The government refused this morning to publish in full a redacted report on the impact of fracking on rural communities.
Amber Rudd, the climate change minister, said the Shale Gas Rural Economy Impacts report was a draft and not complete. Publication could, she said, undermine the government’s ability to determine policy.
The report, commissioned by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was released last summer with more than 60 redactions in response to a Freedom of Information request. Anti-fracking campaigners have been demanding publication of the full version so that MPs can read it before voting on fracking clauses in the Infrastructure Bill.
Speaking during a hearing of the committee stage of the Bill, Mrs Rudd said:
“It was an internal document. It is not analytically robust. It is a literature review of existing studies and is not exhaustive. It is a highly sensitive and fast-moving policy area and releasing such information shared across departments risks potentially undermining our ability to deliver effective policy.”
She said the redactions had been made under exemptions in the freedom of information rules and “to remove material not relevant to the request”. The redactions, she said, “were made on this basis not on the basis of sensitivity of materials”.
She added: “I don’t feel it has any addition to make to our important deliberations and considerations.”
The issue of the redactions were raised by three Labour members of the committee. The shadow energy minister, Tom Greatrex, described the minister’s explanation as the “thinnest justification I have ever heard for not publishing a document”. He said: “We have had other reports. This is part of the scope of information that should be available to members of this committee to make a judgement”.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) said:
“To have public confidence, which is what I am seeking to achieve, we have to have transparency. I think it is absolutely outrageous that we have documents that are redacted”.
He urged Mrs Rudd to persuade the Prime Minister to release the report. “If she doesn’t do that”, he said, “how can she look my constituents in the eyes and tell them that she is in favour of a transparent regulatory regime.”
Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton Test) said it should be the committee that decided whether the redacted material in the report was in the public interest or was robust. He said it would “better here on the floor of this committee, rather than hidden in a cupboard in Defra”.
Dr Whitehead has introduced amendments to the Infrastructure Bill requiring research on the cumulative impacts of fracking. Presenting his arguments, he said he would have liked to refer to information in the Defra report on those impacts but it had been redacted, along with the research conclusions.
The redactions served no positive purpose, he said, and he urged Mrs Rudd to reconsider. She said she would bring up the issue this afternoon or later in the week.
Last month, at a meeting of senior MPs, Anne McIntosh, chair of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs Committee, asked the Prime Minister to release the report. In his reply, he said “I am very happy to look at that”.
Yesterday, the Downing Street press office was unable to confirm whether the Prime Minister had considered the request. But Dr Whitehead suggested that an announcement would be made on Monday (19/1/15).
Tomorrow (14/1/15), anti-fracking campaigners are organising a mass lobby at the Houses of Parliament and will be urging their MPs to demand the report is released in full.
The committee stage of the Infrastructure Bill continues this afternoon at 2pm. Link to televised proceedings