Tag Archives: human rights

Is education preparing us for the jobs of the future?

The Fabian Women, Glass Ceiling not Glass Slipper event, asked last week:

Is Education preparing us for the jobs of the future?

The panel talked about changing social and political realities. We considered the effects on employment. We began discussion how those changes should feed into education policy and practice today. It is discussion that should be had by the public. So far, almost a year after the Referendum, the UK government is yet to say what post-Brexit Britain might look like. Without a vision, any mandate for the unknown, if voted for on June 9th, will be meaningless.

What was talked about and what should be a public debate:

  • What jobs will be needed in the future?
  • Post Brexit, what skills will we need in the UK?
  • How can the education system adapt and improve to help future generations develop skills in this ever changing landscape?
  • How do we ensure women [and anyone else] are not left behind?

Brexit is the biggest change management project I may never see.

As the State continues making and remaking laws, reforming education, and starts exiting the EU, all in parallel, technology and commercial companies won’t wait to see what the post-Brexit Britain will look like. In our state’s absence of vision, companies are shaping policy and ‘re-writing’ their own version of regulations. What implications could this have for long term public good?

What will be needed in the UK future?

A couple of sentences from Alan Penn have stuck with me all week. Loosely quoted, we’re seeing cultural identity shift across the country, due to the change of our available employment types. Traditional industries once ran in a family, with a strong sense of heritage. New jobs don’t offer that. It leaves a gap we cannot fill with “I’m a call centre worker”. And this change is unevenly felt.

There is no tangible public plan in the Digital Strategy for dealing with that change in the coming 10 to 20 years employment market and what it means tied into education. It matters when many believe, as do these authors in American Scientific, “around half of today’s jobs will be threatened by algorithms. 40% of today’s top 500 companies will have vanished in a decade.”

So what needs thought?

  • Analysis of what that regional jobs market might look like, should be a public part of the Brexit debate and these elections →
    We need to see those goals, to ensure policy can be planned for education and benchmark its progress towards achieving its aims
  • Brexit and technology will disproportionately affect different segments of the jobs market and therefore the population by age, by region, by socio-economic factors →
    Education policy must therefore address aspects of skills looking to the future towards employment in that new environment, so that we make the most of opportunities, and mitigate the harms.
  • Brexit and technology will disproportionately affect communities → What will be done to prevent social collapse in regions hardest hit by change?

Where are we starting from today?

Before we can understand the impact of change, we need to understand what the present looks like. I cannot find a map of what the English education system looks like. No one I ask seems to have one or have a firm grasp across the sector, of how and where all the parts of England’s education system fit together, or their oversight and accountability. Everyone has an idea, but no one can join the dots. If you have, please let me know.

Nothing is constant in education like change; in laws, policy and its effects in practice, so I shall start there.

1. Legislation

In retrospect it was a fatal flaw, missed in post-Referendum battles of who wrote what on the side of a bus, that no one did an assessment of education [and indeed other] ‘legislation in progress’. There should have been recommendations made on scrapping inappropriate government bills in entirety or in parts. New laws are now being enacted, rushed through in wash up, that are geared to our old status quo, and we risk basing policy only on what we know from the past, because on that, we have data.

In the timeframe that Brexit will become tangible, we will feel the effects of the greatest shake up of Higher Education in 25 years. Parts of the Higher Education and Research Act, and Technical and Further Education Act are unsuited to the new order post-Brexit.

What it will do: The new HE law encourages competition between institutions, and the TFE Act centred in large part on how to manage insolvency.

What it should do: Policy needs to promote open, collaborative networks if within a now reduced research and academic circle, scholarly communities are to thrive.

If nothing changes, we will see harm to these teaching institutions and people in them. The stance on counting foreign students in total migrant numbers, to take an example, is singularly pointless.

Even the Royal Society report on Machine Learning noted the UK approach to immigration as a potential harm to prosperity.

Local authorities cannot legally build schools under their authority today, even if needed. They must be free schools. This model has seen high turnover and closures, a rather instable model.

Legislation has recently not only meant restructure, but repurposing of what education [authorities] is expected to offer.

A new Statutory Instrument — The School and Early Years Finance (England) Regulations 2017 — makes music, arts and playgrounds items; ‘That may be removed from maintained schools’ budget shares’.

How will this withdrawal of provision affect skills starting from the Early Years throughout young people’s education?

2. Policy

Education policy if it continues along the grammar school path, will divide communities into ‘passed’ and the ‘unselected’. A side effect of selective schooling— a feature or a bug dependent on your point of view — is socio-economic engineering. It builds class walls in the classroom, while others, like Fabian Women, say we should be breaking through glass ceilings. Current policy in a wider sense, is creating an environment that is hostile to human integration. It creates division across the entire education system for children aged 2–19.

The curriculum is narrowing, according to staff I’ve spoken to recently, as a result of measurement focus on Progress 8, and due to funding constraints.

What effect will this have on analysis of knowledge, discernment, how to assess when computers have made a mistake or supplied misinformation, and how to apply wisdom? Skills that today still distinguish human from machine learning.

What narrowing the curriculum does: Students have fewer opportunities to discover their skill set, limiting opportunities for developing social skills and cultural development, and their development as rounded, happy, human beings.

What we could do: Promote long term love of learning in-and-outside school and in communities. Reinvest in the arts, music and play, which support mental and physical health and create a culture in which people like to live as well as work. Library and community centres funding must be re-prioritised, ensuring inclusion and provision outside school for all abilities.

Austerity builds barriers of access to opportunity and skills. Children who cannot afford to, are excluded from extra curricular classes. We already divide our children through private and state education, into those who have better facilities and funding to enjoy and explore a fully rounded education, and those whose funding will not stretch much beyond the bare curriculum. For SEN children, that has already been stripped back further.

All the accepted current evidence says selective schooling limits social mobility and limits choice. Talk of evidence based profession is hard to square with passion for grammars, an against-the-evidence based policy.

Existing barriers are likely to become entrenched in twenty years. What does it do to society, if we are divided in our communities by money, or gender, or race, and feel disempowered as individuals? Are we less responsible for our actions if there’s nothing we can do about it? If others have more money, more power than us, others have more control over our lives, and “no matter what we do, we won’t pass the 11 plus”?

Without joined-up scrutiny of these policy effects across the board, we risk embedding these barriers into future planning. Today’s data are used to train “how the system should work”. If current data are what applicants in 5 years will base future expectations on, will their decisions be objective and will in-built bias be transparent?

3. Sociological effects of legislation.

It’s not only institutions that will lose autonomy in the Higher Education and Research Act.

At present, the risk to the autonomy of science and research is theoretical — but the implications for academic freedom are troubling. [Nature 538, 5 (06 October 2016)]

The Secretary of State for Education now also has new Powers of Information about individual applicants and students. Combined with the Digital Economy Act, the law can ride roughshod over students’ autonomy and consent choices. Today they can opt out of UCAS automatically sharing their personal data with the Student Loans Company for example. Thanks to these new powers, and combined with the Digital Economy Act, that’s gone.

The Act further includes the intention to make institutions release more data about course intake and results under the banner of ‘transparency’. Part of the aim is indisputably positive, to expose discrimination and inequality of all kinds. It also aims to make the £ cost-benefit return “clearer” to applicants — by showing what exams you need to get in, what you come out with, and then by joining all that personal data to the longitudinal school record, tax and welfare data, you see what the return is on your student loan. The government can also then see what your education ‘cost or benefit’ the Treasury. It is all of course much more nuanced than that, but that’s the very simplified gist.

This ‘destinations data’ is going to be a dataset we hear ever more about and has the potential to influence education policy from age 2.

Aside from the issue of personal data disclosiveness when published by institutions — we already know of individuals who could spot themselves in a current published dataset — I worry that this direction using data for ‘advice’ is unhelpful. What if we’re looking at the wrong data upon which to base future decisions? The past doesn’t take account of Brexit or enable applicants to do so.

Researchers [and applicants, the year before they apply or start a course] will be looking at what *was* — predicted and achieved qualifying grades, make up of the class, course results, first job earnings — what was for other people, is at least 5 years old by the time it’s looked at it. Five years is a long time out of date.

4. Change

Teachers and schools have long since reached saturation point in the last 5 years to handle change. Reform has been drastic, in structures, curriculum, and ongoing in funding. There is no ongoing teacher training, and lack of CPD take up, is exacerbated by underfunding.

Teachers are fed up with change. They want stability. But contrary to the current “strong and stable” message, reality is that ahead we will get anything but, and must instead manage change if we are to thrive. Politically, we will see backlash when ‘stable’ is undeliverable.

But Teaching has not seen ‘stable’ for some time. Teachers are asking for fewer children, and more cash in the classroom. Unions talk of a focus on learning, not testing, to drive school standards. If the planned restructuring of funding happens, how will it affect staff retention?

We know schools are already reducing staff. How will this affect employment, adult and children’s skill development, their ambition, and society and economy?

Where could legislation and policy look ahead?

  • What are the big Brexit targets and barriers and when do we expect them?
  • How is the fall out from underfunding and reduction of teaching staff expected to affect skills provision?
  • State education policy is increasingly hands-off. What is the incentive for local schools or MATs to look much beyond the short term?
  • How do local decisions ensure education is preparing their community, but also considering society, health and (elderly) social care, Post-Brexit readiness and women’s economic empowerment?
  • How does our ageing population shift in the same time frame?

How can the education system adapt?

We need to talk more about other changes in the system in parallel to Brexit; join the dots, plus the potential positive and harmful effects of technology.

Gender here too plays a role, as does mitigating discrimination of all kinds, confirmation bias, and even in the tech itself, whether AI for example, is going to be better than us at decision-making, if we teach AI to be biased.

Dr Lisa Maria Mueller talked about the effects and influence of age, setting and language factors on what skills we will need, and employment. While there are certain skills sets that computers are and will be better at than people, she argued society also needs to continue to cultivate human skills in cultural sensitivities, empathy, and understanding. We all nodded. But how?

To develop all these human skills is going to take investment. Investment in the humans that teach us. Bennie Kara, Assistant Headteacher in London, spoke about school cuts and how they will affect children’s futures.

The future of England’s education must be geared to a world in which knowledge and facts are ubiquitous, and readily available online than at any other time. And access to learning must be inclusive. That means including SEN and low income families, the unskilled, everyone. As we become more internationally remote, we must put safeguards in place if we to support thriving communities.

Policy and legislation must also preserve and respect human dignity in a changing work environment, and review not only what work is on offer, but *how*; the kinds of contracts and jobs available.

Where might practice need to adapt now?

  • Re-consider curriculum content with its focus on facts. Will success risk being measured based on out of date knowledge, and a measure of recall? Are these skills in growing or dwindling need?
  • Knowledge focus must place value on analysis, discernment, and application of facts that computers will learn and recall better than us. Much of that learning happens outside school.
  • Opportunities have been cut, together with funding. We need communities brought back together, if they are not to collapse. Funding centres of local learning, restoring libraries and community centres will be essential to local skill development.

What is missing?

Although Sarah Waite spoke (in a suitably Purdah appropriate tone), about the importance of basic skills in the future labour market we didn’t get to talking about education preparing us for the lack of jobs of the future and what that changed labour market will look like.

What skills will *not* be needed? Who decides? If left to companies’ sponsor led steer in academies, what effects will we see in society?

Discussions of a future education model and technology seem to share a common theme: people seem reduced in making autonomous choices. But they share no positive vision.

  • Technology should empower us, but it seems to empower the State and diminish citizens’ autonomy in many of today’s policies, and in future scenarios especially around the use of personal data and Digital Economy.
  • Technology should enable greater collaboration, but current tech in education policy is focused too little on use on children’s own terms, and too heavily on top-down monitoring: of scoring, screen time, search terms. Further restrictions by Age Verification are coming, and may access and reduce participation in online services if not done well.
  • Infrastructure weakness is letting down the skill training: University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are not popular and failing to fill places. There is lack of an overarching area wide strategic plan for pupils in which UTCS play a part. Local Authorities played an important part in regional planning which needs restored to ensure joined up local thinking.

How do we ensure women are not left behind?

The final question of the evening asked how women will be affected by Brexit and changing job market. Part of the risks overall, the panel concluded, is related to [lack of] equal-pay. But where are the assessments of the gendered effects in the UK of:

  • community structural change and intra-family support and effect on demand for social care
  • tech solutions in response to lack of human interaction and staffing shortages including robots in the home and telecare
  • the disproportionate drop out of work, due to unpaid care roles, and difficulty getting back in after a break.
  • the roles and types of work likely to be most affected or replaced by machine learning and robots
  • and how will women be empowered or not socially by technology?

