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24 Feb 2009 : Column 151

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the House should know as quickly as possible whether the person who returned to the UK yesterday was tortured and, if so, whether it was with the knowledge and support of British officials? Indeed, if the latter were the case, it would be a disgrace and those responsible should be brought to justice. When will the Attorney-General report? I understand that this has been with her since last October.

David Miliband: I entirely share my hon. Friend’s view that this country rightly has very high standards. We unreservedly condemn torture. We never collude or co-operate with torture, and where there are any allegations, we take them extremely seriously and ensure that they are independently investigated. The precise point about an independent investigation by the Attorney-General is that I do not tell her when to come to conclusions. It must be right that the Attorney General, with the Director of Public Prosecutions, should be able to conclude her inquiries. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is right: in general, everybody wants that to happen as soon as possible. However, it must be for the Attorney-General to set her own timetable.

T5. [257942] Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My Bill, the European Union (Audit of Benefits and Costs of UK Membership) Bill, is due for Second Reading this Friday. It is warmly supported by my party’s Front Benchers, and by the Liberal Democrats. Why do the Government not support that essential tool of democracy and accountability?

Caroline Flint: I look forward to debating the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, should we make progress on Friday. We are happy to debate the costs and benefits of European Union membership, but we do not see the need for the expense or bureaucracy of a commission that would do that. There is plenty of material—more than most people want in a lifetime—available on the costs and benefits of EU membership. Also, we should not see our EU membership only in terms of economic costs and benefits, important though they are; it is also about the security that the EU gives us, and the peace that it has provided for us over many years.

T8. [257945] Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State accept that a fair and just settlement in the middle east will require the involvement of all the surrounding Arab states, especially in relation to the benefits for Israel? What will he do, in his upcoming visit to Cairo, to advance the cause of the Arab peace initiative?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes a very important point; in the end, the Arab states are vital to giving security to Israel, and vital to supporting a future Palestinian state. As I said earlier, a regional solution must be pursued in the middle east—a so-called 23-state solution, not simply a two-state solution. Certainly, that is what the UK Government argue strongly, not just with Egyptian colleagues, whom I will meet soon, but across the region.

T6. [257943] Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The Government recently changed their long-held historical position on Tibet. They gave the Chinese authorities
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what they wanted in respect of Tibet, but appeared to secure no concessions in return. Will the Foreign Secretary and his team accept that it is important to make progress in that country? Chinese assurances are not sufficient; we need proper action, including proper access for the Red Cross and others to what is happening in a very difficult situation.

Bill Rammell: I say to the hon. Gentleman, who I know takes a real interest in the issue, that it is right that we press the Chinese authorities. The Prime Minister raised the issue of Tibet in a recent state visit. When I was in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, I had detailed discussions about Tibet with the lead negotiator on the Chinese side. I strongly argued that there needs to be a settlement that is negotiated with the representatives of the Dalai Lama. That is our position, and we will continue to argue it strongly.

T9. [257947] Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I have just returned from taking part in an excellent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Zambia, in which Zambian parliamentarians made clear to me the importance of, and the value that they place on, their role as members of the Commonwealth. Will the Under-Secretary of State tell the House what attitude the British Government take towards the application of countries such as Angola and Rwanda to join the Commonwealth, and what progress is being made on that front?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): My hon. Friend is right about the Commonwealth. In its 60th year it is right that we celebrate its many achievements and look forward to the next 60 years and beyond. We are supportive of Rwanda’s application. We are not aware of an application by Angola, but of course the Commonwealth is not a closed club, and we are keen to see applications where that will further support and strengthen the Commonwealth.

T7. [257944] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the new Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai, and will he waste no time in opening a dialogue with him? Does he not agree that it is an absolute disgrace that Mugabe continues to imprison Movement for Democratic Change activists, as well as imprisoning, and holding without trial, one of the MDC Cabinet appointees, Roy Bennett?

David Miliband: Yes, it is welcome that Morgan Tsvangirai is now the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, but it is far from welcome that he does not yet have all the Executive powers that should go with that office. It is particularly galling that some aspects of the agreement that he signed have not been fulfilled, notably in respect of the distribution of portfolios between the parties to the agreement. The hon. Gentleman is also right to raise the case of Roy Bennett, the Deputy Agriculture Minister, and the charges that have been laid against him. We have been clear that we will not only continue our humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe, but stand ready to engage in a massive reconstruction effort, but that must be on the basis of clean politics, an end to violence and an economic approach that benefits the people of Zimbabwe, rather than the cronies of Robert Mugabe.

