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Category Archives: Society
Concern and sadness as city looks to prized National Exhibition Centre to raise funds for £1bn equal pay settlement
There was concern and sadness among employees, visitors and citizens as Britain’s biggest local authority announced the sell-off of four of its hugely popular venues, including the National Exhibition Centre (NEC).
Birmingham city council, which is being forced to make deep cuts to services, and is facing a £1bn bill to compensate women staff who were paid less than their male equivalents, said the privatisation of the NEC Group would raise vital funds and allow the venues to evolve and prosper.
The leader of the Labour-led council, Sir Albert Bore, accepted the “historic” day was tinged with sadness as the NEC and the three other venues are beloved landmarks that have helped regenerate England’s second city over the past four decades and turn it into a world-renowned centre for visitors and business leaders.
Bore said: “A key purpose of the city council investing in establishing the NEC Group more than 30 years ago was to drive economic development and regeneration. This has been achieved but now the NEC Group has reached a point where it needs to be able to adopt the financial disciplines of a private, rather than council-owned, company.”
He played down the idea that the group was being sold off only because the council is facing a hefty equal pay bill and is struggling to finance basic services , arguing that it was the right time for the NEC to sell. He said: “I want to look forward rather than backwards. There is an exciting future for the NEC Group.”
The NEC was opened in 1976 eight miles from Birmingham city centre at a time when the prevailing wisdom was that such a venue was not needed outside of London and was destined to fail.
Instead it has prospered with its 20 halls hosting around 2 million visitors and more than 33,000 exhibiting companies at more than 125 exhibitions and shows a year, ranging from Crufts to the Caravan and Camping Show. On the same out-of-town site is the LG Arena, which stages music conferences and sporting events.
Within the city centre the NEC Group runs the ICC, a conference centre which has hosted the G8 summit and political party conferences, and the NIA, another sporting and entertainment venue currently undergoing major refurbishment. These sites have been credited with helping revive the city centre – and boosting civic pride among Birmingham residents.
The NEC Group is 99.99% owned by the city council and made an operating profit of £15.5m last financial year. Work is also underway on Resorts World Birmingham, a £140m hotel, leisure and shopping complex next to the LG Arena, owned by Genting Casinos.
Yesterday the ICC was full of students graduating from Birmingham City University. Steve Castle, who was there to witness his niece’s big day, said he was sad the NEC Group was being sold. “As a proud Brummie I’ve always liked the idea that the city owns places like the ICC and NEC. I understand the financial problems but the people have been proud to consider these our buildings. What will they sell off next? The town hall?”
Rav Singh, a student, said the announcement reminded him of when Cadbury was taken over by the American giant Kraft Foods in 2010. “I expect foreign investors will take over the NEC. Soon nothing here will be in British hands.”
Staff at the NEC, busy preparing for the start of Crufts on Thursday, were also concerned at what the sell-off would mean for their jobs. One, who asked not to be named, said she was sad that a public asset would be sold into private hands. “We often moan about the council but better the devil you know. It’s been a good place to work over the years. We don’t know where we’re going now. It’s a worrying time.”
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Proceeds from sale of NEC will help Labour-led council settle £1bn bill for thousands of equal pay claims
Birmingham city council is to sell off one of its landmark assets, the National Exhibition Centre (NEC), to help pay a £1bn bill to settle thousands of equal pay cases.
The Labour-led city council has agreed settlements with female staff including home care workers and school cooks who were paid less than men for work of equal value. Some men have also been included in the payouts and claims are still being submitted.
The council has borrowed money to help fund the settlements but the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) will not allow it to take on any more loans.
The NEC bills itself as the UK’s premier venue for trade and consumer shows with more than 140 events attracting 2.1 million visitors a year. The world-famous dog show Crufts is being held at the NEC from Thursday.
Birmingham city council, the UK’s biggest local authority, has been warning that it may soon no longer be able to pay for services such as caring for vulnerable people and rubbish collection unless dramatic changes were made to funding or the structure of local government.
