In the House of Lords this afternoon, the Labour Leader, Baroness Jan Royall, asked a Private Notice Question of the Department of Health Minister, Earl Howe, about whether the Government would now publish their risk register on the Health and Social Care Bill given that the ruling of the Information Commissioner has now been upheld by the Information Tribunal.
The Government made it clear that they are waiting to see the detailed reasons from the Information Tribunal so that they could decide whether to appeal further. So the implication is that they will not comply with the ruling before the Bill completes its passage through the House of Lords next Monday.
The exchanges showed seven Labour Peers (Baroness Jan Royall, Lord Charlie Falconer, myself, Lord Dale Campbell-Savours, Lord Bob Hughes, Lord Bruce Grocott, and Lord Maurice Peston) pressing the Government to publish. There was silence from the Cross-benches, a supportive question from Tory Lord Deben (aka John Gummer) and a nice easy question from LibDem Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames.
Here are the full exchanges:
Health and Social Care Bill
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in light of the decision of the information tribunal last week, whether they will publish the risk register associated with the Health and Social Care Bill before that Bill completes its Report stage in this House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe):
My Lords, the tribunal has agreed that the department should not publish its strategic risk register but has upheld the Information Commissioner’s initial decision notice on the transition risk register. However, we await the full judgment, which will contain the detailed reasoning for the decision. This makes it extremely difficult to make a decision on whether the Government wish to appeal this decision. I hope very much that the tribunal will give its full judgment as soon as possible.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:
My Lords, the primary purpose of this House is to scrutinise and improve legislation. I know that the Minister would agree with me on that. In the next 10 days, Parliament has to make critical decisions about the future of the National Health Service. Without the information in the risk register or the transitional risk register, Parliament will be less well informed than it otherwise would be. The information tribunal last week instructed the Government to release the transitional risk register immediately, as I understand it, because the Bill is still under consideration. Why are the Government therefore preventing Parliament from having the best possible information on the NHS so that it can make the best possible decisions about the NHS?
My Lords, many of the risks associated with the Government’s reform programme, as the noble Baroness knows, have already been extensively aired—not least in the impact assessment, in my statement of 28 November last and, indeed, in the whole passage of this Bill—but I fully recognise the concern that we should respond swiftly to the tribunal’s decision. We are making every effort to update noble Lords on our intention as soon as we possibly can. However, as I have always said, this is not a decision for the department alone and any way forward has to be agreed and signed off across Government. I cannot make a decision without agreeing it with my fellow Ministers in other departments and I am sure noble Lords will appreciate that we have only just received the tribunal’s decision.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton:
My Lords, I am dismayed by the Minister’s answer. Surely it must be the case that Parliament would be assisted by seeing the objective assessment of what the risks are to the National Health Service from the Bill becoming law. I understand that he is saying that the Government have already said what many of them are, but if that is the case then what is the harm in disclosing the list of risks that the objective assessment by civil servants gives of the introduction of the Bill? Surely Parliament would be assisted by having as much information as possible. It cannot be the fault of the information tribunal that we are getting no answer at all from the Department of Health.
My Lords, no Government have routinely made risk registers available. This is a matter of principle. It is not just that the issues associated with the Health and Social Care Bill have been extensively aired—as I said, they have been—but it is a point of principle whether a risk register that is integral to the formulation of policy should be published.
The tribunal agreed with our assertion that the strategic risk register should not be published but disagreed when it came to the transition risk register. Our difficulty is that the case that we made for both documents, which are of a similar structure and have similar content, was based on essentially the same arguments, which makes it extremely difficult to make a decision on whether or not to appeal the decision. I hope, as I say, that the tribunal will give its reasons for the judgment as soon as possible so that we can determine the right way forward.
Lord Harris of Haringey:
My Lords, surely this is not about the routine publication of risk registers but about the publication of a risk register for a specific Bill in front of your Lordships’ House and Parliament that is causing extreme concern in the country. Why is it not possible on an exceptional basis? I believe that no less a person than Simon Hughes—if such a thing were possible—has advocated to the Government that the risk register should be put into the public domain so that Parliament can look at the implications properly.
My Lords, I beg to differ with the noble Lord; this is an issue about routine release. I think I am right in saying that the department has received several dozen requests to release the risk register. If this were to become routine, as some people appear to wish it to become, policy formulation in any department would become virtually impossible.
Does my noble friend agree that a number of the laws passed by the previous Government were also controversial? Can he point to occasions on which the risk register was released in those circumstances?
I am grateful to my noble friend because I do not believe that there were any. The Opposition sometimes point to the risk register relating to the third runway at Heathrow, but the key difference with that was that it was to do with policy implementation rather than policy formulation. Once you know what you want to do, there are risks associated with rolling a policy out. It is a very different matter when civil servants wish to have safe space to think the unthinkable and then advise Ministers.
We have a Motion before us in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. That question will be addressed then.
Lord Hughes of Woodside:
My Lords, the Minister said that the details of the risks had been well canvassed in this House. If that is the case then in the absence of proper information, with the best will in the world, the discussions must be based on hearsay. That cannot be the right way to go about discussing business.
My Lords, I think back to numerous debates that we have had in this House, which of course are recorded in Hansard. Many of the risks that I articulated on 28 November last have been gone through by your Lordships almost ad nauseam.
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames:
What steps have been taken to draw to the attention of the tribunal the urgency of receiving the reasons for this decision, bearing in mind the imminence of Third Reading?
I have personally seen to it that the tribunal has been made aware of the urgency of releasing its reasons, and it has acknowledged that urgency.
Presumably, part of the need for urgency is the Government’s scheduling of the Third Reading of the Bill. I know that we are close to the end of an unprecedentedly long Session of Parliament but it would be an intolerable situation if the information were finally published after the Bill had become an Act and the information were then judged to have been such that many Members who had voted in favour of Third Reading would regret it within weeks. Surely the very least that the Government could do is to postpone the Third Reading debate until the last possible date before the end of the Session.
My Lords, I am the first to acknowledge the concern among noble Lords to be fully and properly informed about the risks associated with the Health and Social Care Bill. As I say, we have done as much as we can to implement that intent without transgressing what we still see as a point of principle regarding risk registers. My answer to the noble Lord is that I do not believe it is necessary to postpone Third Reading but we clearly have to debate the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. At that point, the House will decide whether it is content to give the Bill further consideration.
Can we go back to first principles, which the noble Earl raised? I speak as someone who has been an adviser. Is he saying that officials would not give their honest view of the risks that policies might incur if their advice was made public? If you believe in open government—certainly, if you believe as an official that your duty is to advise Ministers as best you can and, therefore, you will outline the risks—is that not altogether a good thing? It is not a principle that the Government ought to espouse, rather than say that they do not want to go down that path?
My Lords, civil servants may not wish to put in jeopardy a policy that they are working on by using language that could be—indeed, is certain to be—misinterpreted or sensationalised, or that could cause embarrassment if exposed to the public gaze. Without full candour, risk registers across government would become bland and anodyne. Effectively, they would cease to be of practical value. That is the fear that has been expressed across government.