Jack Straw accused of cover-up after veto on publication of devolution debates

UK JUSTICE Secretary Jack Straw yesterday vetoed the publication of secret details of cabinet debates on devolution, prompting claims he was trying to cover up evidence of his hostility to the plans to set up a Scottish Parliament.

• Donald Dewar, Jack Straw, Gordon Brown and Clare Short after Labour's 1997 election win. Picture: PA

Mr Straw used his power to overrule a decision by the Information Commissioner to release minutes of the high-powered Cabinet sub-committee which met to hammer out details of home rule legislation in the wake of Labour's 1997 election victory.

At the time, Mr Straw, then the home secretary, was a noted devolution sceptic who made his views known in often stormy debates in the sub-committee formed to discuss the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and the English regions.

Yesterday, Mr Straw claimed his decision was made because it would undermine the concept of Cabinet collective responsibility, hinting at the "intense" arguments that took place behind closed doors, particularly over Scotland.

In a written statement to Parliament, he said the decision "was not taken lightly".

This is only the second time Mr Straw has used his powers, the first being the decision to block the Cabinet papers in which going to war in Iraq was discussed. Labour insiders last night claimed the devolution papers decision might have been made to spare Mr Straw's blushes.

One close associate of former First minister Donald Dewar who, as Scottish secretary, led the pro-devolution group on the sub-committee, said the problem was caused because Labour's 1997 manifesto pledge to create a Scottish Parliament was "so vague".

"It meant thatDonald Dewar had to work from first principles and argue – mainly with Jack Straw – over every line," the source said.

It became a question over whether the Scottish Parliament would end up as a "super council", which Mr Straw's opponents claim he advocated, or a parliament with legislative powers.

Another source said meetings were "tense" and characterised by the disagreements between the three main players – Mr Dewar, Mr Straw and the chairman, the then lord chancellor, Derry Irvine.

In then end, Mr Dewar won most of the arguments, including making sure that powers reserved to Westminster and not those devolved to Holyrood were defined in what became the Scotland Act.

Mr Dewar saw off attempts by Mr Straw and his allies to reduce the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster and to cut Scotland's spending levels.

His one significant loss was over whether abortion law should be devolved to Scotland. Mr Straw argued successfully that abortion should remain a matter for the UK parliament.

A Labour source close to events said: "It figures that Jack (Straw] doesn't want any of this to come out. It does not exactly put him in a good light over devolution or in winning his arguments."

The decision to block the freedom of information request was condemned by opposition parties last night.

The Liberal Democrats' justice spokesman, David Howarth, said: "Ministers are losing their sense of proportion in their desperation to avoid political embarrassment. This completely undermines Labour's claims to be committed to open government.

"The veto is clearly a threat to freedom of information and should be abolished."

Mr Straw told MPs: "Whilst the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility is only one part of the public interest test, in my view disclosure of the information in this case would put the convention at serious risk of harm."

In a statement, the Information Commissioner's Office said Mr Graham (Information Commissioner Christopher Graham] "regrets" the veto was used before a full tribunal hearing.

HOW A POWERFUL CABINET COMMITTEE DIVIDED OVER SCOTTISH HOME RULE

THE who's who on the Ministerial Committee on Devolution and their position:

NEUTRAL

Lord Chancellor (Chairman)

Lord Derry Irvine

SUPPORTERS

Secretary of State for Scotland Donald Dewar

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook

Secretary of State for Wales Ron Davies

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Alistair Darling

Lord Advocate Andrew Hardie QC

Transport Minister Gavin Strang

Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions John Prescott

Secretary of State for Education and Employment David Blunkett

Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Jack Cunningham

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam

Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury / Chief Whip Nick Brown

Lord Privy Seal Lord Ivor Richard

SCEPTICS

Home Secretary Jack Straw

Trade and Industry Secretary Margaret Beckett

Secretary of State for Health Frank Dobson

UNKNOWN

Leader of the House Ann Taylor

Secretary of State for National Heritage Chris Smith

Captain of the Gentleman at Arms Lord Carter

Attorney-General Rt Hon John Morris QC

Other ministers were invited for items in which they had a departmental interest.