MPs have demanded the NHS stops passing patients’ data to Home Office immigration enforcers.
An investigation by the Commons’ health select committee revealed dying migrants are too scared to see a doctor in case they are deported, thanks to a ‘memorandum of understanding’ on information sharing between the health service and the government.
It allows Home Office officials to request confidential patient data to assist in investigations into potential illegal immigrants, but MPs say it amounts to a breach of trust.
Members have now written to NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson to ask for the agreement to be stopped.
The letter reads: “As a committee, we accept that the Home Office has a responsibility to seek to identify immigration offenders, to re-establish contact with them, and to take the required enforcement action.
“We understand why the Home Office seeks information to enable it to carry out its immigration enforcement role. NHS Digital, and its predecessor organisations, undoubtedly hold information which the Home Office would view as useful.
“However, the NHS should not place that above the serious adverse consequences of such a decision.”
Immigration minister Caroline Noakes told the committee it was important for the Home Office to use “a range of measures” to identify people breaking the law.
“We do not wish to deter anybody from seeking healthcare where necessary, but equally we have a public interest to make sure we know where as many people are as possible,” she added.
But MPs want the arrangement to be suspended while a full investigation into the public interest aspect is carried out, as well as proper consultation with a variety of health service experts.
The letter goes on: “The evidence of harm both to individuals and to health-seeking behaviour, with its potentially serious implications for public health, and to the patient-clinician relationship, which depends crucially on trust, is tangible.
“Furthermore, the practice of sharing data for immigration tracing purposes - even data at what the minister referred to as ‘the low end of the spectrum of confidentiality’ - has significant implications for public confidence generally in the confidentiality of health data.
“It is vitally important that the public has confidence in the handling of data held by the NHS, so that it can be shared in circumstances where there are genuine benefits to the health and wellbeing of individuals and the population.
“Those reasons alone are sufficient, in our view, to justify the suspension of the MoU until the implications of the practice of sharing these data have been fully explored.”