The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has published a new 'plain English' guide to the UK's Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs). Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, said that "many" of the complaints that the ICO receives in relation to the EIRs are to do with the mishandling of information requests by public bodies. He said the new guide would help solve the problem.
"While many public authorities will be used to responding to Freedom of Information requests, we regularly find that requests for environmental information have not been correctly identified as falling under the Environmental Information Regulations," Graham said in a statement. "Last year we dealt with 452 complaints under these regulations, many of them concerning applications which had been incorrectly treated as an FOI request. This guide will help public authorities to identify EIR requests at an early stage and to respond correctly."
The guide explains what the EIRs are, when public bodies must "proactively" publish environmental information, how to determine if individuals' requests for the information is valid, what to do if the requests are unclear and the circumstances in which requests can be refused. The guide also sets out details of the ICO's complaints procedure.
The EIRs were created in order for the UK to meet the requirements of an EU Directive. The laws "encourage greater awareness of issues that affect the environment" by "giving the public access to environmental information," according to the ICO's guide.
"Greater awareness helps increase public participation in decision-making; it makes public bodies more accountable and transparent and it builds public confidence and trust in them," it said.
Under the EIRs a public body is generally required to disclose "environmental information" it "holds" as soon as possible and within 20 working days of when information is requested. The EIRs are similar to the UK's freedom of information laws in that they give the public the right to access certain information held by public bodies. However the EIRs contain specific rules relating to the disclosure of 'environmental information'.
'Environmental information' relates to "written, visual, aural, electronic or any other material form" of information about environmental elements such as air, water and landscape. It also includes information detailing factors such as energy, emissions and noise as well as legislative measures and reports that affect those elements or factors, amongst other things.
Individuals requesting information under the EIRs do not need to provide their real names and public bodies cannot refuse to disclose information because other laws prohibit that disclosure.