Cabinet Office v Information Commissioner and Dr Lamb (EA/2008/0024 and 29)
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION – COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY – CONVENTION
The Cabinet Office sought to resist disclosure of the minutes of two meetings at which Ministers had determined to commit forces to the conflict in Iraq. The basis relied upon was that the minutes fell within the qualified exemption created in section 35(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, which provides exceptions for information relating to the development of government policy and to ministerial communication. Under the terms of the Act, the information was therefore not required to be disclosed unless the interest in withholding it outweighed the public interest in disclosure.
The Information Commissioner directed the Cabinet Office to disclose the minutes. The Office argued that it was necessary to maintain privilege in order to preserve the convention of collective ministerial responsibility and appealed the Commissioner’s decision.
The issue was whether the interest in preserving the convention of collective responsibility outweighed the public interest in disclosing the minutes.
The Tribunal held, by a majority, that the minutes should be disclosed with certain redactions. Though important, the convention of collective responsibility is not absolute and is an evolving principle which is capable of conceding to other interests in appropriate circumstances. On the facts of this specific case, the public interest in having the minutes disclosed and debated was:
“…of crucial significance to an understanding of a hugely important step in the nation’s recent history and the accountability of those [responsible]” (p. 3).
In this context, the public interest in disclosure outweighed that in preserving privilege and collective responsibility.