THE Welsh Assembly Government has refused to release details of correspondence to an opposition politician - on the grounds that the Cabinet could be exposing itself to ridicule.
The astonishing admission came in a letter from an official to Liberal Democrat AM Jenny Randerson, who had sought information under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.
In response to Mrs Randerson's request for disclosure of documents relating to the budget of the Assembly's economic development and transport division, official Geraint James wrote saying some material would be withheld.
His letter stated, "The convention of collective responsibility of Cabinet is a well-established principle of government that has been adopted by the executive of the Welsh Assembly Government.
"It is vitally important that Ministers feel free to be able to debate fully all possible angles before coming to an agreed position.
"This process is one in which Ministers and officials are encouraged to be imaginative and consider innovative ideas.
"The exposure of some of these discussions to the public domain, via a freedom of information request, may lead to individuals, or Cabinet, being targeted for ridicule through the media.
"Such a prospect would, or would be likely to, inhibit the free and frank exchange of ideas.
"The result of this, in our view, would ultimately undermine the convention of collective responsibility and result in poorer decision making and thus poorer government for the people of Wales."
Ms Randerson said, "Exposing politicians to ridicule is not an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act allowing public bodies not to release documents. I find it extraordinary that the Assembly Government is using such an excuse.
"Once again, Labour's claim to run the most open administration in the western world itself looks ridiculous."
Last night an Assembly Government spokesman said, "We will need to find out why this response was given as it does not appear to be in accordance with Freedom of Information procedure."
Mrs Randerson, who represents Cardiff Central and was a Minister in the Labour/Liberal Democrat administration that ran from September 2000 until May 2003, said she was seriously concerned about a number of issues that arose from the documents that had been disclosed to her.
She said, "In one of the internal documents is a phrase I find quite disturbing. Referring to the Objective One European aid programme for West Wales and the Valleys, it says, 'Lots of work going on behind the scenes to utilise mainstream programme funding as match funding, making maximum use of structural funds for minimum extra public sector match funding'.
"If this refers to the mainstream programme funding that comes from Europe, it would be seriously irregular. European money cannot be used as match funding - that would break the EU's rules on the need for European money to be additional to public funds that are already being spent."
An Assembly Government spokesman denied that in the document released to Mrs Randerson "programme mainstream funding" meant money from Europe. "It refers to the core funding of agencies like the WDA and the Wales Tourist Board," he said.
"As we have said before, we were getting them to use some of their core funding instead of relying on match funding from other Assembly Government budgets."
Mrs Randerson said, "There is a wealth of documentation here to show there was a very serious budget crisis two years ago, even though Ministers were claiming otherwise.
"What is also extremely revealing is that the Finance Minister was issuing instructions that Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies (ASPBs) like the WDA and the Wales Tourist Board were instructed not to criticise the Assembly Government openly.
"They may not have done so, but their concerns about spending cuts did leak out into the public domain.
"The problem is that once the ASPBs are merged with the Assembly Government next April, everything will be much more tightly controlled.
"There is no way civil servants are going to quarrel with their political masters."
On October 13 this year Reg Kilpatrick, head of financial planning at the Assembly Government, told his team in writing that Finance Minister Sue Essex had issued an instruction that "in responding to enquiries on the allocation, the ASPBs must not criticise the Assembly".