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.