Sunday, March 25, 2007

Value for money

Baroness Walmsley brought up the subject of biometrics in schools on Thursday, 22nd March, in a debate on value for money and transparency of public services commissioned from the private sector. She made these comments:

In my field, education, schools now have control over the vast majority of their own budget. That is a good thing in the main, although there is enormous pressure on local authorities to find the money for the support services for which they are still responsible. They have to pick up the pieces when individual schools fail children, and that can be very hard. It makes schools vulnerable to the clever sales pitches of companies that sell them the latest whizz-bang techie idea or snake oil that will solve all their problems. I think that rather ironic description applies to the military equipment companies that have persuaded about 3,500 schools to buy equipment to fingerprint their pupils for purposes as trivial as borrowing library books or paying for their lunch.

I will not go into the detail of the practice here, since the Minister replying today will not be in a position to answer me. Suffice it to say that the DfES has really no idea what is going on out there. It does not know how many schools are doing this or how many children are affected. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in answer to a question from me earlier this week, revealed that his department is unaware that most of those schools are flouting good practice by not getting the parents’ permission for this infringement of their children’s rights. That is the sort of thing that can happen when services to the public sector are not properly monitored. The Government are walking blindfolded into a future identity fraud crisis, and the parents and children do not even know about it or realise the implications of the practice.

Proper monitoring of outsourced public services is essential. Having opened up the market and allowed schools to spend their own money, the Government must introduce statutory guidance to regulate schools that use those systems. It is simply bad practice for schools to keep a record of children's precious and unique biometric information, sometimes on insecure computers that can be hacked into, without parents’ informed consent. The Government should do something about it before it is too late.

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