We quickly need in education to respond to the known data where women are already being left behind now. The attrition rate for example in teaching in England after two-three years is poor, and getting worse. What will government do to keep teachers teaching? Their value as role models is not captured in pupils’ exams results based entirely on knowledge transfer.

Our GCSEs this year go back to pure exam based testing, and remove applied coursework marking, and is likely to see lower attainment for girls than boys, say practitioners. Likely to leave girls behind at an earlier age.

“There is compelling evidence to suggest that girls in particular may be affected by the changes — as research suggests that boys perform more confidently when assessed by exams alone.”

Jennifer Tuckett spoke about what fairness might look like for female education in the Creative Industries. From school-leaver to returning mother, and retraining older women, appreciating the effects of gender in education is intrinsic to the future jobs market.

We also need broader public understanding of the loop of the impacts of technology, on the process and delivery of teaching itself, and as school management becomes increasingly important and is male dominated, how will changes in teaching affect women disproportionately? Fact delivery and testing can be done by machine, and supports current policy direction, but can a computer create a love of learning and teach humans how to think?

“There is a opportunity for a holistic synthesis of research into gender, the effect of tech on the workplace, the effect of technology on care roles, risks and opportunities.”

Delivering education to ensure women are not left behind, includes avoiding women going into education as teenagers now, to be led down routes without thinking of what they want and need in future. Regardless of work.

Education must adapt to changed employment markets, and the social and community effects of Brexit. If it does not, barriers will become embedded. Geographical, economic, language, familial, skills, and social exclusion.

In short

In summary, what is the government’s Brexit vision? We must know what they see five, 10, and for 25 years ahead, set against understanding the landscape as-is, in order to peg other policy to it.

With this foundation, what we know and what we estimate we don’t know yet can be planned for.

Once we know where we are going in policy, we can do a fit-gap to map how to get people there.

Estimate which skills gaps need filled and which do not. Where will change be hardest?

Change is not new. But there is current potential for massive long term economic and social lasting damage to our young people today. Government is hindered by short term political thinking, but it has a long-term responsibility to ensure children are not mis-educated because policy and the future environment are not aligned.

We deserve public, transparent, informed debate to plan our lives.

We enter the unknown of the education triangle at our peril; Brexit, underfunding, divisive structural policy, for the next ten years and beyond, without appropriate adjustment to pre-Brexit legislation and policy plans for the new world order.

The combined negative effects on employment at scale and at pace must be assessed with urgency, not by big Tech who will profit, but with an eye on future fairness, and public economic and social good. Academy sponsors, decision makers in curriculum choices, schools with limited funding, have no incentives to look to the wider world.

If we’re going to go it alone, we’d be better be robust as a society, and that can’t be just some of us, and can’t only be about skills as seen as having an tangible output.

All this discussion is framed by the premise that education’s aim is to prepare a future workforce for work, and that it is sustainable.

Policy is increasingly based on work that is measured by economic output. We must not leave out or behind those who do not, or cannot, or whose work is unmeasured yet contributes to the world.

‘The only future worth building includes everyone,’ said the Pope in a recent TedTalk.

What kind of future do you want to see yourself living in? Will we all work or will there be universal basic income? What will happen on housing, an ageing population, air pollution, prisons, free movement, migration, and health? What will keep communities together as their known world in employment, and family life, and support collapse? How will education enable children to discover their talents and passions?

Human beings are more than what we do. The sense of a country of who we are and what we stand for is about more than our employment or what we earn. And we cannot live on slogans alone.

Who do we think we in the UK will be after Brexit, needs real and substantial answers. What are we going to *do* and *be* in the world?

Without this vision, any mandate as voted for on June 9th, will be made in the dark and open to future objection writ large. ‘We’ must be inclusive based on a consensus, not simply a ‘mandate’.

Only with clear vision for all these facets fitting together in a model of how we will grow in all senses, will we be able to answer the question, is education preparing us [all] for the jobs of the future?

More than this, we must ask if education is preparing people for the lack of jobs, for changing relationships in our communities, with each other, and with machines.

Change is coming, Brexit or not. But Brexit has exacerbated the potential to miss opportunities, embed barriers, and see negative side-effects from changes already underway in employment, in an accelerated timeframe.

If our education policy today is not gearing up to that change, we must.

Information society services: Children in the GDPR, Digital Economy Bill & Digital Strategy

In preparation for The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) there  must be an active UK decision about policy in the coming months for children and the Internet – provision of ‘Information Society Services’. The age of consent for online content aimed at children from May 25, 2018 will be 16 by default unless UK law is made to lower it.

Age verification for online information services in the GDPR, will mean capturing parent-child relationships. This could mean a parent’s email or credit card unless there are other choices made. What will that mean for access to services for children and to privacy? It is likely to offer companies an opportunity for a data grab, and mean privacy loss for the public, as more data about family relationships will be created and collected than the content provider would get otherwise.

Our interactions create a blended identity of online and offline attributes which I suggested in a previous post, create synthesised versions of our selves raises questions on data privacy and security.

The goal may be to protect the physical child. The outcome will mean it simultaneously expose children and parents to risks that we would not otherwise be put through increased personal data collection. By increasing the data collected, it increases the associated risks of loss, theft, and harm to identity integrity. How will legislation balance these risks and rights to participation?

The UK government has various work in progress before then, that could address these questions:

But will they?

As Sonia Livingstone wrote in the post on the LSE media blog about what to expect from the GDPR and its online challenges for children:

“Now the UK, along with other Member States, has until May 2018 to get its house in order”.

What will that order look like?

The Digital Strategy and Ed Tech

The Digital Strategy commits to changes in National Pupil Data  management. That is, changes in the handling and secondary uses of data collected from pupils in the school census, like using it for national research and planning.

It also means giving data to commercial companies and the press. Companies such as private tutor pupil matching services, and data intermediaries. Journalists at the Times and the Telegraph.

Access to NPD via the ONS VML would mean safe data use, in safe settings, by safe (trained and accredited) users.

Sensitive data — it remains to be seen how DfE intends to interpret ‘sensitive’ and whether that is the DPA1998 term or lay term meaning ‘identifying’ as it should — will no longer be seen by users for secondary uses outside safe settings.

However, a grey area on privacy and security remains in the “Data Exchange” which will enable EdTech products to “talk to each other”.

The aim of changes in data access is to ensure that children’s data integrity and identity are secure.  Let’s hope the intention that “at all times, the need to preserve appropriate privacy and security will remain paramount and will be non-negotiable” applies across all closed pupil data, and not only to that which may be made available via the VML.

This strategy is still far from clear or set in place.

The Digital Strategy and consumer data rights

The Digital Strategy commits under the heading of “Unlocking the power of data in the UK economy and improving public confidence in its use” to the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation by May 2018. The Strategy frames this as a business issue, labelling data as “a global commodity” and as such, its handling is framed solely as a requirements needed to ensure “that our businesses can continue to compete and communicate effectively around the world” and that adoption “will ensure a shared and higher standard of protection for consumers and their data.”

The GDPR as far as children goes, is far more about protection of children as people. It focuses on returning control over children’s own identity and being able to revoke control by others, rather than consumer rights.

That said, there are data rights issues which are also consumer issues and  product safety failures posing real risk of harm.

Neither The Digital Economy Bill nor the Digital Strategy address these rights and security issues, particularly when posed by the Internet of Things with any meaningful effect.

In fact, the chapter Internet of Things and Smart Infrastructure [ 9/19]  singularly miss out anything on security and safety:

“We want the UK to remain an international leader in R&D and adoption of IoT. We are funding research and innovation through the three year, £30 million IoT UK Programme.”

There was much more thoughtful detail in the 2014 Blackett Review on the IoT to which I was signposted today after yesterday’s post.

If it’s not scary enough for the public to think that their sex secrets and devices are hackable, perhaps it will kill public trust in connected devices more when they find strangers talking to their children through a baby monitor or toy. [BEUC campaign report on #Toyfail]

“The internet-connected toys ‘My Friend Cayla’ and ‘i-Que’ fail miserably when it comes to safeguarding basic consumer rights, security, and privacy. Both toys are sold widely in the EU.”

Digital skills and training in the strategy doesn’t touch on any form of change management plans for existing working sectors in which we expect to see machine learning and AI change the job market. This is something the digital and industrial strategy must be addressing hand in glove.

The tactics and training providers listed sound super, but there does not appear to be an aspirational strategy hidden between the lines.

The Digital Economy Bill and citizens’ data rights

While the rest of Europe in this legislation has recognised that a future thinking digital world without boundaries, needs future thinking on data protection and empowered citizens with better control of identity, the UK government appears intent on taking ours away.

To take only one example for children, the Digital Economy Bill in Cabinet Office led meetings was explicit about use for identifying and tracking individuals labelled under “Troubled Families” and interventions with them. Why, when consent is required to work directly with people, that consent is being ignored to access their information is baffling and in conflict with both the spirit and letter of GDPR. Students and Applicants will see their personal data sent to the Student Loans Company without their consent or knowledge. This overrides the current consent model in place at UCAS.

It is baffling that the government is pursuing the Digital Economy Bill data copying clauses relentlessly, that remove confidentiality by default, and will release our identities in birth, marriage and death data for third party use without consent through Chapter 2, the opening of the Civil Registry, without any safeguards in the bill.

Government has not only excluded important aspects of Parliamentary scrutiny in the bill, it is trying to introduce “almost untrammeled powers” (paragraph 21), that will “very significantly broaden the scope for the sharing of information” and “specified persons”  which applies “whether the service provider concerned is in the public sector or is a charity or a commercial organisation” and non-specific purposes for which the information may be disclosed or used. [Reference: Scrutiny committee comments]

Future changes need future joined up thinking

While it is important to learn from the past, I worry that the effort some social scientists put into looking backwards,  is not matched by enthusiasm to look ahead and making active recommendations for a better future.

Society appears to have its eyes wide shut to the risks of coercive control and nudge as research among academics and government departments moves in the direction of predictive data analysis.

Uses of administrative big data and publicly available social media data for example, in research and statistics, needs further new regulation in practice and policy but instead the Digital Economy Bill looks only at how more data can be got out of Department silos.

A certain intransigence about data sharing with researchers from government departments is understandable. What’s the incentive for DWP to release data showing its policy may kill people?

Westminster may fear it has more to lose from data releases and don’t seek out the political capital to be had from good news.

The ethics of data science are applied patchily at best in government, and inconsistently in academic expectations.

Some researchers have identified this but there seems little will to action:

 “It will no longer be possible to assume that secondary data use is ethically unproblematic.”

[Data Horizons: New forms of Data for Social Research, Elliot, M., Purdam, K., Mackey, E., School of Social Sciences, The University Of Manchester, 2013.]

Research and legislation alike seem hell bent on the low hanging fruit but miss out the really hard things. What meaningful benefit will it bring by spending millions of pounds on exploiting these personal data and opening our identities to risk just to find out whether X course means people are employed in Y tax bracket 5 years later, versus course Z where everyone ends up self employed artists? What ethics will be applied to the outcomes of those questions asked and why?

And while government is busy joining up children’s education data throughout their lifetimes from age 2 across school, FE, HE, into their HMRC and DWP interactions, there is no public plan in the Digital Strategy for the coming 10 to 20 years employment market, when many believe, as do these authors in American Scientific, “around half of today’s jobs will be threatened by algorithms. 40% of today’s top 500 companies will have vanished in a decade.”

What benefit will it have to know what was, or for the plans around workforce and digital skills list ad hoc tactics, but no strategy?

We must safeguard jobs and societal needs, but just teaching people to code is not a solution to a fundamental gap in what our purpose will be, and the place of people as a world-leading tech nation after Brexit. We are going to have fewer talented people from across the world staying on after completing academic studies, because they’re not coming at all.

There may be investment in A.I. but where is the investment in good data practices around automation and machine learning in the Digital Economy Bill?

To do this Digital Strategy well, we need joined up thinking.

Improving online safety for children in The Green Paper on Children’s Internet Safety should mean one thing:

Children should be able to use online services without being used and abused by them.

