The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has criticised the Department for Education (DfE) for the way in which it shared children’s data with the Home Office.

The ICO made the criticism in response to a complaint by Against Borders for Children (ABC), represented by human right organisation Liberty. The complaint concerned the DfE’s sharing of pupil data with immigration enforcement as part of efforts to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants. The ICO upheld ABC and Liberty’s complaint that the DfE failed to comply with data protection laws because parents and children were not told what would be done with their data when it was collected.

Under a memorandum of understanding signed in June 2015, the DfE agreed to give the personal details of up to 1,500 schoolchildren to the Home Office each month. In 2016 the DfE required schools to start collecting children’s nationality and country of birth data through the school census – this was the data which the DfE subsequently shared. In April 2018, following a previous legal action brought by ABC and a boycott in which 200,000 families took part, the DfE announced it would no longer ask schools to collect nationality and country of birth data. However it did not delete the data which it had already collected.

In a letter from the ICO responding to the complaint, Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner wrote: ‘Many parents and pupils are either entirely unaware of the school census and the inclusion of that information in the National Pupil Database (NPD), or are not aware of the nuances within the data collection, such as which data is compulsory and which is optional’. She  states that there were ‘clear deficiencies in the processing of pupil personal data by the DfE…primarily in the areas of transparency and accountability’. The letter also says that the ICO is now considering whether to take action against the DfE in respect of the ‘wide ranging and serious concerns’ raised in the complaint. ABC and Liberty have called on the DfE to respond to the ICO’s concerns by deleting children’s nationality and country of birth data. They have also urged all political parties to include in their manifestos a commitment to implement a ‘data firewall’ to permanently separate all public services from immigration enforcement.

Kojo Kyerewaa, Co-coordinator at ABC said: ‘The ICO decision has shown that the DfE cannot be trusted with children's personal data. Without public debate or clear notification, schools have been covertly incorporated as part of Home Office immigration enforcement. These checks have put vulnerable children in further danger as parents are taken away via immigration detention and forced removals. The DfE should be ensuring every child access to education – not implementing policy to deter access to some of society's most vulnerable children’

Lara Ten Caten, lawyer for Liberty and ABC’s solicitor commented: ‘Amassing this data was never about education – it was a xenophobic attack on children’s rights by a government obsessed with deportations no matter the human cost. The DfE has agreed to stop collecting this toxic information, there can be no reason for the department to hold onto it’.

The DfE was unable to issue a full response due to general election ‘purdah’ constraints. However in previous written parliamentary answers regarding the data collection they had stated ‘The Home Office can only request information from the Department for Education for immigration enforcement purposes in circumstances where they have clear evidence a child may be at risk or there is evidence of illegal activity, including illegal immigration’.

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