Exactly what was said in cabinet meetings which committed Britain to war in Iraq in 2003 cannot be kept secret any longer after the Government was ordered to release the minutes.
In the latest ruling in a long-running battle under the Freedom of Information Act to force ministers to disclose the official record of two important meetings of Tony Blair's cabinet, the Information Tribunal upheld a decision yesterday by the Government's information watchdog that the minutes should be made public.
The three-man tribunal ruled that Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, had been right to issue a ruling last year compelling ministers to release the minutes of the meetings on 13 and 17 March 2003, when the cabinet discussed the legality under international law of the invasion to depose Saddam Hussein.
Cabinet minutes normally remain secret for at least 30 years but the tribunal upheld Mr Thomas's finding that the "gravity and controversial nature" of the discussions on the eve of war meant that there was a strong public interest in their disclosure.
The Cabinet Office has 28 days to release the documents or appeal to the High Court on a matter of law. Ministers could also take the unprecedented step of issuing a "veto" and refuse to issue the minutes despite losing their case under the provisions of the FOI Act, introduced by Labour in 2000. Downing Street said last night it was considering its response to the ruling.
Publication of the minutes would reopen one of the main controversies of the Iraq war – the legal advice given by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith – as well as shed light on the extent of divisions at the heart of the Blair government. Robin Cook, who was Leader of the Commons, resigned within hours of the 17 March meeting, saying he could not accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain to war. The second of the two cabinet sessions was presented with a summary opinion from Lord Goldsmith saying military action was legal. Cabinet ministers were not shown an earlier written statement from Lord Goldsmith, written on 7 March and subsequently published in 2005, which showed he had several concerns about proceeding without a United Nations resolution specifically authorising the invasion. Such a resolution was never passed.
The Information Tribunal, which hears appeals against decisions by the commissioner, decided by two to one to reject the Government's attempt to block the FOI ruling, saying the exceptional nature of discussions outweighed traditional secrecy protecting cabinet discussions and the public should be allowed to "make up its own mind" on what was said.Reuse content