This article arrived on my Twitter timeline via a number of people. Doteveryone CEO Rachel Coldicutt summed up various strands of thought I started to hear hints of last month at #CPDP2017 in Brussels:

“As designers and engineers, we’ve contributed to a post-thought world. In 2017, it’s time to start making people think again.

“We need to find new ways of putting friction and thoughtfulness back into the products we make.” [Glanceable truthiness, 30.1.2017]

Let’s keep the human in discussions about technology, and people first in our products

All too often in technology and even privacy discussions, people have become ‘consumers’ and ‘customers’ instead of people.

The Digital Strategy may seek to unlock “the power of data in the UK economy” but policy and legislation must put equal if not more emphasis on “improving public confidence in its use” if that long term opportunity is to be achieved.

And in technology discussions about AI and algorithms we hear very little about people at all.  Discussions I hear seem siloed instead into three camps: the academics, the designers and developers,  the politicians and policy makers.  And then comes the lowest circle, ‘the public’ and ‘society’.

It is therefore unsurprising that human rights have fallen down the ranking of importance in some areas of technology development.

It’s time to get this house in order.

The perfect storm: three bills that will destroy student data privacy in England

Lords have voiced criticism and concern at plans for ‘free market’ universities, that will prioritise competition over collaboration and private interests over social good. But while both Houses have identified the institutional effects, they are yet to discuss the effects on the individuals of a bill in which “too much power is concentrated in the centre”.

The Higher Education and Research Bill sucks in personal data to the centre, as well as power. It creates an authoritarian panopticon of the people within the higher education and further education systems. Section 1, parts 72-74 creates risks but offers no safeguards.

Applicants and students’ personal data is being shifted into a  top-down management model, at the same time as the horizontal safeguards for its distribution are to be scrapped.

Through deregulation and the building of a centralised framework, these bills will weaken the purposes for which personal data are collected, and weaken existing requirements on consent to which the data may be used at national level. Without amendments, every student who enters this system will find their personal data used at the discretion of any future Secretary of State for Education without safeguards or oversight, and forever. Goodbye privacy.

Part of the data extraction plans are for use in public interest research in safe settings with published purpose, governance, and benefit. These are well intentioned and this year’s intake of students will have had to accept that use as part of the service in the privacy policy.

But in addition and separately, the Bill will permit data to be used at the discretion of the Secretary of State, which waters down and removes nuances of consent for what data may or may not be used today when applicants sign up to UCAS.

Applicants today are told in the privacy policy they can consent separately to sharing their data with the Student Loans company for example. This Bill will remove that right when it permits all Applicant data to be used by the State.

This removal of today’s consent process denies all students their rights to decide who may use their personal data beyond the purposes for which they permit its sharing.

And it explicitly overrides the express wishes registered by the 28,000 applicants, 66% of respondents to a 2015 UCAS survey, who said as an example, that they should be asked before any data was provided to third parties for student loan applications (or even that their data should never be provided for this).

Not only can the future purposes be changed without limitation,  by definition, when combined with other legislation, namely the Digital Economy Bill that is in the Lords at the same time right now, this shift will pass personal data together with DWP and in connection with HMRC data expressly to the Student Loans Company.

In just this one example, the Higher Education and Research Bill is being used as a man in the middle. But it will enable all data for broad purposes, and if those expand in future, we’ll never know.

This change, far from making more data available to public interest research, shifts the balance of power between state and citizen and undermines the very fabric of its source of knowledge; the creation and collection of personal data.

Further, a number of amendments have been proposed in the Lords to clause 9 (the transparency duty) which raise more detailed privacy issues for all prospective students, concerns UCAS share.

Why this lack of privacy by design is damaging

This shift takes away our control, and gives it to the State at the very time when ‘take back control’ is in vogue. These bills are building a foundation for a data Brexit.

If the public does not trust who will use it and why or are told that when they provide data they must waive any rights to its future control, they will withhold or fake data. 8% of applicants even said it would put them off applying through UCAS at all.

And without future limitation, what might be imposed is unknown.

This shortsightedness will ultimately cause damage to data integrity and the damage won’t come in education data from the Higher Education Bill alone. The Higher Education and Research Bill is just one of three bills sweeping through Parliament right now which build a cumulative anti-privacy storm together, in what is labelled overtly as data sharing legislation or is hidden in tucked away clauses.

The Technical and Further Education Bill – Part 3

In addition to entirely new Applicant datasets moving from UCAS to the DfE in clauses 73 and 74 of the  Higher Education and Research Bill,  Apprentice and FE student data already under the Secretary of State for Education will see potentially broader use under changed purposes of Part 3 of the Technical and Further Education Bill.

Unlike the Higher Education and Research Bill, it may not fundamentally changing how the State gathers information on further education, but it has the potential to do so on use.

The change is a generalisation of purposes. Currently, subsection 1 of section 54 refers to “purposes of the exercise of any of the functions of the Secretary of State under Part 4 of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009”.

Therefore, the government argues, “it would not hold good in circumstances where certain further education functions were transferred from the Secretary of State to some combined authorities in England, which is due to happen in 2018.”<

This is why clause 38 will amend that wording to “purposes connected with further education”.

Whatever the details of the reason, the purposes are broader.

Again, combined with the Digital Economy Bill’s open ended purposes, it means the Secretary of State could agree to pass these data on to every other government department, a range of public bodies, and some private organisations.

The TFE BIll is at Report stage in the House of Commons on January 9, 2017.

What could go possibly go wrong?

These loose purposes, without future restrictions, definitions of third parties it could be given to or why, or clear need to consult the public or parliament on future scope changes, is a  repeat of similar legislative changes which have resulted in poor data practices using school pupil data in England age 2-19 since 2000.

Policy makers should consider whether the intent of these three bills is to give out identifiable, individual level, confidential data of young people under 18, for commercial use without their consent? Or to journalists and charities access? Should it mean unfettered access by government departments and agencies such as police and Home Office Removals Casework teams without any transparent register of access, any oversight, or accountability?

These are today’s uses by third-parties of school children’s individual, identifiable and sensitive data from the National Pupil Database.

Uses of data not as statistics, but named individuals for interventions in individual lives.

If the Home Secretaries past and present have put international students at the centre of plans to cut migration to the tens of thousands and government refuses to take student numbers out of migration figures, despite them being seen as irrelevant in the substance of the numbers debate, this should be deeply worrying.

Will the MOU between the DfE and the Home Office Removals Casework team be a model for access to all student data held at the Department for Education, even all areas of public administrative data?

Hoping that the data transfers to the Home Office won’t result in the deportation of thousands we would not predict today, may be naive.

Under the new open wording, the Secretary of State for Education might even  decide to sell the nation’s entire Technical and Further Education student data to Trump University for the purposes of their ‘research’ to target marketing at UK students or institutions that may be potential US post-grad applicants. The Secretary of State will have the data simply because she “may require [it] for purposes connected with further education.”

And to think US buyers or others would not be interested is too late.

In 2015 Stanford University made a request of the National Pupil Database for both academic staff and students’ data. It was rejected. We know this only from the third party release register. Without any duty to publish requests, approved users or purposes of data release, where is the oversight for use of these other datasets?

If these are not the intended purposes of these three bills, if there should be any limitation on purposes of use and future scope change, then safeguards and oversight need built into the face of the bills to ensure data privacy is protected and avoid repeating the same again.

Hoping that the decision is always going to be, ‘they wouldn’t approve a request like that’ is not enough to protect millions of students privacy.

The three bills are a perfect privacy storm

As other Europeans seek to strengthen the fundamental rights of their citizens to take back control of their personal data under the GDPR coming into force in May 2018, the UK government is pre-emptively undermining ours in these three bills.

Young people, and data dependent institutions, are asking for solutions to show what personal data is held where, and used by whom, for what purposes. That buys in the benefit message that builds trust showing what you said you’d do with my data, is what you did with my data. [1] [2]

Reality is that in post-truth politics it seems anything goes, on both sides of the Pond. So how will we trust what our data is used for?

2015-16 advice from the cross party Science and Technology Committee suggested data privacy is unsatisfactory, “to be left unaddressed by Government and without a clear public-policy position set out“.  We hear the need for data privacy debated about use of consumer data, social media, and on using age verification. It’s necessary to secure the public trust needed for long term public benefit and for economic value derived from data to be achieved.

But the British government seems intent on shortsighted legislation which does entirely the opposite for its own use: in the Higher Education Bill, the Technical and Further Education Bill and in the Digital Economy Bill.

These bills share what Baroness Chakrabarti said of the Higher Education Bill in its Lords second reading on the 6th December, “quite an achievement for a policy to combine both unnecessary authoritarianism with dangerous degrees of deregulation.”

Unchecked these Bills create the conditions needed for catastrophic failure of public trust. They shift ever more personal data away from personal control, into the centralised control of the Secretary of State for unclear purposes and use by undefined third parties. They jeopardise the collection and integrity of public administrative data.

To future-proof the immediate integrity of student personal data collection and use, the DfE reputation, and public and professional trust in DfE political leadership, action must be taken on safeguards and oversight, and should consider:

  • Transparency register: a public record of access, purposes, and benefits to be achieved from use
  • Subject Access Requests: Providing the public ways to access copies of their own data
  • Consent procedures should be strengthened for collection and cannot say one thing, and do another
  • Ability to withdraw consent from secondary purposes should be built in by design, looking to GDPR from 2018
  • Clarification of the legislative purpose of intended current use by the Secretary of State and its boundaries shoud be clear
  • Future purpose and scope change limitations should require consultation – data collected today must not used quite differently tomorrow without scrutiny and ability to opt out (i.e. population wide registries of religion, ethnicity, disability)
  • Review or sunset clause

If the legislation in these three bills pass without amendment, the potential damage to privacy will be lasting.


[1] http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2016-07-15/42942/  Parliamentary written question 42942 on the collection of pupil nationality data in the school census starting in September 2016:   “what limitations will be placed by her Department on disclosure of such information to (a) other government departments?”

Schools Minister Nick Gibb responded on July 25th 2016: ”

“These new data items will provide valuable statistical information on the characteristics of these groups of children […] “The data will be collected solely for internal Departmental use for the analytical, statistical and research purposes described above. There are currently no plans to share the data with other government Departments”

[2] December 15, publication of MOU between the Home Office  Casework Removals Team and the DfE, reveals “the previous agreement “did state that DfE would provide nationality information to the Home Office”, but that this was changed “following discussions” between the two departments.” http://schoolsweek.co.uk/dfe-had-agreement-to-share-pupil-nationality-data-with-home-office/ 

The agreement was changed on 7th October 2016 to not pass nationality data over. It makes no mention of not using the data within the DfE for the same purposes.

Mum, are we there yet? Why should AI care.

Mike Loukides drew similarities between the current status of AI and children’s learning in an article I read this week.

The children I know are always curious to know where they are going, how long will it take, and how they will know when they get there. They ask others for guidance often.

Loukides wrote that if you look carefully at how humans learn, you see surprisingly little unsupervised learning.

If unsupervised learning is a prerequisite for general intelligence, but not the substance, what should we be looking for, he asked. It made me wonder is it also true that general intelligence is a prerequisite for unsupervised learning? And if so, what level of learning must AI achieve before it is capable of recursive self-improvement? What is AI being encouraged to look for as it learns, what is it learning as it looks?

What is AI looking for and how will it know when it gets there?

Loukides says he can imagine a toddler learning some rudiments of counting and addition on his or her own, but can’t imagine a child developing any sort of higher mathematics without a teacher.

I suggest a different starting point. I think children develop on their own, given a foundation. And if the foundation is accompanied by a purpose — to understand why they should learn to count, and why they should want to — and if they have the inspiration, incentive and  assets they’ll soon go off on their own, and outstrip your level of knowledge. That may or may not be with a teacher depending on what is available, cost, and how far they get compared with what they want to achieve.

It’s hard to learn something from scratch by yourself if you have no boundaries to set knowledge within and search for more, or to know when to stop when you have found it.

You’ve only to start an online course, get stuck, and try to find the solution through a search engine to know how hard it can be to find the answer if you don’t know what you’re looking for. You can’t type in search terms if you don’t know the right words to describe the problem.

I described this recently to a fellow codebar-goer, more experienced than me, and she pointed out something much better to me. Don’t search for the solution or describe what you’re trying to do, ask the search engine to find others with the same error message.

In effect she said, your search is wrong. Google knows the answer, but can’t tell you what you want to know, if you don’t ask it in the way it expects.

