Health department must make response

Protesters against the closure of the inpatient ward at Rothbury Community Hospital back in 2017.
Protesters against the closure of the inpatient ward at Rothbury Community Hospital back in 2017.

A government department has been ordered to stop dragging its heels and provide a full response to an information request from a councillor.

The future of Rothbury Community Hospital is currently being looked at again, after Secretary of State Matt Hancock said more work needed to be done locally in the wake of the controversial closure of the site’s 12 inpatient beds.

It follows the Independent Reconfiguration Panel (IRP), a public health body, concluding that there were flaws in NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group’s (CCG) engagement and consultation processes.

Ahead of the IRP decision, at the end of September last year, Rothbury’s Coun Steven Bridgett submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) seeking copies of the IRP assessment and any correspondence between the department, IRP, CCG, Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust or Northumberland County Council back to June 2016.

However, the DHSC has not responded since then other than to repeatedly say it needs more time to consider the ‘balance of the public interest’, sparking Coun Bridgett to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which found in his favour.

The decision notice, issued on Tuesday, says that the commissioner ‘no longer considers it reasonable in the circumstances for the DHSC to require more time to determine whether or not the balance of the public interest lies in maintaining the exemption under section 36 (policy under development)’, that the department has failed to respond in accordance with the legislation and therefore that it has breached the FOIA.

The DHSC must now respond within 35 days.