• Agreement between Home Office and NHS Digital to trace illegal immigrants
  • Home Office says requests for confidential patient information is in the public interest
  • Deal signed in November came into effect from 1 January 2017

Confidential NHS patient information is being shared with the Home Office to help the government trace suspected illegal immigrants.

NHS Digital – which describes itself as a “safe haven” for patient data – is handing over personal information to the Home Office as part of a new memorandum of understanding between the two bodies and the Department of Health, which was published today.



The Home Office said sharing the data is in the ‘public interest’

The document sets out how the Home Office will make “tracing requests” for personal information held by NHS Digital where it suspects an offence under the Immigration Act 1971 has been committed.

In response to a request, NHS Digital will disclose information including a person’s name and last known address, their date of birth, primary care service area code and GP contact details, as well as the date of registration with the NHS.

HSJ has learned the new agreement formalises an existing exchange of patient information between the Home Office and NHS Digital. A total of 16,689 tracing requests were made by the Home Office between January 2014 and November 2016, according to NHS Digital’s data release register.

The memorandum, which came into effect from 1 January 2017, claims the sharing of confidential patient information to trace illegal immigrants is legally justified in the “public interest”.

It says: “The commission of a criminal offence of this type is a matter of high public interest. Additionally, the importance of maintaining effective immigration controls and the work of immigration enforcement has been recognised in Parliament, by the courts and internationally. It enables the government to remove/prevent the entry of those who might pose a danger to the public.

“Furthermore, and given immigration offenders also harm the economic wellbeing of the country, it is in the public interest that limited UK resources and public services (including the NHS, jobs, schools, housing) are protected from unnecessary financial and resource pressures.”

Administrative data only, rather than clinical information, will be shared with the Home Office, which the document said was “at the less intrusive end of the privacy spectrum, making disclosure easier to justify as the public interest threshold is lower”.

In April 2015, former NHS Digital chair Kingsley Manning, who resigned last February, told his board members “a maximum transparency approach” was needed over the sharing of information. Discussions have continued since then, with board papers from July 2016 describing progress on making the “legal basis for the data flows to the Home Office” clearer.

Immigrants likely to be traced include those who are not in contact with the Home Office without a “reasonable excuse” and where they have failed to comply with restrictions, absconded from a port or detention centre, exceeded their time limit in the UK, or sought permission to stay in the country by deception.

The Home Office will only make a request where other efforts to trace the individuals have failed or if there is a risk to public safety or an individual’s welfare.

The document is clear NHS Digital can “without limitation” refuse a request from the Home Office if it is not satisfied that the request was in the public interest.

In 2016, NHS Digital refused 177 of the 8,127 tracing requests submitted by the Home Office. Most refusals were due to requests being submitted by Home Office officials considered too junior.

The agreement was signed in November last year by DH director general for community care Tamara Finkelstein, NHS Digital chief executive Andy Williams and the Home Office’s director for casework and returns in immigration enforcement, Hugh Ind.

The Department of Health will oversee the process and will also act as arbitrator for any dispute between NHS Digital and the Home Office.