Friday, 11 December 2009

Keeping confidences

Most readers will by now know that Jack Straw issued a certificate yesterday under section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 overriding a decision made by the Information Commissioner under Part 4 of that Act that the 1997 minutes of the Cabinet Ministerial Committee on Devolution to Scotland and Wales and the English Regions should be released in response to an information request under the 2000 Act. It was this Cabinet committee which had the task of establishing how the devolution commitments in the Labour party's 1997 election manifesto (which were in rather vague terms) should be implemented.

The retention of information

The Cabinet Office had refused the information request for these minutes on the grounds (a) that they fall within the exemption in sections 35 (information relating to the formulation of government policy) and 36 (information which would be likely to prejudice the maintenance of the convention of the collective responsibility of Ministers of the Crown or be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice, or the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation), and (b) that by virtue of this prejudice the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information. Both limbs needed to be fulfilled for the minutes to be withheld, because the section 35 and 36 exemptions are not absolute exemptions. To withhold them the "balance of the public interest" test also has to be applied and met. The Cabinet Office thought it was, but the Information Commissioner disagreed.

Section 53 of the 2000 Act gives the relevant Minister of the Crown power to override decisions of the Information Commissioner or Information Tribunal on the public interest test where the decision relates to amongst others a government department, by issuing a certificate under that section. This power has only been used once before.

I have to say that, contrary to received opinion in the blogosphere, I have very little argument with Jack Straw's decision. In my view it would result in worse government, not better, if ministers or their advisers could not say what their real views were on a matter before the Cabinet because of fears that those views may subsequently come out within a period which is still politically active, particularly if those ministers are still in government, as some still are - including in particular Jack Straw. One would expect there to have been differences of opinion on how devolution was to be implemented to give effect to the manifesto commitment - on a point of such constitutional significance it would be disappointing if there were not. Nor do I have a problem with the government having the reserve power to override the Information Commissioner. At the end of the day I think matters of constitutional importance should be decided by our elected representatives, who can take their chances at the ballot box.

As one could predict, those with strong views about devolution are now bringing up their own theories about what the government is trying to hide. The SNP have issued a statement indicating that the minutes will show that there were some in the cabinet unpersuaded by the case for the granting of wide legislative powers under the devolution arrangements and that the government are trying to hide this. The Scotsman newspaper in an editorial seems offended that the Cabinet may have discussed knock-on effects such as whether it should result in review of the Barnett formula and whether Scottish over-representation at Westminster should be reduced to bring it to the level of representation applying in England. The former has not yet happened, the second in the end did. (The Scotsman editorial writer also appears to think that the Information Tribunal can override the section 53 certificate - it can't.)

As I say, there ought to have been and quite probably was robust discussion about the extent to which devolution was to go and about its knock-on effects elsewhere, during the course of which those in the Donald Dewar camp (probably including Gordon Brown), who wanted a wide range of powers to be devolved including legislative competence, won the argument. As I have commented before in this blog, many seem to underestimate the amount of autonomy given by the Scotland Act 1998 to the Scottish government and Parliament, including legislative and executive autonomy in the fields of health (there no longer is a "National Health Service" in the UK sense), education, housing, local government, transport (other than air transport) and most of the justice system. Unlike the proposals of a decade earlier, the 1998 Act works on the principle that everything is devolved unless it is explicitly stated in the Act to be a reserved matter. It did so so successfully, that 80% of the business as Westminster now relates to England and Wales, or England only.

Those who want a Parliament for England have put forward the opposite hypothesis, that what the government is trying to hide is its indifference to the unfairness for those in England of the current devolution arrangements, and/or that in Labour's own self-interest it never seriously intended meaningful devolution for England. The latter may well be true because as I have previously commented the regional devolution proposals brought forward by John Prescott were weak in the extreme, to the point of showing bad faith. However I doubt very much that the government were in 1997 indifferent to unfairness to people in England - unfairness is not the business of those having to face an electorate at 5 yearly intervals. Probably they just felt they could "face it out" in the short term and that something would turn up in the medium to long term.

The future

So, although withholding the Cabinet minutes may avoid annoying people in England and Scotland who are sensitive to annoyance about devolution in more or less equal measures, the decision seems to me to be right insofar as it relates to Cabinet government and collective responsibility.

An interesting point arises about the future however. Whether or not the Tories end up with a majority in the next Parliament, and I still think they will, they are almost certain to form the largest party and in the event of a hung Parliament either form a minority administration or form a pact with the Liberals. If in a year's time another information request arrives, one can predict that the Information Commissioner will remain of his present view.

Will the then Minister of Justice want to renew the section 53 certificate, or would he or she quite like Labour to be discomforted by the Information Commissioner? And how does this relate to the convention that a government does not get to see the previous government's confidential cabinet papers? The then Minister of Justice (or however else he/she chooses to style the name of the office) will have to see the minutes to reach a view on whether to renew the certificate. A tricky issue - one which quite probably an incoming Tory government will choose to let lie. After all, it would have plenty of other things to worry about. In any event, the present government announced in the summer that it was reducing the then-applicable 30 year period for release of Cabinet papers as public records to 20 years, and many on the Tory side thought this was a weak attempt to relight feelings of antipathy concerning Margaret Thatcher in advance of the pending election. The Tories could just wait another 8 years and allow Labour to embarrass itself with its own policy (in good time for the election after next).

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