Parents point finger of blame

9th May 2008 at 01:00
Council accused of 'Big Brother' tactics over use of fingerprint technology in schools
Council accused of 'Big Brother' tactics over use of fingerprint technology in schools

A row over fingerprinting pupils using the latest biometric technology has erupted in Denbighshire.

Pupils at Blessed Edward Jones in Rhyl, the former school of TV presenter Carol Vorderman, are among the first in the Welsh county to use the system, which confirms payment for school lunches with fingerprints instead of cash.

But education officials are being accused by campaigners of using Big Brother tactics. They say the system was brought in without sufficient consultation with parents.

Denbighshire county council claims the latest technology is more cost-effective than swipe cards, which pupils can lose.

But David Clouter, a parent who founded the campaign group LeaveThemKidsAlone, said: "It's totally out of proportion to the scale of the problem. It's over the top and smacks of Big Brother.

"Some people have suggested fingerprinting pupils is a softening up exercise for later life."

Michael Parker, of the campaign group NO2ID, which is worried about the threat to privacy and liberty from the growth of the "database state", said: "It's a pretty shameful use of otherwise tight resources. They could have used swipe cards."

Ann Jones, Vale of Clwyd AM, described the technology as "intrusive and disproportionate", and thought the council should have explored less costly solutions.

In her annual report for 2006-7, acting children's commissioner Maria Battle said she had received complaints over the growing use of fingerprint technology, which can also be used to record absences and borrowing from school libraries.

Meanwhile, First Minister Rhodri Morgan said in his response last month that the Assembly government expected all schools to consult with parents, in line with advice from the Information Commissioner's Office.

He also said schools should ensure any child refusing to give a print was not discriminated against.

The new technology will be introduced at Ysgol Glan Clwyd in St Asaph next week, with others expected to follow. "It's a system used in more than 800 UK schools," said a council spokeswoman.

"Fingerprints are turned into code and not held on the system. The code can't be turned back into the fingerprint. The biometric system also speeds things up so pupils are not queuing for so long."

In neighbouring Flintshire, where two schools take fingerprints, parent power has forced the local authority to allow pupils to have a PIN option as well.

Campaigner Sophie McKeand, 32, of Mold, discovered through Freedom of Information requests that the fingerprint technology costs pound;25,000 for each school, with an annual running cost of pound;2,000.

She has urged the children's commissioner for Wales to investigate the legality of biometric technology, and claimed Flintshire council had shifted ground in its attempts to justify it.

"All the arguments they gave us for introducing this cashless system work for using swipe cards or PIN numbers," said Ms McKeand.

Revised guidance on data collection is due soon from the Assembly government.

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