Tuesday, September 18, 2007

SNP defy calls for openness as Deputy First Minister supports continued secrecy over radioactive water contamination details

Its not all good news that's coming out of our new Scottish Government as the Sunday Herald reveals the SNP's Deputy leader and Cabinet Secretary for Health & Wellbeing, Nicola Sturgeon, has supported the previous orders of the Labour/LibDem Scottish Executive to legally challenge the disclosure of information relating to radioactive water contamination in Dumfries & Galloway - a case which is now to be heard in the English House of Lords.

How odd the public are being denied a right to know of a major problem in this case .. why could that be ? perhaps the Nuclear industry have gone knocking on the door of our new Scottish Government reminding them of their place ? or just another case of Westminster orders must be obeyed ... and are it seems ...

You can read more about this story over at the FOI web log here : Sturgeon defends NHS in leukaemia case

Apologies for the lack of updates this week, staff have been on holiday.

The Sunday Herald reports :


Robin Harper on secrecy

THESE ARE exciting times indeed; a newly shaped parliament breathing (some) fresh air into Scottish politics and a media and policy community getting excited at the new opportunities and progressive mood in the country.

How strange then, that the new deputy first minister and Cabinet secretary for health and wellbeing, Nicola Sturgeon, should back legal action against our own information commissioner and support action in the House of Lords to overrule a Scottish court.

Yes, it's true, but I still can't fathom it. Greens have sought information about the number of childhood leukaemia cases by census ward since the inception of the freedom of information law. The NHS refused to comply. Greens appealed to the Scottish information commissioner who then ordered the NHS to release the information, in a form that would not identify individuals. The NHS again refused, and appealed to the Scottish courts. The NHS lost the appeal. The court of session ordered the release of the information as it posed no risk to data protection or patient confidentiality. The NHS is now appealing to the House of Lords, and inexplicably, has the support of Sturgeon.

In a letter to me, the deputy first minister accepts the view that "Barnardisation" (named after statistician George Barnard), the statistical method of protecting individual confidentiality proposed by the Scottish information commissioner, is "not appropriate in this case". No reason is given, despite the system being a standard and accepted practice. I am faced with only an assertion, with no reasoning or argument. If she cares to approach the information commissioner or examine the findings in court, she would know this position is simply not true.

Her advice to the Greens is to meet the NHS to talk about it. Fine, but you have to ask what purpose this would serve other than to simply divert attention. If they aren't going to listen to the courts or independent commissioners, I doubt very much whether they'll simply hand over the information after a nice chat.

To give the Cabinet secretary some credit, she and her advisers have probably had their hands full with waiting lists and hospital closures, and have probably not given this issue much thought. It's time they did.

Health information is important for communities to access when considering health issues in their areas, especially the poorest communities who tend to live in the worst environments, with multiple development impacts on their quality of life. This is what environmental justice is all about. It was in vogue with Jack McConnell but then drifted off when it became obvious that policies like third party rights of appeal in the planning system would have to be put in place to give communities an equal say.

Sturgeon and the SNP have a chance to show Scotland, especially its poorest communities, that they will stand up for them and make sure they can find out the effect of certain developments on their health should they need to do so.

The case of NHS versus the Scottish information commissioner (and incidentally backed by the UK commissioner, who has responsibility for data protection) is to be heard in April in the House of Lords. It will be sad to see our health secretary backing secrecy, and even sadder that hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money will be wasted trying to maintain secrecy and denying the public the right to know.

Robin Harper is co-convener of the Scottish Green Party and their speaker on education

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