Government attempts to keep air pollution information secret

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

London, Jan. 2011: A freedom of information tribunal is being urged by environmental campaigners to reject Government attempts to keep secret sections of ministerial briefing papers on air pollution in London. The Government's appeal against a previous ruling to make the information public was being heard on January 12 and 13, 2011. At the time of writing the outcome is not known.

Well, such information is covered by the Official Secrets Act after all and, then, the general public would not be able to understand such information anyway (/sarcasm off)

In fact, I am serious here to some degree but still let my sarcasm flow, as such information has been under the Official Secrets Act for nigh on ever since its inception. Why this should be so beats me but, apparently, the British public are too infantile as to understand such information. That at least is the government's reckoning here.

The information could have major implications for Government efforts to prevent the European Union prosecuting the UK for persistently breaching air quality laws. It has been requested by Simon Birkett, who is Founder and Director of Clean Air in London and represented by lawyers from Friends of the Earth's Rights and Justice Centre and barristers Gerry Facenna and Laura Elizabeth John of Monckton Chambers. A separate decision from the EU on its legal action is expected imminently.

In January 2009 Clean Air in London filed a freedom of information request asking for "a copy of any minutes, papers, correspondence or other material relating directly to any meeting (including sent subsequent to it) that takes places between Lord Hunt [Environment Minister under the previous Labour Government] and Mayor Johnson." The sections of the documents which the Government has yet to release are believed to relate to the western extension of the congestion charging zone and air quality.

Despite two rulings in favor of Mr Birkett (by the Information Commissioner's Office in November 2009 and at an appeal heard by the First-tier Tribunal in May 2010), the Government has continued to refuse to make the information public.

The Government is appealing for a second time (this time to the Administrative Appeals Chamber of the Upper Tribunal) - arguing that it was entitled to say, for the first time in the First Tier Tribunal, that the information is covered by 'legal advice privilege and litigation privilege'.

Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of the Clean Air in London, said: "For two years successive Governments have fought to keep information about London's air quality secret - if only they'd put as much effort into meeting pollution laws.

"The Mayor estimates that the early death of some 4,300 Londoners in 2008 was attributable to long-term exposure to dangerous airborne particles - mainly caused by diesel-powered vehicles. This is a national disgrace.

"The Government must not be allowed to hide this information - the public interest for publication is overwhelming."

Friends of the Earth's Head of Legal Gita Parihar said: "The Government's approach to this case makes a mockery of information laws.

"When the Information Commissioner's Office ruled that the Government's reason for refusing to make the information public wasn't valid, it came up with two completely new reasons for keeping these documents secret.

"Ministers must deal with freedom of information fairly and openly rather than trying to move the goalposts to protect themselves."

In so many ways the British public, each and every Subject of Her Britannic Majesty, are being treated worse than small children in that they are denied access to so much relevant information that impacts on each and everyone's lives; something that just could be obtained in the USA at the click of a mouse or by walking into the right library and such.

But secrecy is so ingrained in British government departments, whether central or local, that to get any information if a battle of wits.

Civil servants have built their fiefdoms on keeping information strictly and tightly controlled by quoting the Official Secrets Act and every conceivable opportunity and you take your life into your hand by crossing them demanding the information that you are, theoretically now even under UK legislation, are entitled to.

There should be no battle under a real Freedom of Information Act, none whatsoever, and it should the onus should not be on the questioner to prove that he or she has a need or right to the information but on the government to prove that they have a right to conceal it.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance but that can only be properly exercised by people who have all the knowledge available and it is, therefore, the government who does everything possible for the people not to be able to maintain such vigilance.

© 2011