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The Public Interest

The Scotsman carries news of my Freedom of Information requests.

Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, has blocked the release of Cabinet committee papers relating to devolution under the Freedom of Information Act.

Grieve confirmed today his belief that their release would not be in the public interest.

Instead, Grieve said he believed it would undermine the operation of government.

A request had been made for publication of the minutes of the Cabinet Ministerial Committee of Devolution to Scotland and Wales and the English Regions, dating from 1997 and 1998.

Such a veto has only been used twice in the past, once relating to further devolution papers and once over a request for Cabinet minutes relating to Iraq.

Mr Grieve’s veto related to two specific requests for documents.

The first, received by the Cabinet Office on May 24 2010, asked for the “minutes of the 1997 Cabinet meeting on devolution”.

The request was rejected on June 18 2010, and the applicant requested an internal review of the decision on July 14 2010. Refusal was upheld the following month, on August 11 2010.

A request for further appeal was then made to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and on September 12 2011, having reviewed the decision, the Information Commissioners ordered the material be released.

A second request, made on June 7 2010, asked for “the minutes of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Devolution for Scotland, Wales and the Regions”.

The Cabinet Office rejected the request on July 5 2010, and an appeal was made on July 21 2010. An internal review upheld the refusal on November 24 2010.

The request was referred to the ICO on November 29 2010 for further investigation. The Information Commissioner ruled on September 13 2011 that the information should be released.

The phrase 'public interest' is used by journalists to justify exposure of fraud, corruption, hypocrisy, institutional incompetence, wrong-doing, etc., but Westminster politicians use the phase in a different way, for them 'public interest' often means 'national interest' - the national interest of the United Kingdom. The public have a right to know but only if that knowledge does not damage the United Kingdom.

When Dominic Grieve was in opposition Jack Straw explained that he had vetoed publication of the Cabinet's Iraq War minutes after weighing up the public interest in transparency against the public interest in maintaining the integrity of our system of Cabinet government.

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, 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.

The public interest in withholding the information outweighed the public interest in disclosure. According to Straw disclosure of the Iraq war minutes would have prevented future Cabinets from being able to discuss sensitive matters of national importance (such as the legality of invading Iraq) in an atmosphere of complete confidentiality, thereby undermining the British system of collective responsibility and consent.

The principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, requires that Ministers should be able to express their views frankly in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached. This in turn requires that the privacy of opinions expressed in Cabinet and Ministerial committees, including in correspondence, should be maintained. - Ministerial Code

Grieve countered Straw with a complaint that Straw himself was biased and that decisions regarding the protection of public interest were subject to considerations of political interests:

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.

On the subject of devolution Dominic Grieve is biased, having declared himself against an English parliament. And there is little doubt that his (and the Conservative Party's) political interests lie in preventing the English, Scottish and Welsh publics from knowing what objections were raised to the 1997 devolution settlement.

Given that England was not offered devolution, but has been negatively affected by devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, I think I have a right to know whether any members of the Cabinet raised any objections or made representations on England's behalf. The fact that both Jack Straw and Dominic Grieve have blocked this information leads me to believe that the minutes contain information that would further the nationalist cause and undermine the Union.

The UK Government is extremely sensitive about releasing anything that sheds light on the rationale behind its illogical and unjust devolution settlement. In July last year I submitted a further FoI request asking for the minutes of the 2nd Joint Ministerial Committee meeting during which the Government’s White Paper on English Regional governance was discussed. Rather reasonably, I think, I made the point that there was no one English at this meeting on how to balkanise England. The request was refused on the grounds that:

Information you have requested is exempt under section 35(1) (b) of the Freedom of Information Act, which protects Ministerial communications. Section .'35 is a qualified exemption and I have considered whether the balance ot the public interest favours our release of this material. There is a general public interest in disclosure of information and I recognise that openness in government may increase public trust in and engagement with the government. I recognise that the discussions Ministers have may have a significant impact on the lives of citizens and there is a public interest in their deliberations being transparent. These public interests have to be weighed against a stronger public interest in Ministers being able to discuss issues freely and frankly, exchange views on available options and understand their possible implications. The candour of all involved could be affected by their assessment of whether the content of the discussions will be disclosed prematurely. if discussions were routinely made public there is a risk that Ministers may feel inhibited from being frank and candid with one another and in seeking the advice of officials or other experts. Taking into account all the circumstances of this case, l have concluded that the balance of the public interest favours withholding this information.

In other words, although the people of England may have legitimate reason to question whether the UK Government and the representatives of the devolved administrations have English interests at heart, it is not in the British public interest to disclose this information.

So England has no representation at a meeting about England, and any semblance of accountability is denied us because the British public interest is more important than the English public interest.

The rationale behind the veto of these devolution minutes relies on the assertion that disclosure would undermine the operation of UK government. The fact that 59% of the English public believe that UK Government is already undermined and untenable demonstrates the difference between what is in the public interest and what cretins like Straw and Grieve state to be the case. Why on earth should partisan and biased individuals like them be the arbiters of public interest?

Having initially been content to continue to be governed themselves by an unreformed set of UK institutions at Westminster, support for the status quo has now fallen to just one in four of the English electorate. 59 per cent say that they do not trust the UK government to work in the best long-term inter ests of England. - IPPR

Surely there is a case for arguing that release of these devolution papers is in the English public interest, as far as the English are concerned these minutes are (to paraphase Grieve) 'issues of the utmost English national interest'.

Dominic Grieve's decision notices can be downloaded from the Information Commissioner's website.

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