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Lord Darzi's secret meeting with the private sector

On 19 August last year, as the dust began to settle from his NHS Next Stage Review, Health Minister Lord Darzi called a meeting of leading private sector healthcare companies to discuss how the review should be taken forward.

By Steve Nowottny

On 19 August last year, as the dust began to settle from his NHS Next Stage Review, Health Minister Lord Darzi called a meeting of leading private sector healthcare companies to discuss how the review should be taken forward.

We know who attended - the top names, including Atos Consulting, Assura Group, Care UK and Alliance Boots. But we don't know what was discussed. So a couple of months ago I asked the Department of Health, via the Freedom of Information, what they'd been talkinng about.

The response I received yesterday started encouragingly.

Dear Mr Nowottny...

...I can confirm that this meeting took place and that the Department holds information within the terms of your request, comprising:

- Briefing prepared in advance of this meeting

- Minutes taken during the meeting

So far, so good. So let's be having them... oh, wait a minute.

However, this information is being withheld under section 35(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to information whose release could be prejudicial to the formulation or development of policy. However, Section 35 is a qualified exemption, and we are required to assess as objectively as possible whether the balance of public interest favours disclosing or withholding the information.

In general, there is a public interest in the availability of information about the Next Stage Review. However, we have also taken into account the public interest in preserving the ability of officials to engage in discussion of policy options without apprehension that suggested courses of action may be held up to public/media scrutiny before they have been fully developed or evaluated. If such discussions were to take place in the knowledge that any records they created would be liable to disclosure while these issues were live we consider such awareness could inhibit considerably the freedom to advise, and the public interest in avoiding this consequence is self-evident. In this instance, we have determined that the balance of public interest favours withholding the information.

Now, the exemption used to refuse the request makes sense, in certain situations. There has to be some provision for some secrecy in Goverment - in matters of national security, perhaps. But its use here - particularly given Lord Darzi's attempts to consult widely and openly over the Next Stage Review, is curious.

And the question remains: what did Lord Darzi and Department of Health officials discuss on 19 August with Atos, Assura et al, which they're not happy to share with the GPs who run the NHS and the patients who do, after all, pay their wages?

Pulse will appeal, of course. We'll keep you posted.

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