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Doctors need not pass patient data to Home Office in most cases

Confidential NHS data will only be shared in immigration cases when ‘serious crime’ is under investigation

Louise Prime

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Doctors’ leaders and NHS Digital have welcomed the government’s announcement that doctors will not now be obliged to share patients’ confidential NHS data with the Home Office in immigration cases, except where “serious crime” is being investigated.

Stourbridge MP Margot James told the Commons late yesterday afternoon, during debates on the Data Protection Bill, that the Health and Social Care Committee had raised “significant and legitimate concerns” about the operation of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between NHS Digital and the Home Office – which currently allows the sharing of non-clinical information, principally address information, for immigration purposes – and that it has argued for the MoU’s suspension.

The government announced that with immediate effect it has amended the data sharing arrangements between the Home Office and the NHS. It said it is bringing in a new clause [clause 12] that “would prevent personal data held by the NHS from being disclosed for the purpose of the investigation of a criminal offence unless the offence concerned is serious, which is consistent with the NHS Code of Confidentiality and GMC guidance on confidentiality. It would also mean that any such disclosure could only be made to the police, and not, for example, to Home Office immigration enforcement officials.”

Margot James said from now on, the bar for sharing data will now be set significantly higher so the Home Office will only be able to use the MoU to trace an individual who is being considered for deportation action having been convicted of a serious criminal offence, or when their presence is considered non-conducive to the public good – for example, when they present a risk to public security but have yet to be convicted of a criminal offence.

Chair of the BMA medical ethics committee Dr John Chisholm said: “This is a positive step which recognises our widespread concerns regarding the memorandum of understanding between NHS Digital, the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care regarding the sharing of confidential NHS data for immigration purposes.

“The relationship between doctor and patient is based on a foundation of confidentiality and trust, and if this breaks down, it not only damages this individual relationship, but also is likely to have knock-on effects on the healthcare seeking behaviour of the public at large.

“We have been clear for a long time that confidential patient data, including names and addresses, should only be shared in matters relating to a ‘serious crime’, a threshold which most immigration offences are unlikely to meet. We are pleased to hear the government confirm today that this high bar for disclosing personal NHS data will apply to the MoU with immediate effect.”

Sarah Wilkinson, chief executive at NHS Digital, welcomed the Home Office’s responses to its concerns, and added: “We understand the Home Office will limit its requests immediately. Likewise, we will immediately only process requests which meet these revised criteria.”

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