Government releases secret NPfIT papers

The government is taking the unprecedented step of releasing papers on how Downing Street took policy decisions before the launch of the world's largest civil IT-based scheme, the NHS systems modernisation project.

The government is taking the unprecedented step of releasing papers on how Downing Street took policy decisions before the launch of the world's largest civil IT-based scheme, the NHS systems modernisation project.

The move follows a three-year campaign by Computer Weekly to force disclosure of the "Downing Street papers", using the Freedom of Information Act.

The disclosures, which are expected to be made this week, will mark the first time Whitehall has made a major release of secret information on how policy decisions over large and risky IT projects and programmes are taken.

In 2005, days after the Freedom of Information Act came into force, Computer Weekly formally applied for details of an IT seminar held at Downing Street in February 2002, chaired by the then prime minister, Tony Blair. Decisions at the seminar led to the launch of what became the £12.4bn National Programme for IT in the NHS.

The government formally rejected Computer Weekly's request three times. The case was due to come before the Information Tribunal on 11 February, but last week the government's lawyers unexpectedly withdrew from the appeal. The Cabinet Office will now release the information.

The NHS IT programme has been dogged by problems and Computer Weekly has sought information on whether the risks were sufficiently discussed and assumptions challenged.

Papers now expected to be released include:

  • a submission to the prime minister explaining the background to the meeting and giving him a steer on questions to raise
  • a record of what was said at the Downing Street meeting

Two months ago Computer Weekly submitted a paper to the tribunal setting out the public interest arguments in favour of disclosing the Downing Street papers. The tribunal decided formally to accept our evidence as part of the case, which appears to have been a factor in the decision of the Cabinet Office to withdraw its appeal.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said, "Having re-examined the balance of public interest, the Cabinet Office has decided to withdraw from its appeal to the Information Tribunal."

PM gives NPfIT go-ahead after 10-minute briefing >>

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