Ministers have suspended controversial arrangements under which the NHS shared patients’ details with the Home Office so it could trace people breaking immigration rules.
The government’s U-turn on a key element of its “hostile environment” approach to immigration came after MPs, doctors’ groups and #health charities warned that the practice was scaring some patients from seeking NHS care for medical problems.
Margot James, a minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, announced the rethink during a parliamentary debate on the data protection bill. She confirmed that the government had decided to suspend “with immediate effect” the memorandum of understanding (MOU) under which NHS Digital, the health service’s statistical arm, shared 3,000 NHS patients’ details with the Home Office last year so they could check those people’s immigration status. Patients had given their details when attending GP and hospital appointments.
In future, Home Office immigration staff would only be able to use the data-sharing mechanism to trace people who are being considered for deportation from Britain because they have committed a serious crime, James made clear to MPs.
James paved the way for the U-turn by accepting an amendment, tabled by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston and Labour MP Paul Williams, which called for the MOU to be suspended.
Williams, who is also a GP, welcomed “this huge U-turn”, adding: “NHS information should only be shared in the event of a conviction or an investigation for a serious crime, not to create a hostile environment where people are afraid to go to their GPs for fear information might be reported to the Department for Work and Pensions for benefit sanctions.”
The government backtracked after MPs on the Commons health and social care select committee twice called in unusually strong terms, in January and April, for data-sharing to stop. During evidence on the MOU’s impact it heard how one pregnant woman did not seek any antenatal care because she was too frightened to attend appointments. NHS staff only found out that she was expecting when she turned up at hospital already in labour. Another woman, a migrant domestic worker, died after not seeking treatment for a persistent cough, the committee heard.
Doctors of the World, a London-based charity that provides free healthcare for refugees, asylum-seekers and other undocumented migrants, welcomed the move. “For too long the Home Office has undermined doctor-patient trust and caused unnecessary fear and harm to people most in need of help. Our volunteer doctors saw every day the damage this deal was doing to people in vulnerable situations, including victims of trafficking and pregnant women”, said Lucy Jones, its director of programmes.
Deborah Gold, chief executive of the National Aids Trust (NAT), said: “We are delighted that at last this shameful sharing of confidential patient information with the Home Office is to end.” However, the NAT and Liberty, the civil rights group, both voiced concern about the “vague” definition of serious crimes that the Home Office will use when still pursuing personal details.
Critics warned that passing patients’ details on to the Home Office risked turning NHS staff into de facto immigration officers, was ruining patients’ relationships with NHS personnel and deterring some people from accessing NHS care.