So what will AI expect from people and will it care if we dont know how to interrelate? How does AI best serve humankind and defined by whose point-of-view? Will AI serve only those who think most closely in AI style steps and language?  How will it serve those who don’t know how to talk about, or with it? AI won’t care if we don’t.

If as Loukides says, we humans are good at learning something and then applying that knowledge in a completely different area, it’s worth us thinking about how we are transferring our knowledge today to AI and how it learns from that. Not only what does AI learn in content and context, but what does it learn about learning?

His comparison of a toddler learning from parents — who in effect are ‘tagging’ objects through repetition of words while looking at images in a picture book — made me wonder how we will teach AI the benefit of learning? What incentive will it have to progress?

“the biggest project facing AI isn’t making the learning process faster and more efficient. It’s moving from machines that solve one problem very well (such as playing Go or generating imitation Rembrandts) to machines that are flexible and can solve many unrelated problems well, even problems they’ve never seen before.”

Is the skill to enable “transfer learning” what will matter most?

For AI to become truly useful, we need better as a global society to understand *where* it might best interface with our daily lives, and most importantly *why*.  And consider *who* is teaching and AI and who is being left out in the crowdsourcing of AI’s teaching.

Who is teaching AI what it needs to know?

The natural user interfaces for people to interact with today’s more common virtual assistants (Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Viv, Microsoft  and Cortana) are not just providing information to the user, but through its use, those systems are learning. I wonder what percentage of today’s  population is using these assistants, how representative are they, and what our AI assistants are being taught through their use? Tay was a swift lesson learned for Microsoft.

In helping shape what AI learns, what range of language it will use to develop its reference words and knowledge, society co-shapes what AI’s purpose will be —  and for AI providers to know what’s the point of selling it. So will this technology serve everyone?

Are providers counter-balancing what AI is currently learning from crowdsourcing, if the crowd is not representative of society?

So far we can only teach machines to make decisions based on what we already know, and what we can tell it to decide quickly against pre-known references using lots of data. Will your next image captcha, teach AI to separate the sloth from the pain-au-chocolat?

One of the task items for machine processing is better searches. Measurable goal driven tasks have boundaries, but who sets them? When does a computer know, if it’s found enough to make a decision. If the balance of material about the Holocaust on the web for example, were written by Holocaust deniers will AI know who is right? How will AI know what is trusted and by whose measure?

What will matter most is surely not going to be how to optimise knowledge transfer from human to AI — that is the baseline knowledge of supervised learning — and it won’t even be for AI to know when to use its skill set in one place and when to apply it elsewhere in a different context; so-called learning transfer, as Mike Loukides says. But rather, will AI reach the point where it cares?

  • Will AI ever care what it should know and where to stop or when it knows enough on any given subject?
  • How will it know or care if what it learns is true?
  • If in the best interests of advancing technology or through inaction  we do not limit its boundaries, what oversight is there of its implications?

Online limits will limit what we can reach in Thinking and Learning

If you look carefully at how humans learn online, I think rather than seeing  surprisingly little unsupervised learning, you see a lot of unsupervised questioning. It is often in the questioning that is done in private we discover, and through discovery we learn. Often valuable discoveries are made; whether in science, in maths, or important truths are found where there is a need to challenge the status quo. Imagine if Galileo had given up.

The freedom to think freely and to challenge authority, is vital to protect, and one reason why I and others are concerned about the compulsory web monitoring starting on September 5th in all schools in England, and its potential chilling effect. Some are concerned who  might have access to these monitoring results today or in future, if stored could they be opened to employers or academic institutions?

If you tell children do not use these search terms and do not be curious about *this* subject without repercussions, it is censorship. I find the idea bad enough for children, but for us as adults its scary.

As Frankie Boyle wrote last November, we need to consider what our internet history is:

“The legislation seems to view it as a list of actions, but it’s not. It’s a document that shows what we’re thinking about.”

Children think and act in ways that they may not as an adult. People also think and act differently in private and in public. It’s concerning that our private online activity will become visible to the State in the IP Bill — whether photographs that captured momentary actions in social media platforms without the possibility to erase them, or trails of transitive thinking via our web history — and third-parties may make covert judgements and conclusions about us, correctly or not, behind the scenes without transparency, oversight or recourse.

Children worry about lack of recourse and repercussions. So do I. Things done in passing, can take on a permanence they never had before and were never intended. If expert providers of the tech world such as Apple Inc, Facebook Inc, Google Inc, Microsoft Corp, Twitter Inc and Yahoo Inc are calling for change, why is the government not listening? This is more than very concerning, it will have disastrous implications for trust in the State, data use by others, self-censorship, and fear that it will lead to outright censorship of adults online too.

By narrowing our parameters what will we not discover? Not debate?  Or not invent? Happy are the clockmakers, and kids who create. Any restriction on freedom to access information, to challenge and question will restrict children’s learning or even their wanting to.  It will limit how we can improve our shared knowledge and improve our society as a result. The same is true of adults.

So in teaching AI how to learn, I wonder how the limitations that humans put on its scope — otherwise how would it learn what the developers want — combined with showing it ‘our thinking’ through search terms,  and how limitations on that if users self-censor due to surveillance, will shape what AI will help us with in future and will it be the things that could help the most people, the poorest people, or will it be people like those who programme the AI and use search terms and languages it already understands?

Who is accountable for the scope of what we allow AI to do or not? Who is accountable for what AI learns about us, from our behaviour data if it is used without our knowledge?

How far does AI have to go?

The leap for AI will be if and when AI can determine what it doesn’t know, and it sees a need to fill that gap. To do that, AI will need to discover a purpose for its own learning, indeed for its own being, and be able to do so without limitation from the that humans shaped its framework for doing so. How will AI know what it needs to know and why? How will it know, what it knows is right and sources to trust? Against what boundaries will AI decide what it should engage with in its learning, who from and why? Will it care? Why will it care? Will it find meaning in its reason for being? Why am I here?

We assume AI will know better. We need to care, if AI is going to.

How far are we away from a machine that is capable of recursive self-improvement, asks John Naughton in yesterday’s Guardian, referencing work by Yuval Harari suggesting artificial intelligence and genetic enhancements will usher in a world of inequality and powerful elites. As I was finishing this, I read his article, and found myself nodding, as I read the implications of new technology focus too much on technology and too little on society’s role in shaping it.

AI at the moment has a very broad meaning to the general public. Is it living with life-supporting humanoids?  Do we consider assistive search tools as AI? There is a fairly general understanding of “What is A.I., really?” Some wonder if we are “probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens,” as we know it.

If the purpose of AI is to improve human lives, who defines improvement and who will that improvement serve? Is there a consensus on the direction AI should and should not take, and how far it should go? What will the global language be to speak AI?

As AI learning progresses, every time AI turns to ask its creators, “Are we there yet?”,  how will we know what to say?

image: Stephen Barling flickr.com/photos/cripsyduck (CC BY-NC 2.0)

EU do the Hokey Cokey. In out, In out, shake it all about.

The IN and the OUT circles have formed and Boris is standing in the middle.

Speculation as to whether he means to be on the No team is agreed he doesn’t really mean no.

His comments on staying in have been more consistently in the past pointed to his head saying staying in is better for business.

Some are suggesting that his stance is neither in nor out, but ‘an unconvincing third way‘,  no doesn’t mean no to staying in but no to Cameron’s deal and would in fact mean a second vote along the lines of Dominic Cumming’s .

If so, is this breathtaking arrogance and a u-turn of unforeseeable magnitude? Had our PM not said before the last GE he planned in stepping down before the end of the next Parliament, you could think so. But this way they cannot lose.

This is in fact bloody brilliant positioning by the whole party.

A yes vote underpins Cameron’s re-negotiation as ‘the right thing to do’, best for business and his own statesmanship while showing that we’re not losing sovereignty because staying in is on our terms.

Renegotiating our relationship with the EU was a key Conservative election promise.

This pacifies the majority of that part of the population who wants out of some of the EU ‘controlling out country’ and beholden to EU law, but keeps us stable and financially secure.

The hardline Out campaigners are seen as a bag of all-sorts that few are taking that seriously. But then comes Boris.

So now there is some weight in the out circle and if the country votes ‘No’ a way to manage the outcome with a ready made leader in waiting. But significantly, it’s not a consistent call for Out across the group. Boris is not for spinning in the same clear ‘out’ direction as the Galloway group.

Boris can keep a foot in the circle saying his heart is pro-In and really wants In, but on better terms. He can lead a future party for Outers Inners and whatever the outcome, be seen to welcome all. Quite a gentleman’s agreement perhaps.

His Out just means out of some things, not others. Given all his past positioning and role as Mayor in the City of London, out wouldn’t mean wanting to risk any of the financial and business related bits.

So what does that leave?  Pay attention in his speech to the three long paragraphs on the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights.

His rambling explanation indirectly explained quite brilliantly the bits he wants ‘out’ to mean. Out means in the Boris-controlled circle, only getting out from those parts of EU directives that the party players don’t like. The bits when they get told what to do, or told off for doing something wrong, or not playing nicely with the group.

The human rights rulings and oversight from the CJEU or views which are not aligned with the ECHR for example.

As Joshua Rozenberg wrote on sovereignty, “Human rights reform has been inextricably intertwined with renegotiating the UK’s membership of the EU. And it is all the government’s fault.”

Rozenberg writes that Mr Gove told the Lords constitution committee in December that David Cameron asked him whether “we should use the British Bill of Rights in order to create a constitutional long stop […] and whether the UK Supreme Court should be that body.”

“Our top judges were relabelled a “Supreme Court” not long ago; they’ve been urged to assert themselves against the European Court of Human Rights, and are already doing so against EU law”, commented Carl Gardner elsewhere.

The Gang of Six cabinet ministers are known for their anti EU disaffectation and most often its attachment to human rights  – Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers, Priti Patel and John Whittingdale plus a further 20 junior ministers and potentially dozens of backbenchers.

We can therefore expect the Out campaign to present situations in which British ‘sovereignty’ was undermined by court rulings that some perceive as silly or seriously flawed.

Every case in which a British court ever convicted someone and was overturned ‘by Europe’ that appeared nonsensical will be wheeled out by current justice Secretary Mr Gove.

Every tougher ‘terrorist’ type case, whose human rights were upheld that had been denied them by a UK ruling might be in the more ‘extreme’ remit of the former justice secretary mention whenever Grayling makes his case for Out, especially where opinions may conflict with interpretations and the EU Charter.

Priti Patel has tough views of crime and punishment, reportedly in favour of the the death penalty.

IDS isn’t famous for a generous application of disability rights.

John Whittingdale gave his views on the present relationship with the EU and CJEU here in debate in 2015 and said (22:10) he was profoundly “concerned the CJEU is writing laws which we consider to be against our national interest.”

Data protection and privacy is about to get a new EU directive that will strengthen some aspects of citizens’ data rights. Things like the right to be informed what information is stored about us, or have mistakes corrected.

Don’t forget after all that Mr Gove is the Education SoS who signed off giving away the confidential personal data of now 20 million children to commercial third parties from the National Pupil Database. Clearly not an Article 8 fan.

We are told that we are being over reactive to our loss of rights to privacy. Over generous in protections to people who don’t deserve it. Ignoring that rights are universal and indivisible, we are encouraged to see them as something that must be earned. As such, something which may or may not be respected. And therefore can be removed.

Convince the majority of that, and legislation underpinning our rights will be easier to take away without enough mass outcry that will make a difference.

To be clear, a no vote would make no actual legal difference, “Leaving the EU (if that’s what the people vote for) is NOT at all inconsistent with the United Kingdom’s position as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a creature of the COUNCIL of EUROPE and NOT the European Union.” [ObiterJ]

But by conflating ‘the single market’, ‘the Lisbon Treaty’, and the ‘ability to vindicate people’s rights under the 55-clause “Charter of Fundamental Human Rights”, Boris has made the no vote again equate conflated things: European Union membership = loss of sovereignty = need to reduce the control or influence of all organisations seen as ‘European’ (even if like the ECHR it’s to do with the Council of Europe Convention signed post WWII and long before EU membership) and all because we are a signatory to a package deal.

Boris has reportedly no love of ‘lefty academics’ standing up for international and human rights laws and their uppity lawyers in the habit of “vindicating the rights of their clients.”

