The government has been forced into a climbdown over its use of NHS patient information for tracing minor immigration infractions, conceding the bar for breaching patient confidentiality “should be significantly higher”.
After years of pressure from doctors, MPs and charities, the government pledged to only seek patient data – which is handed to the Home Office by NHS Digital on request – in the event of serious crimes.
The concession comes after weeks of damaging revelations about the harm caused by Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy towards immigration offenders.
The government said it would now only request information, such as names, addresses and ages, of people being considered for deportation in cases involving “serious criminality”.
Previously information could be sought for any immigration purposes, such as missed meeting with Home Office officials or if they were a juvenile and may be a safeguarding concern.
Home secretary Amber Rudd resigned last month after misleading MPs about her department’s targets for deporting illegal immigrants amid the ongoing scandal of British citizens of the Windrush generation being deported.
Charities welcomed the fact that the “needless exploitation” of NHS data was to be ended but warned the government had been “worryingly vague” about the precise changes.
Digital minister Margot James today said the memorandum of understanding that enables data sharing between government departments and the NHS had been “narrowed”.
The move came after Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the Commons Health and Social Care Committee and has opposed the bill for breaching confidentiality and putting public health at risk, tabled an amendment to the Data Protection Bill that would seek to do just that.
Ms James said: “The government has reflected further on the concerns put forward [by Dr Wollaston] and, as a result, and with immediate effect, the data-sharing arrangements between the Home Office and the NHS have been amended.”
She added: “The bar for sharing data will now be set significantly higher, by sharing I mean between the Department of Health, the Home Office and in future possibly other departments of state, no longer will the names of overstayers and illegal entrants be sought against health service records to find current address details.”
Ms James told MPs that the data would only be used in future “to trace an individual who is being considered for deportation action having been investigated for or convicted of a serious criminal offence”.
Charities have warned the policy, and the wider hostile environment, puts the public at risk by making immigrant communities less likely to access healthcare. It has already led to at least one death.
Responding to news of the U-turn, Corey Stoughton, advocacy director at Liberty, said: “The government now admits it has been needlessly exploiting NHS patient data on a mass scale for minor immigration enforcement matters. They have undermined the confidentiality and trust at the heart of our healthcare system in the name of pursuing their hostile environment.
“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.”
Deborah Gold, chief executive of the National Aids Trust which has worked on this issue since 2014, said: “We are delighted that at last this shameful sharing of confidential patient information with the Home Office is to end.”
She added NHS Digital should immediately suspend its deal with the departments, saying: “We want our confidential health service back.”
Doctors of the World, which has also campaigned on the issue, said: “For too long, the Home Office has undermined doctor-patient trust and caused unnecessary fear and harm to people most in need of help.
“Along with many others, we fought for this moment because of what our volunteer doctors saw every day: the damage this deal was doing to people in vulnerable situations, including victims of trafficking and pregnant women.
“We’re relieved to be finally be able to reassure them that they’re safe to see a GP when they need to.”