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, it has emerged. 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 French company 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 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."