Secrecy provision is 'damaging and unjustified'

| 13th August 2019
 Theresa Villiers
Flickr
UK Government urged to drop post-Brexit prohibition on environmental disclosure.

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Thirty six leading environmental, transparency and other organisations have urged the government to drop a secrecy provision from draft legislation to improve environmental protection after Brexit. 

The organisations say the prohibition on disclosureis 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.

Onerous restriction

Although the OEP would normally have to reveal that it was investigating a particular authority or had found that 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, and the public authority being investigated would be prohibited from disclosing correspondence or formal notices from the OEP unless the OEP consented.

In addition, 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 a joint letter to the Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, the 36 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.

Freedom of information 

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, which has been co-ordinated by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, 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 36 organisations call on the government to omit this "damaging and unjustified restriction on the public’s right to environmental information”.

This Author

Marianne Brooker is content editor of The Ecologist.

Signatories 

Amnesty International UK Section

ARTICLE 19

Bat Conservation Trust

Biofuelwatch

Buglife

Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Butterfly Conservation

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

ClientEarth

Compassion in World Farming

Friends of the Earth

Global Justice Now

Global Witness

Good Law Project

Greenpeace

Guy Linley-Adams Solicitor

Law Centres Network

MySociety

National Union of Journalists

News Media Association

Open Rights Group

Renewable Energy Foundation

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

Salmon and Trout Conservation UK

Sustain

The Brexit Civil Society Alliance

The Ramblers

Transparency International UK

Trees for Cities

Unlock Democracy

Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Wild Justice

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