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Benefit fraud squad snoops on pupil data under secret deal

Pupil data is being used to check for benefit fraud and pursue parents under a secret deal between the education and work and pensions departments, Schools Week has learned.

Leaders have warned the move may lead to parents “withdrawing their children from schools”, amid calls for transparency over the collection of children’s data.

The national pupil database holds information about everyone who has been through the school system since 2002. Sensitive data, including names and addresses, is kept for decades after students leave school.

Each time the DfE comes up with a new type of use for people’s personal data, they don’t tell them

Documents obtained by privacy campaigners Defend Digital Me show the Department for Education has received multiple requests for pupil data from investigators at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) since 2018. A data-sharing arrangement was formalised last autumn.

It will provide the DWP “with the confidence that the right amount of benefit is being paid to the right claimant, and that children included on the claim are benefitting from that award”.

This will “reduce the effort to verify information and potentially identify incorrect cases, enabling DWP to make improvements to processes, [and] pursue the recovery of overpayments back into the public purse”.

“It will also allow DWP to identify and prevent fraud and error in the future.”

Pupil data is ‘not for DWP to hunt people down’

Jen Persson, director of Defend Digital Me, said pupil data should be used “for the purposes of their education and that alone”, not for the DWP to “hunt people down”.

Jen Persson

She said that more than 15 million people on the database today “have already left school”.

“Each time the DfE comes up with a new type of use for their personal data, they don’t tell them [the people on the list] and simply ignore the law.”

Pupil data has been shared with other public bodies for years. In 2012 the coalition government expanded data-sharing to include private companies.

The data is invaluable to research organisations and charities. But the sharing of data with private firms and some public bodies has proved controversial.

‘Orwellian drift towards Big Brother state of affairs’

In 2016, Schools Week revealed that the DfE had agreed with the Home Office to share newly-collected data on pupils’ nationality and country of birth for immigration control purposes.

The deal was scrapped after an uproar in schools and a successful boycott of the data collection.

Pepe Di’Iasio
Pepe DiIasio

In 2020, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that the DfE had broken data protection laws in the way it handles pupil data.

The department was reprimanded in 2022 after giving a firm providing age-verification for gambling companies access to the personal information of millions of young people.

Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, said he was “disturbed” by the revelations, and warned against an “Orwellian drift towards what feels like a Big Brother state of affairs”.

“Regardless of the rights and wrongs of benefit claims, the use of the database in this way may lead to some families – particularly where there are disputes over claims – withdrawing their children from schools. That cannot possibly be a good outcome.”

Benefits squad has requested data since 2018

Government records show that in 2018, the DWP made a request “involving 185 child identities to be checked against the national pupil database”.

The DfE was “able to positively match one and confirmed this to DWP as a ‘Y’ only… No individual data was shared back to DWP.”

Documents obtained by Defend Digital Me show how investigators have requested information on six further occasions since 2018.

On August 1 last year, an investigator in the child maintenance service contacted the DfE with “enquiries in connection with offences that appear to have been committed under the fraud act 2006”.

They provided the name, date of birth and current address for an individual, all redacted in the documents seen by Schools Week, and asked for information on the address they lived at, school they attended and their main carer on certain dates.

‘Be clear’ about data use, says union

Persson said the DfE “claims it is transparent, but it is a lie”.

“Who knows their family’s personal confidential records are in the haystack used to find the fraudulent needle?”

Paul Whiteman
Paul Whiteman

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “The government must immediately be clear with the public about how pupil data is being used and for what purposes.”

The DfE said the data-sharing agreement was “designed to provide confidence that the right and fair amount of benefit is being paid to the right claimant and any children included are benefitting”.

They were unable to provide further detail beyond what is in the data-sharing agreement to “ensure we balance transparency with protecting its capabilities by not tipping off fraudsters about how it tackles fraud”.

A spokesperson said the DfE had “robust controls in place to ensure that any data shared beyond the department is highly secure and only used in legal, safe and ethical ways”.

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