Data laws 'have made university references worthless'

Clockwork from top left - final issue of the News of the World, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, university graduates and a job application form

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References provided by schools about university applicants have been rendered worthless by the Data Protection Act, a crossbench peer has told the BBC.

Baroness Deech says referees feel unable to give honest accounts of candidates because they can be seen by those concerned - and their parents.

She says the problem also applies to job applications and has "destroyed" any opportunity to make a discerning choice.

In her view, it is indicative of a culture of openness in Britain that has gone too far.

"If I was prime minister for half a day I would abolish the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act and start all over again," Baroness Deech told the BBC News website.

"I would have one statute defining what's private and what's public, and I'd shift things around in those categories. References would definitely go in the private category, as would the minutes of some committee meetings."

'Really wrong'

During her 20 years as a law tutor at Oxford University, Baroness Deech says the experience of filtering applicants has changed utterly - because the Data Protection Act allows data subjects, as they are known, to get access to information concerning them.

"Before the Data Protection Act, we got references from schools. They might say, 'Young so and so may be very shy and quiet, but we assure you she's very bright, give her a chance. Her mother's an alcoholic, her father left her, but we know she will deliver.'

Openness v Privacy

Freedom of Information Act 2000

  • gives the public a right of access to all types of recorded information held by public authorities
  • applies to government departments, local authorities, the NHS, police forces and publicly-funded organisations like the BBC
  • some exemptions, such as for national security or commercial sensitivity

Data Protection Act 1998

  • designed to protect personal data stored on computers or in an organised paper filing system
  • places responsibilities on data holders and gives rights to data subjects
  • requires that data should be kept safe and secure, only used for registered purposes and not held for longer than necessary

"It actually helped you give underprivileged people a chance. Or from a public school, they'd write, 'Young Camilla will give a polished performance, but we've had to work very hard with her.'

"They won't say that now. All references just say, 'Young so and so will get three As, she's been a good student...' because they know the parents can see it.

"They're not worth the paper they're written on and I think that's really wrong. It's destroyed the ability to choose."

A barrister and academic, Baroness Deech is the former head of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

She also sits on the Lords Communications Committee and as a member, takes a close interest in everything from social media to phone hacking.

On the former, she's a convert - albeit with caveats - being a regular contributor to the Lords of the Blog website and also to Twitter.

She says she finds the experience of blogging cathartic, but says she and the UK as a whole "has lost any perspective it ever had on what constitutes privacy" as a result of the social media revolution.

She's also grown used to getting comments from people she describes, clearly searching for a polite way to put it, as "not wholly rational".

"There's an awful lot of hate stuff. People will post on blogs stuff they'd never say to your face," she says.

"More than once I've blogged about working women and childcare and got torrents of abuse. If you blog anything about Jews or Israel you get the most appalling abuse, so on the whole I keep off that.

"But if you look elsewhere, the Guardian is a particular offender. What do they call it, Comment is Free? Well, comment is free but it's very nasty.

"It's very upsetting if you think that is actually what a lot of people in this country think.

"Lies also spread very quickly. The fact that we blog and communicate with each other like this doesn't mean you can abandon your critical faculties."

Expenses crackdown

Unsurprisingly, the topic of expenses features a lot in abusive correspondence.

"People assume the worst of you. They'll say, 'Oh you're sitting there on expenses every day.' In fact, I have a day job too, so I run back and forwards, because you certainly couldn't live off Lords expenses."

Baroness Deech Baroness Deech, a barrister and academic, sits on the Lords Communications Committee

On expenses, Baroness Deech says that since the scandal, peers no longer get the £75 a day they could have used to employ an intern or researcher to handle the masses of emails they receive.

"It's gone a bit too far the other way. I've got friends in other parliaments abroad... They don't get paid very much but of course, like in America, they're provided with an office, probably several secretaries, computers, fax machines, you name it.

"We don't get any of that, we're left to fend for ourselves. That means that communication with the public, whether it's email or hard letter, is very difficult. It's too much. I'm reading them all, I just don't have time to reply."

Despite being inundated with correspondence, she insists there are still great swathes of the British public who are not included in this communication revolution - some of whom don't want to be.

"They're either rich and old, and can't be bothered... [or] at the other end, they're people who don't have a computer and don't know what it's all about.

"It'll change in another generation, of course, but in the meantime, you have to be aware that you're not really contacting everybody - it's selective in that respect."


On phone hacking, Baroness Deech admits she "can't get that excited about it" - although she acknowledges, she may be going "out on a limb" by saying so.

