A civil rights group has launched a legal challenge in the UK against a deal that asks the NHS to share patient data for immigration enforcement.
The agreement allows the Home Office to ask the NHS to hand over non-clinical information on patients – like date of birth or last known address – for immigration offences, such as outstaying their time limit in the UK.
The memorandum of understanding (MoU) – struck between the NHS, the Department of Health and the Home Office – came into effect on January 1 this year.
It immediately came under fire from privacy and civil liberties campaigners and MPs, including shadow home secretary Dianne Abbott, who warned it could deter people from seeking medical care.
The Migrants Rights Network (MRN) has today launched a legal challenge against the government, saying that the deal "violates patient confidentiality and puts all migrants at risk".
In its submission to the High Court, the group calls for a judicial review of the MoU on the grounds that it is discriminatory and breaches the right to privacy granted by the European Convention of Human Rights.
It added that, in some cases, data on patients' nationalities might amount to sensitive personal data – for instance, if it revealed the racial or ethnic origin of the data subject – which could then be in breach of the Data Protection Act.
The aim of the information sharing "cannot reasonably be regarded as sufficiently important to justify the limitation of patients' fundamental rights", or to breach the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship, the group said.
"To the contrary, the interests of the wider community are also adversely impacted by the limitation of patients' fundamental rights."
The MRN argued that the overall effect would leave migrants "too scared to access healthcare services they are entitled to", which could particularly affect victims of trafficking and abuse.
The group noted that the Home Office made 3,439 requests from the NHS in the first eight months of 2017.
"We are gravely concerned that immigration enforcement is creeping into our public services, especially the NHS," said MRN director Fizza Qureshi.
"Health professionals should not have to be forced to act as immigration officers, or to have to breach patient confidentiality. We want the NHS to live up to its founding principles, to be a place of help and support for those who need it regardless of their immigration status."
The MRN is being represented by civil rights group Liberty. ®