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Iraq Cabinet minutes FOI case

Martin Rosenbaum | 11:10 UK time, Monday, 24 November 2008

Tomorrow the Information Tribunal will start hearing a freedom of information case about cabinet minutes that could have major repercussions for the impact of FOI. It is being treated with great importance both within government and within the Information Commissioner's Office.

The case concerns the records of cabinet meetings in March 2003 which considered legal advice on the imminent invasion of Iraq.

The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas ruled earlier this year that the formal minutes of these meetings should be revealed. The Cabinet Office is now appealing against this to the Tribunal.

Richard Thomas however decided not to support the disclosure of the notebook in which the Cabinet Secretary records discussion during the meetings. The Tribunal will also consider this material, which may be more detailed.

The significance the government attaches to this hearing is clear from the fact that they have decided that the Cabinet Secretary himself Sir Gus O'Donnell will give evidence to argue that releasing these minutes could impede free and frank discussion in the future. The Information Commissioner's Office is planning to have the distinguished Whitehall historian Prof Peter Hennessy give evidence on their side.

There are numerous other cases about Cabinet minutes still under consideration by the Information Commissioner. This hearing could set an informal and influential precedent, although each FOI application has to be decided on its individual circumstances and the Commissioner is arguing that 'release of these two specific and unusual sets of Cabinet minutes would not in itself undermine the convention of Cabinet collective responsibility'.

If the Tribunal rejects the government's appeal, Ministers are most unlikely to give in at that stage. They could either use a special provision of the FOI Act to overrule the Tribunal for the first time, or they could appeal to the High Court.


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