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ICO tells Cabinet Office to release Iraq docs

Cabinet Office: 'Meh'

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The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has told the Cabinet Office that it must release documents relating to Cabinet debates over the invasion of Iraq.

The order refers to discussions between 7 and 17 March 2003 when the Attorney General's advice on the legality of any invasion was discussed. This decision potentially goes against the convention of cabinet collective responsibility; the idea that once a Cabinet decision has been reached then all members will publicly defend that decision, regardless of whether they originally, privately, supported it or not.

But the ICO does not believe its decision in this case will set a precedent for other Cabinet minutes.

A statement from the Cabinet Office leaves open the possibility of appeal: "We have received the ICO decision notice which we are considering. The requirement for openess and transparency must be balanced against the proper and effective function of government. At the very heart of that system is the constitutional convention of collective Cabinet responsibility."

But the ICO decision makes clear that these arguments have been considered. The decision notes both "the importance of the Cabinet's ability to freely consider the most important and sensitive policy issues without inhibition", and "that protecting the convention of Cabinet collective responsibility is a strong factor in favour of witholding Cabinet minutes".

Both these considerations are outweighed by the public interest because of:

"The gravity and controversial nature of the subject matter, Accountability of government decisions, Transparency of decision making, Public participation in government decisions."

For all these reasons the ICO believes the Cabinet Office should release the documents. However the ICO does allow for the non-disclosure of "a number of specific references... likely to have a detrimental effect on international relations." These can be kept secret.

The full ICO decision notice is here (pdf). ®

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