The Labour Party’s stance on the NHS Palantir data deal: a good start, but more work to do

Thousands of Foxglove supporters have contacted their MPs about the plans to award Palantir a £480 million contract to run the NHS “Federated Data Platform” (FDP). They’ve raised concerns about the deal and asked MPs to read Foxglove’s new report setting out 7 major risks with the deal and suggesting ways MPs can challenge it. 

As Foxglove supporters shared the replies they were receiving, we saw dozens of responses with near-identical wording. It quickly became clear that Labour MPs had asked their headquarters for the “party line” which they are using as a template for responses to constituents. Here for example is a version of the line, on the website of Janet Daby.

To be clear, we don’t think there’s anything wrong with MPs asking their party HQ where the party stands on an issue. Nor would we expect Labour MPs to always use original prose when replying to constituents. The main thing is for MPs to properly engage with the issues their constituents are raising. 

From that point of view, the Labour Party issuing a template response for MPs is a welcome sign that Foxglove supporters are helping get the issue on their radar. Labour Party HQ, as well as local MPs, have recognised that the Palantir deal is controversial.

It’s also good that the Labour HQ response acknowledges some of the reasons for that concern. The standard response recognises: “concerns […] around the lack of transparency and the role of large corporations – such as Palantir – in handling patient data” and that “Palantir may be being given an unfair competitive advantage”. 

There’s recognition too that: “for data sharing to work, it must be built on trust, and it must come with assurances over privacy.”

However, there’s a lot still missing from Labour’s statement. If Labour believes that “for data sharing to work, it must be built on trust, and it must come with assurances about privacy”, then we’d suggest they need to oppose the current plan on the basis of risks to trust and value for money.

Absent from Labour’s position is an acknowledgement that Palantir isn’t just any old data company – it’s a US spy tech corporation with a track record in military and surveillance work, and with an NHS-bashing chair with close links to Donald Trump. 

We understand the Labour party is keen to emphasise a pragmatic position on the role the private sector can play in reducing NHS waiting lists and improving care. But Palantir had no track record in the NHS until the pandemic, when it lobbied its way to a no-bid £1 contract that has mushroomed into millions of pounds. From conversations with staff at several NHS trusts, Foxglove has serious doubts about whether the Federated Data Platform will serve the desperately pressed doctors and nurses who most need support.

Nor is there any engagement with the paused and suspended Palantir “pilot projects”. 

Thanks to a combination of tip-offs from staff, and dogged questioning from David Davis MP, we now know that 11 out of 12 pilots of Palantir’s software, Foundry, at NHS Trusts have been either suspended or paused. Officials have refused to release documents about any of these pilots or why they apparently didn’t work. 

Against this, Palantir and NHS England refer to a single apparently successful pilot, at Chelsea and Westminster NHS Trust, to justify using the platform and Palantir’s eligibility for a £480m contract. By any standard, 11 out of 12 pilots being “suspended” or “paused” is not an encouraging rate of success. We encourage Labour to demand answers about what happened at these hospitals – many of which are in areas with Labour MPs. 

Labour’s response includes a welcome checklist of criteria which any NHS data project should satisfy: “There must be transparency on which aspects of patient data will be made available; which third-party organisations will have access; how the use of data is limited; what patients’ rights and the mechanisms to opt-out are; and the safeguards in place to protect confidential patient data.” 

But it then appears to take the platitudes issued by the government as reassuring evidence that these criteria are met: “The Government said NHS England (NHSE) is committed to transparency”. 

In our view that’s a peculiar level of trust for the opposition to be showing in the government’s claims – particularly a government that has such a poor record on the NHS, and of handing out contracts on the basis of cronyism.

Our report sets out in detail how the Federated Data Platform falls short against Labour’s own criteria. Our public attitude research, conducted independently by polling company YouGov, highlights the existential threat that these failures pose to the future quality of NHS data. YouGov’s findings suggest that, as currently designed, an enormous number of NHS patients would likely opt their data out of the scheme – the same issue which derailed previous NHS data projects such as We’d like Labour to critically engage with the flaws we set out, and challenge the government to respond to them. 

Labour has rightly been outspoken in its criticism of the cronyism and waste associated with Covid PPE procurement. Yet they haven’t yet made the link between these disastrous procurements and Palantir’s current position in the NHS, which bears many of the same hallmarks. 

Palantir gained a toehold in the NHS through a combination of pandemic opportunism and a problematic lobbying operation – at a time when ordinary procurement rules were suspended. It’s landed a succession of increasingly lucrative contracts since, all without a proper tender. It’s now so well placed to exploit its incumbent advantage that NHS insiders are describing the supposedly competitive tender as a foregone conclusion.  

Labour’s position on all this matters greatly. If the opinion polls are to be believed, Labour could soon be in charge of the NHS – including decisions about our health data and the role of private companies. Right now there’s a risk that any future Labour government would inherit an NHS which has been locked into a £480 million contract with an unsuitable company, for an unsuitable system, which the public does not trust. 

Here are some questions that we’d suggest Labour MPs could be asking party HQ, to help them firm up their position on Palantir and the NHS:

  1. What ethical and reputational tests should a company have to satisfy for Labour to consider them a suitable partner for the NHS? Does Palantir, given its extremely controversial history, satisfy those tests? What assessment has been made of their reputation in minority and migrant communities, for example?
  2. Is Labour confident that Palantir has provided value for money in its NHS contracts to date?
  3. What does Labour understand to have happened with the “suspended” and “paused” Palantir pilots? Is Labour satisfied that a company and product whose pilots have failed 11 times out of 12 can be trusted to deliver value for money in the future?
  4. Is Labour confident that Palantir’s multiple NHS data contracts, awarded without tender and during a period notorious for waste and cronyism, have not given it an unfair advantage in its bid to run the £480m Federated Data Platform contract?
  5. Given Labour acknowledges the importance of “trust” to the success of NHS data projects, does it recognise the risk Foxglove’s research has identified of a huge wave of opt-outs? What would it do differently to repair trust and mitigate the risk of opt-outs?