Journalists demand 'secrecy provision' be dropped for post-Brexit watchdog

12th August 2019

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Geoff Lawson

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has demanded that the UK government drop a secrecy provision for its planned post-Brexit environmental watchdog.

In a letter to the new environment secretary, Theresa Villiers, the NUJ warned that current plans would allow the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to withhold most information about its activities.

This would be “wholly at odds with the public's right to information“, according to the letter, and impose a level of secrecy that “does not apply to any other UK environmental regulator“.

The restrictions are even more onerous than current EU rules, with the OEP only required to disclose the name of a particular authority it is investigating or when a law has been breached.

If the OEP, public authority or minister did not wish the information to be released, it would be withheld,“ according to the letter, which is also signed by Amnesty International, the WWF, and nearly 40 other organisations.

“There would be no need to show that disclosure would be harmful. The public interest in the information would be irrelevant. This would reverse decades of progress in opening up environmental information.“

The current proposals would prohibit the OEP from disclosing information obtained from a public authority under investigation unless it consented, the letter states.

The authority would also not be allowed to disclose formal notices unless the OAP agrees, and the watchdog would not be required to release a minister's correspondence without consent.

The NUJ said that the public has a right to these details under Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs), but warned that this would not apply under the draft Environment Bill.

Moreover, these restrictions would continue after an investigation is over and enforcement action concluded, with the OEP not even required to publish its final report.

The right of access to environmental information cannot be restricted by any other law,“ the letter states. “However, as it stands, the draft bill appears to be in conflict with this important legal provision, potentially over-riding it.

“Clause 28 of the bill envisages a damaging and unjustified restriction on the public's right to environmental information. We call on the government to omit it from the proposals.“

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