Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Release of Iraq war minutes vetoed.

There really is nothing more nauseating than politicians pretending to be holding on to some high moral principle when, in actuality, they are simply avoiding something embarrassing for political expediency.

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, had ordered the release of the minutes of two meetings which took place in the cabinet room in the run up to the Iraq war, arguing that their publication was in the public interest. The meetings, on 13 and 17 March 2003, are the ones where the decision was made for the British government to join the US in invading Iraq. Thomas's decision was supported by an independent tribunal last month.

But, for the first time, the government are to veto the release of these minutes, despite the Information Commissioner's decision. But it's the reasons given by Jack Straw that make me want to barf:

The Government has decided to make use of "Section 53" of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, allowing it to veto the release of the documents. The clause was added to the Act as a way of placating ministers who wanted final control over the release of sensitive documents.

Using the power, rather than challenging the tribunal's decision at the High Court, makes it almost impossible for campaigners to overturn the veto. They can now only challenge it by seeking a judicial review.

The Government decided to issue the veto during Monday's cabinet meeting in Southampton. The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, said
releasing the minutes risked doing "serious damage" to the frank discussions that take place around the cabinet table.

"There is a balance to be struck between openness and maintaining aspects of our structure of democratic government," he said.

"The convention of cabinet confidentiality and the public interest in its maintenance are especially crucial when the issues at hand are of the greatest importance and sensitivity."

What spurious nonsense. Almost every cabinet member who writes an autobiography tells stories of who said what at cabinet meetings. The notion that they would be reticent to give their opinions if they knew that what they were saying might one day become public is simply nonsensical on it's face, because any cabinet member with a functioning brain cell would know that there is every chance that what they are saying will one day be made public.

Tony Benn has filled volumes of his diaries with tales of what transpired in cabinet meetings and both Claire Short and David Blunkett have already written about what took place in cabinet in the run up to this decision being reached. If there was a danger that their reminiscing might cause future cabinet members to be less than frank then what they had written would never have been published and would be banned under the official secrets act.

The truth is that there are only two cabinet meetings that Straw and others wish to prevent ever becoming public, and those are the meetings on 13 and 17 March 2003, when the cabinet made the immensely costly and foolish decision to join the US on it's Iraqi misadventure.

That's simply about avoiding political embarrassment and has nothing to do with whatever noble excuse about "cabinet confidentiality" Straw wishes to hide behind.

David Howarth, the Liberal Democrats' justice spokesman, said that by using the emergency veto power instead of appealing through the courts, the Government was "silencing opposition" to its decision "by decree".

"We need to learn the lessons, and we need to learn them as quickly as possible. That is why these Cabinet minutes should be released," he said. "This decision has more to do with preventing embarrassment than protecting the system of government," he said.

The ban was criticised by MPs in all parties. Tony Wright, the Labour chairman of the Public Administration Committee, said it was of "considerable regret that this veto has been used for the first time". He added: "Won't the effect be simply to confirm people in the belief that there is something in that period that needs to be hidden?"

Liberal Democrat MP Sir Menzies Campbell said: "This is a Government which, when introducing measures to limit personal freedom, says that those that have nothing to hide should have nothing to fear.

"If the process of reaching the decision to embark upon an illegal war against Iraq is still supported by the Government, why haven't they the courage to let us see the minutes of the Cabinet?"

Campbell is right. By the logic they always employ, they should have nothing to fear, unless they have something to hide.

But it's the pretence that they are defending some noble cabinet tradition that I find simply insulting. The sooner we have a full public inquiry into the run up to the Iraq war the better. It's a disgrace that, five years after the start of the war, they have still never had to answer for what they did.

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