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‘Procedural error’ cause for leak of HIA names

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Support: Brendan McAllister

Support: Brendan McAllister

Support: Brendan McAllister

Four groups representing survivors of historical institutional abuse have backed Interim Victims’ Advocate Brendan McAllister after a data breach at his office was attributed to a “procedural error”.

A full review of how information is managed has been recommended following the breach that resulted in the identities of hundreds of abuse survivors being leaked.

On May 22, the Interim Advocate’s Office (IAO) emailed out a newsletter to 251 people without the recipients’ names being anonymised.

Many of those named were involved in the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry and wished to remain anonymous.

The email was sent by the office manager at the IAO on behalf of Mr McAllister. When the breach came to light, some victims were outraged and called for him to resign.

Others launched civil claims, which one legal source said could amount to some £2.5m in damages.

Solicitor Claire McKeegan of Phoenix Law, who represent the group Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse (Savia), said the group’s trust in the interim advocate had been “shattered”.

“Many of them have underlying psychiatric conditions which have now been exacerbated by the upset and distress caused by the interim advocate unwittingly releasing their information,” she said.

Earlier this month, Mr McAllister was criticised by Savia chair Margaret McGuckin, who said his assisting in a Catholic Church service was a “conflict of interests”.

However, four of the five groups representing victims — Survivors (North West), Rosetta Trust, Survivors Together and The Campaign by Survivors of Abuse — have supported Mr McAllister.

A joint statement said the error should never have happened, but they insisted they still had full confidence in Mr McAllister and his staff.

The groups also addressed controversy about his continuing studies to become a deacon in the Catholic Church. They were aware of that following his appointment in August last year and none of the groups took issue with it.

The statement said: “When we met or were in discussions with Brendan McAllister over the last 11 months we were meeting him as the Interim Advocate.

“His faith; his relationship with God and his practice of that faith was never on the table. It was a matter personal to him and never the subject of discussion or division.

“It has never influenced our view of him. His role as Interim Advocate does not exclude him from practising his faith or deepening his relationship with God. His faith is independent of his role.”

An investigation into the breach was launched by the Civil Service’s Group Internal Audit and Fraud Investigation Service, which published its findings on Tuesday.

Investigators found the breach was the result of a simple “procedural error”, when the office manager copied the IAO mailing list into the ‘To’ field of the email rather than the ‘Bcc’ field, which would have kept the recipients’ names anonymous.

They found that the normal process of sending a newsletter at the IAO was to copy the email addresses into the ‘To’ field of the email before moving them into the ‘Bcc’ field.

However, in this case, the email was unintentionally sent before this was done.

Nine recommendations have been made to prevent a repeat of this incident and to improve data protection and information management arrangements within the office.

The Executive Office said these are “being taken forward as a matter of urgency”.

Mr McAllister pledged they will be fully implemented.

Belfast Telegraph