Straw uses FOI veto on Cabinet minutes

Justice Secretary Jack Straw today blocked the publication of minutes of a 1997 Cabinet committee meeting on devolution. 

It is only the second time since the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005 that the Government has used its veto following a ruling to release material by the Information Commissioner.

Mr Straw told MPs that disclosure of the information would put the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility for decisions "at serious risk of harm".

In a written statement to Parliament he said the decision "was not taken lightly".

Mr Straw said that in his opinion the Information Commissioner "wrongly found that the Cabinet Office had failed to comply" with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act by withholding copies of the minutes.

The only other time Mr Straw has vetoed publication was in February this year when he blocked the release of Cabinet minutes relating to the Iraq War.

In his statement today, he said: "This is only the second time this power has been exercised since the Act came into force in 2005 and over that period of time central government has received approximately 160,000 non-routine requests for information."

He added: "My conclusion rests on an assessment of the public interest in disclosure and non-disclosure of these Cabinet minutes and of the exceptional nature of the case.

"Whilst the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility is only one part of the public interest test, in my view disclosure of the information in this case would put the convention at serious risk of harm.

"As an integral part of our system of government the maintenance of the convention is strongly in the public interest and must be given appropriate weight when deciding where the balance of the public interest lies.

"Having done that, and having taken into account all of the circumstances of this case, I have concluded that the public interest falls in favour of non-disclosure and that this is an exceptional case where release would be damaging to the convention of collective responsibility and detrimental to the effective operation of Cabinet government.

"Consequently this case warrants the exercise of the veto."

The application for the release of the minutes states that the committee was chaired by the then-Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg.

The request said the committee's remit was "to consider policy and other issues arising from the Government's policies for devolution to Scotland and Wales and the regions of England and to promote and oversee progress of the relevant legislation through Parliament and it subsequent implementation".

The applicant added: "My understanding, from an article by the Constitution Unit, is that this Committee met 15 times from May to July 1997.

"Like all other Cabinet Sub-Committees, its meetings were held in private."

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham will "carefully consider" Mr Straw's reasons for exercising his veto power.

A statement from the Information Commissioner's Office said: "This is the first time the Commissioner has ordered the disclosure of Cabinet minutes since the ministerial veto was first exercised in February this year.

"In other cases, the Commissioner has agreed with the Cabinet Office's decision to withhold Cabinet minutes.

"The Commissioner is concerned that the Government may routinely use the veto whenever he orders the disclosure of the minutes of Cabinet proceedings, irrespective of the subject matter or age of the information.

"The Cabinet Office had appealed the Commissioner's decision to the Information Tribunal.
"A full hearing was due to take place on 25 January 2010 and the Commissioner regrets that the Tribunal's role has been disregarded at this stage.

"On the only previous occasion when the veto was exercised, in relation to Cabinet minutes on the declaration of war on Iraq, the Tribunal had heard the appeal and had upheld the Commissioner's decision.

"Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, confirms that he will fulfil the commitment to report to Parliament whenever the ministerial veto is exercised."

The Independent (10 December 2009)