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Queen’s Speech proposals will lead to “unnecessary increase in NHS secrecy”

A draft Bill set out in today’s Queen’s Speech will lead to an unnecessary layer of secrecy about investigations into patient deaths and injuries, says the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The draft Patient Safety Bill will put the work of the newly formed Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB), which investigates selected NHS safety incidents, on a statutory basis. The HSIB will be required to publish reports of its investigations, but will be prohibited by law from revealing any other information obtained during its investigations. FOI requests for such information will automatically be refused.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information said that the new arrangements were intended to ensure that staff talk frankly to investigators about the cause of accidents. But the prohibition on disclosure would not be limited to information from staff involved in or witnessing incidents. It was likely that the prohibition would prevent the HSIB from revealing any information obtaining during an investigation which it had not chosen to include in its published report. This could include information supplied by the NHS body concerned, statistics, tests on faulty equipment, figures on staffing levels, explanations of why policies were flawed and information obtained from patients, relatives or whistleblowers who in fact had no objection to its release.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:

“The bill would add an entirely unnecessary layer of secrecy to safety investigations by this new body. It will prohibit them from revealing information which in fact could be disclosed without discouraging the supply of sensitive information to investigators or harming any individual’s privacy. The public will only be able to obtain information which the HSIB decides to publish about patient safety. It will be prohibited from revealing any unpublished data, even where it could be released without harm or where there was an overriding public interest in its disclosure”.

The Campaign points out that information whose disclosure might deter witnesses from speaking frankly to investigators is already protected by exemptions in the FOI Act. The Information Commissioner routinely supports NHS bodies which refuse to disclose such information.

Note: this press release replaces an earlier press release published by the Campaign today (21.6.17), which had suggested that the proposed statutory bar on disclosure would also apply to information obtained during safety investigations carried out by NHS bodies. The government had initially proposed that such investigations would be subject to the same statutory bar on disclosure but later decided not to proceed with that proposal for the time being. The Campaign’s response to the consultation document is here.

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