the situation.

Schools: Biometric Data

2.57 pm

Baroness Walmsley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Adonis): My Lords, the Government have no plans to make regulations on the collection and storage of the biometric data of children in schools. Biometric data, like all data, are covered by the Data Protection Act 1998.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but is he aware that the practice of fingerprinting in schools has been banned in China as being too intrusive and an infringement of children’s rights? Here, it is widespread. We have even had a head teacher tricking three year-olds into giving their fingerprints by playing a spy game. Will the Government ban schools from carrying out this

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practice, unless parents specifically opt into the system following full and independent information about the so-called benefits of the system and the dangers of identity fraud?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, as I said, biometric data are covered by the Data Protection Act, whereby subjects must be given fair processing notices regarding the data and the purposes for which they will be used. Although children are by law the data subjects, it is normal, particularly in primary schools, for parents to be informed of data collected on their children. My department issues fair processing guidelines for schools, which is explicit about the need to see that such information is made fully available to parents.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, notwithstanding the assurances given by the Minister, does he not recognise the genuine concerns to which these issues give rise? These are serious matters of principle. What safeguards are in place to ensure the security of the data once collected? Are there any plans to link these data to the children’s information-sharing index?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, these data can be held only by the schools. They cannot be shared more widely. The guidance, which my department issues to schools, says:

The arrangements are set up fully in the guidance. We believe that the controls are adequate.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, can the noble Lord explain the exact purpose of this activity? I think that most people would be somewhat alarmed by the idea of having fingerprints taken and would connect it with criminal offences. If no research is being undertaken into why these figures are being collected, it seems a little bit vague.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, biometric technology systems are normally used for three specific purposes in schools: library systems, attendance records and cashless-catering for school meals. The use of biometric systems of this kind can, for example, facilitate the take-up of free school meals, as there is no perception of those who are and who are not taking free school meals and therefore there is no social stigma attached. There are very good reasons why these processes are used and I think that most noble Lords who reflect on the matter would regard them as beneficial.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, the Minister usually displays a great understanding and sympathy of what it is to be a child. Is he not concerned about the impression that children will get of what it is to live in a free country and what it is to be British if, in order to get the right school meals and other things,

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they can have their fingerprints taken? That seems completely astonishing to me. I suggest that the Government think hard about this and change their minds.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I would be happy to go with the noble Baroness to a school that operates these systems without any contention whatever. So far as the pupil is concerned, once they have provided this information, they have a card that they can use to access library services, free school meals and attendance registers in a more accessible and less intrusive way than was previously the case. As I said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, in the case of pupils who are eligible for free school meals, there is a great deal less social stigma than used to be attached to people having to show special forms for that purpose.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, that is the trouble.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, how many schools hold records of children’s fingerprints? What plans do the Government have to ensure that these records are not used in identity fraud?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we do not have the data on individual schools. We regard it as the duty of the school to see that the material is properly safeguarded.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, what happens to these data when the children leave school?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, they have to be destroyed.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, the Minister mentioned third parties and therefore implied that third parties may have access to the data. Could he delineate what sort of third parties might have access to the data?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, only those to which clear authorisation has been given by the school. I am happy to specify to the noble Lord the precise circumstances in which that takes place.

Lord Brookman: My Lords, is there any truth in the articles that I have read—I am sure that all noble Lords have read them—that children in the sixth form whose parents wish them to go to university will have to advise someone that their parents themselves had gone to university? According to the articles that I have read, this could have a detrimental effect on their passing out to go to university.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, my noble friend is referring to a different issue, which was raised last week by my honourable friend the Minister for

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further and higher education. It is indeed the case that we are looking to provide more information on the backgrounds of students who are going on to university, but not in any way to dissuade them from proceeding on to higher education.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, the Minister has made much of the need for biometric data for school dinner cards, otherwise known as smart cards. Does he accept that you do not need biometric data on them anymore than you do on a John Lewis loyalty card for them to be effective and not to stigmatise the take-up of free school meals?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, this has been found to be a reliable way of ensuring that the services can be made available. The onus is on those who think that it is not a reasonable way of proceeding to make their case.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, while I have enormous respect for the Minister, his answer smacks of considerable complacency. This is widespread across the country. Children are being fingerprinted without their consent or their parents’ consent. They are being victimised if they do not comply by not being allowed to use the library, by being threatened with exclusion and by being made to go to the back of the dinner queue if they do not have one of these cards. Will he look into this and find out what the real situation is rather than the theoretical one that he has so reasonably outlined?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, there is a certain amount of scaremongering in the noble Baroness’s question, which I simply do not accept on the basis of the information that has been made available to my department.


3.05 pm

Lord Grocott: My Lords, with the leave of the House, a Statement on Modernising Medical Careers will be repeated by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath after 4.30 pm.

Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft regulations be referred to a Grand Committee.—(Baroness Amos.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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Foyle and Carlingford Fisheries (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Electricity (Single Wholesale Market) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Northern Ireland Policing Board (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I beg to move the three Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft orders laid before the House on 6 and 19 February be approved. 10th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee and 12th Report from the Merits Committee, Considered in Grand Committee on 15 March.—(Lord Rooker.)

