Nurse educator and health informatician, Rod Ward, has won the right under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to see a report on the NHSu, the health service’s short-lived, online university that was dissolved in 2005.

The Department of Health (DH) has withdrawn an appeal against the release of the report which was due to be heard by the Information Tribunal in London yesterday.

An Information Tribunal spokesperson confirmed that the department now needs to abide by an earlier decision from the Information Commissioner that the report should be made available. The report should be released soon.

Ward said he was pleased that the appeal had been withdrawn: “I think they realised they were not going to win. The Information Commissioner demolished every argument they put forward.

“How relevant the report is three years down the road I don’t know. Hopefully we can learn some lessons.”

Obtaining the report has been a long process. When the fledgling NHSu – launched in October 2003 – was swept away with a government review, Ward thought it would be interesting to see the report that had led to its premature end.

The report was written by Sir William Wells, chairman of the NHS Appointments Commission and a health service grandee of long standing. It was one of several written as part of the Arm’s Length Bodies Review which heralded the abolition or merger of numerous organisations, including the NHS Information Authority.

According to NHSu’s strategic plan initial funding committed to the organisation by the DH was to be £30m in 2003/04; rising to £80m from 2005/06. Ambitious plans to develop an online campus were first scaled back then dropped.

An application to the DH for a copy of the Wells report was turned down and Ward decided to invoke the Freedom of Information Act to test the department’s decision.

Like many members of health informatics community, Ward had followed the development of the NHSu with interest. The university’s heavy emphasis on using technology to deliver learning and its early focus on health information management and technology had caught the imagination.

NHSu speakers had become part of the healthcare IT scene, speaking at conferences and other meetings regularly. Ward was curious to discover why the organisation was closed down.

Months went by and at each stage of his FOI application Ward’s request to see the Wells Report was refused. Finally the request reached the Information Commissioner who decided in November 2006 that the report should be released.

The Department of Health appealed against the commissioner’s decision and a date was set for an information tribunal in London on 4 April to decide whether the report should be released.

An information tribunal is not a common event. Two high profile tribunals have hit the headlines recently: one concerning the Hutton Enquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly and another into the award of contracts for the development of the national ID card.

At the eleventh hour, however, the department dropped its appeal.

Ward has heard that FOI requests to see any document containing policy advice to ministers are routinely opposed. But the policy in this case hardly seems to be a secret matter – the closure of the NHSu gives a pretty good picture of what the advice must have been.

So what did Sir William Wells say that led to such lengthy efforts to keep his report under wraps? We shall soon find out.

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