The Environment and Access to Information

Peter Roderick, Friends of the Earth

Just as one needs to a have a right to information on physical abuses, there has to be a right to information on abuses by governments, by industry which poison us, which dump nuclear waste in our environment, which put on the market genetically modified foods which have barely been tested, for example.

Over the last 10 years there have been quite significant developments in terms of the right to information as far as the environment is concerned, not only at the national UK level, but infact motivated by developments at EU level, but also now at UN level. In 1990 the EU passed a directive on access to environmental information. That gave every EU citizen, and in fact everybody in the world the right to have access to environmental information held by public authorities in the EU or by bodies under the control of these authorities in the EU. Environmental information is given quite a broad definition, and can extend to health and safety as well. So that was a start, something that was agreed to by the conservative UK government, and implemented in the UK in 1992 in our freedom of environmental information act, the Environmental Information Regulation Act 1992. This has led to a big improvement in the openness of government as far as the environment is concerned across a broad spectrum. What is interesting about the environmental information regulations is that they are better than the UK governmentís freedom of information bill. The original plan of Jack Straw and the UK government was to abolish the environmental information regulations and to include environmental information within the broader remit of freedom of information. That seems to make sense, but we donít want to have demarcation disputes about whether information relates to the environment or not. However, the proposal was so bad that he has had to backtrack from that and had to accept that he will have to keep our environmental information regime separate to the freedom of information bill, otherwise we would lose the rights we already had. Friends of the Earth had told him that we would judicially review the act for being in breach of the EU directive if the act proceeded through Parliament and was given the royal assent. Heís backtracked from that, Iím pleased to say. On the other hand Iím disappointed as weíre now going to have arguments whether information is environmental information or not. There have been very interesting developments at the UN level. In Denmark in 1998, the government under the auspice of the UN Economic Commission for Europe signed a convention. This is Article 1 of the Convention:

ĎIn order to contribute to the protection of the right of any person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his/her health and well-being each party should guarantee the right to access to information, participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters in accordance to the provisions of this convention.í

This was a major step forward. These countries extended to Russia and other former Soviet Republics, Turkey, right through western Europe. America and Canada are also members of the UNECE, but they didnít participate in the negotiations on the convention. I spent 1996-98 as a member of a pan- European NGO delegation negotiating the convention. The first time international NGOís were given such a right to negotiate as if we were a state. Itís the first time in international law that thereís been a recognition of the right to a clean environment. Hitherto on an international level, there were a couple of judgements in the European Court of Human Rights where the right to privacy had been used as an environmental right. Also the so-called 3 pillars of the convention: access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice. These are the procedural rights which underpin the wider substantive rights. What was very interesting was the provision of the various elements. This was a Belgian government proposal, supported by Denmark and Italy, not supported by the UK when it was first put forward because we then had a Tory government. The new government in 1997 supported it. There was a very embarrassing moment for the UK on the last day, the penultimate session of the negotiations where the UK had to make a reservation to this provision in the convention. The UK Foreign Office said it was undesirable because it was unrealistic and unattainable, and that such a right might lead to public expectation of full implementation and that would lead to open ended commitment of resources. The Foreign Office clearly didnít support it. There was a bust up between the Department of the Environment and the Foreign Office, but the Foreign Office backed down and it was eventually signed, but with a provisional clause. So thereís still a long way to go before we can say thereís whole hearted support for the right to live in a clean environment.