MPs slam NHS Digital for Home Office data-sharing deal

Health committee voices ethical concerns over use of patient data for immigration enforcement

Doctor NHS

MPs have accused NHS Digital's bosses of paying "little regard" to the potential ethical violations of sharing patient data with immigration enforcement.

Members of the House of Commons' Health Select Committee expressed their concerns over NHS Digital's role in agreeing to share non-clinical information, such as addresss or data of birth, with the Home Office in a report published yesterday.

Reacting to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Home Office, the Department of Health, and NHS Digital, MPs criticised the relationship between them, and warned that sharing such data could deter people in need of treatment from seeking healthcare.

The Health Select Committee's report said NHS Digital had been established as a non-departmental body "at arm's length from government," and stressed that it had a duty "to stand up to government robustly in the interests of patient confidentiality, and to protect the public's health data from the encroachment of government".

Advertisement - Article continues below
Advertisement - Article continues below

Data held for the purposes of health and care should only be shared for law enforcement purposes in the case of serious crime, the committee added, something that is reflected in the NHS and General Medical Council (GMC) codes, as well as NHS Digital's own guidance on confidentiality.

"There is a clear ethical principle that address data held for the purposes of health and care should only be shared for law enforcement purposes in the case of serious crime," said health committee chair Sarah Wollaston.

"NHS Digital's decision to routinely share information with the Home Office with a lower threshold is entirely inappropriate.

"This behaviour calls into question NHS Digital's ability to robustly act on behalf of patients in the event of other data sharing requests including from other government departments in the future."

The health committee's verdict comes as the Home Office struggles to get to grips with a crisis around reports it had wrongly deported large numbers of UK residents from the Windrush generation - thousands of people who arrived in the UK as children in the first wave of Commonwealth immigration.

Sarah Wilkinson, NHS Digital's chief executive, said in a statement: "We will consider the Health Select Committee's report carefully and will take into account any new evidence as it becomes available, but we have been through a rigorous process to assess the release of demographic data to the Home Office.

Advertisement - Article continues below

"This has established that there is a legal basis for the release and has assured us that it is in the public interest to share limited demographic data in very specific circumstances."

NHS Digital also provided IT Pro with an opinion poll conducted in March showing that while 59% of the public says it is very important for the government to trace individuals suspected of immigration crime, 82% also say it is very important the NHS treats a patient's address details as confidential.

The report, meanwhile, highlighted a recent history of the Home Office using patient data for immigration enforcement purposes.

Citing a previous report, the health committee disclosed data showing the Home Office made thousands of immigration tracing requests based on the now defunct dataset, comprising 39% of requests (3,501) in 2014/15, and 55% (6,774) of requests in 2015/16.

The High Court granted the Migrants' Rights Network (MRN) permission to legally challenge the MoU last month, with the case expected to be heard "as soon as possible" according to the presiding judge.

Featured Resources

Digitally perfecting the supply chain

How new technologies are being leveraged to transform the manufacturing supply chain

Download now

Three keys to maximise application migration and modernisation success

Harness the benefits that modernised applications can offer

Download now

Your enterprise cloud solutions guide

Infrastructure designed to meet your company's IT needs for next-generation cloud applications

Download now

The 3 approaches of Breach and Attack Simulation technologies

A guide to the nuances of BAS, helping you stay one step ahead of cyber criminals

Download now


data management

EU-US data transfer tools used by Facebook ruled legal

19 Dec 2019

Arcserve UDP 9240DR review: Beef up your backups

4 Apr 2019

Most Popular

operating systems

17 Windows 10 problems - and how to fix them

13 Jan 2020
mergers and acquisitions

Xerox to nominate directors to HP's board – reports

22 Jan 2020
Microsoft Windows

What to do if you're still running Windows 7

14 Jan 2020
web browser

What is HTTP error 503 and how do you fix it?

7 Jan 2020