Iraq dossier - reasons for release

The Government has been ordered to release the minutes of two key cabinet meetings held in the run up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has ordered the Government to hand over the minutes after it initially turned down a request for them made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The meetings, both held in the first half of March of that year, were significant: it was then that the Cabinet supposedly considered legal advice from the then attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, on the legality of the Iraq war. The Government has 35 days to appeal the decision. It is currently considering its position.

Campaigners against the Iraq war and advocates of the freedom of information legislation have championed the commissioner's decision as a breakthrough for transparency. But though the Information Commissioner said the order would not necessarily set a precedent in respect to the release of other government minutes, there are those who believe that it has set a dangerous trend and could undermine the running of cabinet government.

Some hope that revealing the minutes now might help us to understand more about how the controversial decision to invade Iraq was made. During those two meetings in March, cabinet ministers were presented with the attorney general's legal opinion on the waging of war. Shortly after, troops were heading for Baghdad. That has made what went on in the Cabinet Room at that time of great public interest.

Releasing the minutes might shed light on what the contemporary historian Peter Hennessy has called the "greatest single failure of cabinet government at least since the Suez crisis of 1956". Supporters of the Freedom of Information Act also see it as a victory for the legislation, by creating greater transparency in the Government's most important decision-making process. Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke said the decision should help pull Parliament "kicking and screaming in to the 21st century".

The Big Question: Should cabinet minutes be released, and what difference would it make? (The Independent, 28 February 2008)