The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has ordered the disclosure of “highly sensitive” papers about a meeting at Downing Street which led to the launch of the UK’s largest IT-based project, the £12.4bn NHS national programme.
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The ruling is a breakthrough in favour of openness over how Whitehall and Downing Street take decisions which lead to the award of large contracts on large and risky IT-based programmes.
And it vindicates Computer Weekly’s campaign against excessive secrecy over the National Programme for IT – a complaint made by many in the IT industry including the British Computer Society.
The ruling comes two and half years after Computer Weekly made a request under the Freedom of Information Act for details of a seminar on NHS IT at Downing Street in February 2002, which was chaired by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The meeting set in train events which led to funding for what became the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT]. It was attended by several ministers, the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of State for Health, the Chief Executive of the Office of Government Commerce, the e-Envoy, business consultants and others.
The Cabinet Office, on behalf of Downing Street, twice rejected our request for information about the meeting. It claimed the information was exempt from disclosure under the Act. We appealed to the Information Commissioner in July 2005.
The Cabinet Office told Richard Thomas that some of the information withheld was “used by the Prime Minister to reach decisions on the future role of IT in delivering NHS services”.
It argued that the “issue of NHS IT was still very much a live issue at the time the request was made, and the matters discussed in the documents requested were therefore highly sensitive at a time when the government was in the early stages of implementing what is probably the world’s largest civil IT programme”.
The Cabinet Office also said there was a “clear relationship between the withheld information and the formulation of policy”.
Its arguments for secrecy resembled those the government has made to resist rulings by the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal that early gateway reviews on the ID cards scheme should be published. Gateway reviews are independent assessments of high-risk IT-based projects and programmes. The Cabinet Office said that disclosure would inhibit frank advice given by civil servants.
The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas accepted some of the arguments of the Cabinet Office but decided that other factors outweighed them. He said the information we had requested was “historical”. We had made our request in January 2005, three years after the policy over NHS IT had been announced.
In an 18-page judgement, the Commissioner also cited a summary of Computer Weekly’s arguments in favour of publication.
We had argued that no information was provided to Parliament on whether the risks of the NPfIT were fully understood or discussed at the Downing Street seminar.
Thomas quoted Computer Weekly as saying that disclosure would inform debate on the largest public IT programme funded by the British government and would “help millions of patients to understand decisions and discussions that could directly or indirectly affect them”.
He agreed that disclosure of the requested information would encourage good practice and increase public confidence that decisions have been taken properly and on the basis of the best available information.
He also agreed that disclosure would promote the accountability of policy-makers and facilitate a “well-informed public debate on the issues”. It would also encourage “public participation in the development and formulation of government policy”.
On the main arguments of Cabinet Office that disclosure would inhibit the free and frank exchange of views between policy makers and advisers, and could affect the behaviour of ministers when deciding on IT-based projects in future, Thomas said that civil servants would be in breach of their professional duty if they deliberately withheld relevant information or failed to behave in a manner consistent with the Civil Service Code.
“It is a matter for the bodies concerned to ensure that their officials continue to perform their duties according to the required standards.”
Computer Weekly’s original request on 5 January 2005 had been for:
“Details including emails, letters, reports, memos, electronic or other material, on a meeting at Downing Street in February 2002 to discuss a modernisation of the NHS based on IT.”
Thomas found that the Cabinet Office had breached the Freedom of Information Act:
– by failing to give Computer Weekly “adequate written notification about whether it held information of the description specified in the request”.
– by failing to give a “proper assessment of the public interest factors in favour of disclosure”.
He ordered the Cabinet Office to disclose the information requested within 35 calendar days of the date of his notice – 13 August 2007. Officials may appeal the decision to the Information Tribunal [link is to the Tribunal’s decision to order the publication of early gateway reviews on ID cards] within 28 days.