The cost of obtaining information about environmental hazards in Scotland may be up to 30 times more expensive than the cost of getting other information, the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland has warned.
Scotland’s Freedom of Information Act, which comes into force in January 2005, does not apply to environmental information. This will be available under separate regulations which implement an EU directive. But a draft of these regulations, issued by the Scottish Executive’s Environment Group, would allow Scottish authorities to impose higher charges for environmental information than those under the FOI Act. The Campaign believes such charges would be completely unjustified.
A spokesperson for the Campaign said: “If Scottish public authorities are allowed to charge what it costs them to produce, or even just to supply information, the charges will be astronomic. The ordinary public will not be able to afford to learn about the hazards they face. This right will be available to millionaires only.”
The Campaign calculates that a request for environmental information which needed 6 hours work could lead to a £90 charge – well beyond the ordinary person’s pocket. But a similar request for non-environmental information would be free, apart from photocopying charges. If 10 hours work was needed, the environmental information could cost as much as £150 although the equivalent FOI request would cost only £5. If 20 hours work was needed the environmental information could cost £300 compared to £20 for other information.
In a 2002 consultation document the Scottish Executive said there was “no logical argument” for different charging schemes for environmental and other information. The Campaign is calling on the Executive to ensure that environmental information is no more expensive than other information.
It also says it is concerned to find that authorities can withhold environmental information if disclosure would “adversely affect” commercial confidentiality or other interests. This is weaker than the “prejudice substantially” test under the FOI Act. It means that Scottish public authorities will find it easier to withhold environmental information than other information. Yet two years ago the Executive said that the FOI Act’s “substantial prejudice” test would also apply to environmental information.
The Campaign is also concerned about the Executive’s proposed guidance on the regulations. It points out that the regulations say that the public interest in disclosure must be taken into account whenever an authority is considering withholding information. But the guidance wrongly implies than an authority can ignore the public interest when deciding to withhold its “internal communications”. The Campaign says this would create a blanket of secrecy for internal documents, contrary to what the regulations actually state.
The Campaign said: “The Environmental Information Regulations and the Freedom of Information Act have been drawn up by different parts of the Scottish Executive – with little attempt to produce consistency. Instead of aligning the two regimes, as the Executive originally promised, Scottish authorities will be allowed to charge more for environmental information, and will also find it easier to withhold that information. Those are nonsensical inconsistencies which the Executive should put right.”
The Scottish Executive’s proposals on access to environmental information can be downloaded from:http://www.scotland.gov.uk/consultations/environment/ateic-00.asp
The Campaign’s detailed comments on these proposals can be downloaded from: