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DH stalls publication of bill risks

The Department of Health has stalled an attempt to force it to publish its own risk assessment of the NHS reforms.

The Information Commissioner Christopher Graham instructed Health Secretary Andrew Lansley to publish the risk assessment in a ruling last month but the case has now been referred to the Information Rights Tribunal following an appeal by the DH.

A spokesman for the tribunal said the Information Commissioner´s Office would not submit papers to the tribunal until January 13. A timetable for the appeal will be set after that. The appeal would normally take a few months - however a judicial decision could be taken to prioritise it, he said.

Opponents of the Health and Social Care bill renewed their attempts to have it scrapped last week when shadow health secretary Andy Burnham met representatives of around 40 health organisations to explore alternatives to the reforms.

Mr Burnham has been advised that CCGs could take on commissioning responsibility without legislation - rendering the bill redundant. Medical leaders are being asked to sign up to Mr Burnham´s ‘Plan B' ahead of a second meeting in January.

In his ruling last month, the Commissioner upheld complaints by both John Healey, the former shadow health secretary and the Evening Standard newspaper, and found the DH twice broke the law by refusing to accede to their separate requests under the Freedom of Information Act to see the assessment.

Public interest in information about the coalition's NHS plans was more important than ministers' insistence that disclosure would impede the formulation of government policy, he ruled.

'Disclosure would significantly aid public understanding of risks related to the proposed reforms and it would also inform participation in the debate about the reforms,' he decided.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: ‘People have a right to know the risks this Government is running with their care and children's safety as a result of this reckless re-organisation. It is nothing short of an affront to Parliament to defy this clear ruling from the Information Commissioner and withhold information which could have a bearing on how Peers vote.

Baroness Thornton, Labour's health minister in the Lords, said: ‘It is perfectly clear that health ministers are playing judge and jury over what the Lords should and shouldn't see about the likely consequences of the Government's dangerous plans for our NHS.

'Earl Howe must be aware that this is now a matter of trust. Peers of all parties and none will not have been impressed that they will not be able to consider all the pertinent information about the Health Bill - and that begins to suggest a ministerial cover up.'

Dr Kailash Chand, chair of NHS Tameside and Glossop and a prominent former GP opponent of the reforms said: ‘The risk assessment is potentially dynamite and could unsettle even Tory peers. The Lords are likely still to be debating amendments when the tribunal takes place.'

Dr Chand´s Drop the Bill e-petition had garnered more than 18,000 signatures last week. It needs 100,000 to force a Drop the Bill debate in Parliament.

The bill is set to complete its committee stage in the House of Lords on Wednesday.

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