The Home Office has dramatically increased the number of requests it is making for access to NHS records, a little-known tactic the department uses to trace people it suspects of being in the UK illegally.
Analysis by BuzzFeed News of official figures published on Friday by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) – an offshoot of the Department of Health – shows the number of requests from the Home Office in the first three months of 2016 was 84% higher than a year before, and more than 225% higher than in 2014.
Medical records are generally protected by strong data protection laws that forbid them being shared even among government bodies without patients' permission. However, the Home Office, like the police and the National Crime Agency (NCA), has an exemption allowing it to access non-clinical records.
This means these agencies can see when and where a patient accessed NHS services, but do not see details of medical conditions or any treatment they received.
The agencies do not need a court order to access this data. Typically, the Home Office gets general information – what hospital or GP clinic a patient uses – from centralised records, then contacts the clinic directly for specific details.
The Home Office made 725 requests for records in the first three months of 2014, official data shows, rising to 1,289 for the same period in 2015, and 2,367 in the first three months of 2016 – a threefold increase in two years.
The police and the NCA, which also routinely access non-clinical NHS records, have previously stated they do so in the pursuit of serious criminals, but the HSCIC has stated in published reports that the Home Office's use of the records is predominantly to track down suspect illegal immigrants.
The NCA made 550 requests for NHS data in the first three months of 2016, less than a quarter of the Home Office's total.
Amnesty International told BuzzFeed News it was alarmed at the "dramatic increase" in the use of NHS records by the Home Office.
“Governments have a right to control their borders, but how they do it matters," said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty's director of global issues and research. "Using the health service and NHS records for immigration control is deeply disturbing. It could mean people in desperate need of medical treatment are too afraid to approach a doctor and it could leave medical professionals facing unacceptable ethical dilemmas.
“The dramatic rise in the government’s requests for health records has far reaching and potentially alarming implications – not just for the risks it poses to people who need medical care, but for data protection for the general public across the board.”
Phil Booth, coordinator of MedConfidential, a group lobbying to protect patient confidentiality, said the discovery was part of a wider trend.
"Home Office rifling through NHS databases has doubled in six months – yet they’re still refusing any oversight of what they’re doing or why," he said.
“The Home Office demand for data on citizens seems to be endless, while demanding even more power. Today the bulk data powers in the investigatory powers bill are sped through parliament, and it’s only days after it was revealed the Home Office wants to link data on citizens together, never to be deleted."
The Home Office had not returned a request for comment from BuzzFeed News by the time of publication.