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New govt health bill leaves privacy on deathbed

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A new government health bill, due to enter the Commons in two weeks, will trample on patient privacy by giving the Health Secretary Alan Milburn the right to "disclose and process" even confidential information.

The Health and Social Care Bill has appalled the health industry and civil rights groups are gearing themselves up for another battle with New Labour. The Bill - written in the useful indecipherable script of civil servants - gives the government quite staggering powers over people's medical details.

Despite the Bill referring to the boundaries of the Data Protection Act and a disclaimer on the front of it where Alan Milburn says "In my view the provisions of the Health and Social Care Bill are compatible with the Convention rights" [Human Rights Act], a careful reading of the Bill would put these claims in doubt.

The offending aspect of the Bill - clause 59 - is hidden at the bottom of the Bill under Part V - Miscellaneous and Supplementary. It's presupposing title is "Control of Patient Information" and there are a number of interesting subsections.

As always with Bills, it's necessary to read through the jargon. For example: "(b) for prohibiting the disclosure or other processing of prescribed patient information to or by persons of any prescribed description except where the processing complies with any other prescribed conditions." Check out the end of the clause and you'll find that "'prescribed' means specified in, or determined in accordance with, regulations made by the Secretary of State under this section". Basically, a huge, built-in loophole.

Other worrying aspects: plain old patient information, rather than confidential information, is:

"(a) information (however recorded) which relates to the physical or mental health or condition of an individual, to the diagnosis of his condition or to his care or treatment, and (b) information (however recorded) which is to any extent derived, directly or indirectly, from such information, whether the identity of the individual in question is ascertainable from the information or not" [our emphasis].

Clearly the government sees confidential material very, very differently to how we see it. In fact, its definition of confidential information is either that will makes the person immediately identifiable (i.e a name) of info "obtained from the individual in question by a person who, in the circumstances, owed an obligation of confidence to that individual". So, a doctor, then.

Is this all a bit too wordy? Basically, this clause gives any "health service body" the right to do whatever it likes with any medical information it has as long as this is for "medical purposes". This "health service body" can include virtually any government department under the current definition. "Medical purposes" means medical diagnosis, research etc etc and "the provision of care and treatment and the management of health and social care services". Note the words provision and management.

This gives the government the right to any medical information it holds on you - with or without your consent. It also writes in the UK's spying system GCHQ, which has been itching for access to all our medical records. It completely overrides the basic tenet of doctor-patient confidentiality and makes them the tool of government.

It is also a disgraceful and scandalous abuse of power by a Labour government that clearly has no regard its voters' rights to privacy. ®

Related Link

Clause 59of the Health and Social Care Bill

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