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  • GM crop mix-up site to stay secret

    Posted on June 11th, 2010 admin No comments
    GM foods does have something of an image problem

    GM foods do have something of an image problem

    In 2008 at a farm somewhere in Somerset a GM modified strain of rapeseed was accidentally sown by a farmer alongside a normal strain of the plant.

    The concern was that the GM variety – or the Frankenstein food as we journalists enjoy calling it – had been modified so that it was resistant to weed killers.

    Why scientists would want to develop a plant that can’t be controlled with weed killers is beyond me, it’s a little like deliberately developing a strain of disease that can’t be killed with medicine, and we call that germ warfare!

    Anyhow news of this “accidental spillage” as it is called leaked out and somebody asked DEFRA for the grid reference of where it had happened.

    Now on the face of it this didn’t seem an unreasonable request to me. If the food chain is being put at risk by cross pollination with a freaky science strain of plant which can’t be killed by a good dose of RoundUp I think we should be told.

    The request for the location was made to the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) under the Environmental Information Regulations.

    But it was rejected on the basis that disclosure would be a breach of the farmer’s rights under the Data Protection Act and therefore under Section 13(1) of the EIRs.

    DEFRA had revealed the incident took place in the parliamentary constituency of Somerset and Frome, which covers 900 square miles.

    The Commissioner said that he was minded to rule it should be further refined to the outbound section of the postcode (the first half), which covers an area of about 18 square kilometres.

    But this potential compromise agreement was not enough for the applicant who wanted the full grid reference, which it was said can be more detailed than a full postcode and which could easily lead to the identity of the farmer.

    The Commissioner was told the farmer thought he was carrying out trials on what he believed to be conventional rapeseed and was later told the seed was contaminated with a GM version.

    He was asked by DEFRA if he was prepared to be identified and unsurprisingly he said he’d rather not as it could affect the price of his farm and his reputation.

    So unless this case goes on to the Tribunal we shall never know where this incident took place as the Commissioner ruled the grid reference should not be disclosed [FER0260420]. But if I were a journalist in Somerset I’d be on the lookout for any weird botanical happenings down in the land of the scrumpy drinkers – and I’d like to know if cider sales are falling in Wilmslow.

    Anti GM activists on an undercover operation

    Anti GM activists on an undercover operation

  • Strong and stable FoI

    Posted on May 12th, 2010 admin No comments
    A representative Government?

    A representative Government?

    So we have a new Government at last and this Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition is looking around for things they can agree on.

    Well rumour has it that one thing they are going to take from their manifestos and bring to Parliament is a so-called Freedom Bill.

    This was a plank of Liberal Democrat policy and pledged to strengthen the powers of the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

    It specifically made mention of bringing private companies under the Act if they are delivering monopoly services to the public. They specifically mention that Network Rail should be brought under FoI legislation, but I presume it would also then extend to utility organisations like water and power companies.

    The reason it would appear that this may be pushed through is that it is not completely at odds with Conservative policy, which although less specific did make noises about strengthening the power of the Information Commissioner, giving him the power to fine organisations that are found guilty of mismanaging data.

    So it would appear that Clegg and Cameron can find common ground on a Freedom of Information agenda and the power and reach of the legislation could even be extended.

    If this does come to fruition and private companies working in the public sector are brought under the Act it means the Information Commissioner will have to do his second U-turn on the issue – he really must be getting quite dizzy.

    It was assumed that water companies did fall under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) after a decision relating to Sutton and East Surrey Water PLC (FER0118853 and FER0162211).

    However a decision released in March by the Commissioner [FER0260426] reversed that ruling and stated that water and sewerage companies were not public authorities for the purposes of the EIR. This decision notice, which isn’t on the Commissioner’s website (e-mail me if you want a copy), refered to a complaint I had made against Thames Water [link].

    This reversal, that is signed off by poacher-turned-gamekeeper Steve Wood, used an Information Tribunal decision relating to Network Rail (EA/2006/0061 and EA/2006/0062) as part of the rationale for exempting such companies.

    Now it appears the world might be turned on its head again and the legal decisions are to be trumped by the lawmakers.

    So if they have got time between working out where the cuts are going to go the Government may just give the Freedom of Information world a bit of a shake down.

  • Charging issues clash with EIRs

    Posted on December 2nd, 2009 admin No comments
    EIRs apply to Land, Soil, Air and Fauna

    EIRs apply to Land, Soil, Air and Fauna

    It would appear that local authorities are in danger of losing a revenue stream thanks to the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

    The local searches conducted normally when a person moves house, to check on any planning issues relating to their prospective home, used to be a little money spinner for councils.

    Now however, it would appear that the Information Commissioner has decided this material is covered by EIRs and that if a person makes a personal request for the data it should be free of charge.

    This policy was backed up by guidance issued by the Commissioner [link] as well as a string of recent decision notices from East Riding [link], Tendring [link] and Liverpool [link].

    In the Liverpool case the complaint was made by a company that gets hold of the information on a commercial basis.

    The council rejected the company’s request to be allowed the information for free and the row was eventually settled by the Commissioner.

    In his ruling he sides with the company and states that although he does not have the power to order it he suggest that the council refund the applicant’s £9.48.

    However, it would seem that many local authorities are not entirely happy at the prospect of having to do land searches for free – under a 20-day deadline – for any Tom, Dick or Harry who happens to roll up at their offices.

    It would appear Liverpudlians are now free to make an EIR request via computer terminals.

    It would appear Liverpudlians are now free to make an EIR request via computer terminals.

    A quick trawl of the internet has found a number of councils claiming they are seeking further advice on the Commissioner’s ruling and have taken the matter to the Local Government Association for consideration.