The council confirmed on Wednesday that was selling off the entire NEC Group, which includes the NEC, the International Convention Centre in the city centre and two arenas: the LG Arena and the National Indoor Arena. The NEC opened in 1976.
Sir Albert Bore, leader of the council, said it was an historic day for the city but admitted it was tinged with sadness as well as excitement. Bore described the NEC as an ‘iconic” venue and said that when development began there was scepticism that there would be call for such a venue outside of London.
He said: “A key purpose of the city council investing in establishing the NEC Group more than 30 years ago was to drive economic development and regeneration.
“This has been achieved but now the NEC Group has reached a point in its evolution where it needs to be able to adopt the financial disciplines of a private rather than council-owned company to enable the next stage of strategic development. In doing so, economic impact and job creation can be preserved and enhanced.”
Bore played down the idea that the sale was taking place simply because of the equal pay issue the city council faces, and said money realised would be used to fund other capital programme expenses.
The city council said: “The NEC Group is a vitally important contributor to the West Midlands economy, delivering an economic impact of over £2bn pa and supporting some 29,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the region. Securing and enhancing this economic impact is a key objective for Birmingham city council.
“A strong NEC Group attracts further economic activity to the region. The NEC Group’s position would be strengthened through private sector ownership, and this should act as a catalyst for further investment in the region.
“The city council will invite potentially interested buyers to participate in a pre-qualification process while sale preparations are finalised.”
It added: “In structuring a transaction, the city council intends to ensure that the existing uses of the exhibition centre, International Convention Centre and two arenas (LG Arena and National Indoor Arena) are preserved. This will secure the profile of Birmingham and the broader West Midlands as a world-class home of a broad array of live events.”
A brief history of the NEC
1973 Prime Minister Edward Heath unveiled a plaque and cut the tape to start the construction work
1976 the Queen opens the International Spring Fair at the NEC
1980 Completion of the NEC Arena – first event was a concert by the rock band Queen
1991 International Convention Centre officially opened by the Queen in the city centre
1991 National Indoor Arena officially opened by the athlete Linford Christie
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National Audit Office says government has sunk £3.7bn into mortgage loan scheme without being able to gauge its success
David Cameron and George Osborne seek to downplay Lib Dem role in EU referendum, minimum wage rise and MP recall bill
The Tories launched a series of attacks on the Lib Dems on Tuesday by seizing credit for popular policies including new laws on an EU referendum, the power to sack MPs, a rise in the minimum wage and an increase in the 10p tax threshold.
In a sign of deteriorating coalition relations, David Cameron and George Osborne appeared to launch a concerted effort to downplay the involvement of the Lib Dems in policies that are going down well with the public and blame them for blocking others.
They first ambushed the Lib Dems at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, when it emerged that Osborne, the chancellor, had stood up to his coalition partners by arguing for legislation pledging an EU referendum by 2017. The promise of a poll by this date is opposed by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and his Lib Dem colleagues, but surveys suggest it is backed by the public – and Tory voters in particular.
In a second plank of the attack, Cameron used the cabinet meeting to argue in favour of laws introducing powers for the public to sack MPs for serious wrongdoing – a policy he was previously thought to have abandoned for this parliament. This infuriated the Lib Dems as only a few weeks ago they had publicly accused the prime minister of dropping these proposals for “recall” in yet another Tory U-turn.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, tweeted: “Up until now the Tories have consistently blocked our calls for a recall bill – hope they stick to their sudden conversion and don’t flip-flop.”
The prime minister’s spokesman confirmed the topics had been discussed in cabinet, saying there was no “secret that Conservative members of the cabinet would want to see an EU referendum bill”. In terms of Lib Dem opposition, he said there was not a “change in longstanding positions”.
In a third blow to the Lib Dems, Cameron confirmed the government would accept recommendations for a 3% rise in the minimum wage and pledged to “restore its value” in the longer term. This announcement was due to be made within weeks by Vince Cable, the Lib Dem business secretary.
