The information commissioner has ordered the disclosure of "highly sensitive" papers about a meeting at Downing Street that led to the launch of the UK's largest IT-based project, the £12.4bn NHS national programme.
The ruling is a breakthrough in favour of openness about how Whitehall and Downing Street take decisions that lead to the award of large contracts on risky IT-based programmes.
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 that 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 Richard Thomas in July 2005.
The Cabinet Office argued said that some of the information we had requested 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 of the Gateway reviews on ID cards 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. In an 18-page judgement, the commissioner cited a summary of Computer Weekly's arguments in favour of publication.
Thomas concluded 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 within 28 days.