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Iraq veto decision “extremely retrograde”

The government’s decision today to veto the release of the Iraq cabinet minutes was “an extremely retrograde step” according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The Campaign said the government should have abided by the Information Tribunal’s decision on the release of the cabinet minutes – or appealed against it, but not overruled it. It said the UK Freedom of Information Act had one of the most elaborate appeals processes of any in the world, involving the Information Commissioner, the Information Tribunal, the High Court and if necessary the Court of Appeal and House of Lords.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said the Campaign “was concerned that having been used once, the veto might now be used in other cases involving the examination of policy at lower levels in government.”

It also expressed serious concern at the statement of Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, that the government was actively considering widening some of the Freedom of Information Act’s exemptions, to make it easier to withhold official information.

The recent review of the 30 year rule, by a committee chaired by Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail, recommended that government records be released after 15 years instead of 30 years. However, the Dacre report also suggested that the government should consider amending the FOI Act’s exemptions to provide ‘enhanced protection’ for sensitive information. Mr Straw said today that the government was actively considering doing so.

Mr Frankel said “today’s announcement raises the prospect of an unacceptable trade off, greater secrecy about current information in return for more access to old government files.”

The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, said that the veto had been used to ensure that ministers could speak frankly in cabinet. The Campaign said it could just as well be argued that the effect of disclosure would be to discourage cabinet from approving momentous decisions in the absence of full information. (The Tribunal decision highlights the fact that the decision to go to war in Iraq had been taken by the Cabinet without access to the Attorney General’s detailed advice of March 7 2003, and that ministers had not seen the Attorney’s abbreviated advice of March 17 until the cabinet meeting itself.)

The Campaign also pointed out that

  • in Australia the Labor government of Kevin Rudd has just introduced a bill to remove the ministerial veto from Australia’s Freedom of Information Act. Once the bill is law ministers will be lose the right to veto disclosures which they maintain could damage security, defence, international relations or policy formulation. Abolition of the veto was a Labour manifesto commitment at the 2007 Australian election.
  • in New Zealand, cabinet papers and minutes are often disclosed under the Official Information Act or published by government proactively. Examples available on the Internet include cabinet papers, minutes and ministerial briefings on the budget, global warming and criminal justice policy.1

 

Further information

Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen 020 7490 3958

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