Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Who owns patient records?

Friday, March 4th, 2011

The proposed Heath and Social Care bill has certainly got temperatures raised at the British Medical Association, not least because the organisation claims that the new legislation could threaten the confidentiality of patient medical records.

As the BMA point out, the bill would give bodies including the Commissioning Board, the NHS Information Centre, and the Secretary of State broader powers to access confidential information, but provides little guidance on how this power could be wielded, who could potentially have access to the records in the future, or how it will be safeguarded.

The BMA’s main concern seems to be that patients may withhold information from doctors if they become concerned for their privacy. Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA’s head of science and ethics, recently said that the government had placed its desire for access to information over the need to respect patient confidentiality, adding:

There is very little reference to rules on patient confidentiality that would ensure patients are asked before their information is shared or guarantee that the patient’s identity will not be revealed. Fears that their data may be shared with others may result in patients withholding important information; this may not only affect their own health but has implications for the wider health service.

There has never been a level playing field when it comes to accessing medical records and data. Back in 2006 Dr Foster Intelligence was given exclusive access to NHS data in an agreement with the DoH – and it seems any big pharmaceutical companies with deep enough pockets can lay their hands on this supposedly sacred information (see this blog post on Dr Foster by journalist Robert Munro).

The BMA has voiced support for the use of anonymised data for “secondary health purposes” but maintains that identifiable information should not be disclosed unless patients give explicit consent. The Department of Health has said that the bill does not change any of the existing legal safeguards, “which are set out in the Data Protection Act and the common law of confidence.”

You can track the progress of the Bill on the British Medical Association website.

WikiLeaks cables

Friday, December 10th, 2010

There’s been a distinct lack of posts on the blog by me. Turns out I have a good excuse. I’ve been busily working through the US diplomatic cables for the past few months and the fruits of that labour began appearing last week in The Guardian newspaper.

I’ll be posting a few of my directly authored pieces but in the meantime here is a podcast I did with Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair. I’d just raced through the snow to get to the Guardian so my usual fast delivery is at warp speed. Have to remember to breathe…slow down.

Politics Weekly: Secrets and leaks

Jonathan Powell and I discuss WikiLeaks and how governments keep secrets in a digital age on the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast.

Newsnight: Tony Blair and FOI

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

I appeared on BBC Newsnight debating Tony Blair’s claim in his memoirs that in introducing the Freedom of Information Act he was a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop”.

My opponent was the pugnacious John Prescott.


Silent State manifesto goes mainstream

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

It’s not every day an author gets to hear her manifesto coming from the mouth of the incoming Deputy Prime Minister. That happened today when Nick Clegg virtually read out the conclusion of The Silent State (Manifesto for a New Democracy) as his Big Society speech.

Read the full text of the speech here. If you want to know in detail what’s going to be on the reform agenda clearly you need to read The Silent State!

Of course, what matters is action and we need to see a timetable for specific changes and reform. But if this rhetoric is anything to go by (and believe me I’m ever the sceptic) then action is expected before the summer recess. I am as full of political disillusionment as anyone and I have to say – this speech gave me hope. For the first time in a very long while.

Here are a few of today’s highlights:

Silent State: Trust the people. It is the people who give public servants their power and so it must be the people to whom they are accountable, directly and forthrightly – with no middlemen in between.
Nick Clegg: My starting point is always optimism about people. The view that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves and their families. That you know better than I do about how to run your life, your community, the services you use. So this government is going to trust people.

Silent State: We should give no more power to the state without the state giving something to us.
Nick Clegg: We will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom.

SS: Society has an interest in encouraging the efficient use and enforcement of freedom of information and making official information freely available to the public who paid for its creation and in whose name it is gathered.
NC: We will reform our politics so it is open, transparent, decent.

SS: Surveillance doesn’t make us safer. It turns citizens into suspects.
NC: Taking people’s freedom away didn’t make our streets safe.

SS: Make voting count
NC: New politics needs fairer votes.

Some other notable points taking up the Silent State philosophy:
‘We will radically redistribute power away from the centre, into your communities, your homes, your hands.’
On Lobbying: ‘that activity needs to be regulated properly and made transparent. Which we’ll do, for example, by introducing a a statutory register of lobbyists.’

All good stuff and a promising start to creating a more efficient and egalitarian democracy. I’m out to celebrate!

Electoral Secrecy

Monday, May 10th, 2010

I wrote a piece in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday about the secrecy and utter lack of accountability surrounding those public officials charged with overseeing UK elections.

Why election officials are a law unto themselves
Mail on Sunday, 9 May 2010

Anyone trying to find out what preparations were made for Thursday’s General Election would have encountered a wall of silence from the public officials in charge.

