Members of the Scottish Parliament's health committee used a parliamentary debate to attack NHS organisations for operating a 'culture of secrecy and fear'.

Health boards and trusts were criticised for their lack of consultation over proposed changes, with plans for the future of both Stracathro and Stobhill General hospitals coming in for particular criticism.

The debate was triggered by the committee, which has received public petitions protesting at the rumoured closure of Stracathro Hospital in Brechin and proposals to build a secure unit at Stobhill in Glasgow for patients from Carstairs State Hospital.

There were also allegations that bodies inculcated a culture of fear among staff, who were afraid to speak out over issues such as bad practice.

Scottish National Party health spokeswoman Kay Ullrich said: 'We must put an end to this secrecy culture which still seems to dominate. They seem to think that consulting the public, and even their own staff, is somehow not part of their remit. '

Conservative health spokeswoman Mary Scanlon derided the 'arrogance, bullying and dismissive approach' of health boards and trusts.

Deputy community care minister Iain Gray responded by saying that senior managers would be required to develop more open relationships with patients, staff and communities in implementing change in the delivery of health services.

Dr Richard Simpson, a Labour MSP on the health committee, attacked the handling of the future of Stracathro Hospital, saying it had 'poisoned relationships with staff and the community'. He said this meant 'difficult decisions will have to be made in an atmosphere of distrust'.

Doubts about the hospital's future intensified 18 months ago when emergency services were transferred to Dundee's Ninewell's Hospital after concerns were raised about the practice of two consultants. It is currently involved in a wider acute services review.

Tayside health board announced recently that it would establish a citizens' panel of 120 members of the public chosen by an external agency to discuss the development of health services in the area.

In a statement, the board said the panel would 'carry equal weight and measure to the opinions of NHS health professionals and managers' involved in the review. Any changes are not expected to be implemented before the beginning of the financial year in 2001.