Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) is a free powerful tool for getting information from public authorities. Don’t get put off by the name, it’s wide ranging in scope.
Thanks to Gavin Sheridan (of thestory.ie) for writing about this first on journalist.ie. The following is also based on the Department of the Environment’s more detailed guide for public authorities, the regulations, as well as my own limited experience of requesting information under AIE.
Who is covered?
All public authorities, it’s far more wide-ranging that Freedom of Information.
It includes: Local authorities, Government departments, port companies, semi-state companies (Irish Rail, Dublin Bus, ESB, RTE etc), Government and State agencies and bodies (HSE, RPA, etc). The authority does not have to have specific responsibilities for the environment. It also includes information held for a public authority by a body which is not a public authority.
Gavin points out that An Garda Siochana is covered but even if it was much of the information the Gardai hold could be rejected on the grounds that it relates to an on going investigation. So, while you might get more general information on, say, gardai actions which affects the environment, you are very unlikely to get details — even if environmental — on an ongoing case.
The legislation is so underused many public authorities may deny they are covered, for example, RTE apparently only accepted it was a public authority under the legislation at the stage of appeal (RTE later say it always viewed it self as such). Nama is continuing to deny they are a public authority as defined by the act, so is Anglo Irish Bank, Gavin has appealed these to the Information Commissioner / Commissioner for Environmental Information.
What is environmental information?
The Department of the Environment notes: “The definition is deliberately wide in scope and comprehends an extensive range of information.” It includes anything that affects air and atmosphere, water, and soil, but goes far beyond this to also include human health and safety, and the built environment. So, it could include: Transport, construction, waste disposal and recycling, water use, waste water, water quality, air quality, noise pollution, energy use, energy generation etc. But it could include much more — for example, I successfully made a request for the details of the research that the Road Safety Authority uses to back its position of bicycle helmet promotion.
What format of information?
The Department of the Environment says: “Information may be held in any material form (including written, visual, aural or electronic).” Requests for reports is what you hear the Freedom of Information most often used for, but like FOI, Access to Information is far wider. Any format of information may be asked for. It can be written, held in hard-copy or electronic form, be a database, photographs or video. It could be information which needs to be compiled (although extra search and retrieval fees may apply).
How do you make a request?
You can email or write your request. Unlike with FOI, it’s free so email can be used. With most public authorities you can address this to the FOI officer, otherwise contact the body to find out the most relevant person to send the request to.
You must state that the application is being made under the AIE (ie something like: “Under the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) regulations, S.I. No. 133 of 2007, I am seeking…”). You must also provide your contact details (state the name, address and any other relevant contact details of the applicant). Ten say in terms that are as specific as possible, the environmental information required (a more focussed requested is better than going fishing for information. And also specify the form and manner of access desired, ie say you want it in electronic form, by reply in email or posting it on CD/DVD to your address.
When should you expect a response?
The public authority should contact you and let you know who is dealing with the request and when you should expect a reply (some seem to do this by letter even if you have emailed them). Requests must be dealt within a month of the public authority receiving a request. This can be extended to two months for more complex or larger requests, you must be notified of this.
No response can be taken as a denial, but normally you should be given the reasons for the refusal. After this you can look for a free internal review which must be done by a more senior person than the person dealing with the original request. After that you can seek a review from the Commissioner for Environmental Information (aka the Information Commissioner), this costs €150.
Investigative journalism – following the paper trail, journalist.ie
Thestory.ie – good resource on public information