Northern Ireland news

Watchdog explains no action over Alasdair McDonnell's health centre files

Sensitive files were found in the rubble of Dr Alasdair McDonnell's former health centre
Brendan Hughes

A WATCHDOG has disclosed why it took no action over sensitive medical files being found in the rubble of a demolished health centre owned by former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell.

The Irish News revealed in 2014 that documents – including details of miscarriages – were discovered by children when the former Belfast surgery was razed to make way for social housing.

At the time the north's assistant information commissioner described the data breach as "one of the more serious incidents" in recent times and an investigation was launched.

However, the Information Commissioner's Office later chose not to pursue the matter.

Its reasoning has finally been revealed in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request after the watchdog initially refused to explain its decision.

In a letter last year to the data controller, the case officer said formal regulatory action was "not necessary" or "proportionate".

They said the files dating between 1982 and 2005 were "particularly old", and the health centre closed before the watchdog received powers to issue fines.

"The diaries found in connection with the health centre appear to only contain limited information and the data belonging to the other occupiers of the premises do not appear to be as sensitive," they added.

"In respect of the centre the issue appears to have been caused by [name redacted from FOI response] forgetting to clear out some information, and not reporting the information as part of the handover and office move process.

"We have decided that it would not be proportionate or in line with our regulatory action strategy to take any formal enforcement action."

The demolished Ormeau Road buildings included a health centre and two doctor's surgeries, including that of Dr McDonnell.

Names, addresses and medical treatment of patients were included in the files.

One journal, marked 'confidential' beside the handwritten name 'Dr McDonnell', contained the names and addresses of several women who appeared to have lost their unborn babies during the 1990s.

At the time South Belfast MP Dr McDonnell said he was "sincerely sorry for any anxiety or upset caused".

"The medical practice, of which I was a part, had a responsibility to our patients to ensure that every piece of information was securely transferred to our new premises," he said.

"I know that at the time those involved in the move believed that they had fulfilled this duty.

"As soon as I was made aware, I informed the practice head of the medical practice, from which I retired in 2009, who moved immediately to get a confidential shredding company on site."

It's not the first time concerns have been raised over patient records.

In 2012 Belfast Health Trust was fined £225,000 after thousands of abandoned files were found in the disused Belvoir Park Hospital.

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