Government launches fresh bid to block release of Rowntree files

2:56pm Tuesday 13th November 2012

By Mike Laycock

THE Government has launched a fresh bid to prevent The Press obtaining secret documents about Nestlé's controversial takeover of York confectioners Rowntree in 1988.

The Cabinet Office is seeking permission to appeal against a tribunal’s ruling that five Ministerial papers should be made public.

It claims there were ‘errors of law’ when the first-tier tribunal decided last month that the public interest favoured disclosure of the documents.

The Office admitted that its application was ‘technically late’ after being submitted after 5pm on the 28th day following receipt of the tribunal’s decision, but requested that in view of the minimal delay, the time limit should be extended.

Nestlé’s takeover of Rowntree happened despite 13,500 people signing the then Yorkshire Evening Press' Hands Off Rowntree coupons and a rally by 1,500 protesters outside Parliament.

The deal was particularly controversial because Nestlé itself was effectively protected by Swiss law from such takeover attempts, but Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government refused calls to refer the matter to the then Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

The Press originally sought the cabinet documents in 2008 under the Freedom of Information Act but some were withheld, and our subsequent appeal failed.

The Press re-applied in 2010, the Cabinet Office refused again but the Information Commissioners subsequently ruled in the newspaper's favour, prompting an appeal hearing in September, where the Information Commissioner's office and Gavin Aitchison from The Press argued for disclosure.

In a written report last month, tribunal chairman Judge John Angel said there was a ‘very weighty’ public interest in transparency and openness in this case and in knowing that the quasi-judicial role of Lord Young, the Minister taking a decision over the takeover, was not compromised by improper political or other pressure.

The Cabinet Office has now argued that the tribunal ‘misdirected itself in law’ and ‘erred in its approach to the assessment of public interest factors’ (favouring disclosure of the documents.)

The Office says it wants an upper tribunal to allow its appeal, set aside the original tribunal’s decision and remit the appeal to a new tribunal for consideration.

A tribunal judge is expected to decide on the application in the next few days.

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