An agreement between the UK Home Office and the National Health Service for information relating to migrants seeking medical attention to be passed on upon request has been put aside after legal challenges from privacy groups.
The agreement, a nightmare for privacy advocates, stipulated that the Home Office could request for digitally held information from the NHS about migrants suspected of having committed an immigration offence under sections 24 or 24A of the Immigration Act 1971.
The agreement was contained in an MOU signed by the two parties which was announced in May. The aim was to help the Home Office track down offenders they had lost track of who might have sought medical help and thus had their information captured by NHS Digital, with the deal covering ‘non-clinical’ information going as far back as January 2017.
The information the National Health Service agreed to provide included known addresses and GP area code.
However, privacy advocates protested the agreement immediately it was announced, arguing that it violated the rights to privacy of the migrants involved and forces them to choose between getting an ailment treated or being arrested by the government for possible deportation.
“This secret data-sharing deal undermined every principle our health service is built on, showing contempt for confidentiality and forcing people to choose between self-medicating and detention and possible deportation,” said advocacy group Liberty Human Rights solicitor Laura ten Caten.
The agreement was challenged in court, forcing the government to suspend it in May. It later announced in November that it was completely withdrawing the agreement.
Laura ten Caten added: “This stand-down by the government is a huge victory for everyone who believes we should be able to access healthcare safely – and particularly for doctors and nurses who had become complicit in the Government’s hostile environment against their will. This triumph shows that if we stand up to xenophobic policies, we can and will dismantle them.”
The Home Office has however added that in light of the withdrawal, they are working on a replacement agreement which would allow them to request data on people facing deportation who have committed serious crimes and where the information is needed to protect the welfare of an individual.
Despite that, the withdrawal of the former intrusive agreement adds to a recent shift to prioritize individual liberty over the needs of the Home Office. A recent policy update also directed that the Office should never ask for DNA evidence from applicants and that the refusal of an applicant to supply DNA to prove a familial match must not be interpreted in a negative light, another huge victory for privacy advocates.
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