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Ministers fight regional daily over release of secret papers

A regional daily which won a four-year battle for information about a controversial company takeover in the 1980s faces further delays after the government decided to appeal.

York daily The Press won a major victory last month after a tribunal ruled that five ministerial papers relating to Nestle’s takeover of Rowntree confectioners in 1988 should be released.

The Cabinet Office had appealed against a previous ruling by the Information Commissioner that the documents should be made public but this was dismissed by the tribunal, which said the papers should be released within 30 days.

However, the paper now faces further delays because the Cabinet Office is now seeking permission to appeal against the tribunal’s decision.

News editor Gavin Aitchison, who argued for disclosure of the documents at the tribunal, described the move as “disappointing”.

He told HTFP: “It is obviously disappointing for us that the government has again sought to block the release of these papers.

“We believe the tribunal judges reached the right decision considering the various arguments presented by us, the Information Commissioner’s office and the Cabinet Office,” he said.

“The current government has said it will replace the 30-year-rule with a 20-year rule, to increase governmental accountability and transparency. It seems inconsistent at best for the Cabinet Office to simultaneously resist such transparency.

“Nestle’s takeover of Rowntree in 1988 was a momentous event in York’s history and there is an inherent public interest in the Cabinet records from the time being made public.”

The Office claims there were “errors of law” made when the first-tier tribunal decided that public interest favoured disclosure of the documents.

Nestle’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.

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 whether the quasi-judicial role of Lord Young, the minister who allowed the takeover, was not compromised by improper political or other pressure.

But the Office’s application for an appeal argues that the tribunal “misdirected itself in law” and “erred in its approach to the assessment of public interest factors”.

It now wants an upper tribunal to allow its appeal, setting aside the original tribunal’s decision and calling a new tribunal to consider the case.

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

The Office admitted that its application for an appeal was “technically late” after being submitted after 5pm on the 28th day following receipt of the tribunal’s decision, but requested the time limit should be extended.

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

The paper re-applied in 2010 and the Cabinet Office again refused but the Information Commissioners subsequently ruled in the newspaper’s favour, prompting the appeal hearing in September where the newspaper argued for disclosure.