The Tribunal has now released details of its final decision over NHS Risk Registers, a risk assessment of controversial reforms to the NHS. The concerns centred on the potential damage release would have and whether it would have a chilling effect in reducing records kept, or in other ways restrict policy-making (see here for our views).
It has a classic defence of the chilling effect from Former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell on p.15:
‘Lord O’Donnell was very concerned that if there was routine disclosure of risk registers at the stage they were requested in this case that ultimately they would lose their effectiveness as a vital management tool for government and this would have a profound and damaging effect on the public interest in sound policy-making for the following principal reasons:
- frankness and candour which are essential to the usefulness of risk registers would be fundamentally damaged;
- the likelihood of the risks materialising would increase;
- it would distract policy makers from their task at a crucial point in the process of formulation and development; and
- there was a danger that disclosure of the risks in the form that they are set out in the risk registers could harm rather than assist public debate.’
The tribunal seemed less sure
We note that independent research carried out by the Constitution Unit at University College London has concluded that there is little evidence of FOIA leading to a chilling effect. Also in a previous case, OGC v IC EA/2006/2068 & 80 (“OGC”), where the Information Tribunal ordered the disclosure of Gateway Reviews apparently there has been no evidence of a chilling effect since their release.
It asked the opinion of Jon Healey, the (now opposition) MP making the FOI request , who was formerly a Minister
Mr Healey was the Minister responsible for the Office of Government Commerce at the time and said that there was no evidence that a chilling effect developed as a result of the release of the reviews even after he moved to The Treasury.
It ends with two statements that sum up the difficulties with the chilling effect
Lord O’Donnell said it was very difficult to prove one way or the other whether a chilling effect would take place.
Mr Healey expressed the view, that in his experience as a Minister, that the quality of submissions on policy had tended to improve since the above disclosures.
A further difficulty is the complications of the policy process. NHS reform has proved particularly complicated and controversial, as the Tribunal points out
From the evidence it is clear that the NHS reforms were introduced in an exceptional way. 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. The whole process had to be paused because of the general alarm at what was happening.
The problem is that many FOI requests that touch on the policy process will be for matters that are already controversial or sensitive (the war In Iraq, devolution etc)-will there ever be case that is not in some way special?