Tribunal rules Northern Ireland Health Minister’s blood ban advice can remain secret

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Northern Ireland Health Minister Edwin Poots has won the right to withhold the legal reasons for enforcing a lifetime ban preventing gay and bisexual men from donating blood in the province.

Yesterday, an Information Rights Tribunal found that Mr Poots and NI Attorney General John Larkin were entitled to keep the information secret.

“It seems unfair that a public authority engaged in litigation should have a unilateral duty to disclose its legal advice,” NJ Warren, the judge who heard the case, said in a seven-page finding.

The finding can be appealed to a second-tier tribunal, and then to the Appeals Court.

The case was taken by Matthew McDermott, policy manager of the Rainbow Project.

Criticising the ruling, he said: “It is hugely disappointing that the minister has used yet more public funds opposing an issue around equality, this time to keep the legal advice from the Attorney General on the blood ban secret. The decision of the High Court on the blood ban not only found that the minister acted irrationally, but also that he acted without lawful authority and in breach of the Ministerial Code.”

He added: “There is also a political interest in seeing the advice as is evident from calls of various Assembly Members for the advice to be released. If the Assembly is to hold the minister to account, part of that process will be to know upon what legal advice the minister made his decision.”

In 2011, England, Wales and Scotland introduced a one-year deferral for gay and bisexual men who wish to donate blood under the advice from SaBTO, the UK Government’s Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs Advisory Committee.

But Mr Poots decided to keep the lifetime ban for Northern Ireland – against SaBTO’s guidelines.

The High Court in Belfast ruled Mr Poots breached the ministerial code in continuing the ban in October.

Earlier this month, the NI Assembly passed a motion urging Mr Poots to lift the ban on gay men and allow blood donations from those who have been sexually inactive for one year.

Failure to do so should constitute grounds for him to resign, the motion warned.

In September, it was revealed Northern Ireland’s Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) had spent £37,112 in relation to Mr Poots’ legal challenge.

It now falls to UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to quash the ban in Northern Ireland.

Mr Poots claims his decisions are based on protecting Northern Ireland’s blood supply.

The DUP Assembly Member also used £40,000 of public money in order to fund a legal challenge to prevent same-sex couples from adopting children.