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Daily wins five-year FoI battle as documents released

A regional daily has finally gained access to secret government papers about a controversial company takeover after winning a five-year Freedom of Information battle.

The Press in York has at last been given documents relating to Nestlé’s takeover of Rowntree confectioners in 1988, after a fight with the Cabinet Office since November 2008, when its first FoI request was submitted.

The regional daily has now splashed on the contents of the files, which show that a senior government minister called for the takeover to be referred to an independent watchdog.

It has revealed that John MacGregor, the then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, wrote to Trade and Industry Secretary Lord Young in 1988, urging him to refer the takeover bids by Swiss firms Nestlé and Suchard to the Monopolies and Merger Commission.

The letter was also copied to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other senior goverment ministers but his calls were not heeded and the takeover by Nestlé went through uncontested.

The Press’ five-year battle saw it win three legal victories, with two tribunals and the Information Commissioner finding in favour of the title.

In the latest ruling in October this year, Judge David Williams rejected the Cabinet Office’s arguments that papers relating to the deal should remain confidential but it was not clear then whether a further appeal would take place.

News editor Gavin Aitchison said: “It is obviously pleasing, after five years, that we can finally enable our readers to see how the government of the day handled the Nestlé-Rowntree takeover.

“This was a hugely important moment in York’s history and it has always been our view that the public had a right to see how the then government dealt with it.

“The papers that have been released are very interesting, particularly to those affected by the takeover or with an interest in York history.

“But it remains puzzling and disappointing that the Cabinet Office went to such extraordinary lengths to keep these papers secret.

“There was precedent in favour of publication and legal rulings in our favour, but even after the law was changed and all parties said people should not have to wait more than 20 years to see Government papers, they drew out this affair – inevitably costing the public time and money.”

Part of the arguments at the tribunal centred on the Government’s decision to replace the “30-year-rule”, about the release of cabinet papers, with a 20-year-rule which is gradually being phased in.

And the decision of the tribunal judge could make it easier for others to access documents aged 20-30 years old, according to Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

He said: “It’s a credit to the newspaper. It does show how effective the Act can be if you are prepared to persevere but also what problems people may face.”

The paper was supported in its bid to access the documents by two York MPs, including York Central MP Hugh Bayley, who said the John MacGregor letter was “absolute dynamite”.

He said: “Everyone at the time was calling for the matter to be referred to the MMC and now we find that even the cabinet minister with specific responsibility for the food industry was in favour of referral.

“As it happens, Nestlé’s takeover has turned out not to be a bad thing, as it has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in York, but this news makes it clear that the Thatcher Government could have done much more to protect its British shareholders but decided against it.”

At the time of the takeover, 13,000 readers of the then Yorkshire Evening Press backed the paper’s Hands Off Rowntree campaign which said the government should refer the case to the MMC.

A timeline of the paper’s FoI battle can be viewed here.