Peers Call For Transparency On Environment Bill

Peers have called for transparency protections to be written into new legislation to prevent a chill on the reporting of environmental issues, such as the investigations of public bodies for potential breaches of regulations.

The News Media Association wrote to peers earlier this week endorsing a briefing on the Environment Bill prepared by the Campaign for Freedom of Information which has raised concerns about the legislation and its impact on transparency.

Amendments tabled by Lord Wills to address concerns that prohibitions on disclosure could override transparency obligations within the Environmental Information Regulations were moved yesterday by Lord Rooker during a House of Lords debate on the Environment Bill.

Lord Rooker explained that swathes information relating to investigations of public bodies by the new environmental watchdog the Office for Environmental Protection could be kept secret if protections were not written into the face of the legislation.

Lord Rooker, Labour, said: “The withholding of such information would be a serious blow to the public’s right to know, to informed public debate and to public confidence in the OEP.

“It is almost inconceivable that such data could be withheld under the EIR. To do so, an authority would have to show that disclosure would ‘adversely affect’ a specified interest, consider whether the public interest required disclosure, and apply ‘a presumption in favour of disclosure.’

“If the information concerned emissions, significant EIR exceptions, such as those for commercial confidentiality or the interests of a person supplying information voluntarily, would be disapplied altogether. How does a blanket prohibition on disclosure, which takes no account of the public interest, advance environmental protection?

“And by the way, I realise that a member of the public could go with an FOI request direct to the body concerned, but how do they know what the body is going to be? That is the point: we will not know unless people are told.”

The Explanatory Notes to the Bill state that prohibitions on the disclosure of information by the OEP will not override the right of access to environmental information under either the EIR or the Freedom of Information Act.  However, this is not clear on the face of the Bill. 

Giving his backing to the amendments, Lord Lucas, Conservative, said: “When it comes to environmental information, we ought to be more open, not less. Environmental information is so much a public matter and of such widespread individual public concern that we should not be looking, simply for the convenience of the system, to hide it away.”

“As the Minister knows from our previous discussions, I am also a total devotee of openness. Both those concerns of mine are engaged by the Bill as it is now written.

Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, Labour, backed Lord Rooker’s amendments. She said: “He has rightly underlined the importance of open government and of the OEP being seen to act in the public interest.

“That is particularly true on environmental matters, where in the past there has been a tendency to cover up environmental damage and pollution, and those accused have deliberately drawn out proceedings to delay prosecution.”

Withdrawing the amendment, Lord Rooker said the Minister had spent “just three minutes” on this “crucial part of the Bill.” He added: “I will not try to respond now; I will take advice on what he said, but we will no doubt come back to this issue on Report.”