The prime minister said he agreed that a rise to £6.50 should take place this October, in line with the advice of the Low Pay Commission, and after George Osborne said he ultimately wanted it to rise to £7.
Speaking in Coventry on Tuesday, Cameron said: “Restoring the value of the minimum wage is a vital part of how we secure a recovery for all, with economic security for every working family in Britain … So yes, I look forward to accepting this recommendation.” He also hinted at further tax cuts for the low paid, which could include a further increase in the level at which people start paying tax from the threshold of £10,000 – a key Lib Dem policy.
On Tuesday morning, Nick Clegg accused his coalition partners of displaying “brass neck” over their efforts to claim ownership of an expected increase in the personal tax allowance in the budget this month.
The deputy prime minister said the Conservatives had been “spectacularly inconsistent” over tax policy after they initially prioritised tax cuts for the rich before embracing the Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge of raising the personal allowance to £10,000.
Reports over the weekend suggested Osborne was preparing to “nick” the policy, having told Tory MPs that polling showed that hardly any voters knew it was a Lib Dem idea.
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Local authority’s case against woman who had child with foetal alcohol syndrome could have far-reaching legal implications
A pioneering compensation claim on behalf of a child who was severely damaged by her mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy is to go before the court of appeal.
Permission has been given for the court to hear allegations that the mother ignored warnings from social workers and antenatal medical staff that her heavy alcohol consumption risked harming her unborn baby.
The lawsuit is being filed by a local authority in north-west England, which cares for the child, who is now six years old, against the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. It maintains the mother’s action constituted the crime of poisoning under section 23 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
The mother is no longer in contact with the child, who has suffered developmental problems. Foetal alcohol syndrome can result in babies being born with brain damage as well as distorted facial features. The local authority won its claim in the initial hearing but lost in the upper administrative tribunal on the grounds that an unborn child is not a person in law and therefore no criminal offence could have been committed.
The case has provoked a wide-ranging debate about the rights of the foetus and calls for mothers who drink excessively during pregnancy to be prosecuted. Neil Sugarman, of GLP Solicitors, who is representing the local authority, said some US states have made it a criminal offence.
He welcomed the legal permision allowing the case to go to the court of appeal. “This case involves a child who is now six years old and was born with foetal alcohol syndrome after her birth mother continued to drink alcohol excessively during pregnancy after having been warned that this might damage her child,” he said.
“At an original appeal hearing a tribunal decided that this was tantamount to poisoning the child and that she had been the subject of a violent crime for the purposes of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme.” He said he would challenge the accepted legal convention that an unborn child cannot be a person under law. The case, he maintained, resulted in very similar injuries to cases involving young infants who were shaken violently shortly after birth and suffered severe brain damage.
If successful, the case could create a legal precedent with far-reaching implications about a pregnant woman’s right to control her body and whether a foetus has legal rights before it is born. It is likely to take several months to come to court.
People under 65 who eat a lot of meat, eggs and dairy are four times as likely to die from cancer or diabetes, study suggests
A diet rich in meat, eggs, milk and cheese could be as harmful to health as smoking, according to a controversial study into the impact of protein consumption on longevity.
High levels of dietary animal protein in people under 65 years of age was linked to a fourfold increase in their risk of death from cancer or diabetes, and almost double the risk of dying from any cause over an 18-year period, researchers found. However, nutrition experts have cautioned that it’s too early to draw firm conclusions from the research.
The overall harmful effects seen in the study were almost completely wiped out when the protein came from plant sources, such as beans and legumes, though cancer risk was still three times as high in middle-aged people who ate a protein-rich diet, compared with those on a low-protein diet.
But whereas middle-aged people who consumed a lot of animal protein tended to die younger from cancer, diabetes and other diseases, the same diet seemed to protect people’s health in old age.
The findings emerged from a study of 6,381 people aged 50 and over who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) which tracks a representative group of adults and children in the US.
The study throws doubt on the long-term health effects of the popular Atkins and Paleo diets that are rich in protein. Instead, it suggests people should eat a low-protein diet until old age when they start to lose weight and become frail, and then boost the body’s protein intake to stay healthy. In the over-65s, a high-protein diet cut the risk of death from any cause by 28%, and reduced cancer deaths by 60%, according to details of the study published in the journal Cell Metabolism.
