40 leading environmental, open government and other organisations have signed a letter, which the Campaign for Freedom of Information co-ordinated, urging the government to drop a secrecy provision from draft legislation to improve environmental protection after Brexit. The organisations say the prohibition on disclosure “is wholly at odds with the public’s right to information” under existing UK legislation.
The draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill would establish the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP). One of its functions would be to investigate complaints of serious failure by public authorities to comply with environmental laws. This is intended to replace Europe’s environmental scrutiny functions after Brexit.
Although the OEP would normally have to reveal that it was investigating a particular authority or had found it had breached environmental law, most other information would be withheld:
- The OEP would be prohibited from disclosing information obtained from a public authority under investigation unless the authority consented
- The public authority being investigated would be prohibited from disclosing correspondence or formal notices from the OEP unless the OEP consented.
- The OEP would be required to copy its correspondence with a public authority to the relevant minister but could not disclose the minister’s reply without the minister’s consent.
The OEP could publish its final investigation report if it chose to – but the public would have no right of access to it.
In the joint letter to the Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, the organisations say this “would impose a degree of secrecy which does not apply to any other UK environmental regulator”. The restriction is “even more onerous” than that applied by the European Commission to information about investigations into breaches of EU environmental laws.
The letter points out the public has a right of access to environmental information under the UK’s Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). These allow information to be withheld if disclosure would ‘adversely affect’ an investigation. But the information must still be released if the public interest favours disclosure. The authority also has to apply a ‘presumption in favour of disclosure’. The letter says none of these important conditions would apply under the draft bill.
The letter adds: “If the OEP, public authority or minister (as the case may be) did not wish the information to be released, it would be withheld. There would be no need to show that disclosure would be harmful. The public interest in the information would be irrelevant. This would reverse decades of progress in opening up environmental information.”
The signatories call on the government to omit this “damaging and unjustified restriction on the public’s right to environmental information”.
The letter has been signed by:
Amnesty International UK Section
Bat Conservation Trust
Bumblebee Conservation Trust
Campaign for Freedom of Information
Campaign for National Parks
Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales
Campaign to Protect Rural England
Clean Air in London
Compassion in World Farming
Friends of the Earth
Global Justice Now
Good Law Project
Guy Linley-Adams Solicitor
Law Centres Network
National Union of Journalists
News Media Association
No 3rd Runway Coalition
Open Rights Group
Renewable Energy Foundation
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Salmon and Trout Conservation UK
The Brexit Civil Society Alliance
Transparency International UK
Trees for Cities
Whale and Dolphin Conservation
1. The Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill was published in December 2018. It is available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/766849/draft-environment-bill-governance-principles.pdf
2. The Environmental Information Regulations implement an EU directive and provide a right of access to environmental information which operates alongside the Freedom of Information Act.