UK’s Environment Agency chief admits regulator buries freedom of information requests | Environment Agency

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

Philip Duffy, the body’s chief executive, told an audience at the UK River Summit in Morden, south London, this week that his officials were “worried about revealing the true state of what is going on” with regards to the state of the environment.

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

The Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees the law on the Freedom of Information Act, has warned the regulator that the public have a right to have their requests answered and that transparency should be taken seriously.

An ICO spokesperson said: “People have the legal right to promptly receive information they’re entitled to and we take action when they don’t. We’ve been clear that public sector leaders should take transparency seriously and see the benefits it brings, including scrutiny of processes and approaches that can then benefit from improvement.”

Under the act, public bodies legally have to answer information requests, and disclosure of information should be the default – in other words, information should 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’ve got great volumes of them, and I see local officers going through quite a contorted processes to not to answer when they know, often, the answer but it’s embarrassing.

“They do it because they are frightened. They are worried about revealing the true state of what’s going on, they’re worried about reaction from NGOs and others, and possibly from the government, about the facts of the situation. And they’re often working at a local level but in a very nationally charged political environment, which is very difficult for them.”

Duffy suggested nature charities were asking questions in a manner that made it harder for Environment Agency staff to respond: “I think the first step there is to understand how hard that is for many of my staff, when they’re faced with often very expert NGOs who are asking very good questions – the right questions ultimately – but [it’s about] how they lower that tone a bit, and manage it.”

Under the FOI Act all requests have to 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 because of evidence seen by the commissioner about its performance in relation to its statutory duties under the FOI Act.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “Philip is completely committed to the highest standards of transparency, as he repeatedly stressed at the River Summit. He wants to make more EA data readily available, and we are already looking at how this can be achieved. He was referring to the concern that some staff working on water feel due to the current tone of the debate, which is often not constructive. This does not impact the process of releasing the information.”

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