The Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine (DAFM) and Coillte have been criticised in a new report for their failure to provide forestry information to the public. The Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information (OCEI) published its annual review on Wednesday, May 24, highlighting the duty of authorities to provide information on the environment. However, the report criticised some authorities, including DAFM and Coillte, for failing to meet these obligations. Ger Deering, the Commissioner for Environmental Information, revealed that his office received a record number of appeals from individuals who were denied environmental information compared to the number of appeals received in 2021.
Deering emphasised that the purpose of the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations and regime is to enable members of the public to understand what is happening in the environment around them. He added that timely and easy access to environmental information is essential for the public to participate in environmental decision-making in an informed manner. Last year, the commissioner received 369 cases, an increase of 151% on 2021. His office also completed 227 cases, the highest number in its history, up from 83 in 2021.
The annual review revealed that over 69% of appeals to the commissioner, 257 in 2022, related to forestry information. The OCEI stated that these cases mainly involved Coillte and DAFM. In 90 cases, Coillte failed to give a decision on time at the ‘initial decision’ stage, and in 88 cases at the ‘internal review’ stage. The OCEI specifically mentioned Coillte, stating that “months of correspondence” between the commissioner’s office and Coillte were required to establish if Coillte carried out the appropriate searches in response to a request under the Access to Information on the Environment regulations. The commissioner added that if Coillte had supplied the relevant information when it was first requested by his office, his review would have been far more efficient and cost-effective for all parties.
The annual review also showed that DAFM failed to issue a decision within the statutory time limit in 26 cases at the ‘initial stage’, and 37 at the ‘internal review’ stage. The OCEI report highlights that the public has a right to access environmental information and that authorities have a responsibility to provide this information. The report further emphasised the importance of timely and efficient responses to requests for environmental information.
Environmental groups have expressed their concerns over the lack of access to forestry information. The Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) has called for greater transparency and accountability from Coillte and DAFM. The IWT has stated that the public has a right to know how forestry is managed in Ireland and that access to this information is crucial for informed decision-making.
In response to the report, Coillte has acknowledged the need to improve its performance in relation to the provision of environmental information. The company has committed to implementing a number of measures to address the issues raised in the report. DAFM has also acknowledged the need to improve its performance in this area and has committed to implementing a number of measures to ensure timely and efficient responses to requests for environmental information.
In conclusion, the OCEI annual review highlights the importance of access to environmental information and the responsibility of authorities to provide this information in a timely and efficient manner. The report has raised concerns over the lack of access to forestry information and has called for greater transparency and accountability from Coillte and DAFM. The response from both organisations has been positive, with commitments to address the issues raised in the report. It is hoped that these commitments will lead to greater transparency and accountability in the management of forestry in Ireland.