HC Deb 04 February 1997 vol 289 c538W
Mr. Michael Brown

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if the Government have responded to the House of Lords Select Committee report on freedom of access to information on the environment. [14498]

Mr. Gummer

I have today published the Government response and I have thanked the committee for its timely report. The Select Committee's report has helped the Government in reviewing the workings of our own environmental information regulations and in reporting to the Commission on the implementation of the EC directive.

I am happy to accept most of the committee's recommendations although the majority of these involve revisions to the directive rather than to our own regulations. Although I accept that certain revisions to the regulations and guidance are desirable, I am less clear as to when these might best be made. There are external factors to consider.

The Commission is reviewing the directive and changes are possible. We will need to respond to these. However, there is a further complication. Negotiations are proceeding on a UN-EC convention on access to environmental information etc. The final agreed to text will probably necessitate further changes to both the directive and the regulations.

That does not mean, though, that we should do nothing now. As the report indicates, the regulations and the open government code of practice are providing the public with improved access to environmental information. I would like this improvement to continue.

I accept that access will be significantly extended if there is a more satisfactory machinery for appeals and enforcement. I propose, therefore, to seek ways to establish an independent appeals procedure as a matter of urgency and will give serious consideration to the Select Committee's preference for an information commissioner. I will also ensure that the guidance is revised to cover this change and to improve clarity elsewhere.

I have placed copies of our response in the Libraries of both Houses.