Iraq Cabinet minutes to be aired

The government must release Cabinet minutes in which military action against Iraq was discussed, information commissioner Richard Thomas has ordered.

His move overturns the government’s initial refusal to release the 2003 minutes, based on the fact they relate to the formulation of government policy and ministerial communications.

Mr Thomas believes the public interest is better served by releasing the minutes than withholding the information, however.

The “gravity and controversial nature of the subject matter”, decision-making transparency, government accountability and public participation in government decisions were all factors influencing his decision, a statement said.

The minutes to be released relate to two meetings held on March 7th and 17th 2003, in which then attorney general Lord Goldsmith’s advice about the legality of military action was being considered.

At stake was whether an additional UN resolution was needed to legitimise the US-led ousting of Saddam Hussein, which took place in May that year.

A 13-page confidential document by Lord Goldsmith of March 7th 2003, released to the public in April 2005, said the government could make a “reasonable case” for invasion without a second UN resolution but said a court “might well conclude” it was in fact illegal.

This contrasted with his unambiguous endorsement of the war’s legality on March 17th.

Mr Thomas insists the release of the minutes will not set a precedent in respect of other Cabinet minutes.

And he upheld requests to exempt a number of specific references in the minutes which might, if released, “have a detrimental effect on international relations”.

A Cabinet Office statement said the government accepted Mr Thomas’ decision.

“The requirements of openness and transparency must be balanced against the proper and effective functioning of government,” a spokesperson commented.

“At the very heart of that system is the constitutional convention of collective Cabinet responsibility.”

Last week an early draft of the intelligence dossier used to justify the Iraq invasion, which did not feature the 45-minute weapons of mass destruction deployment claim, was released.

It followed January’s information tribunal ruling that the Hutton inquiry into the death of weapons expert David Kelly should not be seen as the “final word” on the UK’s decision to back the invasion of Iraq.