Release of Cabinet Devolution Minutes Blocked by Straw; Decision Puts Minister at Odds with Information Commissioner
Byline: Tomos Livingstone
JUSTICE SECRETARY Jack Straw was accused of covering up Cabinet rifts over devolution last night after vetoing the release of documents dating back to 1997.
It is only the second time Mr Straw has used his veto over the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, having previously only intervened over Cabinet minutes relating to the Iraq war.
The decision puts Mr Straw at odds with the Information Commissioner, who had insisted there was no reason why the devolution papers should not be made public.
The documents relate to meetings of the Cabinet's Committee on Devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English Regions (DSWR), set up within days of Labour's election victory in 1997.
The group was chaired by then-Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine, and included Cabinet big-hitters John Prescott and Mr Straw himself, who was then Home Secretary. Welsh Secretary Ron Davies and Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar attended to make their case for their own preferred models of devolution.
Meetings were held regularly before and after the referendums of September 1997, and there were several disagreements over the shape of the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Rows are known to have blown up over how much power should be given to Cardiff Bay, the way the new institutions should be funded and how much tax-raising power should be given to the Scottish Parliament.
Disputes also arose over issues from the future role of MPs to more mundane problems such as the status of the Potato Marketing Board.
Mr Straw said releasing the minutes, which had been requested under the FOI Act as long ago as 2005, would undermine the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility.
In a lengthy written explanation of his decision to wield his veto, Mr Straw said: "Robust debate and candid discussion are central to the Cabinet process and our system of government...A number of individuals, and indeed current Government ministers, have comments attributed to them in the minutes.
"There are around a dozen issues where the chair either summarises an agreed position following discussion during which different views had been stated by identified ministers, or even acknowledges that the committee cannot come to an agreed position at that time."
Mr Straw also argued the policy questions in the minutes were still "live", with a possible referendum to be held on Welsh devolution and changes proposed in Scotland. …