The Government is contemplating destroying patient confidentiality in the name of border control

Posted by Gracie Bradley on 01 February 2018

A year ago, a Freedom of Information request by the BBC exposed a secret agreement between the Home Office, the Department of Health and NHS Digital. It revealed that NHS Digital was sharing confidential patient information collected by frontline services with the Home Office on an industrial scale to help it locate and deport undocumented people.

Yesterday, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Chair of the Health Committee, wrote to NHS Digital requesting that it immediately halt the shadowy data sharing scheme.

Immigration officer outside a hospital

It remains to be seen whether the Government will act on the letter. But at a Health Committee inquiry session earlier this month, Doctors of the World and Voice of Domestic Workers set out in harrowing detail that this is a matter of life or death.

A matter of life and death

They told us of people who had experienced years of sexual violence but had never set foot in a GP surgery for fear that the Home Office would find them there. Of a woman turning up at a charity clinic in labour because she did not believe the hospital could provide her with safe care. Of a person who had been held in domestic servitude and abused. She survived the injuries inflicted when her employer poured boiling water over her – but she died after contracting an unrelated illness for which she never sought medical attention because her immigration papers weren’t in order.

The Government’s insertion of border controls into health services is a masterstroke in calculated cruelty.

And, as Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes boasted, sharing patient records with the Home Office is only “part of the suite of products that make up the compliant [formerly ‘hostile’] environment”.

The Government charges undocumented people for several categories of healthcare, effectively pricing them out of their right to healthcare.

A second data sharing scheme that allows the Home Office to use pupils’ school records for immigration enforcement is targeting hundreds of migrant children and families each month.

The Government has used charity data to deport homeless migrants, is spying on everyone’s bank accounts to search undocumented migrants out, and continues to implement a raft of other punitive measures aimed at starving them out of the UK.

And the hostile environment isn’t just affecting people who’ve overstayed their visas.

Destroying patient confidentiality

The Government is contemplating destroying patient confidentiality in the name of border control.

At the moment, NHS guidance advises that patient information should be shared without consent on crime grounds only when the crime is serious – like rape or murder – causing serious harm to the victim. It’s in part because of this conflict between NHS Guidance and NHS Digital’s practice that the Health Committee has called for the data-sharing scheme to end.

Yet in the name of ministers’ obsession with cutting immigration, the Government may simply downgrade patient privacy protections following a review of NHS guidance to make it easier for NHS Digital to share patient data without consent for purposes related to even low-level crime. Such a change will destroy public trust in our health service.

From the Home Office’s perspective, the benefit of such sharing programmes isn’t just the data it obtains on individuals. Running mass data sharing schemes in secret allows it to refine the technical capability to build profiles and link information on thousands of people across government departments and data sets.

Beyond migrants

Right now, this sinister architecture may be confined to the surveillance and targeting of undocumented migrants – and that in itself is deeply worrying. But once sufficiently developed, the Government could apply it to any other group it wishes, having already untethered itself from the principles of consent and confidentiality.

Look at the Snoopers’ Charter and the Government’s track record of spying on its own citizens. This all-too-possible scenario should sound alarms well beyond the quarters of migrants’ rights campaigners.

The Government has already started down this road, introducing a new exemption in the Data Protection Bill being considered by MPs to make it even easier to secretly use and share everyone’s data – including that of lawful migrants and British citizens – for immigration enforcement purposes.

Quiet battles in Parliament and the courts aren’t enough to abolish these repressive measures for good. We urgently need a public conversation about whether we are willing to sacrifice people’s lives, our privacy, and the foundational principles of our public services and democracy on the altar of building a border between “us” and “them”.

Gracie Bradley Liberty

Gracie Bradley

Policy and Campaigns Manager