Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Government issues first veto under the FOI Act

The government has vetoed the release of the cabinet minutes leading up to the Iraq war in 2003. Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary today (24 Feb) issued the first certificate under section 53 of the FOI Act overruling the Information Tribunal's decision of 27 January 2008 that the balance of public interest favoured releasing the minutes. The Tribunal's decision upheld an earlier ruling by the Information Commissioner.

In an oral statement in the House of Commons, the Justice Secretary said:
Mr Speaker, to permit the Commissioner’s and Tribunal’s view of the public interest to prevail would in my judgement risk serious damage to Cabinet government; an essential principle of British Parliamentary democracy. That eventuality is not in the public interest.
In response, the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, said:
My decision to order disclosure of the Cabinet minutes was made under the Freedom of Information Act on public interest grounds. It was upheld by the Information Tribunal. It was made clear by the Tribunal and by me that this was an exceptional case.

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. 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 towards greater openness and transparency in government since the FOI Act came into force.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information said the decision was "an extremely retrograde step". It said the government should have abided by the Information Tribunal’s decision on the release of the cabinet minutes - or appealed against it, but not overruled it. The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said the Campaign “was concerned that having been used once, the veto might now be used in other cases involving the examination of policy at lower levels in government.”

The Campaign also expressed serious concern at the statement of Jack Straw that the government was actively considering widening some of the Freedom of Information Act’s exemptions, to make it easier to withhold official information.

The recent review of the 30 year rule, by a committee chaired by Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail, recommended that government records be released after 15 years instead of 30 years. However, the Dacre report also suggested that the government should consider amending the FOI Act’s exemptions to provide ‘enhanced protection’ for sensitive information.

Statement of Reasons by Jack Straw, Justice Secretary
Oral Statement in the House of Commons
Section 53 Certificate
ICO statement on key Cabinet minutes veto
Full CFOI press release

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