UK Politics

Doubting Thomas

The decision by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, to order publication of minutes pertaining to two Cabinet meetings in the weeks before the start of the war in Iraq, is both perverse in the extreme and potentially disastrous for the future of government by Cabinet.

Thomas’ judgment finds that although documents related to the “formulation of policy” are exempt from disclosure under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the public interest in disclosing the minutes wins out. This “need not” set any precedent, we’re told.

A decision on whether to take military action against another country is so important that accountability . . . is paramount . . . the process by which the Government reached its decision adds to the public interest in maximum transparency.”

So the more important the decision made, the greater the public interest and, naturally, the more weight should be given to any call for disclosure. This is the logic that underpins Thomas’ decision, a consequence of which will be to encourage less Cabinet dialogue and not more. And the more important the decision, the less Cabient dialogue we should expect in future. So much for “transparency”.

A PM and his Cabinet must be permitted to debate and reach their policy decisions as a government and stand or fall on the merits of each. Accountability is found at the ballot box.

Ed Davey, Foreign Affairs spokesman for the Lib Dems, can scarcely contain his glee. Once more, disagreements about the necessity for war in Iraq are permitted to cloud the judgment of those who ought to know better. Were it not for the fact the Lib Dems will never get within sniffing distance of a Cabinet meeting, I would tell Davey to be careful what he wishes for. Thomas’ decision is in the interest of politicised hacks and Westminster village commentators, but certainly not the general public or any politician aspiring to power.

The government will appeal and, if it comes to it, a Ministerial veto will ensure these documents remain secret for the remainder of the 30 year rule on disclosure. In wielding such a veto, the government will be defending the concept of collective Cabinet responsibility and, in so doing, will perform a far greater public service than Thomas’ crass, irrational, headline-grabbing judgment.

Such a conclusion is neither predicated on support for the war in Iraq, nor precluded by opposition to it. At least, it ought not to be.