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Government announces significant restrictions on data sharing between NHS and Home Office

Date of Publication: 
10 May 2018
Summary: 

Data will only be shared on foreign national offenders with a prison sentence of 12 months or more

Government announces significant restrictions on data sharing between NHS and Home Office

10 May 2018
EIN

Against a backdrop of the Windrush scandal and an unprecedented media and public focus on the Government's "hostile environment" policy towards undocumented migrants, Margot James MP has announced that a data-sharing agreement between the NHS and the Home Office has been significantly restricted.

A memorandum of understanding between NHS Digital and the Home Office was introduced last year and allowed the sharing of non-clinical information, principally address information, for immigration purposes.

As we reported on EIN last November, Migrants' Rights Network (MRN) had begun a legal challenge against the data-sharing agreement, arguing that it violated patient confidentiality and put vulnerable migrants at risk by deterring them from accessing healthcare.

In a House of Commons debate yesterday on the Data Protection Bill, Margot James MP, Minister of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said that the data sharing arrangements between the Home Office and the NHS had been amended "with immediate effect".

James explained: "The bar for sharing data will now be set significantly higher. By sharing, I mean sharing between the Department of Health and Social Care, the Home Office and, in future, possibly other Departments. No longer will the names of overstayers and illegal entrants be sought against health service records to find current address details. The data sharing, relying on powers under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, the National Health Service Act 2006 and the Health and Social Care Act 2008, will only be used to trace an individual who is being considered for deportation action having been investigated for, or convicted of, a serious criminal offence that results in a minimum sentence of at least 12 months in prison."

James said this was a significant restriction on the Home Office's ability to use data held by the NHS and it is estimated that the change will exclude over 90% of the requests that have been satisfied to date.

A Home Office spokesperson told the Guardian: "The changes mean that data will be requested to locate foreign national offenders we intend to deport who have been given a prison sentence of 12 months or more and others who present a risk to the public."

Migrants' Rights Network's Rita Chadha told the Register that caution was needed and MRN would be reserving judgement until the full details are released.

The advocacy director of Liberty, Corey Stoughton, told Sky News: "We welcome the Government's agreement to overhaul its practices and immediately curtail some data sharing - but its language is worryingly vague. We need a cast-iron commitment that people will no longer have to fear immigration enforcement when seeking urgent medical care."

The Pulse medical news website quoted Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, as saying: "It is a huge victory for common sense, for civil rights and for high-quality patient care. This is what is best for our patients, and it is what is best for doctors, who are trusted to keep our patients' data safe but have recently felt as if the relationship we have with our patients has been compromised."

Last month, a similar "hostile environment" data collection policy was also scrapped. The campaign group Against Borders for Children announced that the Department for Education had ended the collection of nationality and country of birth data in schools in England, a policy that began in 2016.

The data was initially going to be shared with the Home Office as part of a wider data-sharing scheme, still in operation, that provides for the school records and specifically addresses of undocumented migrant children and families to be provided by the Department for Education to the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes.

Against Borders for Children said the Government climb-down was "a massive victory for a small group of activists with no budget and no staff: just a determination that our schools should be a safe learning environment for every child."

The Government confirmed yesterday, however, that the Data Protection Bill will keep an immigration exemption clause, which means immigrants will not have access to data and information held on them by the Home Office. MPs voted against an amendment that would have removed the exemption clause.

Margot James told the House of Commons that the exemption was "a necessary and proportionate measure to protect the integrity of our immigration system." James said "it cannot be right for the Home Office to have to furnish someone who is in contravention of immigration law with information it has been given."

As we reported on EIN in March, Leigh Day solicitors has launched a legal challenge against the immigration exemption clause on behalf of the Open Rights Group (ORG) and the3million, an EU citizens group. You can contribute to the legal challenge by donating here on Crowd Justice.