A daily newspaper’s four-year battle to obtain secret government documents about a controversial company takeover has gone to a tribunal hearing.
The Press, York, wants papers relating to Nestlé’s takeover of local chocolate maker Rowntree in 1988 made public.
The Information Commissioner has previously ruled that the documents should be released, but the Cabinet Office has appealed against the move.
At a tribunal hearing in London last Thursday, the paper’s news editor Gavin Aitchison argued that local people had a right to know the reasoning behind the government’s decision’s to allow the controversial deal.
He said the takeover had been a ‘greatly significant episode in York’s history’ which had affected many people, economically or emotionally.
Said Gavin: “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 newspaper’s ‘Hands Off Rowntree’ coupons and a rally by 1,500 protesters outside Parliament.
Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government at the time 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.
It re-applied in 2010, citing the precedent of a new ruling in a separate case. The Cabinet Office again refused again, but the Commissioner subsequently ruled in the newspaper’s favour, prompting the latest appeal.
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.”
Mr Pocklington asked to refer to the contents of one specific document behind closed doors, and The Press had to leave the tribunal during these discussions.
He also 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 instead of the scheduled date of 2018.
Robin Hopkins, counsel for the Commissioner, said there was a “strong public interest” in the competition policies of the Thatcher Government.
The tribunal, which was chaired by Judge John Angel, is likely to announce its decision within the next few weeks.