HMRC to sell taxpayers’ financial data

Rowena Mason writes in The Guardian:

The personal financial data of millions of taxpayers could be sold to private firms under laws being drawn up by HM Revenue & Customs in a move branded “dangerous” by tax professionals and “borderline insane” by a senior Conservative MP.

Despite fears that it could jeopardise the principle of taxpayer confidentiality, the legislation would allow HMRC to release anonymised tax data to third parties including companies, researchers and public bodies where there is a public benefit. According to HMRC documents, officials are examining “charging options”.

The government insists that there will be suitable safeguards on personal data. But the plans, being overseen by the Treasury minister David Gauke, are likely to provoke serious worries among privacy campaigners and MPs in the wake of public concern about the government’s Care.data scheme – a plan to share “anonymised” medical records with third parties.

Government finally ends e-Borders programme

Bryan Glick writes in Computer Weekly:

The government has formally ended the troubled e-Borders programme, four years after it cancelled a £750m contract for the IT project, although its intended functions have been incorporated into a new, broader project to secure the UK’s borders.

Charles Montgomery, director general of the UK’s Border Force, told a meeting of the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday 11 March 2014 that e-Borders had been “terminated”.

But Home Office officials were subsequently keen to point out that although the e-Borders name is no longer used, all the intended aims of the programme have been merged into the the Border System Programme (BSP), an initiative launched in January 2013. At the time BSP was put out to tender, the Home Office told Computer Weekly it was separate to e-Borders, but its scope has since been expanded.

The e-Borders programme was first commissioned in 2003 to improve the use of data to track people moving in and out of the UK’s borders. One aim was to conduct checks on travellers at the point of embarkation to the UK, rather than on arrival in the country.

Care.data is in chaos. It breaks my heart

Ben Goldacre writes in The Guardian:

I am embarrassed. Last week I wrote in support of the government’s plans to collect and share the medical records of all patients in the NHS, albeit with massive caveats. The research opportunities are huge, but we already knew that the implementation was chaotic, with poor public information, partly because the checks and balances on who gets access to data – and how – have not yet been devised or implemented. When you’re proposing to share our most private medical records, vague promises and an imaginary regulatory framework are not reassuring.

Now it’s worse. On Monday, the Health and Social Care Information Centre admitted giving the insurance industry the coded hospital records of millions of patients, pseudonymised, but re-identifiable by anyone with malicious intent, as I explained last week. These were crunched by actuaries into tables showing the likelihood of death depending on various features such as age or disease, to help inform insurance premiums.

We can reasonably disagree on whether you find this use of your medical records acceptable, but the process must be competent and transparent. The HSCIC has now told the BBC that this release of your medical records broke the rules, and that there may have been other similarly erroneous releases: but it won’t say more until “later this year”.

On Tuesday, at a health select committee hearing, things got worse. HSCIC said it couldn’t share documentation on these releases because it had all been done by its predecessor body, the NHS Information Centre – even though the HSCIC replaced the NHSIC in 2013, and is in the same building, doing the same job, with almost identical personnel and all the old records. Furthermore, the actuaries’ report using the hospital data carries the HSCIC’s logo – not the old NHSIC one – with the HSCIC’s admitted full consent. If HSCIC disapproves of NHSIC releasing this data – or regards it as illegal – why did it add its logo and approval to the output?

How the Spectator helped blow the whistle on health tourism

The Spectator’s editorial proclaims its own role in pushing “Health Tourism” up the political agenda:

In February, an NHS surgeon came to The Spectator’s offices to discuss a piece he felt it was time to write. He wanted to blow the whistle on health tourism. Professor J. Meirion Thomas knew he was taking a tough decision, given the hostile reaction of the doctors’ unions and civil servants to anyone who makes the slightest criticism of the NHS. But the Francis Report into the Stafford Hospital scandal had just come out, reminding GPs of their ‘statutory duty of candour’. The professor said that he would like to expose what he regarded as the systematic abuse of the NHS.

His Spectator article was read at the highest levels of government. At the time, the Department of Health insisted that there was nothing to see — that health tourism cost just £12 million, a trifling figure in relation to the gargantuan NHS budget. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, went on to commission an independent report which found differently. Non-British residents are each year receiving about £1.9 billion of free treatment for which by law they ought to be charged. Health tourism — people coming to Britain deliberately to use the NHS — accounts for between £70 and £300 million of this figure.

It concludes by explicitly calling for an ID card system to prevent “Health Tourism”:

This summer Jeremy Hunt announced a £200 charge for migrants to access the NHS. This week he has gone further and promised a centralised system for collecting money owed to the NHS. These measures are a start, but they will not stop health tourists from falsely claiming to be ordinarily resident in this country. For this, there has to be some kind of card or database to establish entitlement. In the short term the NHS could use National Insurance numbers, which are issued after careful checks on everyone — foreign national or British — who wants to earn money here.

However, the Observer’s editorial the following day casts doubt on the Spectator’s “Health Tourism” claims:

Within a day, however, evidence from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of York, quoting research commissioned by the government itself, showed that, contrary to the health secretary’s assertions, twice as may foreign visitors pay to use the NHS as exploit free health care, while the UK is a net exporter of patients seeking treatment. Again, the government’s own research indicates that far from costing the sum suggested by Hunt, only between 5,000 and 20,000 people could be reasonably labelled as health tourists at a more modest cost of £60m to £80m.

The misinformation did what effective propaganda frequently does; it created a mythical enemy of significant force. Both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph claimed “an EU study has found 600,000 unemployed migrants are living in Britain at a cost of £1.5bn to the NHS alone”. As MP Douglas Carswell put it, “a wave of benefit migrants… a tsunami of economic refugees” are causing a huge burden on the NHS. The indefatigable Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Social and Economic Research, efficiently took the claims apart, reiterating that the evidence shows EU migrants, like migrants in general, on average, pay in more than they take out. But the damage has been done. Hunt’s “facts” will have a life for far longer than the truth.

The referenced York/LSHTM paper is available here. Jonathan Portes comments are on his blog.