Computer Weekly scores FOI victory in NHS IT campaign
21 August 2007
By Martin Stabe
Computer Weekly has won a Freedom of Information victory in its long-running campaign against secrecy in the NHS National Programme for IT.
The Information Commissioner has ordered the Cabinet Office to disclose papers about a 2002 Downing Street meeting that led to the £12.4 billion programme.
The ruling comes two and half years after the magazine requested the materials just after the Freedom of information Act came into force in January 2005, and over two years since it filed its appeal to the Information Commissioner in July 2005.
“I think the government is actually using the Freedom of Information Act as a device to the delay publication of embarrassing disclosures,” said Computer Weekly executive editor Tony Collins.
The Cabinet Office cited section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act to claim that information about the meeting, chaired by then-Prime Minster Tony Blair, was exempt from the disclosure to civil servants’ ability to provide “free and frank advice” to ministers.
But in a 16-page decision notice issued last week, the Information Commissioner ruled that his was outweighed by other public interest factors that Computer Weekly had suggested: encouraging transparency, accountability and good practice in project management.
“They seem to have quite a clever media strategy — and it does seem to be a strategy aimed at the media — for where there is something contentious or embarrassing,” said Collins.
“If they can delay it, ideally two or three years, it becomes of less topical interest for a media that is really only interested in things that are happening now or in the future.”
In May, the Computer Weekly won the PPA's Editorial Campaign of the Year award for its work on the NPfIT story. Judges described the magazine’s campaign as "outstanding investigative journalism in the face of intransigence".
Computer Weekly has made dozens of requests as part of the campaign, but has so far had no responses.
“We’re a bit disillusioned with the Freedom of Information Act, to be honest,” said Collins.
The Cabinet Office now has 28 days to appeal to the Information Tribunal or 35 days to disclose the information