Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Last month the UK Information Tribunal ordered the release of Cabinet minutes relating the decision to invade Iraq. The ruling was hailed as a victory for freedom of information and as proof that the UK's Freedom of Information Act was working properly in enabling the government to be held to account by the public. But now, Justice Secretary Jack Straw has vetoed release, claiming that it would not be in the public interest.

This has been met with a certain amount of cynicism. After all, the public has shown a great deal of interest in these documents, and in what they show about the way the Cabinet system broke down in the lead-up to Iraq. It's also very easy for politicians to conflate their own interests with those of the public - particularly when they could end up in the dock in The Hague for initiating a war of aggression if these documents are released. And that latter point is precisely why the public interest in these documents is so overwhelming: so that Tony Blair and the other war criminals who criminally ordered the invasion of Iraq can be held to account, either legally or democratically.

But now, thanks to the veto, the documents will not see the light of day for 30 years - by which time everyone involved will be dead or senile, and there will be no hope for justice. Unless, of course, some public spirited individual leaks them...

Oh, and for the curious, New Zealand's Official Information Act likewise has a veto clause, allowing the Governor-General (which in practice means Cabinet) to overrule an Ombudsman's recommendation to release by Order-in-Council. But they have to give reasons, which can in turn be judicially reviewed by the High Court. It has never been used. An earlier version of the clause, which allowed Ministers to veto release for any reason (rather than simply those considered earlier in the process) was used 14 times between 1983 and 1987, but a change in the law and strong public support for disclosure has put an end to it. Which points to the way forward in the UK: the electorate has to make it clear to politicians that vetoing a FOIA decision will have severe political consequences, and punish those responsible for this abuse. But given the UK's unfair electoral system, such a message may have little chance of getting through.