Boris will bob in and out of both the IN group for business and the OUT group for sovereignty, trying not to fall out with anyone too much and giving serious Statesmanship to the injustices inflicted on the UK. There will be banter and back biting, but the party views will be put ahead of personalities.

And the public? What we vote, won’t really matter.I think we’ll be persuaded to be IN, or to get a two step Out-In.

Either way it will give the relevant party leader, present or future, the mandate to do what he wants. Our engagement is optional.

Like the General Election, the people’s majority viewed as a ‘mandate’ seems to have become a little confused with sign-off to dictate a singular directive, rather than represent a real majority. It cannot do anything but this, since the majority didn’t vote for the government that we have.

In this EU Referendum No wont mean No. It’ll mean a second vote to be able to split the package of no-to-all-things into a no-to-some-things wrapped up in layers of ‘sovereignty’ discussion. Unpack them, and those things will be for the most part, human rights things. How they will then be handled at a later date is utterly unclear but the mandate will have been received.

Imagine if Boris can persuade enough of the undecideds that he is less bonkers than some of the EU rulings on rights, he’ll perhaps get an Out mandate, possibly meaning a second vote just to be sure, splitting off the parts everyone obviously wants to protect, the UK business interests, and allowing the government to negotiate the opt out from legislation of human rights’ protections. Things that may appear to make more people dependent on the state, and contrary to the ideology of shrinking state support.

A long-promised review of the British Human Rights Act 1998 will inevitably follow, and only makes sense if we are first made exempt from the European umbrella.

Perhaps we will hear over the next four months more about what that might mean.

Either way, the Out group will I’m sure take the opportunity to air their views and demand the shake up of where Human Rights laws are out of line for the shape of the UK future nation they wish to see us become.

Some suggest Boris has made a decision that will cost him his political career. I disagree. I think it’s incredibly clever. Not a conspiracy, simply clever party planning to make every outcome a win for the good of the party and the good of the nation,  and a nod to Boris as future leader in any case. After all, he didn’t actually say he wanted #Brexit, just reform.

It’s not all about Boris, but is staging party politics at its best, and simultaneously sets the scene for future change in the human rights debate.

The last steps to safety: helping refugees in transit to Germany. Stories from border town volunteers.

As European leaders meet for the sixth time this year to talk about what to do about refugees, people on the ground are getting stuff done.

Freilassing Hilft, a collaboration of volunteers founded through four friends and a Facebook group eight weeks ago, feeds 1500 different people every day, who pass through the small border town in Germany.

We’re expecting another 700 more this evening,” Rolf said, volunteering with the separate and long-established charity Caritas at Salzburg’s main station on the other side of the border.

Two “special” trains arrive daily from the south, from Vienna.

Individual men, women and children have become a package – ‘ die Flüchtlinge‘ – refugees – who arrive en masse. From the platforms they are escorted by police and young military service soldiers to segregated areas in the fluorescent lit station concourse.

There they wait.  Standing in an orderly narrow queue between cold aluminum crowd control barriers near the exit at the back of the station.

Chatting and relaxed at both ends of the line, a dozen heavily armed police supervise passing these people on. Dark navy uniforms stand out against the reflective white flooring. Big boots and bigger guns don’t seem a very friendly way to greet up to 1500 people a day who have left behind violence and conflict, with only the possessions they can carry; each with a small rucksack, some with small children.  The children look as mine would after travelling; a little fraught, bewildered and awake in harsh neon at night, when they should be asleep. Most but not all, clinging to a trusted parent. And no crying.

One teen is wandering on her own, looking a little lost, drowning in a turquoise terry towelling  dressing gown that’s too big. I wonder what her story is.

Along the ‘safety’ barricade, white vested volunteers weave back and forth holding out plastic bags of cheese sandwiches and drinks. “Hold them up high,” says Rolf waving 500ml water bottles in the air in his blue, disposable-gloved hands. “If they want them they’ll reach out and take them, you don’t need to say anything.”

There is calm and quiet. There are no words. Tense and tired looking faces nod respectfully to volunteers in appreciation of support. And still they wait for the special buses laid on to bring them across the Austrian-German border, to the small town of Freilassing, seven kilometres away. They will soon be in Germany.

Refugees can only cross the border on these supervised buses. Refugees aren’t allowed on the regular trains from Salzburg any more at all.

Special buses get driven discretely between Salzburg and Freilassing, often in the dark. The town of 16,000 inhabitants has been the checkpoint entry for numbers equivalent to about a tenth of its own population every day since the end of August.

From Freilassing special trains are onwardly coordinated by the Bundesbahn to take the refugees to a scattering of cities across the country. The refugees don’t get told where they are going. That’s deliberate,  said local volunteer, eighteen year-old Jana on the platform in Germany the next morning. She’s the deputy leader of the volunteer group Freilassing Hilft, an organisation founded through four friends’ collaboration in a Facebook group just 8 weeks ago, to give refugees support in transit.

“Some people have specific places they want to reach”, she explained. “They may have family members who they know are in Hamburg for example, and only want to get sent there. It could be upsetting to find they’re being sent somewhere else.”

Berlin, Magdeburg, they’ve been widely distributed, but few helpers know exactly where either.

While most refugees transfer directly from the Austrian buses to German train after registration checks and getting lunch bags from local volunteers, if a train isn’t due straight away they are bussed less than mile away to the Sägewerkstraße centre where they will stay no longer than 24 hours.

Those people who have not yet been registered by police – under tarpaulin awnings on the station platform, or on the bridge the Saarlachbrucke crossing point thirty at a time – go through the registration process at the centre.

In the dry and protected space the men, women and children get some respite, from the weather at least. Donations of winter clothes and shoes are distributed by Caritas volunteers and Freilassing Hilft to those who need them. Medics and professional volunteers can care for health needs. So close to their destination, it can be tense.

Sixty-four year old Kunnikunde joined the Caritas volunteer group in October. A group staffed mainly by pensioners since the students have returned to their studies. She helps distribute the donated clothing inside the former furniture showroom. “Helping them, seeing them smile, afterwards when it is over it is a great feeling, like running a marathon”, she said.

It’s not the same for everyone who works inside though. For the professionals who have been helping for longer, this intensive support is taking its toll. “I see dark faces in my dreams,” one told me. “I can’t forget them.” He sighed, clapped me on the shoulder, as if giving me some sign of solidarity in spirit. I wondered what support he needs and feels able to take, as he gives to others. He pulled on blue plastic gloves each with a professional snap, and went back inside.

The vast building is shut to other outsiders. It has no windows. Security teams patrol the barrier lines, marked off with tape and supported by local police. Whether it’s more to keep people from getting out or others getting in, I’m not sure.

It is not overstatement to say this is the biggest humanitarian disaster Europe has seen since the Second World War and Germany seventy years on, is again redistributing people fleeing war and its effects. As a border town, people in Freilassing have had plenty of experience.

Local feeling is mixed, says Jana. “We have three shifts,” she explained. “All together in the last five weeks we had probably 450 volunteers come and help us. And we get on well with the other organisations. We all work well together, the relationship with the police is very pleasant. But we certainly need to watch that the [public] mood doesn’t change.”

Since I met her two weeks ago, that number has rocketed to over two thousand individuals helping out, some coming to help from miles away.

Their organised management of community spirit is exemplary. They’ve channelled local people wanting to help, into actual donations and distribution of food and drink. An empty concrete floored shell of a shop-under-renovation is their base opposite the station to accept regular donations of thousands of apples, bananas, cereal bars, water, and sandwiches. Volunteers take shifts in the unheated room and bag up packed lunches for distribution to refugees arriving off  the buses. The group has borrowed a handful of supermarket trolleys to take supplies across the road.

Today’s “wish list” on Facebook:

– men’s winter shoes sizes 6+
– Bananas
– White rolls
– Still mineral water 0,5l
– children’s drinks 0,2l
– drawing things
– Babyshoes sizes 19-22
– Baby milk and bottles

“This shift is simply packing the lunch bags for a couple of hours, and we get lots of people if we put out a call,”  Jana explained when I asked how they get hold of what they need. “We can say, we need bananas, and after two hours we have sixteen crates of fruit and then people come along saying, but you have loads, you’re hoarding it. Other times we have nothing and need to use cash donations to buy everything ourselves. Last week we had to go twice a day to the supermarket, but we can’t go to Aldi anymore and just buy up all their stock. We need to pre-order and what we need can change in a matter of minutes. It’s hard to plan with.”

It’s an impressive set up by students who decided they could not simply stand by and do nothing. As we chat two more volunteers come along to register for shifts and Margret, a local mother of three, drops in a huge crate of apples from her orchard.

“What else can we do?” she asks. “You can’t just leave these people with nothing. Unless they felt forced to, they wouldn’t leave. There are families, and young children who are scared, and alone, and they need our help.”

One recent good news story Jana told me, had everyone in tears.

The police helped an asylum seeking Syrian husband in the north of Germany to go south again and reach Freilassing when he heard his wife had managed to escape the war zone one year after he had. Police had escorted him to the Sägewerkstraße, the building now known by the name of its street; enormous open plan furniture warehouse space donated by a local landowner as a staging post for the refugees’ journey. Meeting his wife after a year and two tortuous journeys apart was an emotional experience for them both, as well as all the Caritas charity and Red Cross staff involved. The asylum seeking couple were able to leave together and returned to his new home in the north. A rare good news story. Not all refugees find family or complete the journey safely with family they set out with. Not all refugees are from Syria, and some have traveled for up to two years before this last step to what they hope will be safety.

At the Austrian-German border police now check the ordinary vehicles passing through and ask for papers, a return of the border controls that had been removed in the Schengen agreement. A recent change which taxi driver Andreas is starting to feel has become too much of a burden on residents.

“For our children, or our children’s children, what is the future going to look like? We’ve got our own problems. Poverty, housing the elderly, and there never seems to be money to fix it. But suddenly for refugees, the money’s there.”

That Saturday saw two demonstrations.

One crowd called for support of the border towns, such as Freilassing, just as for the organisations and supporters who are engaging themselves in the work with the refugees. The Caritas Director Pralat Hans Lindenberger said that the refugees also needed to be shared fairly across the German states, as quickly and fairly as possible.

In the counter demonstration many of the attendees were brought in from different parts of Germany, says Jana, with few locals from far right and recognised Nazi organisations.

Supporters are however still signing up to help. While the number of refugees seeking asylum usually falls in winter as seas become more dangerous, this shows no sign of change yet despite or because of the reportedly cut rate crossings offered by the human traffickers.

Others are getting involved to help but to the volunteers it seems ad hoc. This Telekom portal launched today offering multi-lingual support. Long term volunteers will welcome the support tools for the refugees and their own staff.

Helpers and organisations are all calling for central government support.

In the short term, as winter snows may arrive soon, broader cooperation of nation states at government level in funding and manpower is needed in a consistent collaborative approach, as embodied by the Freilassing organisations in the microcosm of the Austrian-German border.

“Basically”, says the Red Cross volunteer, “all our leaders need to lead. Not only ours.”

Everyone is calling for greater leadership from not only the German government and more from Austria, but a collaboration including the UK. When I said I’m from the UK, they laughed. Since Germany takes the same number a day in this small town, as we might in two months time, I’m not surprised.

Austrian ‘support’ is also felt to be cursory, simply passing people on to Germany. No one knows how long goodwill in Freilassing can last. But volunteer numbers still say, ‘refugees welcome.’

Winter has begun. Although more support has been announced it is as yet unclear to the volunteers what it will offer where.

Unless there is safe passage to travel, and shelter at the point of arrival and all along ‘the route of Hope’ from Greece to Germany, the volunteers in Freilassing won’t help as many people as they do today, including the hundreds of unaccompanied children.

In the Alpine cold, many of them will simply never reach the border at all.

This UK response is not enough, not in this Parliament or even next year.

As political leaders prepare to meet in Malta to discuss measures to stem the flow of migrants and refugees from Africa to Europe,  I think of Rolf’s words, “you don’t need to say anything.”  But we do.

We need to speak up, so they hear a million voices of migrants. Speak up so that our leaders know they have the support of many people who want a more positive proactive approach in our population, but are not as vocal as the anti-immigration crowds. Speak up for the children who are still to set sail.

Any further border control agreements must put respect for human rights at their heart, not put more barriers in the way of people migrating or those getting on with grassroots practical support. Leaders must enable refugee routes to safety, and condemn those placing these people in more harm.

