by Chris Ames
Digest contributor Chris Lamb has won – for now – his Freedom of Information battle to force the Cabinet Office to disclose “candid” advice from top civil servants to Brown about setting up the inquiry, despite claims that this could undermine the inquiry before it publishes its report.
But the Cabinet Office has delayed release of the advice by indicating that it intends to appeal against the ruling by the information tribunal.
Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is likely to have provided some of the advice and could well be behind the move to suppress it.
He was in charge of the Downing Street machine under Brown and was principal private secretary to Blair in the run-up to the invasion.
The papers, which date back to the setting up of the inquiry in 2009, could show why the inquiry was set up with limited powers and why it has taken so long.
For example, the Inquiry’s report is not expected to reach any conclusion on the legality of the invasion, having been set up by Brown when he was prime minister as a ‘lessons learned’ inquiry by privy councillors, rather than a judge-led inquiry.
In a unanimous ruling, the tribunal overturned an earlier decision by the Information Commissioner, who had backed the Cabinet Office’s refusal to disclose the advice .
To be allowed to appeal, the Cabinet Office will need to show that it is contesting a point of law. Given the strength of the ruling against it, this cannot be taken for granted. In the meantime, the tribunal judge has suspended the order to disclose the information.
According to the Commissioner, the secret advice to Brown consists of “a detailed and candid examination of the various issues and options associated with the establishment of the Inquiry”.
The Cabinet Office argued that disclosing the advice would have a “chilling effect” on officials in future. The Commissioner agreed that these arguments “attract particular weight given the high profile and potentially controversial nature of the subject matter and the level at which such advice was provided and discussed, being the highest level in government”.
Having seen the documents, the Commissioner accepted “that there is some merit in the Cabinet Office’s argument that disclosure of the withheld information could undermine the Inquiry itself”.
But the tribunal rejected these claims, pointing out that it is “precisely at the highest levels of the Civil Service that the public expects to find the highest standards of official behaviour, including robustness in giving a Prime Minister the best possible advice, candid though it may need to be”.
Setting out the tribunal’s decision, Judge Peter Lane wrote that the documents would be seen as “precisely the kind of high-quality and frank advice, which the public would expect the Prime Minister to be given”, and rejected any suggestion that publication might preclude or impede the inquiry from finishing its report.
The decision notice revealed that the tribunal had provided further assessment of the documents in a confidential annex, sent only to the Cabinet Office and the Commissioner.
The tribunal concluded that there is a “very strong public interest in understanding how the Inquiry came to be created and why a privy councillor-led panel was chosen”.