The Big Question: Should cabinet minutes be released, and what difference would it make?

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Indy Politics

Why are we asking this now?

Because the Government has been ordered to release the minutes of two key cabinet meetings held in the run up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has ordered the Government to hand over the minutes after it initially turned down a request for them made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The meetings, both held in the first half of March of that year, were significant: it was then that the Cabinet supposedly considered legal advice from the then attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, on the legality of the Iraq war. The Government has 35 days to appeal the decision. It is currently considering its position.

Campaigners against the Iraq war and advocates of the freedom of information legislation have championed the commissioner's decision as a breakthrough for transparency. But though the Information Commissioner said the order would not necessarily set a precedent in respect to the release of other government minutes, there are those who believe that it has set a dangerous trend and could undermine the running of cabinet government.

Is this a significant decision?

Yes. Indeed it is unprecedented. It is the first time that the Government has been told to hand over documents relating to cabinet minutes in such a way. In fact it was the former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer's belief that the Government should never be forced to hand over cabinet minutes.

The Information Commissioner decided to instruct the Government to release the minutes based on the "gravity and controversial nature of the subject matter". In other words, the public interest in the decision to go to war is so great that it outweighs the arguments against releasing the minutes in this particular case.

Will the minutes reveal anything new?

If you're looking for a smoking gun on the decision to go to war in Iraq, you will be disappointed. Cabinet minutes may sound like the secret record of the Government's top table, but in reality the minutes are very brief and only really record decisions that the Cabinet has agreed upon. If it's the minutiae of what each minister said during each meeting that you want, you are much better off trying to get your hands on the notebook kept by Sir Andrew Turnbull, the then Cabinet Office secretary. It is in that notebook that much more detail on the discussions can be found, with views attributed to individual ministers.

And the legal advice given by Lord Goldsmith on the Iraq invasion won't come as a surprise, either – most of the advice he gave was leaked during the 2005 election campaign. In short, he said that the war could be justified, but advised that securing a second UN resolution would be the safest legal guarantee.

Have we seen similar minutes before?

It is standard practice to release Cabinet minutes 30 years after they have been taken – the so-called "30-year rule" that covers many Government documents. They are released at the start of each year, and nearly always contain some newsworthy revelations. Now, even the Cabinet secretary's notebooks from over the years are being released to the public. But anyone wanting to see the notebook from 2003 is in for a long wait. The hand-written notes have to be checked for sensitive security information and transcribed, so they are only released very slowly. The most up-to-date one released covers meetings in 1953 and those in the opening months of 1954.

So why should they be released now?

It is seen as a special case. Some hope that revealing the minutes now might help us to understand more about how the controversial decision to invade Iraq was made. During those two meetings in March, cabinet ministers were presented with the attorney general's legal opinion on the waging of war. Shortly after, troops were heading for Baghdad. That has made what went on in the Cabinet Room at that time of great public interest.

Releasing the minutes might shed light on what the contemporary historian Peter Hennessy has called the "greatest single failure of cabinet government at least since the Suez crisis of 1956". Supporters of the Freedom of Information Act also see it as a victory for the legislation, by creating greater transparency in the Government's most important decision-making process. Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke said the decision should help pull Parliament "kicking and screaming in to the 21st century".

So why is it opposed?

Some say it would inhibit the running of cabinet government, which back in 1867 the essayist Walter Bagehot described as the crucial "buckle" that kept Britain's complicated parliamentary system of government ticking over. In principle, it allows the prime minister's team to argue the toss without having to worry that any controversial statements will be heard by the public.

The fear is that by allowing the minutes to be released now, ministers will be much less willing to express frank views in Cabinet in the future. With some believing that the Cabinet already holds far less sway than in the past, it could cause a further erosion of its power. The really juicy discussions could end up happening outside the Cabinet, during informal and un-minuted meetings. If that happens, we will have ended up with less transparency rather than more.

Five years is a long enough wait isn't it?

Government minutes are usually released after 30 years anyway, by which time it is likely that all the people featured in them will have finished their stint in office. If these minutes are released just five years after the event, there is the added worry that the minister could be in the same job or at least still in the Cabinet. That could put them in a difficult position. But Freedom of Information Act advocates say that the secretive decision-making process for the war as well as recent revelations about MPs' allowances are precisely why we need greater transparency.

Is there any point in seeing the minutes?

It will add another small piece in the jigsaw showing how the decision was made to go to war in Iraq, but some prominent critics of that decision argue that the Cabinet Room is not the place to look. Clare Short, who opposed the Iraq invasion and was in the Cabinet at the time of the two meetings, has said that the Cabinet was hardly given a chance to discuss the decision to go to war. To get to the bottom of the decision, she argues that a full inquiry is needed, which would tell the whole story once and for all. Maybe.

Should the minutes be published?

Yes...

* The Cabinet is working for us, so we should be given a full picture of exactly what it is they get up to

* Politicians should learn to live with such transparency, rather than fighting against it

* The decision to go to war was hugely controversial and unpopular, and the public need to know how it was made

No...

* Ministers need to know that they can express a frank opinion in Cabinet that won't be released

* We already know what the legal advice from Lord Goldsmith was and that the Cabinet did not have a big say in the decision

* It could make politicians hold informal, un-minuted meetings elsewhere, resulting in less transparency rather than more

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