Page last updated at 17:34 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 18:34 UK

Cabinet papers 'to stay secret'

National Archives
The 30-year-rule is being reduced to 20

Cabinet papers would be exempt from Freedom of Information laws for 20 years under new proposals.

The decision to release details of Cabinet discussions currently rests on a "public interest" test.

Prime Minster Gordon Brown has said he wants to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act as part of wide-ranging constitutional reforms.

He also wants to cut the limit on publishing official papers - but give more protection to sensitive material.

Such material would also include papers relating to the Royal Family as well as discussions between senior ministers.

Campaigners had tried to get cabinet meeting minutes from the run-up to the Iraq War published under FOI laws but Justice Secretary Jack Straw vetoed it in February.

Mr Brown also unveiled proposals to reduce the "30-year-rule" on the publication of government papers to 20 years and to extend FOI to cover private firms doing work for the public sector.

'Serious damage'

He has also asked the man credited with inventing the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, to help make it easier for people to access government data.

BBC News' Freedom of Information expert Martin Rosenbaum said the new proposals announced by Mr Brown in the Commons earlier meant cabinet papers, including those for cabinet sub-committees, would be exempt from FOI for 20 years.

To exclude the whole class of cabinet papers from the act is an unnecessary, retrograde step
Maurice Frankel
Campaign for Freedom of Information

Cabinet minutes are not normally released until at least 30 years after the event.

But the Information Tribunal - which rules on appeals against Freedom of Information requests - ordered ministers in January to release minutes of cabinet meetings which discussed the 2003 Iraq invasion arguing it was in the public interest.

But the government vetoed the request under Section 53 of the FOI Act, arguing it could do "serious damage" to cabinet government which outweighed the public interest needs.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said requests for cabinet papers from five or 10 years previously should be considered on their merits.

"To exclude the whole class of cabinet papers from the act is an unnecessary, retrograde step, which will protect much material that does not need to be confidential and allow the top of level of government to operate in absolute secrecy," he added.

In a statement, the Ministry of Justice said a recent review into releasing government papers had recommended "enhanced protection" for some papers be looked at.

The MoJ said it had since looked at "important safeguards in the current FOI Act".

"In relation to Cabinet information, and information relating to the Royal Household, it has become clear that those safeguards are insufficiently robust to protect our current constitutional arrangements, and need changing," it said.

Amendments would be made to the FOI exemptions "to ensure that our information access arrangements allow essential constitutional relationships and conventions to be preserved".

Royal papers would be made exempt for 20 years - or five years after the relevant Royal's death, if they were still alive at the time, to "ensure the constitutional position and political impartiality of the Monarchy is not undermined".

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