Hostile environment data-sharing

Campaigners to challenge secret Home Office-NHS data-sharing deal that puts migrants off seeking vital medical help

Posted on 09 Nov 2017

The Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN) is today launching a legal challenge to a secret data-sharing agreement between the Home Office, Department of Health and NHS that violates patient confidentiality and puts all migrants at risk.

The Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN) is today launching a legal challenge to a secret data-sharing agreement between the Home Office, Department of Health and NHS that violates patient confidentiality and puts all migrants at risk.

The agreement gives the Home Office access to confidential patient information to aid immigration enforcement. It was written in secret, without consulting NHS staff, medical organisations or the public, and published in January this year.

MRN – represented by human rights organisation Liberty in its challenge – believes the deal is both unethical and unlawful because it violates patient confidentiality, discriminates against non-British patients and leaves seriously unwell people fearful of seeking medical care.

Fizza Qureshi, Director of Migrants’ Rights Network, said: “We are gravely concerned that immigration enforcement is creeping into our public services, especially the NHS. And therefore, it is important to challenge this data-sharing agreement which violates patient confidentiality, and discriminates against those who are non-British.

“Health professionals should not have to be forced to act as immigration officers, or to have to breach patient confidentiality. We want the NHS to live up to its founding principles, to be a place of help and support for those who need it regardless of their immigration status.”

MRN is calling on the public to back its challenge via crowdfunding site CrowdJustice, to help the campaigning organisation cover its costs and continue its work protecting the rights of all migrants in the UK.

Lara ten Caten, lawyer for Liberty, said: “We are proud to be representing Migrants’ Rights Network in their challenge to this toxic data-sharing arrangement. It undermines every principle our health service is built on – it is discriminatory, shows contempt for patient confidentiality and privacy and is putting lives at risk.

“This case is an important step forward in the fight to dismantle this Government’s ‘hostile environment’ regime, which has seen the tentacles of immigration enforcement reach into our schools and hospitals, turned trusted public servants into border guards and spread racial profiling, suspicion and fear into every corner of society.”

Fear, discrimination and contempt for confidentiality

In detailed submissions to the High Court, MRN argues the data-sharing arrangement:

  • violates patients’ right to privacy under the Human Rights Act;
  • cannot pass the considerable public interest test required to breach the doctor-patient relationship;
  • is leaving migrants too scared to access  healthcare services they are entitled to, for fear their address and other personal information may be passed onto the Home Office. This could have a particularly negative effect on children, pregnant women, people with disabilities and victims of trafficking and abuse; and
  • discriminates against non-British patients.

Kingsley Manning, former Chair of NHS Digital, who is supporting MRN’s challenge, said: “To serve patients the NHS is critically dependent on the citizens’ willingness to trust it with their most sensitive, personal data.The lack of transparency in the decision to share any patient data between the NHS and the Home Office, threatens that trust and therefore the integrity of the NHS as a safe-haven for personal data.”

Dr Jessica Potter from the Medact Refugee Solidarity Group, said: “Protecting patients’ right to confidentiality underpins my duties as a doctor and that of all healthcare professionals. If we break this, even unintentionally, we risk our patient-doctor relationship, and undermine the Hippocratic oath.

“I will be supporting the legal challenge of the data sharing agreement between the Home Office and the NHS, because I do not want to be deterring people from seeking help when they are unwell. This is not only inhumane, it threatens everyone’s health. I hope others will join me to support this challenge and help raise funds for the legal costs.”

Hostile environment

The NHS Digital deal is just one of a number of data-sharing arrangements between the Home Office and other Government departments that have come to light in recent months, targeting migrants by spreading immigration control to essential public services.

In June 2015, the Department for Education agreed to share the details of up to 1,500 schoolchildren with the Home Office each month with the express purpose of creating a “hostile environment” for migrants.

And in August 2017 Liberty exposed a secret data-sharing deal between the Home Office and Greater London Assembly to deport foreign people sleeping rough on the capital’s streets.

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