Royal Mail staff given access to confidential medical details

 

 

Benefits application forms are routinely opened and sorted by postal workers

NINA LAKHANI SATURDAY 08 SEPTEMBER 2012
 

Confidential medical information from sick and disabled people applying for welfare benefits is opened and sorted by Royal Mail staff on behalf of the Government without the claimant’s knowledge or consent, The Independent can reveal.

Medical experts reacted angrily to the potential for breaches in confidentiality after it emerged that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) routinely uses Royal Mail to process the thousands of benefits claims, including health data, it receives every day.

The revelations have prompted fresh concerns about the fact that the handling of sensitive personal information can be legally outsourced without the subject’s consent.

For example, people applying for sickness benefits such as employment support allowance (ESA) must first complete a detailed medical questionnaire explaining their conditions, prescribed medication and therapies, and the names and addresses of their doctors and nurses.

The form, which also includes highly sensitive questions about addictions and mental illness, is then posted in a pre-addressed envelope to the DWP or Atos Healthcare – the Paralympics sponsor paid by the Government to carry out controversial assessments of claimants’ capacity to work.

However, it has emerged that these envelopes are routinely opened and the contents sorted by the Royal Mail, unless the envelope is specifically marked “private and confidential”. In those cases they are sent to Atos unopened, according to the DWP.

The information came to light after Lynne Neagle, a Welsh Assembly member, was asked to investigate by a constituent who was told by a local post office not to bother sending ESA forms by special delivery as the envelope would be opened by Royal Mail regardless.

Former RAF man John Williams, 50, from Pontypool in south Wales, received incapacity benefit (the precursor to ESA) for 10 years, because he was unable to work as a result of arthritis and post-traumatic stress disorder. He was recently declared fit for work – which means that his benefit will stop after 12 months whether he has a job or not – and was posting his appeal documents when told about Royal Mail’s role. “Nowhere in any of the paperwork does it say that a third party is involved,” he said. “People are sending very personal information and have a right to know this is happening; I feel like I’ve been misled.”

Ms Neagle said: “These claimants often have incredibly complex case histories – they may have mental health problems or be victims of sexual abuse – I imagine they’d find it incredibly unsettling to know that such deeply personal information was being treated like this.

“While I have no reason to doubt the absolute integrity of the Royal Mail staff involved, that’s not the point – they simply should not have access to this kind of information.”

The DWP said security measures were in place to minimise the risk of any data breaches, including CCTV in sorting rooms and procedures that mean at least two people open the mail together.

“We are a large organisation that handles all kinds of sensitive information. We use Royal Mail to sort and direct our mail to the appropriate processing centre,” a spokesman said. “We hold the contract and ensure they abide by the same data protection and security checks as any DWP employee.”

Dr Tony Calland, chair of the British Medical Association ethics committee, said the security was irrelevant: “We are very concerned that a government department could even contemplate allowing such sensitive and confidential medical data to be handled by a third party without the person’s consent.”

An Atos Healthcare spokeswoman said: “We’re subject to the postal arrangements set by the DWP. Once we receive information we strictly comply with all of the Government’s confidentiality and data security regulations. Where the envelope is addressed directly to Atos Healthcare it is opened by our staff.”

The Independent

Comments
  • Nicola Jones September 8, 2012 at 10:49 am

    So we have to make sure we all write private and confidential on all DWP letters from now on!!!

  • Linda September 8, 2012 at 11:33 am

    If Atos cant handle the sheer volume should they not be slowing down but then again it is paramount to them to destroy as many lives as possible in the shortest time. Bastards

    • Phyllis September 9, 2012 at 11:38 am

      well said Linda couldn’t have said it better myself

  • Vee StJohn-Byles September 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    I was rather under the belief that opening mail unless it was the person to whom it was addressed doing the opeing, is illegal!

  • DAVID SHAW September 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    As a former postal employee of 22 years i can tell you that opening mail that in not addresed to you is a criminal offence and can be punished with a jail sentence.

  • Charlie Sutherland-Boyce September 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    David is quite correct, I worked for the Post Office in the mid-seventies and that was the policy then and I believe it hasn’t changed. By the way does not ATOS or the DWP believe in the data protection (or is that another law to pay lip-service to if you want to ignore it). We had phone-hackers now we have mail hackers!

  • jeffery davies September 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    sorry this wont do have they not heard of the data act even thou they leaving po open brown ones for them can leave the door open to the goverment been taking to the law courts are they thick in the head to allow this ,its just so unbeleavible that they can do it with the data act in place jeff3

  • Juniper September 8, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    I am really disgusted and angry about this. We have sent very sensitive information off by post to them, including bank statements with account numbers on 🙁 I am very angry and upset about this.

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