DETAILS OF cabinet discussions held in the run-up to the Iraq war are to be kept secret after the Government decided to take the unprecedented step of vetoing their publication.
Campaigners had demanded to see the minutes of two meetings, on 13 and 17 March 2003, amid allegations that the Cabinet failed to discuss properly or challenge the decision to invade Iraq. The legality of the war was also discussed at the meetings.
The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, had ordered the release of the minutes, arguing that their publication was in the public interest. His decision was supported by an independent tribunal last month.
But for the first time, the Government has decided to make use of Section 53 of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, allowing it to veto the release of the documents. The clause was added to the Act as a way of placating ministers who wanted final control over the release of sensitive documents.
Using the power, rather than challenging the tribunals decision at the High Court, makes it almost impossible for campaigners to overturn the veto. They can now only challenge it by seeking a judicial review.
The Government decided to issue the veto during Mondays cabinet meeting in Southampton. The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, said releasing the minutes risked doing serious damage to the frank discussions that take place around the cabinet table.
There is a balance to be struck between openness and maintaining aspects of our structure of democratic government, he said.
The convention of cabinet confidentiality and the public interest in its maintenance are especially crucial when the issues at hand are of the greatest importance and sensitivity.
David Howarth, the Liberal Democrats justice spokesman, said that by using the emergency veto power instead of appealing through the courts, the Government was silencing opposition to its decision by decree.
We need to learn the lessons, and we need to learn them as quickly as possible. That is why these Cabinet minutes should be released, he said. …