There’s news today that Jack Straw has exercised his powers to block the Information Tribunal even considering an appeal about an application to obtain minutes of the Cabinet’s DSWR committee on devolution in 1997. The Ministry of Justice’s press statement on the matter is available here.
Some years ago I sought a much less sensitive piece of information: simply to verify the dates of meetings of DSWR during 1997. It met very intensively in the first couple of months of the new Labour government, as issues like the legal powers of the devolved bodies, or how they would engage with the European Union, were thrashed out. I had previously considered seeking the minutes, but decided there wasn’t a hope of getting them and decided instead to seek an innocuous piece of information that I could see no substantive ground for withholding. Even this modest request was rejected by Cabinet Office officials, and regrettably I didn’t have the time to pursue it then. The line taken in the letter refusing my request, if I recall aright, was that this information fell within the exemptions in sections 35 and 36 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (relating to the formulation of government policy, and matters prejudicial to the conduct of public affairs).
It’s not innately surprising that the UK Government seeks to keep Cabinet minutes secret. To those within government, the minutes are seen as the most sensitive piece of information, whose confidentiality is central to the principle of collective responsibility. The Government is clearly very unhappy about seeing these disclosed sooner than the 30 years currently required (although a reduction to 15 years was recommended by a review chaired by Paul Dacre that reported in January 2009; the report is available here). While Cabinet minutes weren’t explicitly excluded by the sections 35 and 36 exemptions, government clearly expected they would be in practice. It’s therefore intriguing that Jack Straw doesn’t feel confident that the Information Tribunal would share that view, and has sought to pre-empt its decision by his action. However, given what we have learned about problems with the introduction of the Sewel convention in 1997-9 from another (limited) FoI disclosure, one wonders if there are specific reasons of substance rather than just the general principle at work here.
UPDATE: This has been widely covered in today’s papers, including in the Western Mail here (quoting me), and most fully in the Scotsman here. I find the Scotsman‘s categorisation of the stance of some ministers at the time quite baffling – Prescott, Blunkett and indeed Lord Irvine all had concerns about aspects of the plans, according to my information, and weren’t unequivocal ‘supporters of devolution’, even if they were also committed to delivering Labour’s manifesto commitments. I also find the suggestion that Straw has used his powers to avoid personal embarrassment baffling and misplaced.
FURTHER UPDATE: Saturday’s Western Mail reports interesting comments by Ron Davies on this issue here. Ron – as one of those affected – was consulted by Cabinet Office about the request for disclosure, and could see no objection to doing so.