Ministers have vetoed the release of the risk register outlining the possible threats of its controversial NHS reforms, saying its publication would undermine the ‘safe space' required to formulate policy.
The move comes after the Government recently lost an appeal against the Information Commissioner's ruling that the register should be published, but has angered Labour and other critics of the health act, who have insisted that the Government must lay bare the risks posed by its reform agenda.
But health secretary Andrew Lansley has revealed that the Government will be enacting a ministerial veto on the release of the register, following a Cabinet meeting.
Mr Lansley claimed the move was necessary in order to protect the ‘safe space where officials are able to give Ministers full and frank advice in developing policies and programmes'.
The Department of Health said it had opted to use the ministerial veto rather than appeal the decision to publish the risk register because Mr Lansley and the Cabinet viewed it as ‘an exceptional case where there is a fundamental disagreement on where the public interest lies in relation to the disclosure of the risk register'.
But the Government has published a summary of how it has mitigated the risks in a draft of the risk register, recently leaked by health writer Roy Lilley.
Mr Lansley said: ‘This is not a step I have taken lightly. I am a firm believer in greater transparency and this Government and this Department have done far more than our predecessors in publishing information about the performance and results of our policies.'
‘But there also needs to be safe space where officials are able to give Ministers full and frank advice in developing policies and programmes. The Freedom of Information Act always contemplated such a "safe space" and I believe effective government requires it. That is why Cabinet has today decided to veto the release of the Department's transition risk register.'
‘Had we not taken this decision, it is highly likely that future sensitive risk registers would turn into anodyne documents, and be worded quite differently with civil servants worrying about how they sound to the public rather than giving Minister frank policy advice.'
But Labour MP John Healey, who first asked for release of the risk register when shadow health secretary in 2010, described the move as 'a desperate act which will backfire badly.'
He said: 'There must be some very big risks in the Government's NHS reorganisation for Ministers to override the law with their political veto. Ministers have made the announcement in the very last hour of the last day, trying to bury this bad news on the eve of the Queen's Speech.
'The Government has lost twice in law, yet still won't accept that patients and NHS staff have the right to know the risks Ministers are running with the biggest-ever NHS reorganisation.
'This decision will only fuel doubts and distrust about the Government's NHS plans, as people rightly ask: ‘what are they hiding from us?' They've lost the argument on the NHS, now Ministers will any benefit of the doubt because every time something serious goes wrong in the NHS, people will want to know: ‘Did they expect this problem? And what did they do to avoid it?'