Emails released today show that the Government deliberately delayed the full release of a report on fracking impacts – which it had been ordered to publish – until after the decisions on Cuadrilla’s shale gas applications.
A heavily redacted version of the report, with 62 sections missing, had been published by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2014.
But Greenpeace applied to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) under the Freedom of Information Act to force the publication of the full report.
The emails show that the ICO decided in Greenpeace’s favour a fortnight before Lancashire County Council was due to decide on Cuadrilla’s plans to frack at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood.
The full report concluded that fracking could cut house prices, damage businesses and industrialise the countryside, as well as creating jobs.
But the Government delayed releasing the unredacted version while the council was meeting and did not publish it until after the decisions were made.
The emails, released by Greenpeace today, show:
- The then energy minister, Andrea Leadsom, suggested the report was not published until after Lancashire County Council decided on the Cuadrilla fracking applications
- 10 Downing Street was involved in planning the release of the unredacted report
- A brief for Prime Minister’s Questions gave advice on rebutting accusations of Government double-standards on its policy on windfarms and fracking
- Defra was given the job of “knocking the report down”
- Government communications teams planned to publish the report “quite late in the day”
Extracts from the emails
5 June 2015
Involvement of Private Secretary
Email From Andrea Leadsom’s private secretary to Energy Development and Communications staff, Secretary of State Amber Rudd, her special assistants and the DECC permanent secretary
“Given the history of this [Freedom of Information request] it might be worth briefing the Minister once we have a response from ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office]”
9 June 2015
Email from Defra to staff at Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)
“To be aware that today we have received the ICO Decision Notice. The ICO has found against us. We have been informed by our Info Rights team that if the IXO follows their usual practice the Decision Notice will be published on their website on Thursday next week (18 June). However, the requester should have received the Notice at the same time as us and there’s nothing to stop him publishing it. Our press office will be in touch with yours.
“We have now 35 days to decide whether to appeal or release a full copy of the report.”
15 June 2015
Minister advises ‘do nothing’ until after decisions
Email from Andrea Leadsom’s private secretary to DECC communications team and staff in the energy development section, copied to the Secretary of State and her special assistants
“She [the minister] has asked that we continue with [sic] to flag any contentious FOIs to her. Emily [Energy Development] – it would be really useful if, when the FOIs come to us they have a sentence or two noting if they are particularly contentious, if the Minister should be aware or if we expect any media pick up from the FOI, particularly given her sensitivity to shale comms at the moment. Is this do-able?
“She has asked a few other questions specific to the next steps following the ICO’s decision:
- Does she need to input to the decision?
- Are we assisting DEFRA with any comms issues?
- Does HMT [Treasury] know about this problem?
- She suggests we do nothing before Cuafrilla’s [sic] planning decision if we have time.
“Grateful for a response to this by 3pm tomorrow to provide an update in the box.”
Departments collaborating on communications
Email from correspondent in Energy Development team to Emily Bourne in Energy Development, copied to other staff, including communications teams
The email confirmed DECC communications staff had been contacted by Defra and would be assisting on publicity. It added:
“We will make sure HMT [Treasury] are aware. No. 10 have been informed by Defra about the decision notice”
“The decision notice is expected to be published on Thursday 18 June on ICO’s website. We cannot defer ICO’s decision and this is out of Defra’s hands. However, Defra has 35 calendar days either to disclose the redacted paper or submit an appeal to the First Tier Tribunal with 28 days calendar days. They will let us know in advance if and when they decide to publish the report and we will make sure they are aware of the Minister’s views.”
Also on this day, Lancashire County Council published a recommendation by planning officers to approve Preston New Road but refuse Roseacre Wood
16 June 2015
From Emily Bourne (DECC) to Amber Rudd’s special assistants, the Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom’s private secretary and other DECC staff, including communications
“I have just discussed with the G5 at Defra. The Thursday publication is the ICO’s and will say only that they have ruled to release, however this will attract media interest. If Defra’s SOS decides to publish the report they will set up a meeting with us, No 10 and others to discuss timing but they are thinking first week of July. Must be before July 13.”
