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Thursday, 10 May 2018

Migration officials have their power to access NHS records reined in

Written by Dan O'Donoghue and Harriet Line

Migration officials have had their power to check NHS records in immigration cases reined in.

Digital Minister Margot James told MPs that a previous memorandum of understanding between the Home Office and Department of Health had been narrowed so that records could now only be shared in cases "involving serious criminality".

The move came after Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the Commons health select committee, put down an amendment to the Data Protection Bill which would seek to make such a change.

Ms James (pictured) said: "The Government has reflected further on the concerns put forward (Dr Wollaston) and as a result, and with immediate effect, the data-sharing arrangements between the Home Office and the NHS have been amended."

She added: "The bar for sharing data will now be set significantly higher, by sharing I mean between the Department of Health, the Home Office and in future possibly other departments of state, no longer will the names of overstayers and illegal entrants be sought against health service records to find current address details."

Ms James later justified exemptions from the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which allows EU citizens to more easily access their own personal data held by businesses and Governments, in the Data Protection Bill - to the anger of a number of Labour MPs.

The Bill sets out that provisions in the GDPR do not apply to personal data processed in the prevention or detection of crime, the apprehension or prosecution of offenders, or the assessment or collection of a tax or duty.

Ms James said: "It cannot be right for the Home Office to have to furnish someone who is in contravention of immigration law with details of information that they have been given."

Shadow digital minister Liam Byrne hit out at the move, he said: "Has she learnt nothing from the Windrush scandal?

"Here we have a department of state which is not fantastic at keeping records and the idea that we would selectively carve out particular rights for particular people who need that information in order to fight tribunal cases just strikes me as lunacy, given what we have learnt about the dysfunction at the Home Office.

He added: "If you selectively discard rights for selected people you come pretty close to arbitrary decision making and it is practically impossible to do that in a consistent way.

"This is a clause that is going to result in injustice and cases that the Home Office loses, so just dump it now."

Ms James attempted to offer reassurance by telling MPs exemptions would be granted only on a "case by case basis" and "only where it is necessary and proportionate to do so".

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Commons home affairs elect committee, said she was "shocked" by Ms James' comments.

She said: "I would say to her this was drafted before the Windrush scandal broke and I do not think she is learning the lessons at all.

"Could she explain if she wants these decisions to be made on an individual basis in a way that is necessary and proportionate, necessary and proportionate to achieve what? Because none of us know what her definition of immigration control means.

"Does it mean meeting the net migration target, because that's what we normally hear ministers say, because necessary and proportionate to meet the net migration target could frankly mean anything."

Ms James responded: "I understand that it is a matter of interpretation and I also understand the Home Office is considering these matters in the fallout from the Windrush Case."

She added: "When someone is seeking to access data from the Home Office to prove their immigration history such as in the Windrush cases there would be no basis to invoke the immigration exemption in the Bill."

Ms Cooper later urged the Government to not make it "more likely that we will have Windrush scandals in the future".

She said: "Don't deny people the information that they need about their own case to prove their circumstances to ensure that a Home Office mistake or error can be overturned."

Later, Tory Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) asked Ms James to provide further clarification, saying that "some people may not have full access to the data rights enjoyed by others, particularly those involved in immigration cases".

Ms James said: "The Home Office will certainly not destroy any data that still has a legitimate and ongoing need, not just for the Home Office but also for data subjects."

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