NHS Digital turning down hundreds of data sharing requests

Latest register shows Home Office is failing to follow correct procedures in memorandum of understanding

Hundreds of requests by law enforcement agencies for the NHS to share data about patients are being thrown out because they have not “followed correct procedure”.

'Mistakes' imposed on picture of pencilsMistakes are undermining a controversial agreement for NHS Digital to release information about people suspected of breaking immigration rules, according to figures on its latest register of approved data releases.

The organisation has rejected 145 of 1,424 requests over a three-month period from the Home Office because they failed to confor with the procedures in memorandum of understanding (MoU) agreed between the two sides earlier this year.

It was part of a broader trend in which 227 of 1,980 requests for data from law enforcement agencies were rejected. The others came from police (68), the courts (12) and the National Crime Agency (two).

Moreover, of the 1,424 requests approved between April and June this year, nine in 10 – 1,043 – led to the release of information about immigrants. In the other 236 cases, “the NBO was not able to trace any details related to these requests”.

NHS Digital said: “Requests to the National Back Office (NBO) for a release of non-clinical data to assist with law enforcement are rejected where the requests have not followed correct procedure. For instance, if a request has not been countersigned by a police officer of sufficient seniority.”

The NCA was by far the least successful organisation in obtaining data, even when making rule-compliant requests, with 318 of the 559 “no trace” applications.

Legal basis

Before the MoU was agreed between the Home Office and NHS Digital, the healthcare organisation was placed under “immense pressure” to release the data despite his protests that it could be illegal, its former head Kingsley Manning has claimed.

NHS Digital had been forced to hand over the information since "at least" 2005, sometimes to junior officials who would just phone and ask for it, Manning said.

It is thought that around 10,000 suspected illegal immigrants a year are now being traced from the information they have provided to the NHS. The Home Office has said it acts to “prevent those without the right to access benefits and services doing so at the expense of the UK taxpayer”.

No clinical information is shared and “access to this information is strictly controlled, with strong legal safeguards”, it added.

A row broke out when the Government agreed to waive the data transfers for survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, after warnings that some were too scared to come forward for help. However, it was then revealed that biometric data was still being collected – and could yet be passed on to other authorities after a 12-month amnesty period.

This story was amended on 14 August on further information to reflect the fact that the MoU only applies to the Home Office.

Image by rchris7702, CC BY 2.0 through flickr