Public service union UNISON is taking the government to court over its failure to consult properly on the proposals for change laid out in the National Health Service white paper.

The union said it has kicked off legal proceedings against health secretary Andrew Lansley challenging “his refusal to consult the public on proposals in his White Paper, Equity and Excellence: Liberating the NHS”.

The government’s plans for health will bring around a huge sea change in the way the NHS operates, in what UNISON describes as the most fundamental shift since its creation, and yet the day after the white paper was unveiled NHS chief executive David Nicholson wrote to all NHS chief executives instructing them to start implementing the proposals “immediately”.

UNISON argued that this instruction was unlawful, as there should be no move towards implementing any proposed changes until the public has been given the opportunity to consider the plans and voice opinion.

While Sir David said he would write again to NHS chief executives to ensure that proposals in the white paper are not brought to life before the consultation period closes, he stressed that the consultation itself is limited to how and not if proposals should be implemented.

But in an angry response, Karen Jennings, UNISON Head of Health, said: “I find it incredible that the NHS Chief Executive would say he believes there is no legal duty on the Secretary of State to consult on the merits of the proposals in the White Paper”.

The white paper is brimming with “sweeping changes” to the NHS and its operation, and the NHS Constitution “enshrines the principle that the public, staff and unions have an absolute right to be consulted”, meaning not only on how the proposals are to be implemented but also whether they should be, she said.

“The Department for Health’s refusal to recognise this clear and important legal duty leaves us no option but to issue legal proceedings as a matter of urgency”, Jennings stressed.

Consultations underway

But a spokesperson for the Department of Health stressed that the government has already launched public consultations on specific elements of the White Paper, and that further documents will be published this year.

“NHS Chief Executive David Nicholson has written to encourage the NHS to begin locally led consultations and take first steps on the implementation of the White Paper, without pre-empting the wider consultation,” she said, and pointed out that “many reforms are also subject to Parliamentary approval as part of the Health Bill”.

In addition, the Health Secretary and his team of ministers are currently on tour around England to hear first-hand views of staff, patients and local communities on the NHS white paper, which broadly speaking is centred on devolving power from Whitehall to patients and professionals.