Valter Longo, director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California, said that on the basis of the study and previous work, people should restrict themselves to no more than 0.8g of protein a day for every kilogram of body weight, equivalent to 48g for a 60kg person, and 64g for an 80kg person.
“People need to switch to a diet where only around nine or ten percent of their calories come from protein, and the ideal sources are plant-based,” Longo told the Guardian. “We are not saying go and do some crazy diet we came up with. If we are wrong, there is no harm done, but if we are right you are looking at an incredible effect that in general is about as bad as smoking.”
“Spend a couple of months looking at the labels on your food. There is a little bit of protein everywhere. If you eat breakfast, you might get 4g protein, but a piece of chicken for lunch may have 50g protein,” said Longo, who skips lunch to control his calorie and protein intake.
People who took part in the study consumed an average of 1,823 calories a day, with 51% coming from carbohydrates, 33% from fat, and 16% from protein, of which two thirds was animal protein. Longo divided them into three groups. The high-protein group got 20% or more of their calories from protein, the moderate group got 10 to 19% of their calories from protein, and the low group got less than 10% of calories from protein.
Teasing out the health effects of individual nutrients is notoriously difficult. The apparently harmful effects of a high-protein diet might be down to one or more other substances in meat, or driven by lifestyle factors that are more common in regular red meat eaters versus vegetarians. Other factors can skew results too: a person on the study who got ill might have gone off their food, and seen a proportional rise in the amount of calories they get from protein. In that case, it would be the illness driving the diet, not the other way round.
“I would urge general caution over observational studies, and particularly when looking at diet, given the difficulties of disentangling one nutrient or dietary component from another. You can get an association that might have some causal linkage or might not,” said Peter Emery, head of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London.
Gunter Kuhnle, a food nutrition scientist at Reading University, said it was wrong “and potentially even dangerous” to compare the effects of smoking with the effect of meat and cheese as the study does.
“Sending out [press] statements such as this can damage the effectiveness of important public health messages. They can help to prevent sound health advice from getting through to the general public. The smoker thinks: ‘why bother quitting smoking if my cheese and ham sandwich is just as bad for me?’”
Heather Ohly at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health in Exeter said: “Smoking has been proven to be entirely bad for us, whereas meat and cheese can be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet, contributing to recommended intakes of many important nutrients.”
Most people in Britain eat more protein than they need. The British Dietetic Association recommends a daily intake of 45g and 55g of protein for the average woman and man respectively. But according to the British Nutrition Foundation the average protein intake per day is 88g and 64g for men and women.
In a series of follow-up experiments, Longo looked at what might lie behind the apparently damaging effects of a high-protein diet on health in middle age. Blood tests on people in the study showed that levels of a growth hormone called IGF-1 rose and fell in line with protein intake. For those on a high protein diet, rises in IGF-1 steadily increased their cancer risk. Further tests on mice found that a high-protein diet led to more cancer and larger tumours than a low-protein diet.
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Coalition’s business secretary asks for advice from equalities watchdog on legality of move that would be highly controversial
Vince Cable has asked the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to advise him on the legality of all-female shortlists for top City jobs as part of the coalition’s latest push to get more women on to the boards of major companies.
The business secretary acted after being presented with a report into the headhunting industry commissioned from Charlotte Sweeney, a former head of diversity at banks including HSBC and Nomura, which is published on Tuesday.
Cable said: “The headhunting community is a crucial catalyst to introduce more capable women in the boardroom.
“However, they can often be one of the first hurdles that talented, board-ready women face when trying to reach the top.”
The request from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for advice from the EHRC on whether a policy of positive discrimination could be legal is a big surprise.
The British government has long argued that its voluntary code has stimulated a significant shift towards more women in Britain’s boardrooms, and has vigorously opposed mandatory quotas compelling public companies to hire more female directors – a policy championed by Viviane Reding, European commissioner for justice and rights.
