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 began its hearing yesterday (12 January 2011) and will continue today.
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, the Founder and Director of Clean Air in London and is 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 favour of 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, on this occasion 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, 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."