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Freedom of Information Act 2000

3.35 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the use of the ministerial veto under section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act, in respect of minutes of two Cabinet meetings in March 2003 relating to Iraq.

I need first to set out some background. The Freedom of Information Act has profoundly changed the relationship between citizens, and their elected representatives and the media on the one hand, and the Government and public authorities on the other. It has, as intended, made the Executive far more open and accountable. The Act provides a regime for freedom of information which is one of the most open and rigorous in the world.

The Act was the subject of almost three years’ intensive debate, by which the original scheme of the Bill was much improved and strengthened. As initially proposed, decisions of the Information Commissioner would in law have been heavily persuasive, but not binding on Ministers. This reflected the regimes in other countries, such as Canada. In the event, however, that scheme was replaced by a much tougher one.

There was, however, a key balancing measure written into the Act, and accepted by Parliament. This was to provide, in section 53, that in specific circumstances Ministers and certain others could override a decision of the commissioner or tribunal requiring the release of information, if they believed on reasonable grounds that the decision to withhold the information was in accordance with the requirements of the Act. At the time of the passage of the Bill, Ministers in both Houses provided reassurance about the use of this veto. It would not be commonplace. Undertakings were also given that, although section 53 required and requires a certificate by a single Cabinet Minister or Law Officer, any use of the veto would be subject to prior Cabinet consideration.

The Act came into force on 1 January 2005. From then until September 2008, in approximately 78,000 cases where the requested information was held by Government Departments, it has been released in full. Before the Act, some of it would not have been released for 30 years. Since 2006, the Information Commissioner has dealt with more than 1,500 cases involving Government Departments, and the Information Tribunal has dealt with more than 50 such cases. But no section 53 veto has been used to date.

In December 2006, the Cabinet Office received a freedom of information request for Cabinet minutes and records relating to the meetings that it held between 7 and 17 March 2003, where the Attorney-General’s legal advice concerning military action against Iraq was considered and discussed. There were two such meetings, on 13 and 17 March. The Cabinet Office refused the request, citing the Act’s exemptions for information relating to policy development and ministerial communications. In keeping with its statutory obligations, the Cabinet Office had considered the public interest in releasing the information, but found twice, on balance, that there was a greater public interest in withholding it.

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The applicant duly exercised his right to ask the Information Commissioner to investigate the handling of his request. In February 2008 the commissioner reasoned, for the first time, that Cabinet minutes—these ones—should be released. The Cabinet Office appealed the commissioner’s decision to the Information Tribunal.

On 27 January 2009, the tribunal published its decision. The tribunal was unanimous in deciding that the informal notes of the Cabinet meetings should be withheld. But, by a majority of two to one, it decided that the public interest balance fell in favour of release of the minutes. It therefore upheld the decision of the Information Commissioner ordering information to be disclosed, subject to some minor redactions.

Following that decision, and having taken the view of Cabinet, I have today issued a certificate under section 53 of the Act in an appropriate form and consistent with the Act, the effect of which is that these Cabinet minutes will not now be disclosed. The conclusion that I have reached rests on the assessment of the public interest in disclosure and non-disclosure. I have laid a copy of my certificate, and a detailed statement of the reasons for my decision, in the Libraries of both Houses. My decision was made in accordance with the Government’s policy criteria, which are annexed to my statement of reasons. Copies of these documents have been sent to the requester and are available in the Vote Office.

To permit the commissioner’s and the tribunal’s view of the public interest to prevail would, in my judgment, risk serious damage to Cabinet government—an essential principle of British parliamentary democracy. That eventuality is not in the public interest. Cabinet is the pinnacle of the decision-making machinery of government. It is the forum in which debates on the issues of greatest significance and complexity are conducted. Whether the nation was to take military action was indisputably of the utmost seriousness. However, I disagree with the reasoning of the majority of the tribunal. In their decision, they refer to the “momentous” nature of the decision taken and to the public interest in understanding the approach to that decision and in the accountability of those who took the decision. They then say:

of the tribunal—

But in my judgment, that analysis is not correct. 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. Indeed, the minority view of the tribunal—that the minutes should be withheld—was formulated on this basis. It stated:

It continued:

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Responsibility for Cabinet decisions is with the Government as a whole, not with individual Ministers; that remains the first principle of the ministerial code. The conventions of Cabinet confidentiality and of collective responsibility do not exist as a convenience for Ministers. They are crucial to the accountability of the Executive to Parliament and to the people.

