Straw blocks Cabinet Iraq minutes

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The Government will exercise veto powers to block publication of key Cabinet minutes under freedom of information laws, it was announced today.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said he could not permit the release of records from 2003 discussions over the invasion of Iraq because it would cause too much "damage" to democracy.

He told MPs he had signed a certificate vetoing rulings by the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal that key records should be disclosed.

Mr Straw said he had signed a certificate under section 53 of the FOI Act, "the effect of which is that these Cabinet minutes will not now be disclosed".

Allowing publication to go ahead would cause "serious damage to Cabinet government, an essential principle of British democracy".

Mr Straw told the Commons he had consulted with the rest of the Cabinet before taking issuing the veto, and the decision had not been taken "lightly".

It is the first time the ministerial veto has been used since the FOI Act came into force in 2005.

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas insisted it was important that use of the veto was "exceptional".

In a statement, Mr Thomas said his ruling had been made on public interest grounds, and would not have set a precedent.

"The Government has chosen not to appeal the Tribunal's decision to the High Court, but instead has exercised its right of veto under the FOI Act," he said.

"However, 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.

"I shall be studying the text of the Secretary of State's Certificate and Statement of Reasons which I received today.

"Using the power available to me under section 49(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, I will shortly lay a report before Parliament to record the circumstances leading to this outcome.

"This will be in line with previous commitments I have made and the interest shown by past Select Committees in the potential use of the veto."

Liberal Democrat MP Sir Menzies Campbell said: "This is a profoundly disappointing but not unexpected decision.

"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 truth is that this was one of the most significant foreign affairs decisions in history which a supine Cabinet nodded through."