MP attacks NHS on data sharing with Home Office

Chair of Commons Health Committee hits at practice of using patient data to track suspected illegal immigrants

A senior Conservative MP has clashed with NHS chiefs, condemning their refusal to stop sharing patient data to track down suspected illegal immigrants as “dismal”.

Sarah WollastonThere is evidence that some undocumented migrants are too scared to seek out the treatment they need because of an agreement with the Home Office, warned Dr Sarah Wollaston (pictured), the head of the Commons Health Select Committee.

Her statement came as the health committee summoned NHS Digital to give evidence because it is resisting calls to withdraw from the agreement, which has seen immigration enforcement authorities make thousands of requests.

Quizzing NHS Digital as part of a hearing on the issue, Wollaston said: “This is just dismal. I just think that you have been told very clearly by Public Health England that there is a risk.

“Why would you not apply a precautionary principle on this and at least suspend data sharing until they have completed their review? You have established that it is within your power.”

The committee chairwoman added: “What happens when people start asking you about whether people are co-habiting?

“What if the Department for Work and Pensions start approaching you and asking for data? Having established this is alright, how can the public have confidence you won't start sharing their addresses if the government wants to start looking at benefit fraud?”

MoU provision

A memorandum of understanding, published last year, allows “non-clinical” data held by health bodies, such as names, addresses and dates of birth, to be shared, to trace people believed to be in the country illegally.

Wollaston said NHS Digital was increasingly isolated on the issue, after Public Health England (PHE), the National Data Guardian, the General Medical Council (GMC) and British Medical Association (BMA) all warned about its damaging effects.

“You do not have a legal obligation - you have a legal power to share this. But it doesn't necessarily mean it's the right thing to do,” she said.

“You are an organisation that the public need to have absolute confidence will respect and understand the ethical principles behind data sharing.

“You have not shown us, at all, that this is part of what you are considering. It's an entirely process driven approach that you're taking in this organisation. It's simply not good enough.”

NHS Digital response

In response, Sarah Wilkinson, the organisation’s chief executive, admitted it had not specifically consulted any professional medical ethicists before the memorandum was implemented.

But chairman Noel Gordon insisted: “I think we take into account and hold incredibly high regard for the public's belief that the NHS holds their data confidentiality. I totally believe that.

“I believe we've built an organisation in NHS Digital that places that principle at the absolute highest.”

Under the agreement, the Home Office can only request data in cases where the person in question is not in contact with authorities and “other reasonable and appropriate efforts to locate them have failed”.

It made 1,775 requests for non-clinical data from September to November last year. In 1,355 cases, details were traced, in 330 there was no trace, while 90 requests were turned down.

Image by Chris Andrew, CC BY 3.0