These people are survivors. They have not walked there, seen loved ones drown, given up all they know, for the joy of voluntourism. People in Germany laughed at our government’s commitment to take our share of people. It’s the only laugh I’ve heard recently in relation to refugee support.

As Kunnikunde said,“We have big hearts, but our generosity cannot go on forever. We all need to do this together.”

*****
*****

If you want to help make a difference and support refugees through volunteers at the organisation Freilassing Hilft (Freilassing Helps) you can make a regular or one-off donation. This enables them to buy stock according to need and in line with what donors have already provided.

Donations care of the charity:
Verein Europäischer Zwillings- und Mehrlingsfamilien e. V.
Account: VR RB Oberbayern Südost
IBAN: DE 787 109 000 000 002 310 45
BIC: GENODEF1BGL
Purpose: “FreilassingHilft”
The purpose is important so that “FreilassingHilft” gets the donation.

For a receipt of your donation, email: das-kontakt@freilassing.de. More information: see their Facebook group.

OR consider the Red Cross or the long established local Caritas.

Thank you.

justice payment

Foto credit and story supported by Freilassing Hilft

The National Pupil Database end of year report: D for transparency, C minus in security.

Transparency and oversight of how things are administered are simple ways that the public can both understand and trust that things run as we expect.

For the National Pupil Database, parents might be surprised, as I was about some of the current practices.

The scope of use and who could access the National Pupil Database was changed in 2012 and although I had three children at school at that time and heard nothing about it, nor did I read it in the papers. (Hah – time to read the papers?)  So I absolutely agree with Owen Boswara’s post when he wrote:

“There appears to have been no concerted effort to bring the consultation or the NPD initiative to the attention of parents or pupils (i.e. the data subjects themselves). This is a quote from one of the parents who did respond:

“I am shocked and appalled that I wasn’t notified about this consultation through my child’s school – I read about it on Twitter of all things. A letter should have gone to every single parent explaining the proposals and how to respond to this consultation.”

(Now imagine that sentiment amplified via Mumsnet …)”
[July 2013, blog by O. Boswara]

As Owen wrote,  imagine that sentiment amplified via Mumsnet indeed.

Here’s where third parties can apply and here’s a list of who has been given data from the National Pupil Database . (It’s only been updated twice in 18 months. The most recent of which has been since I’ve asked about it, in .) The tier groups 1-4 are explained here on p.18, where 1 is the most sensitive identifiable classification.

The consultation suggested in 2012 that the changes could be an “effective engine of economic growth, social wellbeing, political accountability and public service improvement.”.  

Has this been measured at all if the justification given has begun to be achieved? Often research can take a long time and implementing any changes as a result, more time. But perhaps there has been some measure of public benefit already begun to be accrued?

The release panel would one hope, have begun to track this. [update: DfE confirmed August 20th they do not track benefits, nor have ever done any audit of recipients]

And in parallel what oversight governs checks and balances to make sure that the drive for the ‘engine of economic growth’ remembers to treat these data as knowledge about our children?

Is there that level of oversight from application to benefits measurement?

Is there adequate assessment of privacy impact and ethics in applications?

Why the National Pupil Database troubles me, is not the data it contains per se, but the lack of child/guardian involvement, lack of accountable oversight how it is managed and full transparency around who it is used by and its processes.

Some practical steps forward

Taken now, steps could resolve some of these issues and avoid the risk of them becoming future issues of concern.

The first being thorough fair processing, as I covered in my previous post.

The submission of the school census returns, including a set of named pupil records, has been a statutory requirement on schools since the Education Act 1996. That’s almost twenty years ago in the pre-mainstream internet age.

The Department must now shape up its current governance practices in its capacity as the data processor and controller of the National Pupil Database, to be fit for the 21st century.

Ignoring current weaknesses, actively accepts an ever-increasing reputational risk for the Department, schools, other data sharing bodies or those who link to the data and its bona fide research users. If people lose trust in data uses, they won’t share at all and the quality of data will suffer, bad for functional admin of the state and individual, but also for the public good.

That concerns me also wearing my hat as a lay member on the ADRN panel because it’s important that the public trusts our data is looked after wisely so that research can continue to use it for advances in health and social science and all sorts of areas of knowledge to improve our understanding of society and make it better.

Who decides who gets my kids data, even if I can’t?

A Data Management Advisory Panel (DMAP) considers applications for only some of the applications, tier 1 data requests. Those are the most, but not the only applications for access to sensitive data.

“When you make a request for NPD data it will be considered for approval by the Education Data Division (EDD) with the exception of tier 1 data requests, which will be assessed by the department’s Data Management Advisory Panel. The EDD will inform you of the outcome of the decision.”

Where is governance transparency?

What is the make up of both the Data Management Advisory Panel and and the Education Data Division (EDD)? Who sits on them and how are they selected? Do they document their conflicts of interest for each application? For how long are they appointed and under what selection criteria?

Where is decision outcome transparency?

The outcome of the decision should be documented and published. However, the list has been updated only twice since its inception in 2012. Once was December 2013, and the most recently was, ahem, May 18 2015. After considerable prodding. There should be a regular timetable, with responsible owner and a depth of insight into its decision making.

Where is transparency over decision making to approve or reject requests?

Do privacy impact assessments and ethics reviews play any role in their application and if so, how are they assessed and by whom?

How are those sensitive and confidential data stored and governed?

The weakest link in any system is often said to be human error. Users of the NPD data vary from other government departments to “Mom and Pop” small home businesses, selling schools’ business intelligence and benchmarking.

So how secure are our children’s data really, and once the data have left the Department database, how are they treated? Does lots of form filling and emailed data with a personal password ensure good practice, or simply provide barriers to slow down the legitimate applications process?

What happens to data that are no longer required for the given project? Are they properly deleted and what audits have ever been carried out to ensure that?

The National Pupil Database end of year report: a C- in security

The volume of data that can be processed now at speed is incomparable with 1996, and even 2012 when the current processes were set up. The opportunities and risks in cyber security have also moved on.

Surely the Department for Education should take responsibility seriously to treat our children’s personal data and sensitive records equally as well as the HSCIC now intends to manage health data?

Processing administrative or linked data in an environment with layered physical security (e.g. a secure perimeter, CCTV, security guarding or a locked room without remote connection such as internet access) is good practice. And reduces the risk of silly, human error. Or  simple theft.

Is giving out chunks of raw data by email, with reams of paperwork as its approval ‘safeguards’ really fit for the 21st century and beyond?

tiers

Twenty years on from the conception of the National Pupil Database, it is time to treat the personal data of our future adult citizens with the respect it deserves and we expect of best-in-class data management.

It should be as safe and secure as we treat other sensitive government data, and lessons could be learned from the FARR, ADRN and HSCIC safe settings.

Back to school – more securely, with public understanding and transparency

Understanding how that all works, how technology and people, data sharing and privacy, data security and trust all tie together is fundamental to understanding the internet. When administrations take our data, they take on responsibilities for some of our participation in dot.everyone that the state is so keen for us all to take part in. Many of our kids will live in the world which is the internet of things.  Not getting that, is to not understand the Internet.

And to reiterate some of why that matters, I go back to my previous post in which I quoted Martha Lane Fox recently and the late Aaron Swartz when he said: “It’s not OK not understand the internet, anymore”.

While the Department of Education has turned down my subject access request to find out what the National Pupil Database stores on my own children, it matters too much to brush the issues aside, as only important for me. About 700,000 children are born each year and will added to this database every academic year. None ever get deleted.

Parents can, and must ask that it is delivered to the highest standards of fair processing, transparency, oversight and security. I’m certainly going to.

It’s going to be Back to School in September, and those annual privacy notices, all too soon.

*****

1. The National Pupil Database end of year report card

2. The National Pupil Database end of year report: an F in fair processing

3. The National Pupil Database end of year report: a D in transparency

References:

[1] The National Pupil Database user guide: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261189/NPD_User_Guide.pdf

[2] Data tables to see the individual level data items stored and shared (by tabs on the bottom of the file) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-pupil-database-user-guide-andsupporting-information

[3] The table to show who has bought or received data and for what purpose https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-pupil-database-requests-received

[4] Data Trust Deficit – from the RSS: http://www.statslife.org.uk/news/1672-new-rss-research-finds-data-trust-deficit-with-lessons-for-policymakers

[5] Talk by Phil Booth and Terri Dowty: http://www.infiniteideasmachine.com/2013/04/terris-and-my-talk-on-the-national-pupil-database-at-the-open-data-institute/

[6] Presentation given by Paul Sinclair of the Department for Education at the Workshop on Evaluating the Impact of Youth Programmes, 3rd June 2013

What is in the database?

The Schools Census dataset contains approximately eight million records incrementally every year (starting in 1996) and includes variables on the pupil’s home postcode, gender, age, ethnicity, special educational needs (SEN), free school meals eligibility, and schooling history. It covers pupils in state-funded primary, secondary, nursery, special schools and pupil referral units. Schools that are entirely privately funded are not included.

Pupils can be tracked across schools. Pupils can now be followed throughout their school careers. And it provides a very rich set of data on school characteristics. There is further use by linking the data from other related datasets such as those on higher education, neighbourhoods and teachers in schools.

Data stored include the full range of personal and sensitive data from name, date of birth and address, through SEN and disability needs. (Detail of content is here.)  To see what is in it download the excel sheet : NPD Requests.

 

The Department for Education has specific legal powers to collect pupil, child and workforce data held by schools, local authorities and awarding bodies under section 114 of the Education Act 2005section 537A of the Education Act 1996, and section 83 of the Children Act 1989. The submission of the school census returns, including a set of named pupil records, is a statutory requirement on schools under Section 537A of the Education Act 1996.

Refusing refugees – a modern genocide?

I am ashamed  that our government will not accept more asylum seekers into the UK.

From the comfort of my warm dry living room that is easy, while I watch the hardship and efforts of others as cold, drowned people are pulled from the Med.

Easy but for the fact that I see each one as somebody’s daughter or somebody’s son. I am also sad and angered by our collective UK government response, because we could do better.

It’s “genocide — nothing less than genocide, really,” Maltese Prime Minister Muscat told CNN this week.

Genocide is not word we should use lightly, and many still associate with WWII.

Back in 1943, seventy two years ago, the British Cabinet also debated what to do with wartime refugees, mainly Jews and Czechs but including a wide spectrum of persecuted minorities. At the time the Cabinet did not recognise genocide in progress. Their conversations appear not to have recognised any humanitarian crisis, so much as much as a political inconvenience. Yet the same minutes suggest they were aware of massacres. [source: National Archives]

Just like today, the 1943 politicians focussed the problem of what to do with ‘refugees’ on themselves and their response.  It was a problem for them, the British cabinet, not the refugees at risk.

They discussed how it would look and what anti-semitism / racism may occur at home to accept more. What language to use. And how difficult they suggest it was to rally international support. They discussed which departments would take the criticism and how to pretend that political discussions were taking place that weren’t. They wonder if they cancontinue to pretend in the H/C [House of Commons?] to be holding international conversations.” [p.93] Other meetings were to be held in secret.

They seem  little concerned how to solve the problems of people whose lives they would forever alter and many more  indirectly besides.

They seem more concerned to ensure that the refugees will get sent back where they came from than in their welfare.

They made decisions which would have far reaching consequences into the future, for example on Palestine.

Today’s British politicians and media tend towards using migrant rather than refugee, and often conflate the terms immigrant, refugee and asylum seekers. Usually centred on a problem real or imagined that immigration poses in the UK.

I wish we could start talking about solving the problems of these ‘people’ instead.

Politicians blame each other for lack of action. Blame the traffickers for unseaworthy boats and exploitation. Blame helps no one.

Part of the solution lies in not creating the problems to start with.
Afghanistan, Libya, Palestine. Syria. Yemen. So many places in Africa. The list is long of places to whom we sell arms and fund violence.

Yet our pre-election government could not find funds for the humanitarian needs of children and adults who needed our help until voters saw enough coffins on the evening news, a political embarrassment which forced action.

Camps will be built for internment on arrival – but is that a way to solve the problems of people who have fled their homes under duress?

Nations will now unite in yet another new war. A war on traffickers.

The well organised merchants in manslaughter expect to lose their vessels to the waves or have them confiscated. Most of these open caskets are navigated by a non-culpable refugee and the traffickers don’t care if they founder.

‘Let them drown’ has not been a policy exclusive to European leaders.

