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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The public interest and the cabinet room.

Serious students of the Westminster system of government might be surprised to learn that in the UK, the home of the system, information about the goings-on in the cabinet room are not subject to a specific exemption under the Freedom of Information Act, as is the case here where inputs into cabinet decision making, deliberations and decisions are exempt without the need to demonstrate harm or satisfy any public interest test. In the UK, cabinet documents are only exempt to the extent that any requested documents, if disclosed, would reveal information relating to “formulation of government policy” or “ministerial communications” but subject to a public interest test to assess whether the need for confidentiality trumped the public interest in disclosure.

So a lot of interest this week as Sir Gus O’Donnell, the head of the Civil Service, leads a last-ditch attempt to block the release of minutes of Cabinet meetings in the run-up to the war in Iraq.Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner had ordered the Prime Minister's Office to release copies of Cabinet minutes and records relating to meetings held between March 7 and 17, 2003.Details of the meetings would reveal the Attorney-General’s legal advice on the war and the positions of individual Cabinet ministers as well as the strength of internal opposition within the Government to the March 20 invasion.(Update:according to this summary of what Sir Gus said in evidence yesterday views are not attributed to individuals in the minutes other than the PM summing up. "That’s not to say someone wouldn’t be able to work out who said what." The summary provides some interesting insights.)

Mr Thomas had ruled that “a decision on whether to take military action against another country is so important that accountability for such decision-making is paramount” and that the public interest in disclosure outweighed other factors.Sir Gus is appealing the decision.

This Timesonline report gives further details.

Would never happen here- there is no public interest test in any of our FOI acts when it comes to cabinet documents. The only way to learn how big decisions are made by some governments is not through the Freedom of Information Act, but to tune into ABC TV's The Howard Years where former Foreign Minister Downer told us last Monday( Episode 2) that he and Howard used to often just get together to sort out the big foreign policy issues without bothering to run them by the cabinet. You can see why we need an absolute barrier to knowing what goes in the Cabinet room, at least for 30 years after decisions are taken.

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