by Chris Lamb
On 4 July, the Information Commissioner’s Office issued a Decision Notice (as yet unpublished) for my second Freedom of Information request for the Cabinet minutes of 13 and 17 March 2003 to be disclosed. This upholds the ICO’s previous Decision Notice of 2008 and the ruling of the Information Tribunal (January 2009) that these minutes should be disclosed. Disclosure was frustrated by the imposition of the first Ministerial veto on these minutes after New Labour Cabinet agreement by former Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, in February 2009.
In a nutshell, the Decision Notice just released concludes that the passage of time, the change of government and the indeterminate reporting of the Iraq Inquiry do not alter the balance between the public interest argument and government confidentiality which required these minutes to be disclosed in 2008.
Indeed, the public controversy surrounding the invasion of Iraq and its questionable legality remains of the highest degree and the passage of time/ change of government reduce the necessity for confidentiality, accorting to the Notice.
I want to emphasize two points arising from this Decision Notice;
a) this is the first time a Ministerial veto has been overturned, as it were. However, as the veto in question only applied to the first Decision Notice of 2008, my second request was considered as from scratch on a merits-of-the-case basis. It is my view that disclosure, should the government permit it, will show the untruthfulness and hypocrisy with which the original veto was imposed as Cabinet ‘collective responsibility’, which the Straw veto claimed to defend, was not in evidence in the way that decisions were taken in these Cabinet meetings. Key decisions, such as Blair’s unilateral declaration of Iraq being in breach of its treaty obligations (13-14 March), were taken in the context of an exclusive networking of Prime Ministerial power outside Cabinet;
b) much emphasis has been placed on the Cabinet meeting of 17 March at which the Attorney General’s curtailed legal advice was presented for ratification. Although the question of what scope of deliberation was permitted is still an open question which disclosure of the minutes should help answer, it must not be forgotten that the Cabinet meeting of 13 March was also one of importance. The key decisions for the invasion had already been taken between 10-15 March, before the Cabinet met on 17 March. It needs to be shown whether the decision making involving a closed network between the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Attorney General, Head of the Civil Service and Military Chiefs after 10 March was referred to Cabinet before they became a fait accompli.
The fate of this Decision Notice will be of great interest. The issue of disclosure has already been ruled upon by the (First Tier) Information Tribunal. If the Coalition Government chooses to move straight toward another veto, it will be much more difficult to achieve in the context of a Coalition Cabinet made up of at least one party strongly supportive of disclosure when the first Freedom of Information request was being decided upon.