Recent findings by the Commissioner for Environmental Information reveal a concerning trend of public bodies demonstrating an ‘unacceptable’ lack of engagement with information laws. This failure to communicate effectively has resulted in an alarming number of overturned decisions and refusals to release vital environmental information. In this blog post, we will explore the urgent need for software solutions like ComplyKEY to assist freedom of information officers in ensuring compliance with environmental information regulations/ Access to Information (AIE) laws.
The Alarming Reality of AIE laws
As seen in a recent article in thejournal.ie public bodies, ranging from An Bord Pleanála to Coillte and local councils, have been severely criticized by Commissioner Ger Deering for their inadequate compliance with Access to Information (AIE) laws. This lack of engagement is further compounded by a worrisome level of understanding regarding public authorities’ obligations under environmental information law. Shockingly, a substantial number of appeals have resulted in the commissioner overturning decisions to withhold environmental information, highlighting the urgent need for improvement.
The Impact on Environmental Information
Environmental information requests, often initiated by concerned citizens and activists, play a vital role in addressing potential breaches and ensuring informed decision-making. However, the commissioner’s annual report reveals a distressing trend of public authorities failing to fulfil their obligations under AIE laws. In 2022 alone, an astonishing 93% of decisions made by public authorities were annulled by the commissioner’s office, reflecting a staggering increase of 36% from the previous year. These statistics reflect the inadequate quality of decision-making and lack of commitment on the part of public authorities.
The gravity of the situation becomes even more apparent when considering the record-high number of appeals made to the Commissioner for Environmental Information. In 2022, the office received a total of 369 appeals, representing a staggering increase of 151% compared to the previous year. Most appeals were related to forestry and tree felling, with bodies such as An Bord Pleanála, the Department of Agriculture, Coillte, and the National Transport Authority facing severe criticism. Delays in the AIE request process and unjustified refusals to release information hinder citizens’ ability to participate effectively in environmental decision-making processes.
Reprimanding Inaction with AIE Laws
Several specific cases highlight the concerning lack of communication and engagement exhibited by public authorities. Wicklow County Council faced reprimand for its mishandling of a request regarding the alleged pollution of the River Slaney. After failing to issue a timely decision and subsequently refusing access to the requested information, the council’s limited response and lack of clarification were deemed unacceptable. Similar criticisms were directed at An Bord Pleanála for withholding information on the Galway Ring Road development and refusing a digital copy of a recorded oral hearing held for a strategic housing development in Dublin. These instances further underscore the need for improved cooperation and communication between public authorities and requesters of environmental information.
Finding Solutions with ComplyKEY
To address the urgent need for enhanced compliance with AIE laws, software solutions like ComplyKEY offer an effective way forward. ComplyKEY provides freedom of information officers with the necessary tools to streamline the information request process and ensure adherence to environmental information regulations. By facilitating better communication, collaboration, and transparency, software solutions like ComplyKEY enable public authorities to meet their statutory obligations promptly and effectively.
The current situation regarding public authorities’ engagement with environmental information laws is deeply concerning. Urgent action is required to rectify the failure to communicate effectively, thereby ensuring timely access to critical environmental information. Software solutions like ComplyKEY provide a way forward, enabling freedom of information officers to streamline the request process and enhance If