Veil may be lifted on infamous Westland meeting

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Minutes from the most explosive Cabinet meeting of Margaret Thatcher's premiership may be released early after a ruling from the information commissioner under the Freedom of Information Act, it was revealed today.

The meeting on 9 January 1986 ended with Michael Heseltine storming out of 10 Downing Street and announcing to the media outside that he was resigning as defence secretary because of differences with Mrs Thatcher over the Westland affair.

A BBC request for the minutes of the meeting to be released under Freedom of Information rules was rejected by the Cabinet Office, but after several years of consideration, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has now ruled in the broadcaster's favour.

The Government now has around a month to decide whether to appeal to the Information Tribunal against the decision - a process which could delay the release of the minutes until they are anyway due to be made public under the 30-year rule.

The BBC's Martin Rosenbaum, who submitted the FOI request in 2005, told Radio 4's Today programme: "The Freedom of Information rule does overrule the 30-year rule. It comes down to whether it is in the public interest for the information to be released.

"The Government generally argues that it isn't with regard to Cabinet minutes. It argues that releasing them undermines collective responsibility.

"The information commissioner generally goes along with that argument in relation to Cabinet papers, but everything has to be decided on a case-by-case basis and on this occasion the commissioner has said 'Yes, release them'.

"I put in this request in February 2005, soon after the FOI Act came into force. The Cabinet Office rejected it after several months and the information commissioner has been considering it for four years and three months before deciding that the information should be released.

"At the time I put in the request, the information was 19 years old. It is now almost 24 years old. If the Government fight it further, possibly it will be 30 years anyway."

The Westland affair blew up from a row over the future of Britain's only helicopter manufacturer and came close to toppling the Thatcher administration.

Mr Heseltine favoured integrating Westland with French and Italian companies and committing EU nations to purchasing future helicopters from European manufacturers, while Mrs Thatcher believed the firm should be free to link up with the American firm Sikorsky.

Mr Rosenbaum said the information commissioner had decided that there were "historical uncertainties and controversies which are unresolved and releasing these minutes ... could help to resolve them".

He added: "Certainly, if you look at the different accounts presented in politicians' memoirs, they vary very significantly and interestingly about what happened in that meeting."

Lady Thatcher has said that no one supported Lord Heseltine in the meeting, but the then Foreign Secretary Lord (Geoffrey) Howe has indicated that he backed his stance to a certain extent, said Mr Rosenbaum.

"There are disputes about what were Michael Heseltine's words as he left the meeting, what was his tone and demeanour and so on, so these may be resolved if we get the minutes."