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Significant Information Tribunal decision

Jane Ashley | 16:56 UK time, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Information Tribunal's decision, announced today, to uphold the ruling by the Information Commissioner [77Kb pdf] that minutes of cabinet meetings from 2003 should be released is a highly significant development. It could even lead to the first instance of ministers using their right of veto to block an FOI disclosure. [Update: Read the decision here [2Mb pdf] and see Nick Robinson's post; also an article by Jeremy Hayes here.]

The decision refers to meetings that discussed the the attorney-general's legal advice about the Iraq war. But the particular significance from an FOI point of view is in the precedents that this case may create.

Some are asking whether it is a green light for the release of other cabinet minutes. The Tribunal says not necessarily - under the FOI Act, every case has to be assessed on its own merits. But it may pave the way for a potentially more important precedent.

The government has argued that releasing such minutes would impede proper recording of free and frank discussion within cabinet. It is likely to resist the ruling, either by appealing to the High Court or by using the ministerial right to veto a Tribunal decision for the first time.

To use the veto will cause a big fuss - but the government could see this as a strong case for doing so, then making it easier to do so again on future occasions once a precedent has been established. That is why some FOI campaigners have been feeling rather uneasy about this case, fearing that this Tribunal decision in favour of greater openness could, ironically, turn out to be a setback for their cause.

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