Master of Emmanuel College warns of consequences of row over government's health reforms

Yuming Mei 20 March 2012

Lord Wilson, the current Master of Emmanuel College and former Head of the Civil Service (1998-2002), has spoken out about the dangers to the Civil Service arising from the row over the NHS Bill, which is being debated in the House of Lords this week.

In a letter to the Telegraph published on Sunday 18th, Lord Wilson explained: “What is at stake is the ability of officials to give their best policy advice to Ministers, and to do so in a private space, without being drawn into the political arena.”

The cause of Lord Wilson’s letter is crossbench peer Lord Owen’s amendment, one of two amendments to the bill due to be debated in the House of Lords on Monday. Lord Owen’s amendment aims to delay the passage of the NHS bill but it is the way in which it does so – by asking for the publishing of so called “risk registers”, documents prepared by civil servants for health officials – that has provoked Lord Wilson’s letter.

Lord Wilson believes that if these risk registers were to be published, it would set a precedent that would reverberate around the Civil Service, making it less effective. Civil servants would feel less secure about giving their best impartial advice to ministers for fear that their words might in future be published and used against them.

It is unusual for ex-senior civil servants to speak out on current political events so Lord Wilson’s decision to do so underscores the severity of his concerns for the Civil Service. The decision of Lord Owen to table such an amendment is also indicative of the desperation of the opponents of the bill. When contacted by The Cambridge Student, Lord Wilson added that he happens not to support the NHS bill, but that “this is the wrong way to attack it”.

Lord Wilson steps down as Master of Emmanuel College at the end of September this year. He is succeeded by Dame Fiona Reynolds, the Director-General of the National Trust.


On Monday, Lord Owen’s amendment was defeated in the House of Lords by 213 votes to 328. Another amendment – the last to be debated – was also won by the government, meaning that the bill will now go back to the House of Commons for an emergency debate on Tuesday. It continues to be deeply divisive and has now been in Parliament for over a year.

Yuming Mei