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ICO says publish Westland cabinet minutes

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Martin Rosenbaum | 10:26 UK time, Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The government has been told to disclose the official minutes of the controversial cabinet meeting in 1986 at which Michael Heseltine suddenly and dramatically resigned as Margaret Thatcher's defence secretary.

Michael Heseltine

The Information Commissioner's Office has overruled the government's refusal to publish this material, in a case which has been fought for nearly five years.

This stems from a freedom of information application I made to the Cabinet Office in February 2005. After the government rejected my request, I appealed to the ICO in September 2005.

The commissioner has now issued a decision notice instructing ministers to release the minutes. The four years and three months the ICO spent assessing the complaint meant that it was the third-oldest case listed in its latest published caseload [152Kb PDF].

Micheal HeseltineIn January 1986, Michael Heseltine stunned his colleagues by walking out of cabinet and announcing his resignation to a television camera as he emerged from 10 Downing Street. This followed an increasingly tense dispute between him and the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over the future of the struggling Westland helicopter company, which burst out into an argument about style of government. The ensuing row nearly finished her premiership.

In the ruling, the Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith states that:

"[T]he release of this information would help to remove uncertainties and controversies over the historical events surrounding the public resignation of a senior government minister".

He argues that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the need to preserve cabinet collective responsibility in this case, particularly since several ministers present have since published their own differing accounts of events at the meeting.

However, the ICO dismissed other parts of my request, which related to the detailed record taken by the cabinet secretary and minutes of other cabinet meetings that had discussed policy towards Westland.

The current government has strongly resisted the release of cabinet records under FOI, using the ministerial veto to block this in the case of discussions about the Iraq war and devolution policy.

However, it is not yet clear whether it will take a different attitude in this instance, since this information is now virtually 24 years old and the government has indicated its intention to cut the thirty-year-rule for the release of most Whitehall papers down to twenty years.

The decision notice also says the commissioner "very much regrets the inordinate delay" in the ICO's consideration of the case, which took over four years, while criticising the Cabinet Office for the time taken on its internal review of my request, which took four months.


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