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Dominic Raab MP: If LibDems mean what they say about FOI, Huhne must come clean over emissions

RAABDominic Raab is the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton.

When Ed Miliband was Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), back in 2010, he turned down a Freedom of Information (FoI) request for the economic impact assessment of a UK cut in emissions by 42% (between 1990 and 2020). The UK cut was offered as part of an EU pledge to cut emissions by 30%, to help achieve a global deal at the Copenhagen summit in 2009. The same EU offer has been repeated at international conferences since then.

The FoI was submitted by Matthew Sinclair of the Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), and his appeal was finally decided by the FoI tribunal shortly before Christmas. It makes for astonishing reading. The estimate of a UK cut of emissions of 42% - as part of an EU cut of 30% - was made by Lord Turner’s advisory Committee on Climate Change, rather than the government itself. Nevertheless, DECC acknowledged that there are seven documents answering the substance of the FoI request.

Relying on an exemption in the FoI Act, DECC refused disclosure - and the tribunal agreed – on the basis that it would harm UK international relations. The argument appears to be that a global deal would be harder to reach, if other countries knew the economic cost of the UK’s proposed emission reductions. I am told that DECC argued that the cost to the UK was so low that other countries might argue that Britain was not bearing its fair share of emission reductions.

This is an extraordinary suggestion. If the UK economic cost of a 42% reduction in emissions is so low, it would be a coup for advocates of a global deal, allowing them to refute those – at home and abroad - who say tackling climate change comes with too much economic pain. If, on the other hand, the true economic cost is high, that is still something that should be informing the UK and international debate. The idea that such transparency would harm our international relations is weak, to say the least.

In fact, there have already been a range of economic impact assessments – produced by the TPA, the Committee on Climate Change and the EU Commission – but the public are entitled to know what the official estimate is. The tribunal addressed this argument by pointing out that the government would have to publish an impact assessment, when it legislates to give effect to a global deal. But, by then it would be a done deal. And, if disclosure would damage UK international relations then anyway, what is the argument for withholding the information now?

Those were the grounds relied on by Ed Miliband as late as March 2010 – and inherited by the coalition. Fortunately, the Liberal Democrats take a less restrictive view of FoI. In opposition, Nick Clegg led the charge in calling for greater transparency over official information, particularly in the context of the Iraq war. In January 2011, he made the wider case for a less restrictive interpretation of the FoI Act: 

“The Freedom of Information Act was a good start, but it was only a start. Exceptions remain far too common and the available information is far too often placed behind tedious bureaucratic hurdles.”

Chris Huhne went further, calling on the government to:

“Strengthen freedom of information by giving greater powers to the information commissioner and reducing exemptions ... Scrap the ministerial veto that allowed the government to block the release of the cabinet minutes relating to the Iraq war.”

Personally, I would not go that far – mainly because it would undermine the candour of cabinet discussions – but it is welcome that the current Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change takes a less restrictive view than his predecessor. So, will he disclose the economic impact assessment of the proposed UK emission reductions under the EU proposal? We will find out on Monday, when I am due a response to my Parliamentary question to DECC calling for disclosure of the information.

I come to this debate with no ideological preconceptions. I support environmental policies that make wider economic sense. But, we need a debate based on the facts, and government should not stand in its way.


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