BBC BLOGS - Open Secrets
« Previous | Main | Next »

Cabinet minutes - available soon?

Martin Rosenbaum | 16:16 UK time, Tuesday, 26 February 2008

In March 2003, shortly before the Iraq war, Clare Short turned up at a cabinet meeting to find Robin Cook wasn't there because he'd resigned. 'He's gone', she was told. 'Oh my God', she replied.

We know this from Alastair Campbell's published diaries, which provide a brief account of the meeting. Campbell also records that John Prescott and John Reid 'looked physically sick' when Short, uneasy at the prospect of war, told the meeting that she was going to do a 'little agonising overnight'.

According to Campbell's version, a succession of other colleagues expressed support for Blair. But what do the official minutes of the meeting say? It's possible we may now get to see them, thanks to a decision today from the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas.

Thomas has ruled that the government should release the minutes of two cabinet meetings held in March 2003 which discussed the legal position on the imminent Iraq war.

This is the first time that the Commissioner has ruled that cabinet minutes should be made public. This precedent will be very unwelcome for the Cabinet Office. There are lots of other freedom of information requests for cabinet minutes in the pipeline, and this increases the chance that in other cases he will also demand disclosure.

However the Commissioner's decision makes clear that his ruling is very dependent on the circumstances of this case - the 'gravity and controversial nature' of the subject matter and the 'widespread view that the justification for the decision on military action in Iraq is either not fully understood or that the public were not given the full or genuine reasons for that decision'. He may reach a different conclusion on other cabinet minutes.

The government will doubtless appeal the case to the Information Trbunal and possibly further. The Cabinet Office has as a mattter of principle strongly opposed the release of any cabinet minutes in response to FOI requests, on the grounds that it would inhibit frank discussion in cabinet and undermine the principle of collective responsibility for ministers. I am sure the government will want to keep fighting this case rather than give in at this stage and release the papers now.

That process of legal challenge will take some time. The person who asked for this information has already had to wait 14 months since the initial request and will certainly have to wait longer. On the other hand, delays can be worse. One of my complaints to the Information Commissioner about cabinet minutes has still not been dealt with, even though I lodged it in 2005.

In any case the official minutes of the meeting may provide a very limited, spartan summary of proceedings (and the Commissioner has indicated that some parts could be held back because their publication would damage international relations). The full details of argument at a cabinet meeting are recorded by the cabinet secretary (then Sir Andrew Turnbull) in his hand-written notebook, and releasing that is a different matter altogether. I wonder if Sir Andrew noted the fact that around the table some ministers present appeared on the verge of throwing up on hearing the concerns of a colleague?

UPDATE: The Information Commissioner's Office says that it is currently considering four other cases relating to minutes of cabinet meetings.

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 08:21 PM on 26 Feb 2008,
  • Joseph (Maastricht) wrote:


Is it possible that the BBC could stop plugging Campbells books?, first we have to put up with Newsnight using the normal section of the show rather than the Review part to plug his latest fictional works, now even your blog is plugging his latest money grabbing work of fiction.

  • 2.
  • At 09:18 PM on 26 Feb 2008,
  • Christopher Lamb wrote:

As the person who made this Freedom of Information request, I need to correct your statement that it took 14 months for it to be brought to a conclusion.

In fact, the original request was made in February 2005 and got bogged down in a sterile dispute with the Cabinet Office over whether Christopher Greenwood QC was an "adviser" or "assistant" to the Attorney General in drafting his legal advice.

It was only after the Information Tribunal ruled in November 2006 that the Cabinet Office had not taken sufficient steps to comprehend my question that I redrafted it in the form ruled upon by the Information Commissioner on 19 February.

It has taken about three years to get this request through.

My purpose in making the FOI request was both to (hopefully) arrive at a better version of the truth about the content of decision making in Cabinet over the last days before the Iraq invasion was authorized, and to test the specifications of the Section 35 exemption.

In other words, I wanted to test whether deliberation on grave issues of war was "free and frank" and whether decision making showed rationality and was of a "high quality".

If the disclosures show such not to have been the case- indicating that the Cabinet failed in its duty to be a constraint upon Prime Ministerial power in declaring war- surely this is an important thing for the public to know!

  • 3.
  • At 09:47 PM on 26 Feb 2008,
  • Christopher Lamb wrote:

As the author of this Freedom of Information request, I should make clear that I requested "Cabinet minutes and records relating to meetings...held from 7 to 17 March.."

and "specifically, records, in paper and electronic data form, of Cabinet deliberations..."etc.

My request covers a more comprehensive range of information than formal minutes about these meetings.

This will be a point I will impress upon the Information Commissioner's Office if the matter goes to the Information Tribunal.

  • 4.
  • At 11:48 AM on 27 Feb 2008,
  • Pig Man Pig wrote:

I hope that this request of yours does help to drives in a wedge and shed some light on the way we were taken into a, in my opinion, dubious war. Having to rely on Alastair Campbell etc. for enlightenment is definitely not ideal.

This post is closed to new comments.

More from this blog...

Latest contributors

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.