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I know that my hon. Friend disagreesand he disagreed at the timewith the decision, but it was made in good faith and communicated immediately to the House with extensive explanation as to why the Cabinet had reached it. Insofar as the intelligence aspects of the war are concerned, they were thoroughly examined by the Butler inquiry. I come back to the point that I
have made this decision following discussion and deliberation in Cabinet in order to protect an essential component of our constitution.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): I was one who opposed the invasion of Iraq and I put it to the right hon. Gentleman, who was Foreign Secretary before the invasion, that it would be illegal under international law to invade without a second resolution from the United Nations. But I have never been an enthusiast for the Freedom of Information Act, largely for reasons of the working of Cabinet government and collective responsibility. The extraordinary thing about this particular case is that part of the then Attorney-Generals advice was made public and it has been discussedindeed, the right hon. Gentleman actually gave some indication of what was contained in it. However, the damaging aspect of this case is that the Attorney-General of the day changed his advice between the first of those Cabinet meetings and the second and he did so under political pressure. If he did that, it was utterly disgraceful.
Mr. Straw: The Attorney-General has explained how he came to that decision. His advice and his further explanation have already been available for two years. That is a further indication of the openness with which we have approached this issue.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): We need these minutes because Butler told us that the Cabinet was, in effect, dysfunctional. It did not get the papers that had been prepared by the Departments and Cabinet members did not have full knowledge of what they were being asked to decide. I ask my friend this: what is the point of having another inquiry on Iraq, as promised by the Prime Minister when our troops come home, if that inquiry does not have full access to all the Cabinet minutes and cannot take evidence on oath?
Mr. Straw: Were there to be an inquiryI have already referred to the comments made in the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Ministerit is almost certain that such an inquiry would indeed have access to all relevant documents, including Cabinet minutes, just as the Butler inquiry did, but that is a very different matter from whether those documents should be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Actvery different indeed.
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): The Justice Secretary will recall that I had the extreme pleasure of dealing with the Bill on behalf of the Opposition. I well recall that we warned that this eventuality might arise. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who sits on the Front Bench, made the point that Labour Back Benchers were most critical of that aspect of the Bill.
Putting that to one side, I, along with my hon. and learned Friend, agree that the Justice Secretary has made the right judgment, but the problem is with the legislation itself. Can I not encourage him to take advantage of the consensus that clearly exists between him and the major opposition party to put the matter right? I also reinforce the argument that the way to get
at that information is through a full inquiry into the reasons to go to war in Iraq, although we must preserve the opportunity for deliberations in Cabinet to remain secret if they are to be frank and candid.
Mr. Straw: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. He has the benefit of being correct and also consistent about this for more than 10 years. So far as an opportunity to look at the Act is concerned, recommendation 8.8 of the Dacre review said, as I indicated in my statement, that if the minimum period for the release of documents generally was reduced, as he recommended, from 30 years to 15, but even if it came down to, say 20, there would need to be consideration of changes to the Freedom of Information Act provision in this respect. We are actively considering that. I am happy to do it in conjunction and co-operation with the Opposition.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Has the Justice Secretary looked behind him to see that there are only two office holdersa Parliamentary Private Secretary and the Church Commissionerwho support him? Not a single one of his hon. Friends is here endorsing him today. Could it be that they are ashamed and embarrassed by this announcement? Will he not reflect on the fact, which really is breathtaking, that he, who clearly was one of the people who piloted this policy and persuaded usI remember him, as it is photographed on my mind, promising that we would get the second UN resolutionshould also decide that those documents should not be available? It is appalling.
I bear the scars of having trusted the Prime Minister on this matter and I shall take to the grave the fact that I regret having listened to the porky pies and the stories of the Intelligence and Security Committee and of the Prime Minister. I shall regret it to the day I die. I should never, ever have trusted them.
Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friends concern, but on the issue of whether it was correct for me to be the person who issued the certificate, I say to him that it is inevitable that, if the section 53 power is to be used in normal circumstances, a Minister may well end up in the position that I am in as the accountable Minister, having been party to a decision some years before. Of course I thought about that, but I was faced with a situation whereby if I had decided to recuse myself, although I do not think that there is an inherent conflict of interest, I would have been accusedno doubt by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve)of dodging my responsibilities, so I was unwilling to do that.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Is not the Secretary of State tilting at false windmills? He knows perfectly well that no sensible person wants to reveal all Cabinet discussions and no sensible person wants to curtail honest discussion in Cabinet, but does he not agree with the commissioner and the tribunal that this is a special case? Surely the people have a legal right to know the legal basis of a war in which up to 600,000 people have died. This whole thing stinks.
We are not trying to curtail discussion. What we accuse the Government of is the absence of any proper discussion of the Attorney-Generals statement and advice. We want to have answers now, and so do the public.
Mr. Straw: That is the hon. Gentlemans opinion, and it was alsoalthough slightly more carefully putthe opinion of the majority of the tribunal. However, if the hon. Gentleman refers to paragraph 88 of the tribunals decision document, he will see that the minority expressed what was essentially the view that I have taken: that
Exceptional cases may create an exceptional need for confidence in Cabinet confidentiality to be strong.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): When this provision was passed during a highly contentious debate on the Freedom of Information Bill in Committee on the Floor of the House, it was described by the then Home Secretarythe present Lord High Panjandrumas Executive override. We are now seeing the very heart of the defeat of what was that Bill. This is an exercise by the Executive to exclude full and proper debate on matters that go to the very heart of the public interest.
The Secretary of State cited the second paragraph of Reasons for Decision in stating that this was an exceptional case. He then invoked a minority decision as justification for his action. The fact is that this Executive override defeats the very purpose of an informed public opinion that can make a judgment, in the public interest, on the actions of those who are given the trust of this people to govern this country.
