AddThis SmartLayers

New tribunal held in five-year battle over secret papers

A legal hearing has been held as part of a regional daily’s ongoing five-year battle to gain access to secret government documents about a controversial company takeover.

The Press in York has been fighting since 2008 to gain access to Cabinet Office papers relating to Nestlé’s takeover of Rowntree confectioners in 1988.

The paper won a victory last October when a tribunal ruled that five ministerial papers relating to the takeover should be released but the Cabinet Office appealed against this – resulting in a further hearing last Friday.

A new decision on the release of the documents is now due next month following the Upper Tier Tribunal, where The Press was excluded from part of the hearing because it discussed the content of the files.

The case began in 2008 when The Press submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for all Cabinet Office documentation relating to the takeover of Rowntree.

Some letters were released at that point but most were withheld and the Cabinet Office cited the 30-year rule, which states how long Government papers should remain classified.

The Press resubmitted its request in 2010 following a ruling in a separate case and the Information Commissioner later found in favour of the paper, as did the first tribunal last year – but the Cabinet Office continued to maintain its original refusal.

At the latest hearing, the paper argued that the 30-year rule has since been replaced by a 20-year rule but legal arguments debated whether this was relevant to the case because it took place after The Press’ original request.

News editor Gavin Aitchison said: “This Government and the previous Government have accepted that the 30-year-rule should become a 20-year-rule. Legislation has now been passed to bring about that change, but phased over several years for practical reasons.

“It is wholly inconsistent for the Cabinet Office to continue to argue against releasing documents that are now 25 years old, when successive Governments have said 20 years is long enough for people to wait.

“We believe the public interest in disclosure greatly outweighs the arguments against and we now await the ruling in the latest hearing.”

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.