Commissioner orders partial disclosure of previously vetoed minutes

The Information Commissioner has again considered whether minutes of meetings of the cabinet sub-committee on devolution from 1997/8 should be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. These minutes were the subject of an earlier FOI request made in 2005. The Commissioner had ordered them to be disclosed (Decision Notice FS50100665). The Cabinet Office appealed this decision to the Tribunal, but prior to the Tribunal hearing, the then Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, issued a veto under section 53 of the Act, overruling the Commissioner’s decision (see earlier post). This was, and remains, only the second time the veto has been used.

At the time, Jack Straw identified a number of factual disagreements with the Information Commissioner. The Commissioner had found that only 1 member of the Cabinet committee was still in government at the time of the request. Mr Straw said in fact 15 of those who attended committee meetings were still ministers when the request was made. He also disagreed with the Commissioner’s view that the policy issues discussed in 1997 were no longer live and that papers provided little insight into ministers’ views. The Commissioner published a response to the use of the veto, which suggested that had the Tribunal been given the opportunity to hear the case, it may have found that the government was entitled to withhold some of the information.

In his decision on the new request, the Commissioner states that he “does not rely to any extent on the continued involvement or otherwise of the participants in the Devolution Committee in politics”, but he “has recognised the validity and weight of the argument against disclosure on the grounds of preserving the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility”.

His conclusion is that this factor [preserving the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility] tips the balance in favour of maintenance of the exemptions in relation to some of the information, specifically content that identifies individual Ministers and other content that in the Commissioner’s view covers what could be fairly characterised as the more sensitive areas of policy discussed by the Devolution Committee. In relation to the content identifying individual Ministers and the content recording discussions on sensitive issues, the view of the Commissioner is that the factor relating to collective Cabinet responsibility continues to carry significant weight. The Commissioner would stress that his decision in relation to information identifying Ministers means that only the content specifically identifying any Minister should be redacted…

In relation to the remainder of the content, the Commissioner considers that its disclosure would not be likely to result in harm to the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility, particularly given the passage of time. The Commissioner considers there to be a specific public interest in disclosure in order to inform current and future debate about devolution and a general public interest in the transparency and openness in decision-making.

The latest decision also upholds the use of the exemption for legal professional privilege in relation to legal advice provided to the devolution committee or to the government itself.

The decision to again disclosure of some of the minutes will be a test for the coalition government and its commitment to transparency. In response to the previous government’s veto of the minutes, the Liberal Democrats’ then justice spokesman, David Howarth MP, was reported to have said:

This completely undermines Labour’s claims to be committed to open government…the veto is clearly a threat to freedom of information and should be abolished.

The Ministry of Justice recently published a revised policy on use of the veto in relation to information falling within the scope of section 35(1). This states:

The Government recognises that the public interest against the disclosure of much material covered by collective responsibility will often be strong, but that the scheme of the Act does not make protection absolute. Accordingly, the drafting of the section 35 exemption reflects Parliament’s intention that in some circumstances, the public interest in relation to information covered by it may fall in favour of release. So in particular cases the public interest in favour of the disclosure of material covered by collective responsibility may prevail.

It then goes on to outline a number of guiding principles, criteria for determining what constitutes an exceptional case and factors to be taken into account when considering whether to exercise the veto.

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