Cabinet Office - investing public money in IT secrecy

To keep secret the Downing Street papers on the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT] the Cabinet Office climbed a succession of legal steps.


It:

– put forward a complex set of legal arguments to reject Computer Weekly’s request in January 2005 for the release of papers related to a seminar at Downing Street in February 2002, which was chaired by the Prime Minister, and which led to the world’s largest civil computer programme, the NPfIT.

– rejected our appeal in Spring 2005 by again putting forward a slightly different set of legal arguments. It said in essence that the public interest in concealing the Downing Street papers was stronger than the public interest arguments for releasing them. Ministers and civil servants should, it argued, be free to think the unthinkable, to have “free space” for internal discussion, without having to worry about how the media would interpret what was being said.

– rejected a ruling of the Information Commissioner in August 2007 that the Downing Street papers be released. Again the Cabinet Office submitted many pages of complex legal arguments to justify withholding the papers. It said that the papers were still sensitive after five years, in part because the NPfIT was said to be the world’s civil IT-based programme. It also argued that the formulation of policy should be exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act; that the Information Commissioner had interpreted parts of the Act incorrectly and too broadly; that civil servants should be able to brief the Prime Minister without fearing their advice could be published, and that disclosure would inhibit discussion on future NHS IT policy.

– submitted (via Treasury Solictors] a fresh set of papers to the Information Tribunal on why the Downing Street papers should be withheld.

In January 2008, however, the Cabinet Office withdrew unexpectedly its appeal and confirmed it would release the papers. The cost to taxpayers of the decision to retain lawyers to stop the papers being published isn’t known.

It’s hoped the papers will be released this week.

Links:

NPfIT went ahead after Prime Minister had 10-minute briefing

Information Commissioner rules that Downing Street papers be released

NPfIT and the Downing St papers – for and against publishing them

Forthcoming release of Downing Street papers re NPfIT

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