On 14 January 2013, I wrote to the Freedom of Information Team at the Cabinet Office to request the release of the 1997 Cabinet meetings on devolution.
On 6 March 2013, I received a reply in the following terms:
I refer to your request where you asked:
“Under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a copy of the minutes of the 1997 Cabinet meetings on devolution. I am also requesting a copy of the Terms of Reference for the cabinet committee headed by Lord Irvine that the minutes relate to, and any legal or departmental advice provided to the cabinet in relation to these meetings. ”
I am writing to advise you that following a search of our paper and electronic records, I have established that the information you requested is held by the Cabinet Office.
Some of the information you have requested is exempt under section 21(1) of the Freedom of Information Act. Section 21 exempts information if this information is reasonably accessible to the applicant by other means. Section 21 is an absolute exemption and the Cabinet Office is not required to consider whether the public interest favours disclosure of this information.
The terms of reference for the Ministerial Committee on Devolution to Scotland and Wales and the English Regions (DSWR) were published in Hansard on 9 June 1997.
I attach a link:
The remainder of the information you seek is exempt under section 35(1)(a) and (b) of the Freedom of Information Act. This is a qualified exemption and therefore subject to the public interest test.
The information is exempt under section 35(1)(a) and (b), which relates to the formulation or development of government policy, and Ministerial communications. We accept that there is public interest in improving public understanding of the development of Government policy on devolution and the way Cabinet Government operates more generally. We recognise that the decisions Ministers make have a significant impact on the lives of citizens and there is a public interest in this process being transparent. We also recognise that greater transparency makes government more accountable to the electorate and increases trust.
However, there is a countervailing public interest in protecting the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective decision-making. Ministers will reach collective decisions more effectively if they are able to debate questions of policy freely and in confidence. The maintenance of this convention is fundamental to the continued effectiveness of Cabinet government, and its continued existence is therefore manifestly in the public interest.
In relation to the specific documents you have requested, the policy discussions in this area are ongoing and the adverse effect of disclosing these documents now would not be diminished by the fact that the documents date from 1997. The matters discussed at Cabinet are not matters of purely historic interest, but are important matters of current discussion and debate.
We therefore conclude that the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosure.
I have now requested a review of this decision, in the following terms:
I appreciate your explanation about the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of Cabinet discussions, particularly given the fact that the policy discussions in the area of devolution are ongoing. Equally, however, I would suggest that the very currency of those discussions increases the public interest in disclosing the 1997 minutes of the Ministerial Committee on Devolution.
I would contend that there are at least two, possibly three, current policy discussions that critically need to be informed by an awareness of government thinking and planning at the time:
- The debate on Scottish independence leading up to the referendum in September 2014. This is a decision that will be made by the people of Scotland, not Parliament or central government. Therefore, this discussion is no longer the exclusive preserve of government, and the Scottish public is entitled to understand how the Labour government envisaged the devolution settlement at the time it was being developed. Otherwise, how can their decision whether to effectively endorse devolution a second time (by rejecting independence) be adequately informed? Similarly, it would surely not be in the public interest for suspicions to be aroused that the Westminster government is seeking to hide something embarrassing or detrimental to the pro-Union cause. Isn’t it better to have transparency in this matter and not run the risk that the Scottish people vote ‘yes’ to independence based on a false prospectus?
- Discussions around UK-wide devolution and constitutional reform. As you are aware, a debate is getting underway regarding options for a new UK-wide constitutional settlement in the wake of a possible ‘no’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Only last week, the Select Committee for Political and Constitutional Reform issued a report urging the establishment of a constitutional convention to bring forward these discussions. Such a convention would again not be the exclusive preserve of Parliament or Government but would – following the Select Committee’s recommendations – be drawn from a broad selection of civil society representatives. The convention would discuss an extension of devolution in Scotland, along with devolution of considerable powers to local and regional government in England. Is it not therefore utterly essential that the minutes of the Cabinet Committee discussing devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions should be released into the public domain? How could a constitutional convention function adequately without this knowledge? Indeed, it is arguably not possible to reach a reliable decision about whether to have a constitutional convention to deal with these matters in the first place unless we have an understanding how the decisions were reached by Cabinet Government in 1997.
- West Lothian Question. Last week, too, the report of the McKay Commission on the so-called West Lothian Question was published. Unlike the debate around Scottish independence and the possibility of a constitutional convention, this matter is one for Parliament to reach a decision about. However, do Parliament’s deliberations not also need to be informed by an awareness of how the West Lothian Question was treated in the Cabinet’s discussions in 1997? For instance, if it was said in the 1997 Ministerial Committee that the way to resolve the West Lothian Question was to offer a limited form of regional devolution to England – and if proposals are now coming back on to the table to introduce local/regional devolution in England – do these matters not need to be treated as an integrated whole, so that proper joined-up debate and policy formation can be arrived at?
I trust that you will consider the merits of the above argument, and that you will reconsider the decision not to release the minutes of the Ministerial Committee on devolution from 1997.
Let’s see if the Cabinet Office re-evaluates its decision. But what is the real reason why it is so wary about releasing this information? This request has been made several times now, by me and others, and it has been refused every time. What are they hiding?
Filed under: 1997 Ministerial Committee on Devolution, Cabinet government, constitutional convention, constitutional reform, devolution, England, Freedom of Information, parliament, politics, referendum, Scotland, Scottish independence referendum, United Kingdom, West Lothian Question