Cameron cannot hide the risks of his NHS reforms
The PM should now respect the law, accept the court verdict and order the immediate release of the NHS transition risk register
guardian.co.uk, Fri 9 Mar 2012 18.06 GMT
The courts have just dismissed the government's efforts to keep secret an assessment of risks involved in its NHS reforms. This judgment backs the public's right to know about the risks the government is taking and gives strong legal support to an open debate about the NHS reorganisation. It also backs up cross-party demands that parliament should not be asked to pass the health bill without the benefit of this vital information.
Despite the apocalyptic arguments made in court in defence of the government, this is not a decision that will bring the civil service system of risk management to a full stop, nor will this lead to the routine disclosure of government risk registers. The tribunal's judgment, and the information commissioner's earlier decision, is based on my argument that the transition risk register for the NHS reorganisation is a case apart. The scale and speed of such a huge NHS upheaval is unprecedented, and the public interest in understanding the risks is exceptional.
Risk has been at the heart of the concerns surrounding the NHS reforms from the outset. Lack of evidence and confidence about how well the government was prepared to manage the risks of the biggest reorganisation in NHS history during the tightest financial squeeze on health funding since the 1950s was a major cause of growing professional, public and parliamentary alarm at the plans in November 2010, when I first made my FoI request.
The failure of ministers to provide a fuller explanation and reassurance has fuelled the chorus of criticism and opposition ever since. They simply can't see what the NHS means to people, how much it matters. We all need the NHS; we trust it when we are most fearful. We utterly depend on it when we are most vulnerable. This is why the public interest in such massive NHS changes is so strong.
The government has dragged out its refusal to release this information for 15 months, while parliament has been legislating for the NHS changes and pressed ahead with implementation at the same time. It's now near the end of the 11th hour for the NHS bill, with the legislation set to pass in the next fortnight. Next Tuesday is the final day for amending the health bill in the House of Lords. They are set to pass the bill on Monday 19 March, with the Commons expected to do the same the following day before the bill is sent to the Queen for royal assent.
This legal judgment must put an end to the government's efforts to keep secret the risks to the NHS and the action it is taking to manage or minimise them. Parliament rightly expects this information before it takes the final irrevocable steps to pass the health bill. Ministers' first reaction to the tribunal's judgment is to stonewall, delaying any decision to accept or appeal against the verdict until after the end of the bill. This is wrong. The government has now lost twice in law. This is a legal and constitutional argument, not a political argument. It isn't a matter of whether you are for or against the reforms.
It's about people's right to know the government's own assessment of the nature and scale of the risks it is running with the quality, safety and efficiency of our NHS.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg have both made a strong commitment to open government. They should now respect the law, accept this court verdict and order the immediate release of the NHS transition risk register.