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Straw slaps ban on Iraq debate docs

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When the government decided not to appeal the Information Tribunal's order to release Cabinet minutes related to the invasion of Iraq it seemed like a victory for open, transparent government. It wasn't.

Instead of making a legal appeal against the decision Jack Straw has opted to simply veto the decision.

Justice Minister Jack Straw issued a certificate under section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act.

Straw said: "The effect of my certificate is that the disputed information - these Cabinet Minutes relating to Iraq - will not be disclosed."

"The conclusion I have reached has rested on the assessment of the public interest in disclosure and in non-disclosure of these Cabinet minutes. I have placed a copy of that certificate, and a detailed statement of the reasons for my decision in the Libraries of both Houses. I have also published today the criteria against which I decided to exercise the veto in this case."

In a closely argued decision the ICO originally ruled in favour of releasing the minutes of Cabinet discussions on the invasion of Iraq despite opposing arguments that Cabinet collective responsibility would be damaged by such a move. Collective responsibility is the convention that after open argument within Cabinet all members then publicly support the joint decision.

The ICO said it supported collective responsibility and appreciated the importance of free debate within Cabinet but that these considerations were 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."

Straw said he did not accept the rationale that the momentous nature of the decision increased the strength of arguments in favour of disclosing the documents.

For his part the increasingly irrelevant Information Commissioner Richard Thomassaid anything other than exceptional use of the veto powers would "undermine much of the progress made towards greater openess and transparency in government since the FOI Act came into force." Thomas said he would look at Straw's decision and put a report before Parliament.

The ICO decision was upheld by the first line of appeal - the Information Tribunal which said the minutes should be released albeit with some information redacted.®

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