Audrey Williams, a partner at global law firm Eversheds, said that excluding men from candidate lists was littered with legal problems.
“The difficulty with all-women shortlists is that it requires a selection to be made on the basis of gender, which, on the face of it, directly contravenes fundamental principles of EU law prohibiting sex discrimination.
“Whilst there is an exception in EU law which allows derogation from the principle of non-discrimination … this still requires assessment on merit and other conditions to be met.
“Any provision or guidance in support of all-women shortlists would have to be heavily qualified.”
In the UK, Lord Davies’s 2011 Women on Boards report called for 25% of FTSE 100 directors to be female by 2015. At the time, just 12.5% of FTSE 100 directors were women – although that was more than the 7.8% in the second-tier FTSE 250. There were also 21 FTSE 100 companies with all-male boards.
When the numbers were last analysed in January, they had risen to 20.4% for the FTSE 100 and 15.1% in the FTSE 250. Only two FTSE 100 companies – miners Antofagasta and GlencoreXstrata – currently have all-male boards.
However, critics say the real rise in female boardroom representation has come from the hiring of non-executive directors, who fill part-time roles.
Women make up just 7.2% and 5% of executive directors in the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250.
Currently, there are just four women running FTSE 100 companies: Carolyn McCall at easyJet; Angela Ahrendts at Burberry; Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco; and Moya Greene at Royal Mail.
A fifth, Liv Garfield, is joining Severn Trent this spring, although Ahrendts is quitting Burberry in mid-2014 to join Apple, and is to be replaced by Christopher Bailey.
Sweeney’s report also recommended that:
• Headhunters should commit themselves to putting forward at “least one strongly recommended woman on the shortlist for all board positions”.
• A database of “board-ready” women should be created, to be shared with City firms and investor groups.
• The industry should share its statistics on the percentages of male and female candidates “during the various recruitment stages with government”.
Sweeney said: “Throughout my review there was a clear, articulated commitment from the majority of search firms to support the creation of more diverse and balanced boards.
“However, examples where the commitment was transferring into consistent and sustainable action were mixed.
“Further transparency across the industry will help identify where any further barriers are and inform where focused action is required.”
Davies will publish his latest annual update to his Women on Boards report this month.
Report criticises health department and NHS for not having strategy to tackle shortage of consultants
Consultants working in struggling accident and emergency departments should be offered pay increases to halt a chronic shortage in qualified and experienced staff, according to a parliamentary report.
The public accounts committee, which scrutinises the use of public money, said A&E services finding it difficult to attract and retain permanent specialists should be allowed to offer improved terms and conditions.
The MPs made the suggestion in a report released on Tuesday which criticises both the Department of Health and NHS England for not having a “clear strategy for tackling the chronic shortage of A&E consultants”.
Dan Poulter, the health minister, said that the government is considering ways of making a consultants’ career in A&E more attractive and that the issue is being addressed as part of current negotiations.
“It takes six years to train an A&E consultant, and there is no easy fix – but our long-term plans are robust, increasing the number of training places by 75 next year, and planning for all trainee doctors to spend time in A&E. We are also looking at making an A&E career more attractive as part of our negotiations on the consultant contract,” he said.
A health source refused to be drawn on whether ministers were considering increasing consultants’ pay.
The report will make difficult reading for Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, and Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS England’s medical director, who have faced pressure to review their plans to introduce changes in accident and emergency services.
Margaret Hodge, the committee’s chair, said that any attempt to improve emergency admissions services in the NHS is being stymied by the chronic shortage of specialist A&E consultants. Nearly a fifth of consultant posts in emergency departments were either vacant or filled by locums in 2012.
“With many hospitals struggling to fill vacant posts for A&E consultants, there is too much reliance on temporary staff to fill gaps. This is expensive and just does not offer the same quality of service.
“Struggling hospitals, such as those placed in special measures, find it even harder to attract and retain consultants. There are currently no incentive payments to make working in these hospitals a more attractive prospect. So we raised with the department the possibility of paying consultants more to work at struggling hospitals,” she said.
