Wales politics

Watchdog orders the release of NHS reform documents

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Image caption The information commissioner said there was a strong public interest in releasing the material

Draft versions of a controversial report on Welsh NHS reform are to be released after an order from the information commissioner.

Case for Change by Prof Marcus Longley was billed as an independent review into hospital reform.

But emails released later showed him asking civil servants for "killer facts" to support the case for change sparking a row about its impartiality.

Report drafts and internal government correspondence must now be made public.

The Case for Change report was published in May 2012 after health economist Prof Longley was commissioned to examine the evidence and write a report to explain the case for reforming hospital services.

In it he warned that some services were in danger of "collapse".

Ministers had hailed the report, commissioned by the NHS Confederation, as evidence to support the case for potentially controversial changes to hospitals.

But a furious political row followed after a trail of emails emerged in which Prof Longley had contacted senior Welsh government officials and expressed concern the "evidence as presented does not seem to be as incisive as we might have hoped".

He had asked for "killer facts" to support the case for changes in the health service and further evidence "to sharpen up the document and its impact in supporting the case for change".

A political storm over the report culminated in the then Health Minister Lesley Griffiths narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence in the assembly.

Ms Griffiths said she did not see the report until it was in its final form and insisted her officials did not influence it.

Prof Longley later defended his independence, denying his findings were "sexed up" and rejected allegations that he "colluded or connived" with civil servants.

FOI appeal

Following the row, Plaid Cymru submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) to the Welsh government asking for draft versions of Case for Change and any correspondence between Ms Griffiths, civil servants and special advisers.

But the request was rejected prompting the party to appeal to the information commissioner Christopher Graham in October.

During his inquiry the Welsh government had argued to him that the previous disclosure of emails had prompted much media interest and "necessitated the minister being required to provide an oral statement to the Welsh assembly and for her and other officials to be questioned by the National Assembly for Wales health and social care committee".

The government said there had been a "diversion" of resources to brief the media and for "managing the media attention".

It warned further disclosures "would be likely to renew the media interest and cause officials to be redeployed to manage effects of disclosure".

It also said releasing the documents would "have an impact on policy making" and said it was "essential for officials and ministers to have a safe space to discuss live issues without being hindered by external comment and/or media involvement".

Disclosure

But in his ruling Mr Graham said he considered there to be a "strong public interest in revealing draft positions so that the public is given a fully informed picture of the decision or policy-making process promoting transparency and accountability in relation to the activities of public authorities".

"Disclosure would be likely to increase public confidence in the process and would show the range of options considered during the process."

He ruled that report drafts and internal government correspondence must now be made public saying there was a "particularly strong public interest" in releasing the information.

It is expected to be released within 35 days.

Plaid Cymru health spokeswoman Elin Jones said the decision was a "victory for openness and transparency" and called on Welsh ministers to release the information immediately.

'Kicking and screaming'

"The health service in Wales is undergoing enormous change and the public has a right to see the trail of evidence which led to the final report by Professor Longley."

Shadow Health Minister Darren Millar said the ruling "drags the Welsh government kicking and screaming towards greater transparency".

"Welsh Conservatives have long called for the draft versions of this report to be published to provide clarity over concerns that the Welsh government tried to sex up the case for controversial reconfiguration of health services," he said.

In a statement the Welsh government said: "Our reasons for withholding the information were clearly set out in our response to the FOI request and set out in Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) determination.

"The ICO has ruled in favour of the release of the information but has stated in his judgement that the arguments for and against release were finely balanced in this case."

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