PROCEEDINGS OF THE
Wednesday 2 May 2001
|Mr Colin Breed||Mr Patrick Hall|
|Mr William Cash||Miss Anne McIntosh|
|Mr Michael Connarty||Mr Anthony Steen|
In the absence of the Chairman, Mr Michael Connarty
was called to the Chair.
The Committee deliberated.
Draft Report, proposed by the Chairman, brought up
Ordered, That the draft
Report be read a second time, paragraph by paragraph.
Paragraphs 1.1 to 4.11 read and agreed to.
Paragraph 5 read as follows:
20.PUBLIC ACCESS TO ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION
Commission Report on the experience gained in the application of Council Directive 90/313/EEC on the freedom of access to information on the environment.
Draft Directive on public access to environmental information.
(b) Article 175(1) EC; co-decision; qualified majority voting
||Environment, Transport and the Regions
|Basis of consideration:
||SEM of 26 April 2001
|Previous Committee Report:
||HC 23-xxvii (1999-2000), paragraph 9 (25 October 2000)
|To be discussed in Council:
||7-8 June 2001|
5.1 The Community provisions currently governing
freedom of access to information on the environment are set out
in Council Directive 90/313/EEC.
This requires Member States to ensure that public authorities
make available information requested relating to the environment
(for which a reasonable charge may be made). Member States may,
however, provide for a request to be refused where it would affect
such areas as the confidentiality of public proceedings, public
security, commercial confidentiality, personal data, and matters
which are sub judice. A request may also be refused where
it would involve the supply of unfinished documents, or is formulated
unreasonably or in too general a manner. The reasons for a refusal
must, however, be given, and may be subject to a judicial or administrative
review. Finally, Member States themselves have an obligation to
provide general information to the public on the state of the
environment by such means as periodic reports.
5.2 As required under the Directive, the
Commission reported in June 2000 (document (a)) on the way in
which it had operated to date. This Report was accompanied by
document (b), which proposed a number of changes to the Directive
in the light of that experience, and of the subsequent signing
by the Community and the Member States in 1998 of the UNECE Convention
on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making
and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (the Aarhus Convention).
5.3 In its report, the Commission identified
the main problems as having been too restrictive an interpretation
of what constitutes information relating to the environment; uncertainty
over the definitions of public authority, and of bodies with public
responsibilities for the environment; a refusal to provide information,
even though it is not covered by one of the permitted exceptions;
slowness in responding to requests, or failure to do so at all;
and the levying of unreasonable charges.
5.4 The Commission also discussed the terms
of the Aarhus Convention, which it regards as a "clear advance"on
the provisions of the Directive. It saw the main improvements
i. an extended definition
of "environmental information" and of "public
ii. more detailed provisions regarding the form
in which information is to be made available;
iii. a shorter deadline for responding
to requests, and a requirement for any response to be substantive
rather than simply an acknowledgement;
iv. a more restrictive interpretation of the
permitted exceptions, with the public interest being weighed
as between disclosure and non-disclosure;
v. a strengthening of the obligation on national
authorities to give reasons for refusing a request;
vi. additional duties on national authorities
to disseminate information beyond the obligation to respond
to requests; and
vii. improved procedures for reviewing the
actions or omissions of public authorities.
5.5 These considerations were reflected
in the Commission's proposal for amending Directive 90/313/EEC,
which it described as a "timely opportunity" to align
Community law with the relevant provisions of the Convention,
and as a means of reflecting the use of the latest technology
in disseminating environmental information.
5.6 In his Explanatory Memorandum of 6 October
2000, the Minister for the Environment (the Rt Hon Mr Meacher)
said that the UK strongly supported the objectives of the Aarhus
Convention, and was committed to ratifying it as soon as possible.
However, he added that there were a number of implications arising
from the specific way in which the Commission was seeking to give
effect to those objectives. In general terms, the proposal went
beyond the Convention; it removed the option of complying with
the Convention administratively, thereby limiting Member States'
flexibility; and limited Member States' discretion by omitting
some important provisos. More specifically, he pointed out that:
viii. the definition
of "public authorities" suggested by the Commission
extended the scope for the first time to private sector firms,
notably those supplying services, such as gas, water and electricity,
still provided by the public sector in many Member States (or
indeed to others firms which might affect the environment,
such as airlines, freight hauliers, and the construction industry);
ix. an obligation on public authorities to make
available environmental information by electronic means would
extend to archive material; and
x. whereas the Aarhus Convention expressly allows
charging in advance (in line with common UK practice), the Directive
would prevent this.
5.7 The Minister also pointed out that,
although the Aarhus Convention was not expected to give rise to
significant additional costs, the Commission's proposal could
involve financial impacts which it had not properly addressed.
He therefore submitted with his Explanatory Memorandum a partial
Regulatory Impact Assessment, which suggested that the new Directive
was very unlikely to apply to small businesses, but that larger
undertakings such as the privatised utilities could be affected.
At this stage, however, the main additional costs identified were
likely to fall on public authorities as a result of the new provisions
on charging, and a requirement to disseminate information electronically.
For example, the first of these could cost the Environment Agency
£1 million a year, whilst the Agency's costs from the second
could be as high as £49 million by way of preparation, and
£600,000 a year thereafter. Comparable costs for the Planning
Inspectorate are put at £40,000 a year and £100,000
5.8 In the conclusion to our Report of 25
October 2000, we commented that the concept of wider measures
in support of freedom of environmental information had already
been established by virtue of the present Directive and the Aarhus
Convention, and that, to the extent that this proposal sought
to address some of the shortcomings in the former and to take
on board the main elements in the latter, it was to be welcomed.
However, we also noted that there were clearly some outstanding
points requiring clarification, and we therefore said that we
would await with interest any further information which the Minister
could provide, together with the full Regulatory Impact Assessment
he had promised following the Government's consultation exercise,
before considering these two documents further.
Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum of 26 April
5.9 In his Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum
of 26 April 2001, the Minister says that, as a result of discussions
in Brussels, two of the UK's main concerns have been addressed.
First, the definition of "public authority" has been
brought into line with that in the Aarhus Convention, whilst the
text shown before the Council both enables charges to be made
in advance of the supply of information and modifies the potentially
expensive obligation to extend the electronic dissemination of
information to archive material (so as to apply it only where
such material is already in that format).
5.10 The Minister has also enclosed with
his Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum a further Regulatory
Impact Assessment. This is based on the information which has
become available from the Government's public consultation exercise
on the proposal. The Minister says that the amount of such information
is limited, but that it seems clear that only the Commission's
original proposal as opposed to the amended text now before
the Council would create significant new burdens.
5.11 We are grateful to the Minister
for this further information, and are now clearing these two documents.
Question put, That the Preamble to paragraph 5 stand
part of the Report.
The Committee divided.
|Ayes 2||Noes 3
|Mr Breed||Mr Cash
|Mr Hall||Miss McIntosh
Preamble disagreed to.
Paragraphs 5.1 to 5.11 disagreed to.
Paragraphs 6.1 to 20 (now paragraphs 5.1 to 19) read
and agreed to.
Resolved, That the Report
be the Thirteenth Report of the Committee to the House.
Ordered, That the Chairman
do make the Report to the House.
[Adjourned to a day and time to be fixed by
40 OJ No. L 158, 23.6.90, p.56. Back