18 June 2015
“Strong public interest”
As expected, the Information Commissioner released its decision which ordered the Government to publish the Defra Rural Impacts report in full, saying there was a “strong public interest” in the Government’s policy on fracking and research on it. Defra had 35 days in which to publish or be deemed to be in contempt of court. It could also appeal within 28 days.
19 June 2015
Briefing for PMQs
Email from Emily Bourne to DECC staff requesting clearance of a draft briefing to Prime Minister’s Questions.
“Do you think we need to include a line on the report itself before the lines on how Cuadrilla’s planning applications relate to it?
“We will most likely need to update the lines on Wednesday 24 June [date of the Lancashire County Council planning meeting to decide Cuadrilla’s applications] in time for PMQs.”
The draft briefing included:
“The local planning committee will decide this week and it is absolutely right that they should. As I’m sure the Hon Member will understand, it would not be appropriate for me comment [sic] on the details of this case.
“It includes support for shale gas and refers to a community benefit package and sovereign wealth fund for the north of England.”
The briefing for Prime Minister’s Questions continued:
“If pressed on the double standards of letting communities have the final say on wind farms but not fracking
“‘The Conservative manifesto set out a commitment to make changes to planning, to give local people the final say on windfarm applications.
“‘We wholly agree that local communities should play a key role in determining shale operations in their local area too, through democratically elected councils and the planning system. There is already an established framework through which communities can engage with local decisions on shale operations.'”
The final paragraph continued:
“Given the Lancashire County Council’s request for the report to be release, there is a possibility that councillors could defer their decisions to wait and see the unredacted report. If the council fails to make a decision [or decides to delay making a decision having set these decision dates] then Cuadrilla can agree to a revised date for decision with the planning authority or has the right to appeal [to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government] on the basis of ‘non-determination’.”
23 June 2015
Planning committee meeting
Lancashire County Council planning committee meeting began to decide Cuadrilla’s application for Preston New Road
An email to staff at DECC and copied to staff at the Treasury and the Oil and Gas Authority gave updates from the planning committee meeting. This included news that there were requests for a deferral until the report was published but members voted to continue.
24 June 2015
Email from Andrea Leadsom’s private secretary to DECC staff
“I’ve had a message passed to be that Liz Truss’s office [at Defra] have apparently confirmed that the Defra Rural Impacts Report will be published on 1st July (and No. 10 have agreed with this). Might be worth confirming with No. 10, and then whacking it on the Grid.”
Also on this day, the LCC planning committee deferred consideration of Preston New Road until 29 June 2015 to take legal advice.
25 June 2015
Lancashire County Council planning committee meeting began to decide Cuadrilla’s planning application to frack at Roseacre Wood.
26 June 2015
Lancashire County Council planning committee meeting voted unanimously to refuse Cuadrilla’s application at Roseacre Wood
30 June 2015
‘Defra will lead on knocking the report’
Email from Policy Manager at the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil to Emily Bourne and communications staff at DECC
“Defra confirmed the Rural Impacts Report will be published tomorrow afternoon (timing tbc).
“Defra sent through a draft Q&A which we took a quick look at, updating and adding with our core script lines. They will draw up the statement.”
Email from communications staff to private secretaries of Andrea Leadsom and Lord Bourne (energy minister) and Amber Rudd and her special assistants
“Defra will lead on knocking the report down. We (DECC) might need to comment on the Government’s shale policy more generally and we’ll probably get together a couple of top lines to basically respond to the question why have we ignored this report when formulating our shale policy, something like the below (though not yet cleared).”
The email continued:
“The Government is firmly committed to the development of a safe shale industry and our policy has been developed while considering credible and relevant external evidence.
“For instance the Royal Academy of Engineering has said that risks from shale operations could be managed effectively so long as the correct procedures are followed, which is what our regulations insist on, and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors have said there is no market evidence that fracking affects property values.”
Email from Andrea Leadsom’s private secretary to communications staff and special assistants.
“Do we know when we expect the handling plan to come through and what sort of involvement are you anticipating?”
Publication ‘late in the day’
Email from DECC communications team to the private secretaries and special assistants
“Just to note if you have not been informed already that the Defra Rural Impacts Report will be published fully unredacted tomorrow.
“Defra will publish this quite late in the day – around 4pm. They are developing a handling plan which I will share with you when they have finished it, however we will likely need some level of involvement given DECC leads on this issue.”