UK Justice Minister Jack Straw Vetoes the Release of Pre-Iraq Cabinet Minutes

24 February 2009

First Use of Veto Provision in UK’s 2000 FOI Law Sets Dangerous Precedent

London, United Kingdom – Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw today used his veto power to block the release of minutes from two controversial cabinet meetings in March 2003, when the British government signed off on joining the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Straw was a leading participant in those decisions, suggesting a conflict of interest that British media decried as a “disgrace” and a “coverup.”

In January 2009, the Information Tribunal had ordered the release of the documents with limited redactions. The Information Tribunal was upholding the February 2008 decision by the Information Commissioner about the inappropriate and unnecessary application of exemptions 35(1)(a) and (b)—”formulation of government policy” and “ministerial communications”—to block the release of the cabinet minutes.

Interestingly, this unprecedented use of the veto comes at the same time as new proposals for shortening the 30-year rule for the release of government documents to the public. One proposal included a trade-off of shortening to 15 years in exchange for tightening restrictions on contemporary documents. The Freedom of Information Act had opened up the Cabinet minutes to possible disclosure before the 30-year rule would apply to them.

In his statement before the House of Commons, Straw argued that “Confidentiality serves to promote thorough decision-making. Disclosure of the cabinet minutes in this case jeopardises that space for thought and debate at precisely the point where it has its greatest utility.” The Supreme Court of India, in the Gupta decision, argued the opposite, that if a public official would change her advice depending on whether it would become public, then the remedy is not to keep the advice secret, but to fire the official.

Much is already known about British government decisionmaking related to the Iraq War, especially in the notorious Downing Street Memos that undermined the public justifications for the war put forth by the Bush administration and the Blair government at the time (“the facts and intelligence are being fixed around the policy”). But the Cabinet minutes represented a clear test of the current Brown government’s commitment to the British access law, given the Information Tribunal’s order.

This is the first-ever use of the ministerial veto provided by the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act of 2000. The director of the London-based Campaign for Freedom of Information Maurice Frankel expressed concerns over the dangerous precedent, warning that “having been used once, the veto might now be used in other cases involving the examination of policy at lower levels in government.”

 

by Yvette M. Chin

 

 

LINKS

Information Commissioner’s Office

Campaign for Freedom of Information

“PR Push for Iraq War Preceded Intelligence Findings, “White Paper” Drafted before NIE even Requested.” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 254, August 22, 2008

 

DOCUMENTS

Official Release from the Ministry of Justice

“Tribunal upholds ICO decision on Cabinet minutes,” Information Commissioner’s Office, January 27, 2009

“Freedom of Information Act 2000 (Section 50) Decision Notice,” Information Commissioner’s Office, February 19, 2008

Jack Straw statement to the House of Commons, February 24, 2009

 

MEDIA COVERAGE

“Straw vetoes publication of cabinet Iraq war minutes,” The Guardian, February 24, 2009

“Straw blocks publication of pre-Iraq war discussion,” Reuters, February 24, 2009

“Straw vetoes Iraq minutes release,” BBC News, February 24, 2009

“UK blocks publication of Iraq war discussions,” Associated Press, February 24, 2009

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