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Morecambe MP explains why he voted against NHS risk register publication

John Freeman
Morecambe MP David Morris has explained why he voted against the publication of the NHS risk register, a document the Opposition said could show the real national impact of the government's health reform plans in its controversial Health and Social Care Bill.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has already ordered the government to publish the document under freedom of information laws. But ministers are resisting the register's publication and have challenged the ruling, with a tribunal set to take place in March.

David Morris voted with the government to deny publication after an Opposition Day debate. (Opposition days are days allocated in the House of Commons in each session for the discussion of subjects chosen by the Opposition. The Opposition generally use them to raise questions of policy and administration).

The motion in the name of Labour's shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, called on the Government to "respect the ruling by the Information Commissioner and to publish the risk register associated with the Health and Social Care Bill in order to ensure that it informs public and parliamentary debate."

In a letter to a constituent, David Morris explained that while he understood why there would be interest in this information, "it is important to be clear what risk registers include and what they do not.

"Risks and benefits related to the Health and Social Care Bill are already in the public domain in the Department of Health’s impact assessments," he explained, "and are available on the Department’s website. In contrast, the Departmental risk registers – which have not published – set out the full range of risks for all activity over which the Department of Health is responsible.

"Risk registers are used across Government. They set out financial and policy risks, as well as sensitive commercial and contractual risks. They are a tool through which information about risks, however improbable of becoming a reality, can be recorded to enable the risks to be managed and mitigated. They therefore play a critical role in the delivery of effective government.

"The Information Commissioner’s decision to order the release of the Department of Health’s risk registers therefore creates a precedent that would have implications across the whole of Government," he says.

"There is a real danger that if risk registers are routinely released into the public domain, then risks would no longer be recorded accurately on them," he argues. "It could also lead to the publication of deeply misleading information. Establishing this precedent would threaten the successful implementation of Government policy.

"After careful consideration, across Government, the Department of Health has decided to appeal the decision by the Information Commissioner.

"While the Department remains of the view that there is information contained within the risk register that should not be disclosed for the reasons already set out, it is aware of the public and parliamentary interest in this issue. The Department has acknowledged that arriving at an early solution would be beneficial to all concerned.

"I am pleased that, for this reason, the Department has encouraged the Tribunal to schedule the hearing for as early a date as possible, while allowing of course for both sides to make the appropriate preparations. Following this the Tribunal has brought the hearing forward from its initial date in April, to a date in early March.

"I do not think it appropriate to comment further on this issue until the outcome of the Tribunal is known. The Department will respond when the Tribunal has made is its decision.  That is why I voted against the motion brought forward to the House on Wednesday 22nd February. It is important to note that votes taken in opposition day debates are not binding on Government."

After the vote, Public Service News reported Andy Burnham asked the government "what on earth" they were "trying to hide" in the national assessment of risks associated with implementing the Health and Social Care Bill.

"The simple truth is this: they can't publish because if people knew the full facts it would demolish any residual support that this reorganisation might have," he told the Commons.

Burnham quoted warnings from local NHS risk registers that cancer services were likely to be affected with "extreme" and "major consequences". And he cited other local NHS fears that the pace and scale of reform combined with required savings could "adversely impact on safety and quality".

But he was challenged by ministers for his own actions when he was in government. Prime Minister David Cameron said Burnham "blocked" the publication of a Department of Health risk register in 2009, when he was the Health Secretary.

The Health and Social Care Bill is currently progressing through the House of Lords and the report stage will resume on 27 February 2012.