Victory for The Press in battle for secret Government documents over Rowntree takeover (From York Press)
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Victory for The Press in battle for secret Government documents over Rowntree takeover
THE Press has won a major victory in its four-year battle to obtain secret Government documents about Nestlé's controversial takeover of York confectioners Rowntree in 1988.
A tribunal has dismissed the Cabinet Office’s appeal against an Information Commissioner's Office ruling that five Ministerial papers should be made public.
Tribunal chairman Judge John Angel said the public interest favoured disclosure of the documents, and ordered that they should be disclosed within 30 days.
He said the tribunal was also ordering the Cabinet Office to confirm or deny whether it held information about Cabinet discussions of the Rowntree takeover, which happened in spite of 13,500 people signing the then Yorkshire Evening Press' Hands Off Rowntree coupons and a rally by 1,500 protesters outside Parliament.
However, the Cabinet Office still has 28 days to apply to the tribunal to set aside its decision if it considers there was any ‘procedural irregularity’ and it can also appeal to an Upper Tribunal if it believes there has been an ‘error of law’.
Judge 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.
“There is a very significant public interest (including for researchers of social, political and industrial history) in reading the impartial record of contemporaneous communications,” he said.
The Rowntree 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 the appeal.
At the tribunal hearing in London last month, news editor Gavin Aitchison said people should be allowed to read the record of how the Government of the day acted over a 'greatly significant episode in York's history’, but former Cabinet Office director Jeremy Pocklington said he believed disclosure would have a 'chilling' effect on current Ministers in their future discussions on similar issues, potentially inhibiting them from putting forward their views.
- To see the full judgement, go to informationtribunal.gov.uk [pdf document]