On Question, Motions agreed to.

Planning-gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill

Read a third time, and passed.

Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That this Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order 47 having been dispensed with, Bill read a third time, and passed.

European Union (Information, etc.) Bill [HL]

Report received.

Welfare Reform Bill

3.07 pm

Report received.

Clause 1 [Employment and support allowance]:

Lord Skelmersdale moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12 and 13. All the amendments on today’s Marshalled List are predicated on the fact that the Bill introduces a new, albeit replacement, social security benefit. Although the Ministers made a very good fist in Committee of explaining how the Government expect the employment and support allowance to work, I am afraid that there is still more to discover.

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This first group of amendments covers a point that was made crystal clear in Committee; that is, the same system of points used for incapacity benefit is to be used in the future. I am grateful to the Minister for arranging for some of us to see a presentation by the computer firm which is to design the program to make this happen. The customer will be asked a whole series of questions—they are called descriptors in the jargon—about his daily life and any physical and mental problems he has. On Second Reading, the Minister made a welcome announcement that the descriptors are to be added together to produce a final score which will inform the social security office whether the customer has a right to the benefit and, if so, at what level.

We have had numerous debates on this issue in this House and another place, so I do not need to reiterate the arguments for this approach. I am sure that the Minister will say that these amendments are unnecessary; the Bill as it stands allows the accumulation of mental and physical limitations and the Government have given repeated assurances that the points from both mental and physical disabilities will be added together. However, those assurances have only been won by strong lobbying from outside lobby groups as well as opposition from all sides in both Houses. I would like to make sure that the Government do not suffer a change of heart on the principle at any point in the future.

I have changed the drafting of these amendments significantly since Committee to make sure that they do not in any way prevent the Government doing what they want to do. I hope that the Minister will accept these amendments as confirmation that his assurances will indeed be acted on in the long term. I also trust that he will accept that it would be quite wrong for the Government to change their mind at some point in the future and decide that only one set of descriptors should be used to make this judgment—in other words, that there is never a case to be made that physical barriers cannot carry mental impediments with them. I beg to move.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, these amendments and the arguments put forward by the noble Lord are very similar to those that we discussed in Committee, as he acknowledged. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, wants to ensure that we consider the effects of both physical and mental health conditions when deciding whether a customer is eligible for either employment and support allowance or access to the support group—the tests of limited capability for work and limited capability for work-related activity respectively.

I will deal with limited capability for work first. Under Clause 8, customers are awarded points depending on the functional effects of physical and mental health conditions. They are determined as having limited capability for work where they score 15 points or more. The details of this are set out in the draft regulations under Clause 8, which were shared with noble Lords before Committee. As noble Lords will recall, and as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale,

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acknowledged, I announced at Second Reading that we will allow points scores for mental health and physical descriptors to be added together in the Clause 8 assessment. This decision has been reflected in Regulation 3(3) of the draft Clause 8 regulations, which I published for noble Lords.

The Clause 8 and 9 assessments assess very different concepts in very different ways. Limited capability for work-related activity cannot be based on the Clause 8 points scores, as there is no direct correlation between these scores and whether a person is likely to have limited capability for work-related activity—the purpose of the Clause 9 assessment. Instead, customers are determined as being eligible for the support group where they satisfy one of 46 functional descriptors found in the schedule to the draft regulations under Clause 9. Customers need to meet only one of the 46 descriptors to qualify for entitlement to the support group regardless of whether this relates to physical functioning or mental functioning. We will consider the effects of both physical and mental conditions when considering whether customers meet these functional descriptors. Hence, in carrying out both the assessments under Clauses 8 and 9, we will consider the effects of physical conditions and mental health conditions on a person's functional capability. That is the assurance the noble Lord is seeking.

During Committee, I also explained that we do not need to make changes to the Bill to allow us to consider both physical and mental conditions in these assessments, as the use of “physical or mental condition” does not limit us to considering these conditions separately. In fact, changing the wording in the Bill to “physical and mental condition”, as the noble Lord proposes in his amendment, could be interpreted as meaning that customers would have to have both a physical and mental health condition before they could be determined as having either limited capability for work or limited capability for work-related activity. That is clearly not appropriate and I am sure is not what he wants to happen.

As I said, our draft regulations set out very clearly our intentions on this matter, and particularly that we will combine physical and mental health scores when determining whether a customer has limited capability for work.

As noble Lords are aware, the revised PCA is based on the recommendations made by the technical working groups involved in its review, a copy of which was published last September. Following the initial limited evaluation carried out last October, a further and more detailed evaluation is about to start. This will be carried out by the technical working groups, which are independent of the department, but members of the PCA consultative group will also take part. A report of that phase 2 evaluation is due to be published in the summer and copies will be placed in the Library.

I hope that that gives the noble Lord the assurance that he seeks about our intentions and the fact that there is a process of review under way—and, accordingly, that that will enable him to withdraw his amendment.

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