Risk register veto – A desperate act and an admission of defeat

John Healey

Yesterday the Cabinet decided to veto the release of the risk register for their massive NHS reorganisation, which I requested under FoI in November 2010.

In order to justify a veto, the Government have to show the Information Commissioner that this is an “exceptional case.”

But Earl Howe this morning told the Today programme the cabinet’s decision was one which would apply to the publication of all risk registers across Government.

More than that, he said they would publish the NHS transition risk register “in due course, when we think the time is right.”

Health Ministers have misjudged and mishandled this huge NHS reorganisation from the outset, and their confusion and incompetence is continuing, even after the NHS bill has passed through Parliament. Unfortunately, this is consistent with wider problems. I’ve urged David Cameron to get a grip of his Government and clear up the confusion.

For me the right time to end the Government’s efforts to keep secret the risks inherent in the biggest-ever NHS reorganisation and the steps they’re taking to reduce them was when Parliament on behalf the public was legislating for the changes, and before the irrevocable step of passing the Health and Social Care Act into law was taken. This would have given MPs, NHS staff and the public the chance to understand and challenge the plans properly. The Information Commissioner then the Information Tribunal agreed with me, and ruled against the Government.

I believe strongly that more open government is more accountable government, and more accountable government is better government.

But after losing twice in law, the Government still wouldn’t accept that patients and a million NHS staff have the right to know the risks Ministers are running with the biggest reorganisation in the NHS’s history.

And yesterday they decided to override the court ruling and veto the release – a veto that Labour only ever used once, for the legal advice in preparations for the war in Iraq.

This is a desperate act and an admission of defeat on the legal arguments for public release.

It’s a desperate act from a Prime Minister who laid claim to good government. He said he wanted “our Government to be one of the most open and transparent in the world”.

There must be some very big risks in the Government’s NHS reorganisation for Ministers to override the law. And they made the announcement in the very last hour of the last day, trying to bury this bad news on the eve of the Queen’s Speech.

Risk has been at the heart of concern about the longest legislation and biggest ever NHS reform. Lack of evidence and confidence about how well the Government was prepared to manage the risks was a major cause of professional, public and Parliamentary alarm at the plans. By keeping the risk register secret, Ministers have missed the chance to reassure people and NHS staff they’re on top of the risks.

I made my FoI request 18 months ago but public concern about risks remains important over the next 2-3 years during the transition to the new system.

The Prime Minister may have thought the political veto would end the political row over NHS risks. But this decision will only fuel doubts and distrust about the Government’s NHS plans, as people rightly ask: ‘what are they hiding from us?’

They’ve lost the argument on the NHS, now ministers will lose any benefit of the doubt. From now until the election, every time something serious goes wrong in the NHS, people will demand to know: ‘Did they expect this problem? And what did they do to avoid it?’

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