Straw overrules Information Tribunal

This is a guest post by Chris Ames

Jack Straw’s decision to veto the release of the minutes of two pre-Iraq war cabinet meetings is a dagger to the heart of the Freedom of Information Act. No one who has seen New Labour’s approach to spin and to freedom of information will have expected the papers to be given up without a fight. But that it has come to this so soon says a lot about the man and the government of which he is an immovable fixture.

It is four weeks since the Information Tribunal ruled that the Cabinet Office must release the official record of the two meetings at which the attorney general’s advice (or lack of it) on the legality of the war was discussed. The government had exactly that length of time to choose whether to comply, to launch an appeal or simply veto the request outright. In the end, it chose to put our expectations of government transparency out of their misery.

Straw recognised that the tribunal’s interpretation of the Act –– which he himself took through Parliament –– poses serious challenges to the way that we are currently governed. But he failed to understand that it is the way that decisions are taken, not the possibility of disclosure, that needs to change.

Of course the government may continue to argue that the minutes will not show that anything went wrong, as the Cabinet failed to challenge Tony Blair over Iraq. They can do that because we will not see them. To complete the circle, they may say that the minutes do not therefore justify breaching collective cabinet responsibility and confidentiality. Those of us who think that things went very badly wrong would argue that neither convention is worth saving.

As with the Iraq war, Labour has the Tories for company on the wrong side of the argument. Tempted though the opposition may have been to call for Labour’s dirty washing to be aired in public, they are backing Straw. They are clearly preparing for government and do not want to feed expectations that they will make their own deliberations public.

As Straw justified his decision –– one that was officially taken collectively by the cabinet –– he reeled off the statistics for how many Freedom of Information requests have been dealt with without anyone deploying the veto. But that completely misses the point. If ministers can pick and choose what the Act does or does not cover, the most important and most damaging secrets will always be kept under lock and key.