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 139.

    As an employer, I read between the lines of any reference. It's usually quite obvious which ones are properly glowing and which are bog standard. I assume that I am only going to hear the positives, so I have a list of counter-questions to use at interview, to fathom any negatives direct from the metaphorical horse's mouth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    It's difficult giving and interpreting references for jobs. If I were to give all the superlatives, excellent, wonderful etc, a prospective employer might deduce I'm trying to get rid of employees. If I don't want them to go I could couch things in a chilly tone but the new employer might assess that for what it is too!

  • 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 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 79.

    References by their very nature will always be subjective and it is up to the person seeking a reference to choose a referee wisely - some past employers might well be less than complimentary where there old scores to settle?
    On the other hand do we know what the prospective university/employer regards as paramount criteria?


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