Sir Terry Matthews letters release could harm economy, Welsh government says

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Media captionEdwina Hart joined Sir Terry at the opening of his Alacrity Foundation

Releasing an exchange of letters between telecoms tycoon Sir Terry Matthews and the first minister could "harm the Welsh economy", the Welsh government claims.

BBC Wales made a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) to see the correspondence, sent last autumn.

The letters were sent during widespread speculation that Carwyn Jones was about to reshuffle his cabinet.

This included possibly moving Enterprise Minister Edwina Hart.

When Mr Jones carried out a limited reshuffle in March, Ms Hart kept her economic brief and added responsibility for transport to her portfolio.

Sir Terry is believed to be a strong admirer of Ms Hart's ministerial style.

In September, Ms Hart joined him at the launch of his Alacrity Foundation in Newport.

It aims to provide graduates with the entrepreneurial skills and support to establish new high technology companies.

Operating as a charitable trust it is a collaborative partnership between Sir Terry's Wesley Clover organisation, the Welsh government, and private investors.

'In confidence'

The Welsh government confirmed it held correspondence between the first minister and the multi-millionaire owner of the Celtic Manor resort.

Refusing to release the letters, it said: "The Welsh government believes that the release of such information contained within the correspondence captured by your request would be likely to harm the economy of the south east region of Wales (and wider).

"When companies or individual business leaders make unsolicited communications with the Welsh government, there is the expectation that this information will be treated with confidence.

"If such information were released it could impair our working relationship with companies or business leaders.

"The knock-on effect of this could be that in the future, businesses would likely be reluctant to work with us, which could have a detrimental effect to the economy of Wales as inward investment opportunities, for example, could decline were business leaders of the view that the Welsh government might release information on their business options or investment proposals. I believe the resultant harm would be substantial."

The Freedom of Information Act provides an exemption for the release of documents where they "would, or would be likely to, prejudice the economic interests of the United Kingdom or of any part of the United Kingdom".

This is subject to a test to establish whether the public interest in openness and transparency in government, particularly in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and holding the organisation to account, could outweigh it. The Welsh government says in this case they do not.

BBC Wales has asked for a formal review of the decision.

A spokesman for Sir Terry Matthews said he did not wish to comment.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats accused ministers of trying to "hide their embarrassment and incompetence".

Enterprise spokesperson Eluned Parrott AM said: "The Welsh Labour Government likes to say that it is 'open and transparent' but this recent failure to disclose information, and many other similar episodes in the past, proves that Labour treats the concept of open government with contempt.

"The Welsh Labour Government's reasoning that releasing the letter would make businesses 'reluctant to work' with them is absolute tosh because there is a valid exemption - the commercial confidentiality clause - that can be used in those kind of circumstances that will protect companies if they want to work with the government.

"Sir Terry is a very experienced businessman and I'm sure that he was aware that the contents of that letter could be available for the public to read.

"The exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act weren't intended to provide a fig leaf for the Welsh Labour Government to cover up their incompetence or embarrassment.

"I sincerely hope that BBC Wales will appeal this decision by the Welsh Labour Government as it is in the public interest to know why this information has been withheld from us."

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