Four documents in the time leading up to the 2002 joint sovereignty proposals, which should have been disclosed under the 20 year rule, remain held in secret by the UK Government.
The Cabinet Office has rejected a freedom of information request from GBC for their disclosure, suggesting it would prejudice the UK’s foreign relations.
2000 Joint Sovereignty documents remain secret despite GBC Freedom of
In 2013 the UK changed its laws regarding disclosure of public records. It meant any documents would become available to the public in the National Archives after 20 years.
But there are exemptions. One of them being the protection of national interests.
There are four documents cataloguing Cabinet discussions over relations with Gibraltar between 1997 and 2000. These remain undisclosed.
The joint sovereignty negotiations began the following year, in 2001.
Last November, on the 20th anniversary of the Joint Sovereignty referendum, GBC submitted a Freedom of Information Request for their release. We argued that, given the importance of the referendum, there was an interest in Gibraltar for the UK’s internal discussions over the Rock to be a matter of public record.
Four and a half months later, the Cabinet Office has replied.
It says it recognises there is a general public interest in order to ensure the decisions made by the authorities are scrutinised and that there is greater accountability.
It also acknowledges the government’s foreign policy should evaluated by the public.
However it says it needs to balance this against the UK’s ability to pursue its national interests, and it can do this more successfully if it conforms to the conventions of international behaviour, avoids giving offence to other nations, and retains the trust of international partners.
It says taking all the circumstances, the balance of interest favours withholding the information.
What was discussed by UK Cabinet ministers in the years leading up to the Joint Sovereignty referendum? Gibraltar remains in the dark. The only clues lie in Peter Hain’s book, ‘Outside In’ published in 2012, where the former Europe Minister, who spearheaded the Joint Sovereignty discussions, speaks about relationships between Cabinet Ministers and Gibraltar.
In his memoirs, Mr Hain describes a tense relationship between Gibraltar and the Foreign Office, describing officials’ attitude towards Chief Minister Peter Caruana as ‘contemptuous’, and the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s demeanour towards him as ‘dismissive’.
Of course this is just the opinion of one man, and he wasn’t even in the Cabinet at the time – but Peter Hain did have a central role over Gibraltar discussions in those years, and he paints a colourful picture of deep-rooted tensions over the Rock in the early years of the Blair administration.
It could well be why those Cabinet policy documents remain secret.
The Cabinet Office's response:
The Cabinet Office recognises there is a general public interest in openness in public affairs in order to ensure that the public are able to scrutinise the manner in which public authorities reach important decisions.
This makes for greater accountability, increases public confidence in government decision-making and helps to encourage greater public engagement with political life. The Cabinet Office also recognises that there is a general public interest in being able to evaluate the foreign policy of the government.
We have weighed these public interests against a strong public interest in the United Kingdom being able successfully to pursue our national interests. We are more likely to do so if we conform to the conventions of international behaviour, avoid giving offence to other nations and retain the trust of our international partners.
Taking into account all the circumstances of this case, we have concluded that the balance of the public interest favours withholding this information.