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Tribunal hearing held in battle for secret Rowntree papers
1988 FLASHBACK: With banners and placards aloft Rowntree supporters gather before setting off to take their protest to Westminster and Margaret Thatcher
THE Press's four-year battle to obtain secret Government documents about Nestlé's controversial takeover of Rowntree in 1988 has gone to a tribunal.
The Cabinet Office is appealing against a ruling from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) that five Ministerial documents should be made public.
At a tribunal hearing on Thursday in Field House, off Chancery Lane in London, The Press's news editor, Gavin Aitchison, said the takeover had been a 'greatly significant episode in York's history' which had affected many people, economically or emotionally.
He 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."
The Swiss confectioner succeeded in acquiring the York business 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 cabinet documents relating to the takeover in 2008 under the Freedom of Information Act but some were withheld, and our subsequent appeal failed. The Press re-applied in 2010, citing the precedent of a new ruling in a separate case. The Cabinet Office refused again, but the ICO subsequently ruled in the newspaper's favour, prompting the appeal by the Cabinet Office .
Former Cabinet Office director Jeremy Pocklington said at Thursday's hearing that he believed disclosure would have a 'chilling' effect on current Ministers in their future discussions on similar issues.
He said: "It potentially inhibits existing ministers from putting forward their views in similar cases, should they arise," he claimed. "Ministers might change how they communicate with each other."
He asked to refer to the contents of one specific document behind closed doors, and The Press had to leave the tribunal during these discussions.
Mr Pocklington revealed that under Government proposals to reduce the old 30-year secrecy rule on Government papers to 20 years, documents from 1988 would now be released in 2015 if all went to plan, instead of the scheduled date of 2018.
Robin Hopkins, counsel for the ICO, said questions raised in a number of 1988 press articles had never been sufficiently answered by information in the public domain.
"The public interest remains strong," he said.
He said there was an interest in the competition policies of the Thatcher Government and heritage interests in a long-standing British company being transferred into foreign ownership.
Both the ICO and The Press have said that statements by the current Government, when advocating the 30-year-rule be replaced by a 20-year-rule, strengthen the case for disclosing the Rowntree files, by arguing that the public should have to wait no more than 20 years for Government information to be made public.
Both York MPs, Hugh Bayley and Julian Sturdy, submitted statements to the tribunal, backing The Press .
The tribunal, which was chaired by Judge John Angel, is likely to announce its decision within the next few weeks.