The Department of Health and Social Care was so wary its social care reform plan would be leaked that “several” of its own policy teams were given no details ahead of the prime minister’s speech setting out the reforms last month, the ministry’s permanent secretary has said.
Sir Chris Wormald has been forced to apologise after DHSC’s response to a damning report by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee on adult social care reform planning was delayed because officials had to change it so drastically after the PM’s speech.
In a letter to the committee of MPs, Wormald noted that DHSC had been due to respond to PAC’s report – which said the UK “cannot afford” any more broken promises by the government on social care reform – in September.
The report called for extra funding, innovation and a national strategy for the care workforce that sits alongside the NHS People Plan.
But Wormald said the response had not been included in last month’s Treasury minute because officials had not been aware of how the PM’s reforms would affect their policy areas.
He said policy teams not working directly on the proposals had been told neither the date nor the content of the announcement until “shortly before” Johnson made it on 7 September, “to avoid confidentiality breaches”.
The government has suffered a number of embarrassing leaks of confidential information over the last couple of years, including of plans to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Last November, No.10 ordered an investigation after sources leaked Johnson’s plans for a second lockdown, but cabinet secretary Simon Case admitted this spring it was unlikely the "chatty rat" would ever be found.
Wormald's letter, dated 15 September but published today, read: “Since this spring, the enormous amount of work taking place to develop proposals for social care reform has been treated with extreme sensitivity, with detailed information on the scope, content and timing of reform proposals being restricted to a small number of people in governmentt.
“This confidential approach, and the fact that cross-government discussions were ongoing at secretary of state and prime minister level, meant that several policy teams within DHSC did not know how their policy areas would be affected by future reform proposals.”
The announcement of the reforms, which included a cap on lifetime costs for care and an increase National Insurance contributions to raise funds, rendered DHSC’s prepared response to PAC’s recommendations incorrect.
Wormald said his department’s responses to PAC’s recommendations therefore needed to be changed “extremely quickly” to meet the deadline for the Treasury minute, which was published on 20 September. He said the changes were “significant enough” to require sign-off from senior DHSC officials.
“It was only possible for the DHSC teams responsible for responding to the committee’s report to anticipate what amendments would be needed on the day of the announcement,” the perm sec said.
The response was not signed off in time for the deadline and was therefore not included in the Treasury minute.
“DHSC treats this matter with utmost seriousness as part of its accountability to parliament and a significant amount of work went into trying to meet this deadline,” he said, adding that the department’s response will be included in the next Treasury minute this month.