The committee’s report on emergency care suggested that doctors could be enticed to work at struggling hospitals if they were paid more.
Emergency admissions to hospitals have increased by 47% in the last 15 years, according to the report. But it is not clear who is actually accountable for the delivery of local A&E services, the report said.
A tripartite group comprising NHS England, Monitor and the Trust Development Authority is intended to oversee the performance of the emergency care system. However, it is unclear under what circumstances the tripartite group would intervene at a local level, the MPs said.
The MPs welcomed government plans to provide 24/7 consultant cover in hospitals but said they were concerned about the slow pace of implementation.
Hunt’s department also drew criticism for £250m injected into the NHS last winter to help 53 struggling departments as well as a further payment of £150m. The committee said that it was not convinced the money was used to best effect.
Dr Paul Flynn, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) consultants committee, said that consultants working in emergency medicine faced increasingly challenging, high-pressured and stressful work environments. “The government needs to urgently address issues such as workload pressures, resourcing, and work-life balance if the NHS is to attract doctors in training and the consultant numbers that are needed, not least because spending large amounts on locum doctors is not financially sustainable in the long run.”
In November, Hunt announced plans to establish a two tier accident and emergency services across Britain, with some hospitals top be downgraded as either “emergency centres”, which would assess patients and start treatment, and “major emergency centres”, which would provide specialist care such as for strokes or heart attacks.
Husband of Fawlty Towers star, actor Timothy West, talks about wife’s condition in a More4 documentary
Actor Timothy West has told how his wife, Fawlty Towers star Prunella Scales, has been suffering from “a sort of mild Alzheimer’s”.
Stage and screen actor West, 79, talks about Scales’ condition in a new More4 documentary, Grand Canal Journeys.
The actress, now 81, is best known for her role as Basil Fawlty’s wife Sybil in the comedy Fawlty Towers but has continued to notch up screen roles.
West, who last year appeared in Coronation Street and has since joined EastEnders, tells the programme, which is broadcast later this month, that Scales suffers from “a sort of mild Alzheimer’s”, the Radio Times said.
The couple have been navigating Britain’s canals on a slow boat ever since they first sparked a passion for the hobby when they borrowed a friend’s boat for a fortnight in the 1970s.
And West tells the programme, in which the pair embark on four canal journeys across Britain, that the journeys are perfect for his wife because of the difficulties with her memory.
“She can’t remember things very well, but you don’t have to remember things on the canal,” he says.
“You can just enjoy things as they happen – so it’s perfect for her.”
Scales says that she was determined not to let the condition keep her from the stage.
“I always say I want to die on the eighth curtain call,” she says.
“Eight will mean the show’s been rather a success. I just hope I’m somewhere near the middle and have been reasonably good in the part.”
The pair celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last October with a trip down the River Thames on paddle steamer the Waverley.
After Henry star Scales says of her hobby: “It’s always Tim who steers! But I enjoy running up and down because of the wonderful wildlife on the towpath. And it keeps you fit.”
Alzheimer’s Society’s director of external affairs, Dr Alison Cook, said: “Alzheimer’s Society would like to thank Timothy West for speaking out about his wife Prunella Scales’ dementia and raising awareness of the condition.
“Their recent adventure navigating Britain’s canals shows that it is possible to live well with dementia and plan to carry on enjoying life.
“We would urge anyone who is concerned about themselves or a loved one to speak to their GP today or contact Alzheimer’s Society for advice and support.”
Website search service is shut down by authorities in incident that has fuelled demands to halt data sharing scheme
A service offered by a data mapping website was closed down on Monday, as health authorities launched an investigation into the site amid concerns it had apparently acquired millions of identifiable patient records without regulatory scrutiny.
A Hertfordshire-based online mapping company, Earthware, which offers services including property data, claimed to allow users to locate areas in England where a single individual had gone for specialised treatment.
