UKA correspondentFriday 3 February 2017

NHS patient data pulled into immigration controls

Former NHS Digital chief says new memorandum of understanding maximises Home Office powers to obtain data

The Home Office under Theresa May placed “immense pressure” on an NHS chief to release data on immigrants despite his protests that it could be illegal, he has claimed.

Stethoscope and laptopThe former head of NHS Digital (when it was named the Health and Social Care Information Centre) has revealed how he was “deeply concerned” at the requests he received when the Home Office was led by the now prime minister.

Kingsley Manning said in an interview with Health Service Journal that he was challenged for "daring" to question if there was a legal basis for handing over the confidential patient data, which would help the Home Office trace suspected illegal immigrants.

NHS Digital was forced to hand over the information since "at least" 2005, sometimes to junior officials who would just "ring up" and ask for it.

Yet it was only last month that the Home Office published an agreement showing the legal basis by which information can be requested from the organisation.

When Manning launched a review to establish a clear legal framework for the data sharing, there was an "enormous reluctance from both the Home Office and the Department of Health to clarify any element of this process", he said.

"The Home Office view was that tracing illegal immigrants was a manifesto commitment,” he added. "If I didn't agree to co-operate (with the sharing of patient data) they would simply take the issue to Downing Street.

Absolute limit

The memorandum of understanding published last month has "maximised" Home Office powers "to the absolute limit", Manning said, compelling NHS Digital to hand over confidential patient information, such as the patient's name, gender, date of birth, last registered address and area details of their GP. 

"There is no provision for transparency, no provision for oversight or scrutiny, and there is no role for the National Data Guardian,” he said. “Nor is there any provision to alert patients to the possibility that information from their NHS patient record could be passed on to the Home Office.”

About 10,000 people a year were now being traced by the Home Office through NHS Digital, he added. 

But a Government spokesman said: "We share limited information between health agencies and the Home Office to trace immigration offenders and vulnerable people, and prevent those without the right to access benefits and services doing so at the expense of the UK taxpayer. 

"Access to this information is strictly controlled, with strong legal safeguards. No clinical information is shared, and before anything at all is shared there has to be a legal basis to do so. Immigration officials only contact the NHS when other reasonable attempts to locate people have been unsuccessful."

Image by Daniel Sone, public domain via Wikimedia Commons