LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain’s health department has ended a deal to share private patient records with immigration officials, which campaigners say had put trafficking victims at risk of deportation if they sought medical help.
The data-sharing agreement allowed the immigration department to access private information from Britain’s state health service on those working illegally or who entered the country illegally, such as trafficking victims.
After pressure from campaign groups, parliamentarians, as well as legal action from the Migrants’ Rights Network, the government in May said it would suspend the agreement which began in January 2017.
On Monday, the migrants’ group said the health service’s data arm NHS Digital had agreed to withdraw from the deal and to stop sharing private data with the Home Office, which is in charge of immigration and border control.
Anti-slavery groups said scrapping the deal was a “huge victory”, since trafficking victims, who are lured into the country and exploited for little or no pay, were at risk of being deported should they seek medical help.
“In the case of trafficked people, seeing a doctor may be the only chance that someone who is being kept in exploitation has to disclose what is happening to them and seek help,” Kate Roberts, head of the Human Trafficking Foundation.
The Migrants’ Rights Network, which was represented by human rights group Liberty and law firm Matrix Chambers, said the deal violated patient confidentiality and discriminated against foreign patients, leaving them afraid to seek healthcare.
“This secret data-sharing deal undermined every principle our health service is built on, showing contempt for confidentiality and forcing people to choose between self-medicating and detention and possible deportation,” said Lara ten Caten, a lawyer for Liberty, in a statement on Monday.
A spokesman for the Home Office told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it aims to revise the agreement so it only includes “non-medical information about those facing deportation action because they have committed serious crimes.”
In a statement, NHS Digital said it is still discussing with the Home Office whether these revisions were in the public’s interest and would “consult widely” for several months.
Kathy Betteridge, head of The Salvation Army’s anti-slavery unit which supports victims, said NHS staff should be trained to spot the signs of slavery and report the offense to authorities, which they currently do not have the power to do.
“Many victims of modern slavery face huge barriers which prevent them from coming forward for support. These include being lied to by their traffickers who say that no one will help them,” Betteridge said in emailed comments.
“We believe it could increase understanding and reporting of modern slavery offences if the range of first responders were expanded to include professionals who are increasingly coming into contact with victims of modern slavery,” she said.
At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure could be in the tens of thousands with slavery operations on the rise.