Post-Brexit environment watchdog must be transparent, green groups urge

A coalition of almost 40 environmental organisations including Greenpeace, WWF UK and ClientEarth is calling for the Draft Environment Bill to be altered, to ensure that the public can request disclosure from the UK's post-Brexit watchdog.

Post-Brexit environment watchdog must be transparent, green groups urge

The call to action is being co-ordinated by the Campaign for Freedom of Information

In a letter to new Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers, the organisations point out that the Draft Bill, in its current form, would prohibit the UK’s environmental watchdog for after Brexit – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – from disclosing information obtained from an authority under investigation, unless the authority consented.

Moreover, the Draft Bill includes a clause that authorities under investigation will be banned from disclosing messages it receives from the OEP, unless the OEP consents.

While the Draft Bill does require the OEP to publicly reveal that it is investigating a particular body or has determined that the body is in breach of environmental legislation, the signatories of the letter say that its overall provisions are “wholly at odds with the public’s right to information” under existing UK legislation”.

“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 letter, co-ordinated by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, states.

“The public interest in the information would be irrelevant. This would reverse decades of progress in opening up environmental information.”

From the green economy, the letter has been signed by the likes of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Greenpeace, ClientEarth, WWF UK and the Renewable Energy Foundation. Organisations campaigning in favour of democracy, such as Amnesty International’s UK section and Unlock Democracy, as well those representing the media sector, including the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and News Media Association, have also signed.

Responding to the letter, a spokesperson for the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) told edie: “Following feedback from stakeholders on the draft Bill, we note that the wording is open to differences in interpretation and we are looking to address this in the final Bill

“Provisions set out in the draft Bill were not an attempt to restrict the public’s right to environmental information and we are working to ensure this is as clear as possible in the final Bill.

“The provisions set out in clause 28 of the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill were intended to provide adequate protection for confidential information during ongoing enforcement proceedings by the OEP.”

The Bill

The Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill was first published in December 2018, under then-Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who has since been moved to the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Crucially, the draft bill confirmed that the OEP will have the power to take businesses, public bodies and the Government to court over any breaches of environmental law.

However, it also includes clauses stating that the body will not be able to issue fines, call senior representatives to attend Government hearings or place non-compliant organisations into ‘special measures’.

Gove said at the time of the Draft Bill’s publication that the policy framework would serve to make the OEP “world-leading” and help the watchdog to play a crucial role in driving progress towards the 25-Year Environment Plan. However, it has been widely criticised by the likes of Northern Ireland’s Environment Department, the Environmental Audit Committee and the National Audit Office.

Sarah George

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