Environment Agency chief admits regulator buries freedom of information requests

The head of the Environment Agency has admitted that freedom of information requests have been buried by the regulator because the truth about England’s environment is embarrassing.

Philip Duffy, the body’s chief executive, told an audience at the UK Rivers Summit in Morden, south London, this week that his officials were concerned about revealing the true state of what is happening in the with the state of the environment.

The regulator keeps information including pollution, the state of England’s waterways, meetings its bosses have with water company CEOs and other data on the state of nature in the country.

The Information Commissioners Office, which oversees the Freedom of Information Act, has warned the regulator that the public has a right to have its requests answered and that transparency must be taken seriously.

An ICO spokesman said: People have a legal right to get the information they are entitled to immediately and we take action when they don’t. We have been clear that public sector leaders need to take transparency seriously and see the benefits it brings, including examining processes and approaches that could then benefit from improvement.

According to the act, public bodies must legally respond to requests for information and disclosure of information must be the default, in other words, information must be kept private only when there is a good reason, which is permitted by the act.

Duffy said: I see these letters and these FOI requests and I get huge volumes of them, and I see local officers going through quite convoluted processes to not answer when they know, often, the answer, but it’s embarrassing .

They do it because they are scared. They are concerned about finding out the true state of what is going on, they are concerned about the reaction from NGOs and others, and perhaps the government, to the facts of the situation. And they often work at the local level, but in a very charged political environment at the national level, which is very difficult for them.

Duffy suggested that nature charities were asking questions in a way that made it more difficult for Environment Agency staff to answer: I think the first step is to understand how difficult this is for many of my staff when they face NGOs often very experts who are asking very good questions the right questions in the end but [its about] how they tone it down a bit and manage it.

Under the FOI Act, all requests must be treated equally, whether they are made by a member of the public, an NGO or a journalist.

Last year, the Environment Agency was served with an enforcement notice by the ICO due to evidence seen by the commissioner about its performance in relation to its statutory duties under the FOI Act.

An Environment Agency spokesman said: Philip is fully committed to the highest standards of transparency, as he repeatedly emphasized at the River Summit. He wants to make more EA data available, and we’re already looking at how that can be achieved. He was referring to the uneasiness felt by some staff working on the water because of the current tone of the debate, which is often not constructive. This does not affect the process of releasing information.

#Environment #Agency #chief #admits #regulator #buries #freedom #information #requests
Image Source : www.theguardian.com

Leave a Comment