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Health Bill risk register to remain hidden

9 December 2011

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Labour peers were dealt another blow in the House of Lords this week as their motion to force the government to release the bill’s transition risk register was rejected.

The amendment, proposed by Shadow Health Minister Baroness Thornton, was defeated by 195 votes to 248.

Just one Lib Dem peer voted in favour of the transition risk register’s disclosure.

Speaking to the House on Wednesday (7 December) Baroness Thornton said the register would not used as a delaying tactic but rather a tool to “aid public understanding an debate on crucial aspects of the bill”.

She noted the Information Commissioner agreed early last month that the risk register be disclosed.

His ruling on the 2 November said:

“The Commissioner finds that there is very strong public interest in disclosure of the information, given the significant change to the structure of the health service the government’s policies on the modernisation will bring.”

Tory Health Minister Lord Howe told peers the Department of Health is in the process of appealing the decision with the matter soon to come before a tribunal, but could not tell the House how long it would take to be resolved.

Lib Dem peer Baroness Williams urged Lord Howe to push through the appeal “as quickly as possible”, fearing the matter will “hang like a dark shadow over the whole Report stage”.

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said the government’s decision to appeal the Commissioner’s ruling was “outrageous”.

“It’s ironic that Cameron is committing the Government to sharing data just days after they resorted to withholding information to preserve the pitiful levels of support for his Health Bill,” he said.

Peers slammed the government for placing Lord Howe in ” a very difficult position” and one that is “at risk of misleading the House” as he is forced to “hedge his bets”.

However, Lord Howe defended the government’s decision to keep the risk register out of the public eye.

“Ministers and civil servants need the space to be able to consider the worst risks – even to broach the quite unlikely risks – and to do so open and frankly, without the threat of disclosure,” he said.

“Without this safe space for open and frank risk assessment, the registers would be in serious danger of becoming inoffensive documents and their purpose would be significantly diluted.”

Crossbench peer Lord Turnbull suggested a vote to disclose the transition risk register could open the floodgates to similar requests.

He warned of a ‘cystallisation effect’ in which managers may be “reluctant to be frank in public about operational difficulties if it would undermine their ability to make contingency plans or could trigger an event before their plans are ready.”

The debate came as it was revealed NHS London is the only SHA in England to publish quarterly risk registers for health services on its website.

Published last month, the latest risk register showed the disruption of the proposed health reforms will lead to patients receiving “sub-optimal” and “fragmented” care and delay ongoing improvements to NHS services.

“It is our responsibility as the health authority for London to identify and manage potential risks to deliver safe services for patients,” a spokesperson from NHS London said in a statement to MiP.

“We are duty bound to publish this information quarterly on our website and have done since our formation. The more we plan for and pre-empt issues, the less of a risk they become.”