I know because I made these enquiries last year. I wanted to know how local councils were registering people to vote and whether the number was going up or down and why.
I wanted to know if there was any truth to a Data Sharing Review instigated by the Cabinet Office that stated voter registration was down due to worries that marketing companies would get voters’ names from the electoral role and send junk mail.

The review recommended scrapping the publicly available electoral roll so only state officials and some private companies could access it. The Government took up this recommendation and there is a consultation in place to abolish it.

This is of great concern. In a democracy it is essential that people can see who is registered to vote and where. Why? Well for a start, officials rarely expose voter fraud, it is normally ordinary people or the Press – it was a reporter who found there was only one occupant at a Tower Hamlets address where eight Bengalis were registered to vote.

If the public are going to be denied ready access to the public electoral roll then there ought to be very good reason. Instead I found the ‘evidence’ used in the report was non-existent. From my queries to local councils I discovered the recommendation to abolish the roll was based on fiction. Voter registration was not going down. This was made clear by the turnout at Thursday’s Election, up from 61.4 per cent in 2005 to 65.2 per cent.

But I discovered something more disturbing. The officials charged with compiling electoral registers and running elections were accountable to no one.
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Heather on HARDtalk

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

BBC iPlayer: HARDtalk

Britain’s political establishment is still recovering from last year’s scandal surrounding Members of Parliament and their expenses. As accounts of lawmakers’ claims were revealed in the press, public anger grew and their popularity nosedived.

Heather Brooke is the journalist and campaigner whose investigations exposed the opaqueness of the expenses system. She talks to Sarah Montague about the culture of secrecy in Britain and the importance of making public information more accessible.

Censorship in Scotland

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Something very disturbing is happening in Scotland. At one time it was a beacon for transparent and democratic government. Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, made bold rulings on the people’s right to know including a decision that all Members of the Scottish Parliament would have to disclose their expenses. It was this decision that I used as a legal precedent in my own case against Westminster MPs.

Now it seems some Scottish politicians are regressing. The SNP Government is going to court to try and strip the Scottish Information Commissioner of his power. Ministers, including First Minister Alex Salmond, want the Court of Session to rule that the Commissioner doesn’t have the right to ask the Government for information as part of his FOI investigations. This comes after Mr Dunion launched a freedom of information probe after ministers turned down a request to see government files. When the Government refused to provide the files, the Commissioner issued an “information notice” against ministers, demanding they provide more details.

As the Sunday Herald reports:

Since he was appointed as Scotland’s first Information Commissioner, Mr Dunion and his staff have adjudicated on hundreds of appeal cases where people were unhappy with responses from public bodies to FoI requests.

As a routine part of the process, the Commissioner and his staff ask to see what information has been withheld and then decide whether the public body made the right decision.

The Government’s challenge centres on whether the Commissioner has the power to make such requests or, if necessary, order access using an Information Notice. The Government is also arguing that the original FoI question at the heart of the case is invalid as it requests documents, not information.

Mr Dunion told the Sunday Herald: “The appeal relates to what I can ask for as part of an investigation. That is what is being challenged by the Government.”

The cases include requests for correspondence between Mr Salmond and SNP donor Brian Souter, as well as between the First Minister and tycoon Sir Angus Grossart, government adviser George Mathewson and pop star Sandi Thom.

I’ve a lot of time for Kevin Dunion. I’ve met him on several occasions and he strikes me as the sort of regulator who actually takes his role of protecting the public interest seriously. He is one of the few who is willing to stand up for what is right regardless of political pressure or powerful interests. He should be lauded, not harassed. What can the people of Scotland make of their elected leaders’ attack on such a true man of the people? I know if I was Scottish I’d be pretty angry.

BBC Breakfast News: MPs Expenses

Thursday, December 10th, 2009


When Heather met Paxman

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

The story that keeps on giving has given me another blast on the airwaves. I’ve been on the TV and radio the last few days talking about the internal audit done on MPs’ expenses in which several hundred MPs have been asked to pay back money. I’ve been brutal, accepting only a few requests due to my tight book deadline, but one appearance I certainly wasn’t going to turn down was Newsnight with the great and glorious Jeremy Paxman.

It’s long been an ambition to get a grilling from him. Oooh!

And it certainly made up for having to debate with Sir Stuart Bell yet again.

You can check out the online repartee on Youtube.

Newsnight: MPs Expenses debate

Monday, October 12th, 2009

BBC Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman debates the MPs Expenses scandal with Heather Brooke, Benedict Brogan of the Daily Telegraph and ridiculous old fart Stuart Bell.