Figure 1: Summary of complaints handling procedures
Clause 30: Investigations
270 This clause deals with the investigation of complaints, and potential breaches of environmental law coming to the OEP’s attention by other means.
271 Subsection (1) provides that the OEP may undertake an investigation on the basis of a complaint received under clause 29 if it considers that the complaint indicates that a public authority may be responsible for a serious failure to comply with environmental law.
272 Subsection (2) provides that the OEP may also undertake an investigation under this clause without having received a complaint, if it has information obtained by other means that in its view indicates a public authority may have committed a serious failure to comply with environmental law.
273 The OEP’s enforcement policy will set out how the OEP intends to determine seriousness for the purpose of subsection (2)(b). The OEP is not obliged to investigate all complaints, and provisions in subsections (1) and (2) allow the OEP to exercise discretion regarding the potential breaches that it investigates. The OEP’s approach to prioritising cases will also be set out in its enforcement policy, in which it must have regard to the considerations set out in clause 22(7). If the OEP chooses not to investigate a complaint, the complainant must be informed under the requirements of clause 31.
274 Subsection (3) sets out the purpose of the investigation, which should focus on establishing whether a public authority has failed to comply with environmental law. Under subsection (4), at the start of an investigation the OEP is required to notify the public authority being investigated, although in practice it also has discretion to contact the public authority informally in advance of commencing an investigation. Subsection (10) also provides that, if the authority is not a Minister, the OEP must additionally notify the "relevant Minister". Subsection (11) provides that the relevant Minister should be the Minister of the Crown that the OEP considers appropriate, having regard to the nature of the public authority and the nature of the failure (that is, the Minister whose department is responsible for the policy area). For example, in the case of an investigation into a potential infringement relating to environmental permitting, a Minister for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should likely be informed where the Environment Agency had issued the permit in question. If an investigation relates to environmental impact assessment, which is a policy area predominantly owned by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, a Minister from this department should likely be informed, where a local authority was responsible for the alleged failure. The intention of these subsections is to ensure that central government departments remain informed of investigations related to their subject areas, and are therefore able to contribute, even if an alleged infringement does not involve a lack of compliance on the part of the department or Ministers themselves. This definition of the "relevant Minister" also applies to other clauses in this Part.
275 Similarly, when an investigation is concluded, subsection (5) requires that the OEP provide a report to the relevant public authority, copied to the relevant Minister if necessary under subsection (10). The OEP may publish the report in full or part under subsection (9).
276 Subsection (6) allows the OEP the flexibility to delay the preparation of this report if it considers that it may take further enforcement action (for instance, the service of an information or decision notice, or application for environmental review under clause 35) in relation to the alleged failure. This is intended to ensure that the OEP is not required to prepare and release reports concerning an investigation while it is still considering or intending to take further enforcement action. However, should the OEP publish a report and further information subsequently comes to light, it will not be precluded from taking further enforcement steps in relation to the failure as a result of having already published a report.
277 Under subsection (7), if the OEP has applied for an environmental review, judicial review, or statutory review it is not required to prepare a report.
278 The required contents of this report are set out in subsection (8). A report must state whether the OEP considers that a public authority has failed to comply with environmental law, the reasons the OEP came to these conclusions, and any recommendations the OEP may have for the relevant Minister, the public authority in question and any other authorities.
279 The OEP has discretion over whether to publish the report (in whole, in part or at all), in view of the possibility that some investigations may conclude that there is nothing of value to put in the public domain, while other investigations may involve matters of significant confidentiality or sensitivity. The OEP will exercise this discretion consistently with its duty to have regard to the need to act transparently (see clause 22(2)(b)). Information that the OEP chooses not to proactively report and publish will still be open to requests for disclosure and will need to be considered under the applicable legislation dealing with such requests.
Clause 31: Duty to keep complainants informed
280 This clause deals with the procedure for the OEP to inform complainants about whether an investigation following a complaint will be carried out and the progress of the investigation.
281 The OEP must inform the complainant if the complaint will not be considered for further investigation on the basis that it is not a valid complaint. For example, the complaint may not be concerned with a valid matter (a breach of environmental law by a public authority), it may not have been submitted in accordance with the specified procedure, or it may have been submitted after the time limit without any exceptional basis for the OEP to reasonably accept it. This is covered in subsection (2)(a) of this clause.
282 Where a complaint has been made in accordance with clause 29, the OEP must inform the complainant about whether or not an investigation into that complaint will be carried out; this is covered in subsections (2)(b) and (c). This reflects the fact that the OEP has discretion in choosing which cases to investigate, prioritising cases in line with its enforcement policy.
283 When a report on an investigation under clause 30(5) has been provided to the public authority in question, paragraph (d)(i) requires that the OEP must inform the complainant of this, although it is not obliged to disclose that report to the complainant at that stage unless it has been published under clause 30(9).
284 Where the OEP applies for an environmental review, or for permission to apply for a judicial review, or statutory review in relation to the failure that was the subject of the complaint, paragraph (d)(ii) requires the OEP to inform the complainant.
285 Where the OEP publishes a report following the investigation of a complaint, it must provide the complainant with a copy of that report as published in full or in part, as required by paragraph (e). This could be done by electronic means, or by referring the complaint to a published report that is available online, rather than necessarily requiring a hard copy of the report to be provided in every case.