What effective difference will destroying more boats make?

This is a refugee’s only option in the last leg of a long journey from war; torture, rape and harassment. How will it stop them leaving or wanting a safe and better life for their children? Why should it? Will this policy not simply push up the price of every place on a remaining boat and drive more unworthy ones into service?

Will sending arrivals back solve anything or create some sort of game of Risk in which they can ‘play again’ until they die trying? How will they be treated if they refuse to go?

The failure of governments to listen and the resulting deaths, is indefensible when organisations and individuals predicted and publicised the effect of withdrawing search and rescue months ago.

I wondered in the interim how big the number had to become to be embarrassing. Turns out it was 900. And that’s not the total, but the one incident on one night.

The only good thing to have come from that night is some return to rescue work. But the decision to take no asylum seekers is wrong.

The right to seek asylum is set out in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It is one of the most important obligations in international law.

People in the UK care about the callous ‘let them drown’ policy affecting would-be asylum seekers and refugees. We see through hyped-up threats of  ‘immigration’ voiced by right-wing minorities or pandered to in party mugs.  Sadly the pandering has become passivity towards the real needs of real people. It is shaping a political discourse the majority in the UK do not want, with real consequences at home and abroad.

The fear of loss  of political face is costing lives in the Mediterranean. It is making British politicians of all colours too quiet. The 7th May may see the inconvenient batten handed over to a new government.

How many will perish in the mean time?

One child drowned is one child too many. How long will our leaders focus on what they perceive as protecting our own interests and borders, and not on the people who need our help?

These people have no future if they don’t leave. They have no future if they don’t arrive alive. And no future if not welcomed when they do.

I will never forget that ten o’clock news picture of a dead  boy being carried onto the craggy Greek shore. I can imagine his mother putting that patterned warm hat on his head in the hope it would protect him from the cold weather on a rough crossing.

I see his lifeless hands hanging free in the fisherman’s arms.

And I wonder how today’s Cabinet Office minutes will read in the years to come.

photo: twitter adapted from a poster of the Italian Red Cross. #WhereisEurope

****

1943 Cabinet Office minutes.

February. Refugees.

A.E. Rpt. on recent mtg. re Jews. No progress with U.S.A. No immed. chance of direct conversns. Can we continue to pretend in H/C. tht. we are holding internat. conversns. We here can do so little tht. difficult for us to take it up internationally unless U.S. co-operate.

H.O. I cd. take 1.000 or so as part of U. Nations move – but only to bring the others on. Rathbone & Co. all pressing us to admit some to encourage other A. Nations. My feeling is we’ve done too much already w’out guarantee tht. other Nations will help. Danger of anti-Semitic troubles here.

S/Doms. Advantages of explaing. diffies. in Debate – what we have done, and diffy. of doing more.

W.O. Risk of provoking discussion of Jewish Army.

A.E. Agree advantages. Trouble is disclosure of U.S. delay.

H.O. Arrange Parly. Ques. to P.M. askg. what contribn. we and Empire have made – and give it publicity.

M/L. Can Cab. Sec draft Answer to show what we have done.

Agreed: Have Ques. subject to Cab. seeing answer. Otherwise, stand firm. Have put to U.S. Chargé d’Affaires last week-end 3 points a) mtg. here. b) Agreed – await replies to these points. Ch. Whips to be asked to discourage undue interest.

****

Reception and Accommodation of Refugees.

A.E. Shd. we take line “done all poss. nil more” or “This is for U. Nations. We will try more, if others do their share”.

We favour second course. This is apart fr. what C.O. can do in Pal. for women and children. (Limited nos. give priority to w. and children)

Amendment of para 4 of telegram – agreed.

****

March 1943 Refugees.

L.P.S. Debate in H/Lds. Tomorrow. Can I use some of these figures?

P.M. Yes: don’t use ‘em all.

H.O. M/I. to seek publicity for this statement. Law. “Czecho-slovak nationals” vice Czechs”

M.A.P. Cd. a total be put in: small gobbets don’t give impn of large total.

K.W. Only if the total is really impressive.

P.M. Consider this point.

****

April 1943

A.E. U.S. have asked if we cd. take few hundred Stateless refugees. ? Say we’ll take a few more if U.S. will take a few.

*****

Refugees: Bermuda Conference. May 1943

A.E. Neutral countries to take more. Camp in N. Africa to relieve immed. pressure on Spain. Revival of inter-Govt. Cttee. These are the 3 main points. Encouraging tht. we & U.S. delegates (not all easy) got on v. well together.

G.Hall. a) Diffy of U.S. doing anything: for 2 days: then they came along v. nicely

L.P.S. Anti-Semitic letters: put it on basis of all refugees, not Jewish refugees – i.e. by describing them by nationality not race.

L.S.A. P.5. India has taken 11.000 not 5.000. para. 14. 185 W.O. Para. 15. Arabs have already got the farms. We have now asked them to put up camps H.O. Minor corrections – notify to applic. Authy. for record?

A.E. Debate. Peake to open qua Conference. Senior Minister to wind up (? Member of War Cabinet)

L.P. Giving assurance to neutrals tht. they won’t have to keep them indefinitely. Does this mean they will go back whence they came?

H.O. This is the understanding. Our only undertaking is to see tht. they get back.

****

July 1943

P.M. I’m committed to creation of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Let us go on with that […]

S/Doms. Don’t dissent. But what I want is to face up to formulation of a proper post-war policy.

P.M. Not a good time for statements on long-term policy.

 

____

Minutes source: National Archives

Human Rights – real threats today vs theories of tomorrow

Theories on Thursday, furore on Friday. By Saturday the social media had hit the fan.

What we must remember whilst caught up in the recent Human Rights fuss, is that this is discussing a future theory. In practice, we are at risk of missing three* current and upcoming human rights threats, which are very real.

Whilst future policy change may already be doing harm to the spirit of the human rights law and those ideals today, current policies are having effect today in practice.

The Deregulation Bill, and other current policies and projects.

Regular readers will know, I have followed closely the care.data plans [see past posts] to extract our confidential GP medical records and centrally store, sell and share the information.

I hadn’t realised until recently why I care so strongly about doing this the right way. It simply felt wrong that the original plan was not to inform patients at all, and not ask for consent to remove the foundation stone of our confidentiality. The delayed plan, had a terrible junk-mail leaflet drop.

The current extraction plan is pending [roadmap end of page], but details unknown.

I have concerns about how it will harm the trust in the patient-GP relationship, potentially discriminate and segment certain groups and  I’m still unhappy how open the records will be for use by third parties, not for clinical care. There needs work done to make it done well, and to be transparent and trustworthy for patients.

But I’ve realised now, it feels wrong, simply because it impinges on one of our basic human rights. Our right to privacy.

This post is not about care.data per se, but the recent Bill of Rights debate made me take a closer look at the bigger picture.

There are many discussing this, far better informed on human rights than me. But perhaps it’s time the ordinary public pay more attention to our rights, and where they fit into our lives in the UK. Rights which are easily eroded if we don’t pay attention.

I’ve had a look at the current Bill proposal [my notes & comment at the end], but at least for now, I’m more concerned about the actual plans already underway, which will in  practice,  affect the application of our human rights today, and we may not know it.

There are at least three real changes in legislation right now which I believe should command our attention.

First, the Deregulation Bill.

This Bill will go to the Lords Committee stage on October 21st.

This is a real and present threat to human rights, as stated in the Joint Committee Report on Human Rights, June 14th 2014:

The Bill provides that a person exercising a regulatory function specified by the Minister:

 

The Government intends this economic growth duty to apply to the EHRC. We believe that applying this growth duty to the EHRC poses a significant risk to the EHRC’s independence, and therefore to its compliance with the Paris Principles and the Equal Treatment Directives as implemented by the Equality Act 2010. The Government is therefore risking the possibility of the EHRC’s accredited “A” status being downgraded and of putting the UK in breach of its obligations under EU equality law. Unless the continuing discussions between the Government and the Commission satisfy the Commission that the growth duty will not in any way impact upon its independence, we recommend that this duty not be applied to the EHRC.
Sections of the Deregulation Act currently passing through Parliament suggest the removal of any regulation that conflicts with the interests of a profit-maker. There are other domestic and regulatory bodies for which we should carefully consider this implication, not least from my perspective, in the NHS.

 

The Deregulation Bill creates a conflict when a law must consider commercial gain above human rights.

Further;

“The Bill would remove the power conferred on employment tribunals by the Equality Act to make wider recommendations in discrimination cases.”

 

The EHRC regards the power [conferred on employment tribunals] as useful, both for the employer to whom the recommendation is made and to the Commission itself for following up tribunal decisions, and it does not consider that sufficient evidence has been gathered to make out the case for abolition. We therefore recommend that the power of employment tribunals to make wider recommendations in discrimination cases should be retained.”

 

 

 

The Deregulation Bill also poses some concern for those interested in the requisition process for information, and press representation groups spoke out, worried it offers a back-door for seizing journalists’ material.

 

Seen all together, aspects of the Bill which is a mish-mash of all sorts of subjects, which was derided in some reports as being about knitting yarn, means it may well be a wolf in sheep’s clothing when it comes to human rights.

 

Second and Third, the recent changes in legislation & access

Other real threats to our universal human rights in the UK, I consider as points two and three, are already having an effect.

Recent legal changes to both a) the legal aid and b) the judicial review processes mean it is harder for many people to use the available processes due to cost.

(current consultation closing October 15th here and anyone can write to their MP for support, guidance at end of page.)

This results in inequality to use rights, which should be human rights for all by creating:

1. restrictions of individual access  (who can get a fair trial, the ability to appeal)

 

and

 

2. reducing the universality of application to human rights law (limiting the circumstances and reasons ‘the how and when’ under which rights may be applied)

 

 

These are the changes in progress right now. So what of the actual projects underway or recently effected?

 

Current threats in practice to our UK Human Rights

Mr. Grayling said this week that any future policy change will continue to ensure to promote the values of individual human dignity, equal treatment and fairness as the foundations of a democratic society. Many disagree.

The whole debate of this future policy change may already be doing real harm to the spirit of the law and those ideals today.

In my opinion, current actions are having real effect today in practice which risk undermining rather than strengthening our position towards universal human rights.

Current government policies and projects sign-post current thinking on the value of universal human rights and future direction.

Consider three things:

1. the recent changes which undermine access to use our rights, [access and universal applicability for all]
2. what value rights are given within current policies and practices,
3. the direction of travel in recent legislation, such as in surveillance, affecting universal rights for all.

It should come as no surprise then to hear of a more wholesale move towards the removal of rights in the proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act, and more. Steps have been taken on this path for some time.

A current sample of some areas with flaws in their approach to human rights include from my lay perspective:

If we in the ordinary public, in response to the proposals this week, are now concerned about about the theoretical threats to human rights by a potential future government, and care about getting it right, I’d suggest we:

don’t wait to worry about what might be in June next year. Encourage those who can, such as our MPs, to look at these real and practical human rights’ threats today. Support MPs & others who are.

Start the list, with the Deregulation Bill.  (Unless NHS England Patient & Information Directorate decide to begin care.data extractions before October 21st.) Watch this space.

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*there is clearly more of significance in this area, with which those better informed and active than me would say is missing, but with which I’ve not taken as close an interest. The Deregulation Bill will potentially affect NHS bodies, and I’ve looked at it before on care.data.

Notes on the proposals, and my references below:

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Reference sites:

The Deregulation Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 23 January 2014. It received its Second Reading in the Commons on 4 February 2014, completed its Committee Stage on 25 March and began its Report Stage on 14 May. The Bill has been carried over to the next Session of Parliament. The Bill was preceded by a draft Deregulation Bill which was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the ad hoc Joint Committee on the Draft Deregulation Bill.

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For your reference and to their credit, I’ve found the following three websites useful and kept up to date with care.data information:

Dr. Bhatia, GP in Hampshire’s care.data info site

HSCIC care.data site

medConfidential – campaign for confidentiality and consent in health and social care – seeking to ensure that every flow of data into, across and out of the NHS and care system is consensual, safe and transparent

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On Legal Aid – consultation responses or write to your MP: http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/news/stories/moj-consultation-on-duty-crime-contracts-support-pack-for-member-responses/

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For reference – background Bil of Rights / scrapping the HRA

The theory

The outline future proposal this week suggested, “A majority Conservative Government will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act, and will end the ability of the European Court of Human Rights to order changes to British laws.” [Jack of Kent, October 2nd]

Some of these plans were discussed here> on the Daily Politics. From 32.30 minutes in.

