Release of Iraq war minutes vetoed

Details of cabinet discussions held in the run-up to the Iraq war are to be kept secret after the Government decided to take the unprecedented step of vetoing their publication.

Campaigners had demanded to see the minutes of two meetings, on 13 and 17 March 2003, amid allegations that the Cabinet failed to discuss properly or challenge the decision to invade Iraq. The legality of the war was also discussed at the meetings.

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, had ordered the release of the minutes, arguing that their publication was in the public interest. His decision was supported by an independent tribunal last month.

But for the first time, the Government has decided to make use of "Section 53" of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, allowing it to veto the release of the documents. The clause was added to the Act as a way of placating ministers who wanted final control over the release of sensitive documents.

Using the power, rather than challenging the tribunal's decision at the High Court, makes it almost impossible for campaigners to overturn the veto. They can now only challenge it by seeking a judicial review.

The Government decided to issue the veto during Monday's cabinet meeting in Southampton. The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, said releasing the minutes risked doing "serious damage" to the frank discussions that take place around the cabinet table.

"There is a balance to be struck between openness and maintaining aspects of our structure of democratic government," he said.

"The convention of cabinet confidentiality and the public interest in its maintenance are especially crucial when the issues at hand are of the greatest importance and sensitivity."

David Howarth, the Liberal Democrats' justice spokesman, said that by using the emergency veto power instead of appealing through the courts, the Government was "silencing opposition" to its decision "by decree".

"We need to learn the lessons, and we need to learn them as quickly as possible. That is why these Cabinet minutes should be released," he said. "This decision has more to do with preventing embarrassment than protecting the system of government," he said.

The ban was criticised by MPs in all parties. Tony Wright, the Labour chairman of the Public Administration Committee, said it was of "considerable regret that this veto has been used for the first time". He added: "Won't the effect be simply to confirm people in the belief that there is something in that period that needs to be hidden?"

Liberal Democrat MP Sir Menzies Campbell said: "This is a Government which, when introducing measures to limit personal freedom, says that those that have nothing to hide should have nothing to fear.

"If the process of reaching the decision to embark upon an illegal war against Iraq is still supported by the Government, why haven't they the courage to let us see the minutes of the Cabinet?"

The Information Commissioner warned that using the veto could undermine the whole purpose of the FOI Act. He said: "The Government has chosen not to appeal the tribunal's decision to the High Court, but instead has exercised its right of veto. It is vital that this is also an exceptional response. Anything other than exceptional use of the veto would threaten to undermine much of the progress made towards greater openness and transparency in government since the FOI Act came into force."

The Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke said that the veto undermined the processes put in place by the FOI ACT and showed the Government's contempt for the independent commissioner and the tribunal. "It is a particularly egregious decision, which shows an excess of executive power," she said. "It shows this Government does not really believe in the institutions used to make these decisions and wants to retain universal power for ministers."

The Tories backed the Government's decision to block the release of the minutes, but the shadow Justice Secretary, Dominic Grieve, said the verdict left an "overwhelming case" for a full public inquiry into the waging of war in Iraq.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect