Home Office Backtracks on NHS Data Sharing

Home Office Data Protection Exemptions

Data-sharing practices between the Home Office and NHS Digital are to be curtailed after drawing widespread criticism by privacy rights groups and politicians from both sides of the House of Commons.

Controversial data-sharing agreements between the Home Office and NHS Digital are to be curtailed, according to ministers. Yesterday during the House of Commons debate on the upcoming Data Protection Bill, Conservative Minister Margot James confirmed that the Home Office had made the decision to suspend the memorandum of understanding (MOU) “with immediate effect”.

Through the data sharing agreement, last year NHS Digital passed on the details of over 3,000 patient to the Home Office so that people’s immigration status could be monitored. This process has been met with derision from privacy and immigration rights groups, who have claimed the NHS are complicit in the government’s “hostile environment” policy.

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston and Labour MP Dr Paul Williams tabled an amendment to the Data Protection Bill, which was accepted by Margot James. Wollaston said she was “delighted” at the outcome and praised campaigners from across the political spectrum and a number of charities.

Data Sharing U-Turn

This U-turn on the controversial data-sharing agreement came after doctors’ groups, health charities and a number of MP’s on both sides of the Commons claimed the practice was preventing people from using NHS services. MP’s from the Health and Social Care Committee have called for the data-sharing agreement to stop on two occasions in the last six months; in January and April.

Evidence presented to the committee shed light on a culture of fear and suspicion toward the NHS by immigrants using health services. Scared to seek medical help for fear of being deported, one woman told the committee she did not seek antenatal care whilst pregnant because she was frightened to attend appointments. In fact, health professionals were only made aware of her pregnancy when she arrived at hospital in labour.

Margot James, a minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “No longer will the names of overstayers and illegal entrants be sought against health service records to find current address details.”

The Home Office said that immigration officials can only request the personal details of a patient if they intend to deport them over a criminal offence. Additionally, if someone living unlawfully in the UK is deemed to be a risk to public safety or has committed what it calls a “serious crime” then immigration officials are permitted to access NHS data.

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “After careful consideration of the concerns raised by the health and social care select committee, the circumstances in which the Home Office will request data from the NHS has changed with immediate effect.

“The changes mean that data will be requested to locate foreign national offenders we intend to deport who have been given a prison sentence of 12 months or more and others who present a risk to the public.

“We remain committed to tackling illegal immigration and will continue to trace immigration offenders using a range of different investigative measures.”

A Welcomed Response

Civil rights group, Liberty, mounted a legal challenge against the data-sharing agreement and worked closely with Migrants’ Rights Network and Doctors of the World during the case. Corey Stoughton, Advocacy Director at Liberty, welcomed the announcement but raised further concerns over the Home Office’s use of language. She said: “We welcome the Government’s agreement to overhaul its practices and immediately curtail some data-sharing – but its language is worryingly vague.

“We need a cast-iron commitment that people will no longer have to fear immigration enforcement when seeking urgent medical care.”

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