Alarm over plans to shield post-Brexit environment watchdog from scrutiny

The body created to regulate, monitor and enforce environmental standards in the UK post-Brexit will be shielded from scrutiny as a result of prohibitions on access to information, campaigners say.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which is being set up under the environment bill, should offer independent scrutiny of government and public bodies, and investigate public complaints about environmental matters.

But as the bill goes through the House of Lords, campaigners say it contains prohibitions on access to information from the new watchdog, which will shroud its work in secrecy. The prohibitions, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information, would affect requests made under the Freedom of Information Act and environmental information regulations (EIR).

An amendment to the bill to remove these prohibitions was due to be debated on Wednesday in the Lords.

Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “The government has created new prohibitions and the effect will be that if you want to gather information from the OEP on monitoring, or progress towards improving environmental standards, or on environmental hazards, [that] would be subject to prohibition on disclosure that would appear to override the right of access to environmental information under the … EIR, and to breach the Aarhus convention, the international treaty to which the UK is a signatory, and the right of access under the Freedom of Information Act.”

He said the prohibitions relating to information about enforcement action taken against public bodies would end once the OEP decided to take no further action about a matter.

“But this could take many years,” said Frankel. “In the meantime even information which could cause no harm to any investigation, or whose disclosure would be in the public interest, would be withheld.

“These provisions will cause unnecessary secrecy and reduce the opportunity for informed debate on environmental matters.”

On Wednesday, Lord Wills will table amendments to the bill seeking to have the prohibitions contained in clause 42 removed.

Frankel said the main impact of the prohibitions would be to stop information being released under environmental information regulations. These already allow information to be withheld where disclosure would “adversely affect” specified interests. But the decision has to take into account the public interest in releasing the information and a “presumption in favour of disclosure”.

These safeguards will not apply to the Office of Environmental Protection under the prohibitions.

The government, in its explanatory notes for the bill, denies it contains such prohibitions.

It states the bill does not “override the EIR which will still apply to the OEP and other public bodies” and “will also not override or disapply other existing legislative provision on public access to information such as the Freedom of Information Act 2000 or Data Protection Act 2018”.

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