Although this would not necessarily pinpoint the patient involved, the risk of identification is considered so high that data protection rules prohibit the release of information when fewer than five individuals are involved. The website charged users for each search, but did offer a free service to sample the tool’s usefulness, which allowed the public to search for heart and respiratory conditions.
In a statement, the firm insisted the map contained “mock data”.
On Monday night the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) said the website tool had been shut down and an investigation launched into how the data had been obtained, as it had not been cleared by its regulatory process.
A spokesman for the information centre said: “The link to this tool has been taken down following a request by the HSCIC. We are investigating urgently the source of the data used and whether controls demanded of any organisation using data have been maintained. After this investigation we will take any necessary action.”
In a statement issued on its website, Earthware said it was “confident that we have not breached any legal or regulatory rules regarding the licensing or publication of [Hospital Episode Statistics] data”.
It said that the map displayed mock data held by a third party; that the company had never held HES data on its servers and that no patient-identifiable data was ever displayed on the map. “We will continue to co-operate fully with the HSCIC if required,” it concluded.
The investigation comes amid concerns that there are potentially companies in the UK able to create data dossiers on patients by tapping new technologies to unearth ever more intimate information about the public. The dataset apparently came from hospital episode statistics, which hitherto had been considered a relatively “safe” repository of sensitive data.
NHS England has previously defended its flagship care.data scheme – which proposes to extract data from GP surgeries – by pointing out that for 25 years hospital statistics had not suffered a major breach of privacy. Roll-out of the scheme was put on hold in February for six months.
Phil Booth of medConfidential, which campaigns on medical privacy, told the Guardian that “NHS England officials have claimed again and again that there has been no misuse of hospital episode statistics. Now a commercial real estate web mapping company appears to be getting access to hospital patient-level data.”
Booth called for a “full transparent” disclosure of all the hospital data so far released and called for the care.data scheme to be “halted”. “Until there has been a full transparent audit of every release of patient data the entire system that they propose must be halted.”
Under care.data, unless patients opt out, the HSCIC will extract a person’s NHS number, date of birth, postcode, ethnicity and gender. Once the system is live, organisations such as university research departments – but also insurers and drug companies – will be able to apply to the HSCIC to gain access to the database. If an application is approved then firms will have to pay to extract this information, which will be scrubbed of some personal identifiers but not enough to make the information completely anonymous – a process known as “pseudonymisation”.
This week Jeremy Hunt will push through a number of amendments to the Care bill related to protecting privacy.
The coalition will create a new law that would bar any company that obtains patient information under the care.data programme and uses it in a malicious way from ever bidding to use medical records again. Hunt also proposes that the NHS’s confidentiality advisory group, which advises the health secretary on accessing confidential patient data without consent – be made a statutory body.
Earlier on Monday, Sarah Wollaston, who practised as a family doctor and is now a Tory MP on the health select committee, questioned how the NHS hospital patient database for England was handed to management consultants who uploaded it to Google servers based outside the UK.
Wollaston tweeted: “So HES [hospital episode statistics] data uploaded to ‘google’s immense army of servers’, who consented to that?”
The patient information had been obtained by PA Consulting, which claimed to have secured the “entire start-to-finish HES dataset across all three areas of collection – inpatient, outpatient and A&E”.
The data set was so large it took up 27 DVDs and took a couple of weeks to upload. The management consultants said: “Within two weeks of starting to use the Google tools we were able to produce interactive maps directly from HES queries in seconds.”
Experts said there were concerns over the fact that data can easily be shared in the Google system – and that the danger of an accidental data leak would have catastrophic consequences for trust.
In a statement PA Consulting Group said it had purchased the data from the predecessor of the HSCIC. “The data set does not contain information linked to specific individuals. The information is held securely in the cloud in accordance with conditions specified and approved by HSCIC.”
The HSCIC said: “PA Consulting used a product called Google BigQuery to manipulate the datasets provided and the NHS IC was aware of this. The NHS IC had written confirmation from PA Consulting prior to the agreement being signed that no Google staff would be able to access the data; access continued to be restricted to the individuals named in the data sharing agreement.”
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