Posted on May 18th, 2009 No comments
The Department of Health (DoH) has been ordered to release background information it holds in relation to a public pronouncement that women should avoid all alcohol while pregnant or while trying to conceive.
In a sweeping decision the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) stated the release of the contested documents could improve the quality and administration of decisions within Government.
The DoH had said it should not have to release the information as it was subject to S.35 (Formulation of Government Policy) and the balance of the public interest was in favour to maintaining the exemption.
However, in a ruling [Ref: FS50198015] from ICO it was stated that although the exemption was in place the public interest test had been miscalculated and the papers should be disclosed.
The original question to the DoH was made in June 2007 and was for “information concerning how the DoH reached its recent decision to recommend that pregnant women and those trying to conceive should avoid alcohol.”
The DoH had said a decision to release the documents would have the so-called ‘chilling effect’ on civil servants and health professionals who had been involved in the process.
But this argument was overruled by the ICO who said the DoH had failed to give clear evidence of how the ‘chilling effect’ applied to the specific case.
In conclusion the decision notice says: “the Commissioner considers that that civil servants must be expected to provide full and candid advice as part of their professional duties. Therefore he does not accept that they will be easily discouraged from contributing fully during the policy formulation process if the requested information is released.
“Moreover, given the interests that other stakeholders have in shaping policy to meet with their own interests he does not believe that they would readily be less candid or refuse to contribute to future policy in the event of the material being disclosed.
“However, he is also mindful of the proximity of the timing of the request to the completion of the guidance and the content of the disputed information, some of which is particularly free and frank. In view of this he has attributed some significance to the chilling effect argument.”
The Commissioner even went on to state that releasing the information could in fact improve decision making within Government, saying: “Disclosure would promote the accountability and transparency of the DoH for the decisions it has taken in respect of the guidance.
“Placing an obligation on the DoH and officials to provide reasoned explanations for decisions made will improve the quality of decisions and administration.
“In this case the Commissioner considers that there is a significant public interest in releasing the requested information as it would help to explain the reasons behind the re-wording of guidance about alcohol consumption during pregnancy.”