The Campaign for Freedom of Information welcomed the Information Commissioner’s decision today that cabinet minutes dealing with the war in Iraq should be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Act’s approach to disclosure of policy discussions within government, including those involving the cabinet, depends on whether the balance of public interest is held to favour disclosure or confidentiality.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said the decision showed the Act was working. “There is unlikely to be another case involving cabinet minutes where the public interest in favour of openness is so strong. If you don’t have disclosure in a case involving war and great loss of life, you are unlikely to get it anywhere else. That door would have been permanently shut” he said.
However, the Campaign noted that the Commissioner had accepted that parts of the minutes should be withheld because of the effect on international relations. “This might mean that references to the discussions with the US Government could be blacked out, leaving significant gaps in the record” it said.
The Campaign said the government was likely to appeal against the Commissioner’s decision to the Information Tribunal and beyond that to the courts. “The disclosure of policy discussions is the major source of conflict between the government and the Information Commissioner and Tribunal. The government argues that such disclosures are likely to have a ‘chilling effect’ even where the information itself is not particularly sensitive” Mr Frankel said.
The government is currently appealing to the High Court against two Tribunal decisions requiring disclosure of internal government discussions. One involves an assessment of the Home Office’s progress in developing the IT systems needed for identity cards. The other involves discussions between government departments about a proposal to underwrite an offshore oil project near Japan with major environmental implications. Both cases will be heard in the High Court next month.
Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen 020 7490 3958