The decision of the Justice Secretary Jack Straw to use the "ministerial veto" to block the release of the minutes of key cabinet meetings in the run up to the Iraq war is a significant development for freedom of information in the UK.
The Information Tribunal had ordered the government to publish minutes of cabinet meetings of 13 and 17 March 2003 at which the legality of the war was discussed [pdf link]. This followed an earlier decision by the Information Commissioner that the minutes should be published [pdf link].
Both the Tribunal and the Commissioner argued that this is an exceptional case where it would be in the public interest for cabinet minutes to be published, but Jack Straw argued that publication would damage cabinet government.
Straw stressed that this is the first time in the four years since the FOI law came into effect that the ministerial veto has been used, and he maintained that its use would be rare.
But there are concerns among FOI campaigners that this sets a precedent and the veto may become more common (as highlighted on this blog in January). In this context it is interesting to note that the Conservatives backed Straw's decision to use the veto.
In other countries with FOI laws, the ministerial veto has been used with some regularity once first deployed. As noted by the Constitution Unit [pdf link] it has been used most heavily in Australia - 55 vetoes were issued in Australia between 1983 and 1987, and 14 by the Howard government between 1996 and 2007, while in New Zealand the veto was used 14 times in the first four years.