For new readers – put ‘Wuthering’ into the search facility on this blog to catch up. However, in short: Natural England were quite a long way down the line in prosecuting an upland landowner for alleged offences in connection with moorland management when it suddenly stopped all action and reached an agreement with the estate. I am curious, and in the absence of contrary evidence, not a little suspicious about why this happened. The case is important because of the precedent it sets for all grouse moors in England and the protection of designated sites.
I still haven’t received a reply from Defra in response to my FOI/EIR request. I shall be taking this up with the Information Commissioner if nothing arrives soon.
As far as NE’s response to my FOI/EIR request is concerned, I am not satisfied with it and have complained to them and repeated my request to see Andrew Wood’s witness statement prepared for the legal proceedings.
This was NE’s justification for non-disclosure of Andrew Wood’s witness statement:
Andrew Wood’s witness statement was produced for judicial review proceedings which were not pursued therefore this statement was not put into the public domain and is still classified as an internal document. Natural England is withholding this document under the exception set out in Regulation 12(5)(b) of the Regulations.
Regulation 12(5)(b) states:
“…a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect…
(b) the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of a public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature;”
The Information Commissioner’s Office has determined that parties involved in judicial proceedings have the expectation that such information will only be disclosed under the established court systems and procedures and that disclosure under the Regulations may serve to undermine general confidence in the judicial or inquiry system. This provision may apply even where the proceedings have been completed. As stated above, Andrew Wood’s witness statement was produced for the purposes of legal proceedings.
We have considered the public interest test and whether it would be in the general public interest to disclose the witness statement in order to show transparency and accountability in our decision making processes. These arguments have to be weighed against the clear public interest in preserving public confidence in the judicial system where the expectation is that disclosure of such information is regulated by that system. We have also looked at the particular circumstances of this case and the fact that Natural England is still in negotiations with the Estate in relation to an HLS agreement. Whilst Natural England strives to be an open and transparent organisation, in this case we believe that public interest test supports the withholding of this information.
As I understand it, Andrew Wood’s witness statement was made in a High Court hearing on 27 January 2012 which was open to the public and where members of the public were present. Therefore, non-disclosure is unjustified.
I have applied to Leeds Crown Court for a copy of the witness statement but I ask again that Natural England stops being obstructive and discloses this information.
This is not the full extent of the further requests that I am making to Natural England regarding their part in the Walshaw Moor case. I feel that both NE and Defra are being uncommunicative and obstructive in the way that they are dealing with my requests. That only encourages me to pursue them further and with more vigour. If the hope is that I’ll get bored or lose interest then that is a vain hope.
I will keep badgering away on this subject because I believe that it is important. I will keep asking sensible questions and will use the complaints procedure to raise the stakes if my questions are not answered. But here is how you could help in raising the stakes higher still. If you were to ask NE for a copy of Andrew Wood’s witness statement on the Walshaw Moor case then that would demonstrate public interest in the matter. If you were to ask NE for this information as follows: I would like to receive a copy of Andrew Wood’s witness statement on the management of Walshaw Moor and the general management of grouse moors which I believe was prepared for a High Court hearing which took place in late January 2012 in Leeds Crown Court. I believe that this request falls under the remit of the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations. You could make this request by email to this email address firstname.lastname@example.org , or any other Natural England email address that you have to hand, or over the phone to 0845 600 3078 (local rate) or through twitter (@NaturalEngland).
Watch this space.