Information Act fails to uncover war advice

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The Government blocked requests for it to disclose the full legal advice which allowed Tony Blair to take Britain to war in Iraq yesterday.

The Government blocked requests for it to disclose the full legal advice which allowed Tony Blair to take Britain to war in Iraq yesterday.

A formal application was made by The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act for ministers to publish the advice given to the Prime Minister by Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General. The application, one of 18 such requests, has been seen as a litmus test of the Blair administration's commitment to open government after the Act took effect this month.

In a letter to this newspaper, the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) said the Act provided that information was exempt if it was covered by legal professional privilege, which applied to the Attorney General's advice. The DCA said this reflects a public interest in protecting the confidentiality of communications between lawyers and their clients.

The DCA added: "It is particularly important for the Government to seek legal advice in relation to sensitive and difficult decisions, and for any advice given to be fully informed and fully reasoned."

It accepted that there was a "public interest" in understanding the legal justification for the war but insisted that the matterhad been been debated in Parliament. "We therefore consider that in all the circumstances of the case the public interest in maintaining each exemption clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosing the advice," it said.

Explaining its reasons last night, the DCA also took refuge in the long-standing convention that the advice of government law officers is not published.

The Independent has asked for an internal review of the Government's decision and the case may be the subject of an appeal to Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner.

The Government's decision was criticised by senior Labour MPs, who believe disclosure would have been embarrassing for Mr Blair. There is a suspicion at Westminster that Lord Goldsmith's full advice included caveats about the legality of the war that were not mentioned in a written statement he gave to Parliament.

MPs also believe that the Attorney General changed his advice in the immediate run-up to the conflict. The Butler inquiry found out that Lord Goldsmith sought - and received - an unequivocal statement from Mr Blair that Iraq was in breach of its obligations under United Nations resolutions before giving him the green light.

Robin Cook, who resigned from the Cabinet on the eve of the war, said: "The decision is not surprising but it does not make it any less depressing. We all know the real reason why the Government won't release the advice: it doesn't want us to know how weak the legal argument for war really was.

"I don't believe the Government can get away with claiming legal justification when it is making a decision to go to war. Parliament is entitled to know the full facts."

Clare Short, who resigned as International Development Secretary after the conflict, said: "Who is the Attorney General's client? Who is the Attorney General accountable to? It should be the country, not ministers. It wasn't even shared with the full Cabinet."

The Government's decision is unlikely to end the controversy over whether such legal advice should be revealed. It emerged last week that Gordon Brown wants it to be disclosed ahead of future military action as part of a package of measures to restore people's trust in politicians.