NHS reform risk report veto is sign of freedom of information downgrade, says watchdog

 

Blocking the publication of a report into the risks of NHS reforms is a sign that ministers want to downgrade freedom of information laws, a watchdog has warned.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham launched a scathing criticism of the decision to exercise the Government's veto in a report on the case to Parliament.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley deployed it to block an Information Tribunal ruling that he should meet Labour demands to disclose the document.

Mr Graham dismissed his claims that there were exceptional circumstances and that it involved a matter of principle.

"The arguments are deployed in support of what is, in fact, the direct opposite of the exceptional - a generally less qualified, and therefore more predictable, 'safe space'," he wrote.

"As such, the Government's approach in this matter appears to have most to do with how the law might be changed to apply differently in future."

The November 2010 Transition Risk Register set out internal Government assessments of the risks posed by the reforms in the Health and Social Care Act, which became law in March after a tortuous passage through Parliament.

Labour MP John Healey, who was shadow health secretary when it was drawn up, called for the register to be published under the Freedom of Information Act - a demand backed by Mr Graham.

A Government appeal was then rejected unanimously by the Information Tribunal.

Mr Graham dismissed the argument put forward by ministers and senior civil servants that publication would have a "chilling effect" on officials' willingness to be frank.

There was "no evidence" to back the claim, he said - pointing to the previous release of a similar document concerning the introduction of ID cards.

And there was no reason to suppose it would set a precedent for other risk registers.

But the Cabinet agreed last week that the ministerial veto should be used.

In his report to Parliament, Mr Graham said the decision did not comply with the "statement of policy" regarding the use of the veto.

That sets out that it should be restricted to cases where disclosure would damage cabinet government or the constitutional doctrine of collective responsibility or where the public interest in maintaining those outweighed the public interest of publication.

"None of the criteria for 'exceptional cases' in the Statement of Policy are met in the present case," the Commissioner said in his report.

"Furthermore, the Commissioner does not consider that sufficient reasons have been given as to why this case is considered to be exceptional, particularly in light of the Tribunal's decision dismissing the Department's appeal.

"The Commissioner notes that much of the argument advanced as to why the case is considered to be exceptional merely repeats the arguments previously made to Commissioner and the Tribunal and which were in part dismissed by the Tribunal."

The only three previous uses of the veto all involved Cabinet material, he noted.

"The Commissioner would wish to record his concern that the exercise of the veto in this case extends its use into other areas of the policy process.

"It represents a departure from the position adopted in the Statement of Policy and therefore marks a significant step in the Government's approach to freedom of information."

Mr Healey indicated that he was considering a judicial review on the decision.

"This is the third time the Government's case for secrecy has been heard and dismissed. It's the third damning verdict on their desperate efforts to hide from the public the risks of their huge NHS upheaval," he said.

"The Information Commissioner confirms the Cabinet is overriding the law and their own Government policy with the political veto on the NHS risk register.

"In blunt terms, this report tells Parliament that ministers have ridden roughshod over existing FoI law and it warns that this case signals plans to change the law and roll back the public's right to know.

"The political veto has only ever been used before to protect Cabinet material. This move widens the span of Government information protected under veto. It is a landmark in the Executive's bid to draw a wider veil of secrecy over Government decisions.

"I have challenged the Cabinet's veto in the Commons, and I've have not ruled out a challenge in the courts."

The controversial use of the veto will be considered by an influential committee of MPs as part of a review of how freedom of information legislation is working in practice.

Mr Graham indicated in his report that he considered it an issue that should be included in the justice select committee's inquiry.

A spokesman for the cross-party committee said the MPs would examine the implications of the latest decision in a report due to be published later this year.

PA

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory