The Directive, proposed by the European Commission (see related story), is a follow-up to a 1990 directive on freedom of access to information, which at the time was a catalyst in the way authorities approached a process of openness and transparency, says the Commission. Parliament voted on 14 March to approve the directive, but has added a number of amendments.

In particular, Parliament has stipulated that the internet should be explicitly mentioned, adding that account should also be taken of future development of information and communications technologies. European member states should create publicly accessible databases where environmental documents would be held, with search aids provided to make it easier for the public to locate information. On top of this, there should be specific criteria laid down regarding the quality of information, ensuring that it is up-to-date, comprehensible, and scientifically sound.

With regard to the availability of information on request, Parliament has also recommended that the deadline by which the information must be supplied should be shortened from one month to two weeks following receipt of the request, and from two months to six weeks for complex dossiers. Pointing out that under the Commission’s proposal, it would be possible for authorities to refuse information where it might adversely effect the confidentiality of proceedings of public authorities, the MEPs have emphasised that questions on emissions, discharges or other releases should always be answered.

With regard to the cost passed on to those requesting information, MEPs argue that charges should not exceed the cost of reproducing the material, and should only be made for reproducing information, not for searching for, or compiling it.

The move will pave the way towards ratification of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.

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