Start Quote

Their grief is beyond measure and any amount won't bring their daughter back”

End Quote Baroness Deech

"I found the Wikileaks thing very disturbing because surely if anybody should be entitled to give a confidential account of what's going on it's a diplomat.

"I found that really quite shocking, whereas phone hacking… I mean, who thought their phone was private?

"We all got upset obviously because of the Milly Dowler thing, that was shocking, but if you sit on a train like I do every day and hear people shouting down their phones, who thinks it's private?"

Baroness Deech says she can't understand why the Dowler family received £2m in compensation from the News of the World.

"A soldier who gets his arms blown off doesn't get that and I thought that was really out of all proportion.

"Their grief is beyond measure and any amount won't bring their daughter back."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    Ruth Deech represents an orginisation (The Lords) that has been caught red handed in activities the public considered totally unacceptable. She has no democtratic mandate whatsoever. I'm not suprised she wants to revoke the freedom of information act. Privacy is in her mind is clearely a right only the Establishment should have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.


    Your analogy is wrong; QM and GR are fields with little dispute. The actual effect of anthropomorphic climate change is quite a hotly disputed topic. Hundred of Thousands of jobs, and trillions of dollars rest on it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    The reference system is anquite franly bizarre; that my chances for employment are reliant on the subjective and secret opinion of someone who may not have my best interests - or that of my new employers - at heart.

    And I once had to wait 6 long and upaid weeks to start a new job because my referees couldn't be bothered. How is that fair?

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Not sure what the problem is here. What does it matter if the reference can be seen by whoever it's written about. As long as what is said is true the referee can't be faulted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    I am puzzled by this. My son was a mature student and so was unaffected by this but the problem seems to go down to open evenings in school, where the teachers appear not to tell the truth about children to their parents, probably in attempt to get good offstead reports. When are we going to forget about this and try to go back to good honest teaching. All part of our PC culture

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    If I were Prime Minister for a day, I'd get rid of unelected Members of Parliament.

  • Comment number 121.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    The principles of good governance dictate openness and so a suggestion that any committee's activity not be made public is an ill-founded suggestion that serves to indicate that the person making the suggestion is not fit to hold any place within governance... of anything.

  • Comment number 119.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Baroness Deech has got the wrong law. She is doing the usual deformation job on Human Rights, DPA and FOI, but what actually inhibits reference writers is more likely to be the Law of Libel. Students get really upset if you say they have weaknesses. There is also the element that ref writers don't want to give anyone a bad start in the job market.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I applied for university last year through the usual UCAS system and I'm pretty sure that the references that your teachers give you can't be seen by the students... They get added after you send your part of the application!
    I thought this was a good system as then students couldn't complain if their teacher had given a harsh (but honest) reference! Although it would be interesting to see!

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    I write references and reports and I have no problem with anyone directly involved seeing a reference I write as, as far as I can make it, what I write is based on evidence and informed personal opinion. I would expect to be able to justify my 'opinion' if challenged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    I think conflating an argument about freedom of information with the compensation culture is tantamount to a sound bite which sadly misses it mark. Sadly because we - the people - are paying for the Baroness to say such things. And why we need a proper opposition party in government.

  • Comment number 114.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    the climate industry is a multi-trillion dollar exercise - and where ever there is big bucks, there is corruption"

    So? That's like saying Quantum Mechanics must be wrong because the Computer industry is so big or General Relativity is wrong because people make money from sat navs. The laws of physics state that increasing a GH gas (as we are) must retain heat. The rest is detail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    school references for universities were always pretty useless, schools were not inclined to right this boy is a complete & you shouldn't touch him with a bargepole, didnt do anything for the schools reputation, they preferred to keep quiet & hope the individual matured. honest references like those given as examples in the article were very rare

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    As a former professional in this field I think Baroness Deech is wrong. Openess allows access and false references can be challenged, fair ones cannot, if they can be justified. I once had a boss who boasted that he always gave good references to bad employees to get rid of them and bad ones to good employees who he wished to retain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Jason, (106)

    Read Harold Lewis' resignation letter from the APS, and you will see a great truth - the climate industry is a multi-trillion dollar exercise - and where ever there is big bucks, there is corruption.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I am just glad she is not the PM for half a day in all matters like this there are two lists on one side advantages the other side disadvantages and in my mind advantages far outweigh the disadvantages

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    So because of this, propagated by the BBC, powerful interests are saying the whole Freedom Of Information Act should be repealed. Well, well, who'd have thought it? It's a bit like saying we should all be stripped of the financial protection of the Human Rights Act, because of the odd criminal getting off lightly by a silly judicial interpretation. Parents just need to be less namby-pamby.


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