The NHS is unable to keep confidential patient data safe from immigration enforcers thanks to an information-sharing agreement with the government, MPs have ruled.
Members of the health select committee have called for a second time for an end to a Memorandum of Understanding between the Home Office and NHS Digital, which allows officials to request information from medical records as part of their investigations.
Experts have warned it is putting many migrants off seeking urgent treatment for fear of deportation and has even cost lives.
NHS Digital chiefs appeared before the select committee last month and said the organisation’s practices had been put through a “rigorous public interest test”.
But MPs said their response to concerns was “wholly inadequate” and maintain that the agreement should be suspended until an ongoing review of the NHS Code of Confidentiality is complete.
Committee chair Sarah Wollaston - a former GP - said: “There is a clear ethical principle that address data held for the purposes of health and care should only be shared for law enforcement purposes in the case of serious crime.
“NHS Digital’s decision to routinely share information with the Home Office with a lower threshold is entirely inappropriate.
“This behaviour calls into question NHS Digital’s ability to robustly act on behalf of patients in the event of other data sharing requests including from other government departments in the future.”
She said it was “absolutely crucial” for the public to have confidence that the health service was acting in the best interests of patients and that addresses should be kept confidential.
“Confidentiality lies at the heart of good medical practice and patients share data, including their addresses, with clinicians in good faith that this will be held in strict confidence,” she added.
Charities Doctors of the World and the National AIDS Trust (NAT) have been campaigning for an end to the practice since it came to light in 2014, and both gave evidence at the committee’s initial hearing on the issue.
Deborah Gold, NAT chief executive, said: “It is scandalous that our data is being shared and our privacy corroded with less and less justification.
“As an HIV charity, we understand the importance of treating infectious conditions and limiting the spread of epidemics.
“When people can’t trust the NHS with their data, that good work is undone and we face a public health risk. There is nothing to be said for this practice, which deters people from accessing healthcare.
“Data sharing should have been stopped when the Committee first called for it, and it certainly should stop now they have, for a second time, demanded an end to this short-sighted and unethical practice.”
Lucy Jones, director of programmes at Doctors of the World, which offers healthcare to those excluded from the system, said: “In our clinic, day in day out, we see the incredibly harmful impact the data-sharing deal has on our patients.
“It has reached a point where people do not want to give the NHS their contact information out of pure fear. While confidentiality is in such a precarious state, mothers are not accessing the antenatal care they need, public health is put at risk, and we fear this is only going to get worse”.
MPs said they were concerned the practice of data-sharing could become more widespread, including across other government departments - a move which NHS Digital chair Noel Gordon refused to rule out.
“We have an obligation under the Health and Social Care Act to provide, on a lawful and proportionate basis, information of an administrative kind. When we provide information to the Home Office it is under lawful conditions,” he added.