NHS risk register could do 'lasting damage'
19 March 2012
Civil servants could now be forced to 'pull their punches' when giving advice to ministers, and could even be drawn into politics, former Cabinet Secretary Lord Wilson has warned, after the government was ordered to release a risk assessment of its Health and Social Care Bill.
Wilson, who was the UK's most senior civil servant for four years under Tony Blair's government, said publishing the transitional risk register on NHS reforms, could do "lasting damage" to the civil service.
Although ministers are still waiting for the full details of the ruling, an Information Rights Tribunal
recently upheld a decision from the Information Commissioner that the register must be released under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, with publication seen to be in the public interest.
But in an article for The Daily Telegraph, Wilson said if the register was published the precedent would "reverberate across government" and that it would be a "major blow", with FoI in his view already "harmful to the process of government".
"Freedom of information, wisely implemented, can make an important contribution to public understanding of policy and to holding governments to account," he said. "But there is also a major public interest in good government, in people in power getting things right.
"If civil servants fear that their written advice may be published and used politically against the government they serve, they are bound with the best will in the world to write it differently, leaving out things which could be used as political ammunition.
"Worse still, they may not write these things down at all but give their advice orally."
He said a risk register prepared on that basis would "pull its punches", but added that ministers really needed advice documents that "speak truth unto power" when they were "on the brink of key decisions on a policy".
"It might not even get written. Where is the public interest in that," he asked.
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has recently defended against similar criticisms from other Whitehall chiefs
, with another former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell and Department of Health permanent secretary Una O'Brien also warning about the risks of a "chilling effect" on advice given to ministers. Graham said last week that such predictions were "greatly overdone and to some extent, self-fulfilling", the BBC reported. He also said such comments could encourage "bad behaviour" by junior civil servants.
But Wilson said that if policy advice was "routinely published on the unpredictable say-so of the Information Commissioner" civil servants could be drawn into the political arena.
"Select committees, for instance, will summon them to explain advice which has not been accepted or which draws attention to flaws in government policy. Prime Minister's Questions will be peppered with quotations from what officials have said.
"Who could blame ministers in this brave new world if they wanted a more politicised civil service to help them play the party political game? If advice has to be delivered publicly in a political arena, it will become politicised."