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12 November 2020

NMA: Environmental Investigations Must Not Be Hidden From Public View

Investigations into suspected failures by public authorities to comply with environmental law must not be hidden from public view, the News Media Association has said. 

The NMA and the Campaign for Freedom of Information have voiced concerns over proposed restrictions on the disclosure of information under the Environmental Information Regulations in the Environment Bill which has returned to Parliament after a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Bill will see a new, independent body created to oversee environmental failures.

The Office for Environmental Protection will cover all climate change legislation as well as hold public bodies and government to account, particularly government’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Written evidence submitted to the Public Bill Committee by the NMA and published for the first time this week said that there are “concerns over restrictions on the disclosure of information under the Environmental Information Regulations” and called for amendments to the Bill to “include a specific statement that the prohibitions do not affect the EIR right to information.”

The NMA and the CFOI highlighted that the Bill “would prohibit the disclosure of information about OEP investigations into suspected failures by public authorities to comply with environmental law.

“The prohibition would only be lifted once the OEP decides to take no further action. If and when the prohibition ceases to apply the status of the information in question would be changed, treating it as being held 'in connection with confidential proceedings.' This would bring it within the scope of an EIR exception and make it more likely that the information could be withheld.

“That should not be necessary; existing EIR exceptions protect information where disclosure is shown to be harmful and not in the public interest, an important safeguard against unjustified secrecy. The ambiguity could be clarified by an express statement that nothing in clause 40 affects the operation of the EIR.”

The OEP would be prohibited from disclosing information supplied to them by a body with public functions, an information or decision notice, information supplied to the OEP by a public authority in response to an information notice and correspondence with a public authority about such notices.

The CFOI stressed that “allowing environmental information to be withheld regardless of whether disclosure would be harmful or in the public would be a highly regrettable interference within existing EIR rights” and that Bill has not justified it’s case for extending the scope of an EIR exception to information concerning OEP investigations into possible breaches and information supplied to them for the purpose of its general functions.