The Department for Work and Pensions attempted to obtain access to confidential patient data so that it could be linked to information about employment, tax credits and benefits claims, HSJ has learned.

Privacy campaigners said news of the abortive attempt “should be ringing alarm bells”, and warned that such activities by government departments could undermine public trust in the NHS.

The DWP, however, insisted that it had intended to use the data only for “research purposes”, and to anonymise it “at the earliest possible opportunity”. 

The DWP application, unreported until now, was rejected by the then NHS Commissioning Board’s ethics and confidentiality committee in December.

Minutes of the committee meeting, uncovered by HSJ, said: “This application detailed the linkage of DWP, HM Revenue and Customs and National Treatment Agency data.

“This linkage would enable analysis of the effect that drug use has on employment [and] understanding of the role that employment plays in the recovery journey, and would help build a cost benefit case for further investment in employment support for this group.”

Access to “confidential patient information was requested to allow National Drug Treatment Monitoring System data to be transferred to DWP with an identifiable unique reference attached,” the minutes added.

The minutes said this would allow the data to be linked to specified HMRC and DWP data relating to employment, tax credits and benefit claims.

Committee members expressed concern that the medical purpose for the requested access was “not sufficiently defined”, and the request was turned down.

Phil Booth, coordinator with privacy campaign group medConfidential, said: “That government departments are already seeking to access highly sensitive patient information for non-medical purposes should be ringing alarm bells.”

He added that such activities could undermine trust in the NHS and could lead to patients “withholding information or simply not seeking the care they need”.

A DWP spokesman said: “To better understand the recovery journeys of people with a drug or alcohol dependency, we draw on all available information, ensuring that legal and ethical procedures are followed at all times.

“Our plans were for the data to be anonymised at the earliest possible opportunity and only used for research purposes to understand the benefit and employment journeys of people in treatment.

“The DWP continues to work closely with organisations including Public Health England and drug and alcohol treatment providers to ensure our policies are based on the most robust evidence possible and we can help transform the lives of the most disadvantaged people, including those with a drug or alcohol dependency.”