An information tribunal has ruled the Department of Health’s transition risk register should have been released because of the “general alarm at what was happening”.
A unanimous written judgment handed down by principal judge Professor John Angel said the DH had been wrong to refuse a Freedom of Information Act request from Labour’s former shadow health secretary John Healey for the first document in November 2010.
The DH opposed the release of both papers, saying they were covered by an exemption on material relating to the formulation of government policy.
When Mr Healey won an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office in November 2011, DH lawyers appealed the case to an information tribunal, which also ruled against the department last month.
The DH has previously said it would wait to see today’s written judgment before deciding whether to appeal the judgment.
The document has been leaked in the meantime - see attached, right.
The judgment released today said: “This is a difficult case. The public interest factors for and against disclosure are particularly strong. The timing of the request is very important. We find the weight we give to the need for transparency and accountability in the circumstances of this case to be very weighty indeed.
“Risk registers would have provided the public with a far better understanding of the risks to a national institution which millions depended on. The transition risk register largely covers operational and implementation risks being faced by the DH to deal with the introduction of new policies, not in our view direct policy considerations.”
The judge criticised permanent secretary to the Department of Health Una O’Brien, saying: “Ms O’Brien’s argument that the risks could be identified elsewhere [from]impact assessments, National Audit Office publications etc is not helpful in this case because of their timing and difficulty in identification of the risks in these documents. In any case some of them had been described as ‘not fit for purpose’”.
The ruling also criticised the way the bill had been presented to Parliament, saying: “There was no indication prior to the white paper that such wide-ranging reforms were being considered. The white paper was published without prior consultation. It was published within a very short period after the coalition government came into power. It was unexpected.
“Consultation took place afterwards over what appears to us a very short period considering the extent of the proposed reforms. The consultation hardly changed policy but dealt largely with implementation. Even more significantly the government decided to press ahead with some of the policies even before laying a bill before Parliament.”