Agency in rearguard action against openness

The Countryside Commission became the second environmental quango to open up its board meetings and papers to the public in February. But the Environment Agency's response to a consultation paper on quangos gives no sign that it intends to follow suit.

The consultation paper was issued by the Office of Public Service last November. It proposed that quangos should "where practicable" hold their meetings in public. It also proposed that they should make "full use" of the discretion available under an official code of practice to publish as much information as possible - including, expressly, minutes of meetings - ahead of the forthcoming Freedom of Information Act.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) anticipated the proposals last September, when it announced that its board meetings were being opened to the public. SEPA also makes board papers available in advance and publishes full minutes of its meetings on its web site. Confidentiality applies only to a few issues such as personnel and finance.

In February, the Countryside Commission announced as part of its response to the consultation paper that its board meetings were being opened to the public for a six-month trial. Board papers and minutes will be published on its web site.

SEPA says in its response to the consultation paper that "the public need reassurance that [quangos] are open and accountable and really do `act at arm's length' from Government and the relevant Minister."

The point is well made in a small way in the first item in the minutes of the Countryside Commission's board meeting late last year, dealing with the outcome of a meeting with Environment Minister Michael Meacher. The minutes reveal that Treasury rules are blocking the transfer of £300,000 from its budget to staff costs when the Commission believes that it could obtain better value for money by employing staff to do work currently farmed out to consultants. The minutes record that the board "noted with some surprise the extraordinary lack of delegation to the DETR" to allow exceptions to the Treasury rules.

The Environment Agency professes in its response to the consultation to be "committed to operating openly and transparently in accordance with the principles outlined in the consultation paper and the freedom of information White Paper." But it shows little sign of delivering.

The Agency's board meetings remain closed, and no minutes are published. Some board papers are made available on request, but more than half of ENDS' requests have been turned down.

Last November, for instance, the Agency refused to disclose two papers on the economic aspects of its regulatory regimes and on how it will promote uptake of certified environmental management systems by business - the latter being of particular external interest. The Agency insisted that disclosure would be "premature", but there was no evidence that it applied the "substantial harm" and "public interest" tests set out in the freedom of information White Paper (ENDS Report 275, pp 24-26 ).

Remarkably, the Agency makes no comment at all on the Government's proposals for open board meetings and publication of minutes. It merely notes that it is "watching with interest" SEPA's progress with its open policy. But SEPA's own response makes it clear that this "is not of disadvantage to the management of the Agency and provides public confidence in the effective operation of the organisation."

The other main environmental quango, English Nature, appears as recalcitrant as the Environment Agency. It says that its Council "discusses a number of sensitive matters which are not appropriate for the public realm and may prejudice the planned outcome" - such as allowing wildlife sites to be damaged before they can be designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. In fact, statutory safeguards are already in place to allow information to be withheld where its disclosure may result in environmental damage.

The Government is expected to announce decisions on the outcome of the consultation in the next few weeks. In February, it legislated to require NHS Trusts to hold board meetings in public and make papers available to the public, with safeguards for confidential information. It remains to be seen whether this will be the model for other quangos.

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