by Chris Ames
The Government is blocking disclosure of secret advice given to Gordon Brown about the Inquiry, which it says “would risk undermining the Inquiry before it publishes its report”.
The Government’s assertion comes in a decision notice (pdf) issued by the information commissioner, who has backed the refusal of the Cabinet Office to disclose the advice under the Freedom of Information Act, despite agreeing that it could throw light on several controversies surrounding the inquiry.
The request was made by Digest contributor Chris Lamb, whose freedom of information requests for disclosure of the minutes of two pre-war Cabinet meetings have twice been vetoed by ministers.
In the decision notice, deputy commissioner Graham Smith made clear that the content of the information – “a detailed and candid examination of the various issues and options associated with the establishment of the Inquiry” – was crucial to his decision. He said that “there is some merit” in the Government’s claim that the inquiry would be undermined and that the “the high profile and potentially controversial nature of the subject matter and the level at which such advice was provided and discussed” mean that the information should be withheld from the public.
In his complaint to the commissioner, Chris Lamb suggested that the secret advice could answer a number of questions about the inquiry, which began six years ago, including why it has taken so long, why then prime minister Brown appointed members with question marks over their impartiality, why it was set up without a lawyer and why it was precluded from making judgments on the legality of the war. Brown originally tried to hold the Inquiry in secret.
Smith acknowledged that disclosing the advice could “provide some insight” into these questions. He also agreed that Chilcot’s ongoing failure to publish his report added “further weight to public interest arguments in favour of disclosure.” Ultimately however he ruled that the potential for controversy and damage to the inquiry justified keeping the advice secret.
Quite astonishing, but the commissioner seems to be badly behind the curve in trying to maintain public confidence in an Inquiry that everyone else is “fast losing patience” with. In another decision notice, also a response from Smith to a request from Chris Lamb, the commissioner, backed the Cabinet Office’s refusal to disclose copies of correspondence between officials and the secretary to the Inquiry (Margaret Aldred).
In a typically inept failure to keep up, Smith cited and did not challenge the Cabinet Office’s argument in support of its use of Section 22 of the FOI Act:
pointed out that in a letter to the Prime Minister dated 13 July 2012,5 Sir John Chilcot explained that to ensure that the evidence was seen in its full context and to ensure the fair treatment of individuals, the Inquiry did not intend to publish further material piecemeal in advance of the final report.
Back in February, in front of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Chilcot made clear that there was now a “settled body of evidence” that he could publish but will not publish, because the public cannot be trusted to make up their own minds.
It does have to be said that if the commissioner were to understand that Chilcot is now arguing that the public cannot be given all the information and trusted to make up their own minds, he would probably agree.