Get in touch: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting YORK to 80360 or send an email»
Press wins third victory in battle for Nestlé-Rowntree files
1:42pm Tuesday 22nd October 2013 in News
SECRET Government papers relating to Nestlé’s 1988 takeover of York chocolate giant Rowntree’s should be released, a second judge has ruled.
David Williams, who adjudicated at an upper tribunal hearing in June, has rejected the Cabinet Office’s arguments that papers relating to the deal should remain confidential.
It is the third legal victory by The Press in a Freedom of Information battle stretching back to 2008, concerning access to cabinet documents from the time of the takeover. The Cabinet Office appealed against the first two rulings and could yet appeal again.
Judge Williams said he found no evidence that the first tribunal had erred in law, as had been argued by the Cabinet Office’s legal representative, James Cornwell.
He challenged Mr Cornwell’s claims that there was no visible evidence for a lasting public interest in the case. Mr Cornwell had cited a lack of media coverage in the intervening years, but
Judge Williams said the approach was wrong, equated public interest with widespread comment and invited “mass lobbying” of the sort that had been used to force debates on popular petition issues.
He said public interest was for the Information Commission or a tribunal to judge and said he found “nothing of substance” in Mr Cornwell’s criticisms of the original tribunal ruling.
He concluded that the first tribunal did not err in law in any of the ways the Cabinet Office had argued.
June’s hearing was attended by The Press’s news editor Gavin Aitchison, who made the original request for information, as well as Robin Hopkins for the Information Commissioner and Mr Cornwell.
Part of the discussion centred on the Government’s decision to replace the “30-year-rule”, which said cabinet papers should remain confidential for 30 years, with a 20-year-rule. All parties have backed the change, and the Government is phasing it in, meaning the Nestlé papers would become public on January 1, 2016, at the latest.
The Cabinet Office argued that the first tribunal erred by considering the change, as the change in law happened after The Press’s initial request, but Judge Williams agreed with the first hearing and said it had made its decision to consider the change, after taking into account the timings.
At the first tribunal, Mr Aitchison said the takeover had been a "greatly significant episode in York's history" and said: "The people of York, and the public more widely, should be allowed to read the authentic, impartial and original record of how the Government of the day acted at that time."
In his written ruling, Judge Williams said it would have helped in the case had The Press or someone else provided more factual evidence of the enduring public interest in the issue.
The Cabinet Office has a fortnight to appeal or release the documents.
The Press first asked for cabinet documents relating to the Nestlé-Rowntree takeover in 2008, around the 20th anniversary of the deal.
The Cabinet Office released some documents, including letters, but withheld others. Our appeal was rejected.
In 2010, the Cabinet Office lost a tribunal hearing relating to the ‘Westlands’ case in 1986, which prompted Michael Heseltine’s resignation from the cabinet. The tribunal judge in that case set out criteria for when documents should be released
The Press then re-submitted its request, citing this criteria. The Cabinet Office rejected our request and an appeal.
The Information Commissioner found in favour of The Press, as did the first tribunal, and York MPs Hugh Bayley and Julian Sturdy have both backed The Press's stance in writing. An Upper Tribunal Judge has also now ruled in favour of the files being made public.
>> Read the new tribunal decision notice here: FOI.pdf