The plans have been met with widespread criticism in the press and by campaigners showing where the plans are flawed.

Myths abound how human rights are applied inappropriately to whom, and how they lack common sense.

In contrast, real examples have been presented of when the Human Rights Act and ECHR have been used to enhance and protect UK citizens, not least in the Mirror.

Looking to the future, individuals have further pointed out the fundamental flaw if limits of application were to be brought in which would for example, not use the law for ‘trivial cases’.

Tim Hancock, campaigns director of Amnesty UK, said in the International Business Times of this week’s announcement: “This is electioneering on the backs of Europe’s most vulnerable.

“Under these plans human rights would be reserved for only those people the Government decides should get them.”

Whilst we may each have our own political opinions, it is valuable to stay outside them and see changes objectively.

We must also see past the UKIP defection, knee-jerk reaction which conflates everything ‘Europe’, into something from which which the UK could ‘opt out’. As long as Britain remains a signatory to the ECHR, UK citizens could still directly petition the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg to hear their case. In fact, could be more likely to, rather than go through the British courts first. These proposals conflate the 1951 Convention on Human Rights, the UK 1998 Human Rights Act and our rights under current European law, and more.

If next May, a Conservative majority were to be elected, this proposal might form a basis of proposed legislative changes.

It is highly unlikely to be as is, or without debate. It is a partisan approach which ignores the fact that cross parliamentary support would likely be needed, as was the case when Parliament voted in favour of the introduction of the UK Human Rights Act in 1998.

But that is an if, and thus far, actually moving towards this legislative change is theoretical.

 

 

Human Rights proposals – stripping away the Spirit of the Human Rights Act (1998)

News today confirms what has been on simmer for some time in England:

“A majority Conservative Government will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act, and will end the ability of the European Court of Human Rights to order changes to British laws.” [Jack of Kent, October 2nd]

The Rt Hon Lord Howard of Lympne, CH, QC said:

“The argument is not about human rights, to which we all subscribe […] the way in which the Convention on Human Rights has been interpreted is far removed from its founders’ intentions.

“We are simply restoring parliamentary sovereignty, and some much needed common sense, to our human rights laws.”

If it is truly only about common sense, everyone with common sense must support it. So why the wide press and social media uproar, and statements by other parties they would vote against such a proposal in Parliament?

“No, the argument today is whether arrangements such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act actually help to protect such rights or, by the way in which they have operated, bring the concept into disrepute.”

The argument appears to suggest, that there should be no need to be concerned about the removal of laws which ‘protect such rights’, that there is nothing to hide, nothing to fear. That in fact, we will do better by removing the framework which supports the common sense process. Common sense will operate and prevail without legislation.

If we believe the policy statement that under these changes, in effect, little would change for many people, why are the changes needed? By many accounts, many good results of the 1998 Act affect many of us.

Those much better informed than me, are debating this in the media and online, and is worth following. But I think we should be careful we don’t get so caught up in looking ahead, that we miss changes going on now.

The debate makes me ask myself, what is the purpose of a law, and whom should it serve?

If we are convinced change is needed, we assume a belief that the current process is flawed.  This comes in part from myths and misrepresentations in isolated cases. We should in discussion see past the UKIP defection, knee-jerk reaction which conflates everything ‘Europe’, into something from which which the UK could ‘opt out’ and what risks and benefit it would actually bring for whom.

Even if these changes were simply a case of choosing to ‘opt-out’ from the protections of the European Court for UK Citizens (which it is not) and even if one were to agree common sense can make better decisions without legal protection, one must consider that by removing the UK Human Rights Act [which had cross party support in 1998], and the European aspect of the laws, and by suggesting amendments to the 1951 European convention on human rights, changes would remove a layer of external protection and last support channel outside the UK system, for us as citizens.

Stripping away a spirit of Governance

Does this affect the opportunity for citizens and courts to benefit from external objectivity?

The 1998 Act was intended to reduce the number of cases going to the European Court. You can still take a case to the European Court, but the Human Rights Act meant a case has to go through the UK courts first. Whilst Scotland (and Wales to a lesser extent) has some devolved and historically founded independent law making processes, the 1998 Human Rights Act covers the whole of the UK. As does the ability to go to the European Courts as an extra layer of legal protection, guidance and enlightenment if exhausted at home. 

Will we no longer be able as legitimately, to call on bodies with cross-border, external best practices to learn from which has any accepted weight? Or cases to set precedence? But does the European Court have these powers anyway or do these policy statements just cause confusion?

Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve said the plans were flawed. The Tory MP said they would be “difficult to implement” and risked “undermining” the UK’s – and his own party’s – tradition of upholding human rights.
Proposals state: ‘In future ‘Britain’s courts would no longer be required to take into account rulings from the Court in Strasbourg. This would make our Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK.’

The statement gives the strong impression that the UK will regain a lost level of independence as a deal for giving up a layer of objectivity and governance.

In fact, we would not do so by repealing the 1998 Human Rights Act, the European Court would keep its role in the UK in practice.

Liberty clarified: “The Human Rights Act did not make Strasbourg a precedent-setting Court, as the proposals claim. This proposal will not increase the Supreme Court’s constitutional standing. It is already the ultimate arbiter of human rights cases in the UK but, if we remain part of the Convention, British people will still be able to take claims to Strasbourg once domestic litigation is exhausted. The dilution of Convention rights proposed makes it more likely that Strasbourg will find against the UK. The Court has no ability to require the UK to change British laws. Parliamentary sovereignty is intact, as made clear by the non-implementation of the prisoner voting judgment. But the British Government has ratified the Convention and so undertaken to comply with its international law obligations to respect the decisions of the Court.” [Liberty]

However the side comments on the 1951 Convention are of much more concern to me.

Are the Conservative proposal really going so far as to say it would remove that Convention undertaking, and no longer respect international law? Surely not in practice, but in spirit, it seems to suggest just that.

They would seek to: “Clarify the Convention rights, to reflect a proper balance between rights and responsibilities.”

that would be a huge change with respect for our position towards international law.

It seems to suggest that there would be a trade off giving up the universally applicable nature in the 1951  convention on Human Rights, to enable selective decisions which and when, rights would apply.

 

Stripping away the rights which apply to all

The basic principles of universality, inalienability and indivisibility, [outlined here by Liberty] are under threat through these changes:

 

“Human rights are universal. They apply to all people simply on the basis of being human.

Human rights are inalienable. They cannot be taken away simply because we do not like the person seeking to exercise their rights. They can only be limited in certain tightly-defined circumstances and some rights, such as the prohibition on torture and slavery, can never be limited.

Human rights are indivisible. You cannot pick and choose which rights you want to honour. Many rights depend on each other to be meaningful – so, for example, the right to fair trial would be meaningless without the prohibition on discrimination, and the right to free speech must go hand in hand with the right to assemble peacefully.”

Isabella Sankey, Director of Policy has taken apart some of the implications here. Her post is worth a thorough read.

Stripping away rights of access

 

It appears that we are moving towards a state in which the suggestion is that laws from the top down to control citizens’ rights will be applied universally, whilst at the same time, the rights of those who may feel unfairly treated by them are becoming restricted, through policy and in practical terms.

 

If British citizens would still be able to take claims to Strasbourg once domestic litigation is exhausted, they have to be able to not just in theory, but practice.

Courts which exist as channels to a fair appeal are only applicable to all as a right effectively, if they can be accessed by all. In the UK the  judicial review practices have changed on charging, which make universal access to judicial review harder. Recent changes to legal aid funding mean fewer people can afford access to representation.

 

This report from the International Council on Human Rights Policy may be ten years old, but is still I feel, relevant.

“…individuals, particularly those who are vulnerable because of exclusion, poverty and discrimination, unable to obtain benefits and rights to which they are entitled in law? This report examines the impediments that obstruct large numbers of people from accessing the full range of human rights. It analyses the performance and responsibilities of governments and other institutions, and identifies new forms of action that official and human rights organisations might need to undertake if access is to be improved.”

If Human Rights law is not accessible to all, and does not apply equally to all, it is not universal. Either not all are humans or they are not rights. Either way, the law is flawed.

 

I believe being universally applicable must also ensure universal access in order to be meaningful.

 

Stripping the Spirit of accepted Human Rights

Whilst the Acts  and declarations have legal weight which are of intrinsic importance and value, I believe it is also of importance to value the philosophy of the principles. It is this loss which worries me as much as the thought of losing concrete governance. We risk losing not only the protections of the law, but the Spirit of the law.

The spirit acts as an additional layer of conscience accompanying lawmakers and politicians in their decision making process.

I fear that he spirit of the values the state places on human rights,has been injured in recent times.

 I fear an ‘accepted’ element of barbarism has crept into our own humanity in the treatment of our ‘prisoners of war’.

 

The right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way is an absolute right. It should never be limited and it is a commonly held belief that there are no circumstances where this type of treatment of people can be justified.

 

However torture has become apparently justifiable recently. Justified by the highest authority in the US, some may see as the highest ‘western world power’. “We tortured some folks” was justified with the near flippant tone of a bumper sticker. Little official repercussion  appears to follow.

 

In doing so, the affiliated powers revealed how far we have fallen from our ideals of humanity embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Our values and self created global ethic in which some human rights are absolute.

It appears we have allowed through our government’s use of torture, an absolute boundary to be broken. So should we be surprised if that was only a first step? What is perceived as acceptable in how our government treats others, can only lead to a contagion in perception of what is right and acceptable in how others will treat our people abroad.

Crucially, I believe it also affects our own public perception of acceptance and ‘the norm’ in how we treat our own people.

Yet again, at home in human rights law, perception may be that this will not affect us. Not ‘our own’ kind of people. It will only affect ‘others’.

But the others in the case of human rights in the UK, may be our own gender or racial discrimination case at work. It may be how our friend or family member is treated by the authorities in sexual discrimination or in disability claims process.  Those in prison, the poor, minorities – these groups suit some agendas to portray as ‘other’. To thrive, I believe we must strive to remember our togetherness as a society which looks after one another, not treats ‘others’ as outside our realm of protections. As somehow, less ‘entitled’.  Less entitled to welfare. Less entitled to vote. Less entitled to universal rights.

If you think, no not me, then let’s consider closely our own reaction to the arrival of travellers in a local field. Or news of immigrants awaiting asylum rulings being housed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

It seems that to whom our human rights should apply, would become discretionary.

Are some Human Rights Claims more Trivial than Others? What about the same Human Rights for all?

If the majority of rights are non-absolute and can be limited or restricted in certain circumstances, we should not be surprised if these too are now trampled on if found to be ‘trivial’. The circumstances in which there is a need to take into account the rights of other individuals or wider society would become  discretionary.  How would that be defined and by whom?

“Limit the use of Human Rights laws to the most serious cases.”

There will be a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged, ensuring UK courts strike out trivial cases.

It appears that which subjects and in which circumstances individuals should be entitled access to human rights protection would become discretionary.

By saying some ‘trivial’ cases would not be relevant for consideration, you throw out the spirit of the universal applicability of Human Rights’ legislation.

Where does this leave the Spirit of our Human Rights in practice?

Politicians may say that in practice, any change will continue to ensure that:

But current reality is that changes have already made universal access to judicial review harder. Reality is that the changes to legal aid funding already means fewer people can afford access to representation. Minority groups find access a challenge. Mothers without means are representing themselves in divorce cases. People are facing abusers in court.

If now we further undermine both access and applicability, the reality is under the law some will be more equal than others.

So what of our basic principles?

Human rights are universal. They apply to all people simply on the basis of being human.

Human rights are inalienable. They cannot be taken away simply because we do not like the person seeking to exercise their rights.

Human rights are indivisible. You cannot pick and choose which rights you want to honour.

Whether this policy ever becomes reality or not, it harms the perception of the value we place on human rights, at home and abroad.

Universality of application and universal access are already under real threat, creating inequality for which humans, these laws offer support.

These proposals normalise what is in fact nonsense.

Whilst at least for now, it makes no difference in legal practice, I think the Spirit of Human Rights in the UK under this proposal, just had her wings stripped off.

 

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Chris Grayling’s eight-page strategy paper http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/1308660/protecting-human-rights-in-the-uk.txt

[Liberty useful listing of what the Human Rights Act covers.]