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Charity 'under threat' in row over abuse victims' details

Open Secret is refusing to hand over confidential information to the Scottish Government.

A counselling service for Scots who were abused as children claims it is under threat because it is refusing to hand over confidential information on its clients.

Civil servants have told the charity running In Care Survivors Service Scotland that funding could be at risk if it refuses to hand over details of its work.

Some abuse survivors say there could be suicides if the counselling service, which has been run by Falkirk-based charity Open Secret since 2008, is stopped.

It has worked with more than 1000 people who suffered sexual or physical abuse, or both, while in care, and offers one-to-one counselling, group work, befriending and advocacy.

The Scottish Government provides £200,000 of funding per year.

The dispute broke out amid an overhaul of the system for supporting survivors in Scotland.

The Scottish Government has appointed a consortium of three organisations to run the Survivors Support Fund, with funding of £13.5m up until 2020.

It was intended Open Secret would provide the counselling service, albeit through a different funding model, but negotiations have broken down over the government’s request for information on its work.

Civil servants have asked for anonymised details on each of the charity’s clients as the government seeks to evaluate Open Secret’s work and plan for its future provision.

Open Secret has told STV News it is being bullied into handing over information from its files which would breach its promise of confidentiality to the survivors.

The charity has agreed to hand over some details but now says the government is demanding far more information than was originally discussed.

An email sent to the charity last month by a government official reads: “Each contract and cover letter has been very clear on what is expected of you in terms of qualitative and quantitative data and how it should be reported to the Scottish Government, and what has been received so far has fallen short of what is expected and, indeed, required.

“This will have an impact on Open Secret’s preparedness for being able to provide a service which meets the stipulations of the new arrangement, and hence could create hurdles to Open Secret’s eligibility to receive further funding once the new Survivor Support Fund is in operation.”

Open Secret chief executive Janine Rennie replied: “It would appear that you are indicating that there is a threat that we will not continue providing a service to our clients following September … Please clarify by July 22 if that is indeed the case to enable me to inform the staff and clients so that we can manage endings.”

The charity says it has not received a reply. Its funding for the counselling service is due to run out at the end of September.

Ms Rennie said: “I think this will be a substantial risk to survivors and survivors will die. We’ve seen survivors who’ve completed suicide because they’ve not had the support in place.

“It would be fabulous if the NHS provided the appropriate services for survivors but they don’t.

“I couldn’t stress how concerned and worried I am about this because I feel as if we have a responsibility to people in Scotland who’ve been abused to ensure that they are not put in a position of risk.”

She added: “It’s been an ongoing sticking point where they’re saying ‘what you should be doing is transitioning the client file from our service to the new service’ and we’ve said time and time again ‘the files don’t belong to us, they belong to the clients’.

“It’s the client’s file. It’s their choice whether it should be passed on to another service provider.

“We’re now in a position where if we don’t hand the confidential information over to the Scottish Government the client won’t receive a service but if we do give over the confidential information then we’re breaching trust. And trust is absolutely integral to everyone we do. Clients trust us.

“We would have to breach client information in some way shape or form to access the new fund and we can’t do that.

“These are things that need to be in the public eye, these are things that people need to be aware of, or it could be catastrophic in the future.

“I feel really strongly about it. Our ethical values won’t allow us to sit and let this go.

“Much as it’s a risk to me personally and it’s a risk to the organisation, I feel as if we don’t have any choice.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have been working hard with partners in healthcare and groups representing survivors to deliver the expanded support system that we promised.

“To ensure consistency of care we asked groups already working with us to share anonymous data. We have never asked for any information that would compromise data protection.

“When the new service officially begins in September, Open Secret will have the opportunity to become a provider of services through this integrated fund and, if clients choose, then Open Secret can provide counselling services as part of their offer.

“It will be for Open Secret to decide if they wish to provide their services via the new support fund, to date they have refused to engage in the mechanisms to enable that.

“We will continue to meet regularly with survivors and their representatives to ensure the best possible service that meets their needs better than ever before.”

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