Mr. Straw: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has said for one moment. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), he was very active in the debates in Committee and on Report nearly 10 years ago, and he should claim some credit for the final position of the Act. He will surely acknowledge, however, that an essential and fundamental component of that Act was a powerful commissioner and a powerful tribunal but alsoyes, for use in exceptional casesa right, under section 53, for the Secretary of State. If he looks at the report of what I said then, he will see that I said that we would not use the provision very often. Well, we certainly have not done so.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD):
The Secretary of State has effectively said today that he is using his exceptional section 53 power to protect elected politicians who attended a Cabinet meeting. Can he confirm that he would not be able to use section 53 in respect of the release of correspondence between the then Chief of the Defence Staff and the Prime Minister, also about
the legality of the war? The Chief of the Defence Staff reportedly wrote to the Prime Minister of the day seeking his assurance that British troops would not be hauled before a tribunal for war crimes if the war went ahead.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I remind the Secretary of State that I was one of those who voted against war in Iraq? Indeed, I drafted a motion with the aim of securing a full inquiry. Unlike the Liberal Democratic party, Lord Smith and I were responsible for drafting the anti-war motion that Mr. Speaker selected.
That said, however, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is wholly right. I do not believe that Cabinet documents that reflect Cabinet discussion can be or should be disclosed. The right hon. Gentleman is right in that respect. Where he is wrong is in withholding an early and full inquiry into the war. We are entitled to that. We need to know what happened in the lead-up to the war, we need to know why it was so badly handled, and we need to know the full extent of the legal advice. All that will come out in an inquiry, but the right hon. Gentleman is right on the narrow point: Cabinet documents should not be disclosed.
Mr. Straw: I am very grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who took a different view from me in respect of the military action, for what he has said. As the House will understand, this is not the occasion for making decisions about an inquiry into aspects of the military action. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in this House on 18 December last year:
I have always said that this
is a matter that we will consider once our troops have come home. We are not in that position at present, so it is not right to open the question now. That is the course of action that the Foreign Secretary, I and others have stated to the House on many occasions.[ Official Report, 18 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 1239.]
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): This secrecy has absolutely nothing to do with the public interest and everything to do with the profound embarrassment of the Labour Government, which is why they are suppressing information about going to war. How ironic it is that we have a Justice Secretary making this announcement who only a few short years ago was telling us it was essential to go to war because of weapons of mass destruction when there were none. How can this culture of secrecy, and the delay of an independent inquiry, possibly restore the trust of the public?
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP):
I am not a supporter of the Freedom of Information Act as currently constituted, although I do not think we should be surprised if there is a right of veto and if it is used.
However, given that the then Prime Minister disclosed the thinking in the Cabinet when the decision was made, given that the legal advice was made public, and given that four inquiries were serviced with information, what is the logic behind not taking the final step of revealing the discussions in the Cabinet, if not to hide the Governments embarrassment on this issue? Does the Secretary of State not accept that if the reasons he has given to the House today are to be consistent, the logical position would be simply to have no Cabinet papers revealed?
Mr. Straw: I do not accept the hon. Gentlemans conclusion, and Cabinet documents are routinely released after 30 years, and we are committed to reducing the period following the recommendations of the Dacre report. This is nothing whatever to do with embarrassment, but it is to do with the distinction I drew in my statement between the decisions of Cabinet and the deliberations behind those decisions. In this case, the decision of Cabinet could not have been communicated to this House more quickly; as it happens, it fell to me to make a statement within two hours of the Cabinet coming to its decision on 17 March, and to explain the factors that led the Cabinet to that decision. That is very different from minutes recording the nature of the deliberations.
Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con):
Is it not ironic that a Government who have for so long
made a virtue of taking Cabinet decisions away from Cabinet with spin doctors in tow and undermining Cabinet responsibility have dared to come to this House today to try and uphold the sanctity of Cabinet discussions? If the principle of preserving the sanctity of Cabinet discussions is so important, which I agree with, why did the Secretary of State not exempt it entirely from the Freedom of Information Bill when it went through the House, and why is it that 99 per cent. of the time he is happy for officials and the judiciary to make decisions on freedom of information requests, but on this one occasion he has chosen to use his veto?
Mr. Straw: I have already explained why, in the unusual circumstances of this case, I have decided that a section 53 certificate is appropriate. Notwithstanding all the bluster from those on the Opposition Benches, it seems to be a mechanism that has been supported in all parts of the House. As for the nature of Cabinet government, the hon. Gentleman has a very short memory. As it happens, in my 12 years of experience, Cabinet government has survived and is thriving. If the hon. Gentleman wants to find a Government where Cabinet government was rather absent, he may like to look at the history of the Thatcher Government and the role of Sir Bernard Ingham.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know the rules concerning the reporting of contingency liabilities: no contingent is allowed to proceed without examination if a Member of this House formally objects. Given that the Ministry of Defence suggests in a departmental minute dated 17 February that it is looking to increase the initial contingent liability on the defence training review project from £9.5 million to a staggering £40 million, without any ministerial statement, may I ask that it be put on the record that I am formally objecting to this MOD minute and new contingent liability?
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I, too, have discovered that there are just two copies in existence of a Ministry of Defence departmental minute dated 17 February relating to a contingent liability of £250,000 for which there is no specific statutory authority. The minute states:
If, during the period of fourteen Parliamentary sitting days beginning on the date on which this Minute was laid before Parliament, a Member signifies an objection by giving notice of a Parliamentary Question or by otherwise raising the matter in Parliament, final approval to proceed with incurring the liability will be withheld.
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