The Government will exercise veto powers to block publication of key Cabinet minutes under Freedom of Information laws, it was announced today.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw said he could not permit the release of records from 2003 discussions over the invasion of Iraq because it would cause too much “damage” to democracy.
He told MPs he had signed a certificate vetoing rulings by the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal that key records should be disclosed.
Straw said he had signed a certificate under section 53 of the FoI Act, “the effect of which is that these Cabinet minutes will not now be disclosed”.
Allowing publication to go ahead would cause “serious damage to Cabinet government, an essential principle of British democracy”.
Straw told the Commons he had consulted with the rest of the Cabinet before issuing the veto, and the decision had not been taken “lightly”.
It is the first time the ministerial veto has been used since the FoI Act came into force in 2005.
Information Commissioner Richard Thomas insisted it was important that use of the veto was “exceptional”.
In a statement, Thomas said his ruling had been made on public interest grounds, and would not have set a precedent.
“The Government has chosen not to appeal the Tribunal’s decision to the High Court, but instead has exercised its right of veto under the FoI Act,” he said.
“However, it is vital that this is also an exceptional response. Anything other than exceptional use of the veto would threaten to undermine much of the progress made towards greater openness and transparency in government since the FOI Act came into force.
“I shall be studying the text of the Secretary of State’s Certificate and Statement of Reasons which I received today. Using the power available to me under section 49(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, I will shortly lay a report before Parliament to record the circumstances leading to this outcome.
“This will be in line with previous commitments I have made and the interest shown by past Select Committees in the potential use of the veto.”
Liberal Democrat MP Sir Menzies Campbell said: “This is a profoundly disappointing but not unexpected decision. This is a Government which when introducing measures to limit personal freedom says that those that have nothing to hide should have nothing to fear.
“If the process of reaching the decision to embark upon an illegal war against Iraq is still supported by the Government why haven’t they the courage to let us see the minutes of the Cabinet?
“The truth is that this was one of the most significant foreign affairs decisions in history which a supine Cabinet nodded through.”
Straw told MPs today: “Cabinet is the pinnacle of the decision-making machinery of Government. It’s the forum in which debates on the issues of greatest significance and complexity are debated. Whether the nation was to take military action was indisputably of the utmost seriousness.
“However, I disagree with the reasoning of the majority of the tribunal. In their decision they refer to the momentous nature of the decision taken, the public interest in understanding the approach to that decision and in the accountability of those who took the decision.”
He went on: “In my judgment that analysis is not correct. 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.
“Confidentiality serves to promote thorough decision-making. Disclosure of the Cabinet minutes in this case jeopardises that space for thought and debate at precisely the point where it has its greatest utility.”
Straw stressed that the actual decision reached on 17 March was made public “straight away”.
“The decision to take military action has been examined with a fine toothcomb. We have been held to account for it in this House and elsewhere,” he said.
“We have done much to meet the public interest in openness and accountability.
“But the duty to advance that interest further cannot supplant the public interest in maintaining the integrity of our system of government.”
Straw’s announcement was greeted with calls of “shame” and “disgraceful” in the Chamber.
But shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve backed the decision to block publication.
“I’m forced to disagree with the Information Commissioner when he said that requests like these will have little impact because they will be rare,” he told the Commons.
“It’s quite the opposite – because ministers will not know in advance if it will be deemed in the public interest to release their discussions, all discussions will be treated as though they could released.”
On 27 January – nearly four years after the original request was filed – the Information Tribunal upheld Thomas’s view, stating that “exceptional” public interest in the minutes from 13 and 17 March 2003 outweighed the need for confidentiality.
The “seriousness” of the Iraq invasion was increased by criticisms of the “general decision-making processes in the Cabinet at the time”, it said.
There were also questions over why advice from the then-Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, endorsing the legality of military action was only presented to the Cabinet “at the last minute” on 17 March.
Earlier, lengthier and more equivocal advice given to Tony Blair on 7 March was never distributed to ministers. It was, however, eventually leaked.
Blair defended his decision not to show colleagues the full advice by pointing out that Lord Goldsmith attended the discussions in person and was able to answer questions.
According to Ministry of Justice guidance on the FoI Act, a ministerial veto is subject to judicial review by the courts.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament condemned the decision, claiming it was another attempt to suppress public debate on the “biggest political scandal” in decades.
Chairwoman Kate Hudson said: “The use of the veto cannot be justified in any way – there is no risk to candid discussions in Cabinet as such minutes do not single out those making each point.
“The disgrace of the Attorney General changing his mind on whether the war could be justified must be exposed in all its detail.
“We had hoped that, with the withdrawal of the last British troops expected in a matter of months, the Government would have released these minutes in preparation for the full inquiry into the Iraq war, long promised by Gordon Brown.
“The illegality of the war on Iraq, and the crimes committed there, cannot be swept under the carpet. Six years does not erase the guilt of those responsible for breaking international law and bringing about the deaths of countless thousands of innocent civilians.
“This will be a running sore, not only in British politics, but in international relations, until the truth comes out and those guilty are put on trial in an international tribunal.”
Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said the decision had “more to do with preventing embarrassment than protecting the system of government”.
“Jack Straw must explain why he has chosen to block the release, rather than appealing to the High Court in the ordinary way,” he said.
“Why is Jack Straw silencing opposition to his position by decree instead of trying to persuade an objective court of its strength? This shows that, in reality, even he suspects his position to be weak.”
Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the move was “retrograde”.
“They should have appealed against the decision rather than overruled it,” he said. “We are concerned that having used it once, they will use it again in the wrong circumstances to protect policy formulation.
“We are particularly worried that Jack Straw is considering extending the exemption in the Act to give greater secrecy, in return for earlier access to some files.”