Hunt seeks to shed his duty to keep our medical data safe

Ministers dodge Labour grilling on the care.data controversy.

Benedict Cooper
7 February 2014

Image: Flickr/Rob Pongsajapan

Labour MPs have pressed the government over health care reforms which they say could lead to serious flaws in the way that confidential patient data is handled.

Last week in a public committee session of the Care Bill, MPs grilled Conservative ministers within the Department of Health over the dangers of the “unintended consequences” of changes to the way data is handled which could, they said, lead to private providers and insurance companies gaining access to confidential records.

Debbie Abrahams, PPS to the Shadow Health Secretary, said: “We have seen an increased privatisation of certain health services and increased concern about how the data might be used by private health insurers and others...The ultimate consequence would be the exacerbation of health inequalities in a two-tier health service”.

The questions came as the Care Bill committee met to discuss amendments to the bill - due to return to the floor of the house in early March - including Clause 115 which the government says extends powers of regulation over data protection brought in by Labour.

Abrahams highlighted grave concerns over plans to transfer responsibility for protecting patient data away from the Secretary of State for Health to the unelected Health Research Authority (HRA).

Junior Health Minister Dr Daniel Poulter, leading the government’s defence, refused to answer repeated questions over accountability, instead accusing Labour of “throwing up political smoke” over the issue.

Poulter said: “Clause 115 makes a number of consequential amendments to these regulations to transfer the Secretary of State’s power to approve the processing of confidential patient information for medical research purposes to the HRA, which is best placed to protect and promote the interests of patients and the public.

“I make no apology for removing the potential for political interference from the process”.

Also in the committee was Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington, a fierce critic of Tory health reforms and a vocal campaigner against measures such as the highly controversial Clause 118.

He said: “Does the Minister not see the danger? It is all very well waving the blue duster and talking about political interference, but he has pointed out the law of unintended consequences before.

“The present system works very well, but data have gone missing on occasion. I can think of several occasions that have caused considerable embarrassment. Patient data are highly sensitive, and there would be commercial advantage for drug companies and others in acquiring it”.

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