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Do information laws really mean greater access to company files?

The Freedom of Information Act came into effect on January 1 bringing to light tales of civil servants' battles for soft toilet roll in the '60s and Jim Callaghan's reluctance to move into 10 Downing Street.

Such sparkling material overshadowed separate information regulations for the environment that also came into effect on New Year's Day.

While the Freedom of Information Act allows access to information held by any public body, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 extend this duty to private companies, such as waste management firms, that carry out environmental services on the public's behalf.

This concept isn't new though.

The regulations' predecessor - the Environmental Regulations 1992 - also required environmentally engaged firms to be transparent.

However, the updated regulations will leave waste management companies more open to public scrutiny than ever before.

When he presented the new regulations before Parliament on December 9 2004, Environment Minister Elliot Morley said: "The revised regulations provide a shorter time for authorities to respond to requests. They require that authorities make more available to the public by electronic means. They make the public interest test explicit and state that there will be a presumption in favour of all disclosure."

The definition of 'authorities' used by Morley and in the regulations includes private environmental companies working on the public's behalf.

However, the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which represents the country's waste management companies, disputes the definition and the hold that these regulations have over its members.

ESA chief executive Dirk Hazell said: "The writing of the act is such that it covers 'any other body or person that's under the control of a public authority'. To what extent that covers our members is going to hinge on the meaning of 'under control'."

Hazell argued that the ambiguity of the 'under control' statement and its failure to directly address the relationships between private firms and public bodies was "another example of slapdash implementation of European law by the Government".

Friends of the Earth solicitor Phil Michaels claimed the ESA was simply trying to protect its members from greater public scrutiny.

Friends of the Earth has launched its Right-to-Know campaign in tandem with the new freedom-of-information laws, with the organisation's website containing an online information-request generator.

This lets people apply for information online to find out what public bodies are doing on their behalf.

As far as the responsibility of private companies was concerned, Michaels said: "Some of these firms dispute the fact that they are covered. That's very hard to do, however, because ministers explicitly referred to private companies when these regulations were presented in Parliament."

Michaels confirmed that Friends of the Earth would use the revised law whenever engaged in discussions or disputes with private firms over their activities.

He added: "It's a very useful and powerful legal tool."

However, Hazell said that, contrary to having something to hide, the waste management industry was the most transparent of sectors. He reasoned: "we have a good story to tell".

This was confirmed by some of the ESA's members.

A spokesman for waste management firm Cory Environmental said: "We have always been open to the public and we will conform as required with new reg

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