When I discovered late last year that Downing Street had a secret taskforce, headed up by prime minister Boris Johnson’s controversial policy chief, Munira Mirza, which is reportedly planning major NHS reforms, I was intrigued.
After all, the past year has, more than ever before, brought home how essential properly run health services are to our daily lives.
So it seemed reasonable to use Freedom of Information (FOI) law to ask for copies of the advice being given to Downing Street by the taskforce, on how it should shake up the NHS, as well as information on who was advising the taskforce and its ‘Steering Group’.
My request felt even more pertinent given the small handful of names that the government has admitted are on the taskforce, including Adrian Masters – who, alongside his former McKinsey colleagues, had a huge role in writing the major, and destructive, NHS reforms of 2012. (I’ll come on to the new plans to supposedly “reverse” those reforms in a moment.)
But the government – after initially instructing me to narrow my request, which I did – has now told me that it’s not in the public interest – our interest – to know the scope of what it is talking about, or with whom it is communicating, in relation to the Downing Street NHS Taskforce.
This is not a one-off. These FOI refusals from the government are becoming all too common. This is why, earlier this week, more than a dozen current and former national newspaper editors signed openDemocracy’s public letter calling for MPs to urgently investigate the government’s handling of FOI requests.
Given what’s happened to our Freedom of Information rights in recent years, I’m not surprised. But I am dismayed – and alarmed.
‘Solutions’ – but not for the public
These private firms have been shaping what infrastructure and services are provided, when, and to whom – as well as what of our personal data is shared. They have dished out the ensuing blizzard of contracts to the outsourcing giants they have on speed dial. The consultants’ ‘solutions’ inevitably seem to suit the consultants and their corporate friends, if not the public’s actual health needs. The contracts that are emerging seem to tie the UK state into ever deeper and more opaque dependency on the consultant-outsourcing nexus, whether in terms of health data, the setting up of new testing and pathology services, or the provision of essential health supplies.
So is it not in our interest to know the extent to which these people are now involved in the biggest task of the 2020s: shaping the future of our health service, post-pandemic and post-Brexit?
The government disagrees. In its response to me, it has fallen back on one of the most abused exemptions in Freedom of Information law – that to reveal anything at all about what it is discussing, and with whom, would have a “detrimental impact on the ongoing development of policy” and hinder its ability to talk “freely and frankly”.
This is a ‘qualified’ exemption under the Freedom of Information Act (section 35(1)(a)) – in other words, one that has to be weighed against the public interest in transparency. But the Treasury – which has taken the lead in responding to my requests – tells me that its staff have weighed this up and decided that whilst they do understand the “inherent public interest in transparency and accountability….[and] in the work of government departments being transparent and open to scrutiny to increase diligence” – the public interest is nonetheless, best protected by secrecy.