The concomitant of collective responsibility is that debate is conducted confidentially. Confidentiality serves to promote thorough decision making. Disclosure of the Cabinet minutes in this case jeopardises that space for thought and debate at precisely the point where it has its greatest utility. In short, the damage that disclosure of the minutes in this instance would do far outweighs any corresponding public interest in their disclosure.

What the minutes principally record is the deliberations of Cabinet in reaching its decisions. The actual decision that was made at the later Cabinet, on 17 March, was made public straight away, when I as Foreign Secretary conveyed it to the House in an oral statement within three hours of the Cabinet coming to that conclusion. In that statement, I recounted the recent history leading up to Cabinet’s decision, and I brought to the House’s attention the information that had that day been made available to the House, in order better to inform the following day’s debate.

Despite the powers under the royal prerogative, we put the use of force to a debate on a substantive motion the next day. In opening that debate, our then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, spelt out in considerable detail the reasons for the Cabinet’s decision. The debate ranged across the history of non-compliance of Saddam’s regime, the negotiating history of the two UN resolutions in the run-up to military action, our discussions with allies, and much else besides. I ended that debate by fully setting out the factors that the Government and Parliament had considered and should bear in mind in voting on the substantive motion before them.

The Government subsequently released the Attorney-General’s legal advice. Furthermore, on 25 May 2006 a full disclosure statement was published by the then Attorney-General which set out in considerable detail the considerations taken into account as he reached his opinion on the legality of military action.

A number of inquiries have been conducted. There was the Hutton inquiry into the death of David Kelly, and there was the Butler review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Both those inquiries published detailed reports on aspects of the decision to take military action, and we have acted on their recommendations. There has been yet more scrutiny of the decision by Parliament itself, including by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which published its report on weapons of mass destruction, and both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Defence Committee have investigated the matter on a number of occasions.

In summary, the decision to take military action has been examined with a fine-toothed comb; we have been held to account for it in this House and elsewhere. We have done much to meet the public interest in openness and accountability. But the duty to advance that interest further cannot supplant the public interest in maintaining the integrity of our system of government. The decision to exercise the veto has been subject to much thought,
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and it will doubtless—and rightly so—be the object of much scrutiny. I have not taken it lightly, but it is a necessary decision to protect the public interest in effective Cabinet government.

Shortly after he became Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister established a high-level inquiry into the 30-year rule under the chairmanship of Mr. Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail. That report, published last month, proposed a reduction from 30 to 15 years of the time after which Cabinet minutes and other papers would automatically be released. I have already told the House that the Government favour a substantial reduction in the 30-year limit. In that context, the report also recommended that we consider protection under the Act for certain categories of information.

There is a balance to be struck between openness and maintaining aspects of our system of democratic government. This tension is recognised in the fundamental framework of the Freedom of Information Act—and that Act, and much else that we have done, stand testament to the far greater openness and accountability secured under this Government. I commend my statement to the House.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I first thank the Secretary of State for giving me prior sight of his statement.

The Secretary of State’s decision to use his powers of veto in this case classically illustrates what has been wrong with the Government’s approach to freedom of information and good governance generally. The public have had their expectations about openness raised by Labour’s spin and propaganda, only to be brought down to earth by the intrusion of the realities of government. Meanwhile, the inquiry that ought to take place into the origins of the Iraq war has been denied them.

May I first ask the Secretary of State whether there are any circumstances in which this decision of his might be further challenged in the courts?

One must have some sympathy for the Secretary of State. He was, after all, the architect of the Freedom of Information Act, which he is now trying to circumvent. As Foreign Secretary, he was a party to the decision to go to war. Indeed, he was the man who introduced the veto that he now intends to use. Does he recall the words at that time of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), who said that that veto basically allowed the Home Secretary, as he then was,

Does the Secretary of State appreciate how it will appear to the public for someone so closely involved in the key decisions to be now personally blocking the release of that information?

Is it not also the case that the Government’s self-righteous tone of protecting the public interest is fatally undermined by their past behaviour in releasing information—such as the Conservative Cabinet documents on the exchange rate mechanism—when it suited them, for reasons of the most blatant political advantage?

We are talking about Cabinet minutes and issues of the utmost national interest. As the Secretary of State has told the House that any use of the veto is subject to prior Cabinet consideration and agreement, should it not in fact be for the Prime Minister to justify this decision to Parliament, instead of playing his all-too-usual Macavity role and vanishing at this deeply embarrassing moment?

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