Environment Bill “restricts public’s right to information”

An alliance made up of environmental and legal NGOs and journalist bodies is calling on the government to drop a so-called “secrecy provision” included in its Environment Bill.

The group consisting of over 30 organisations wrote in an open letter to new environment secretary Theresa Villiers that restrictions on the requirement for a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to disclose details of its investigations “is wholly at odds with the public’s right to information” under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

The bill would establish the new OEP whose functions would include investigating complaints of serious failure by public authorities to comply with environmental law.

The alliance wrote that the OEP would normally have to make public the fact that it is investigating a public authority or has concluded that it has failed to comply with environmental law. However, under the current provisions of the bill they argue the disclosure of large classes of related information would be restricted, including information obtained from a public authority under investigation and the ministerial response to correspondence between the OEP and a public authority.

The OEP would not be required to release its final investigation, although it would be free to do so voluntarily.

The alliance claims the provision would impose “a degree of secrecy which does not apply to any other UK environmental regulator” and would be “even more onerous than that under Europe’s access regime”.

The signatories said that the bill “envisages a damaging and unjustified restriction on the public’s right to environmental information” and called on the government to omit it from the proposals.

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