No action over medical files found in Alasdair McDonnell's demolished health centre

The SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell at the time said he was "sincerely sorry for any anxiety or upset caused"
Brendan Hughes

A WATCHDOG has decided to take no action over 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 sensitive information – including details of women's miscarriages – was discovered by children when the former Belfast surgery was razed to make way for social housing.

SDLP election documents for the South Belfast constituency were also found, listing names and addresses of voters and their believed party political affiliation.

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, almost two years on it has emerged that the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has concluded its investigation – and has chosen not to pursue the matter.

Privacy campaigners last night expressed concern and urged the ICO to explain its decision.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: "Losing medical records is potentially very upsetting, embarrassing and has the potential to affect relationships, finances and employment. It shouldn't happen.

"We are owed an explanation as to why enforcement action has not been taken."

Phil Booth of medConfidential said: "That patient medical records were left behind when the practice moved out, to be found later by children playing, suggests an astounding failure.

"The ICO may take the view that this is unlikely to happen again for that practice, but that does nothing for the affected patients."

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 that were discovered after the health centre was flattened.

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.

The ICO has refused to publish its investigation report and declined to explain its decision to take no action.

A spokeswoman said: "The investigation into the demolished health centre on Ormeau Road in Belfast has finished and no further action has been taken.

"This data breach was investigated under the data protection law and we never release our reports into data protection investigations."

She added: "We adopt a targeted, risk-driven approach to regulatory action – not using our legal powers lightly or routinely, but taking a tough and purposeful approach on those occasions where that is necessary."

The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) said it also investigated the matter through its Serious Adverse Incidents (SAI) system.

A spokeswoman said: "The SAI system identified learning for the practice and also considered that there was wider learning for all GP practices.

"The HSCB re-issued advice to all GP practices about information governance, including their responsibilities as data controllers."

In a statement 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 to ensure that all papers are removed and disposed of without delay."

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access