Clause 29 - Complaints

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 5th November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:30 pm, 5th November 2020

I beg to move amendment 192, in clause 29, page 17, line 5, leave out subsection (4).

This amendment would allow public bodies to report the actions of other public bodies where they are at fault.

The amendment has come about because it seems a little strange to me that public bodies would be excluded from the reporting side of the system, particularly as public bodies might be reckoned to be rather more likely to receive knowledge about breaches. If public bodies should be held to account, why is it sensible for them to not aid in holding other public bodies to account? Reports made by those carrying out public functions are not likely to be less valid, or less based on true concern, so I do not feel they should be discounted. I am keen to hear the Minister’s response, because, as I say, it seems a strange part of the Bill.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Assistant Whip

I thank the hon. Lady for tabling her amendment. It is of course important that the OEP be aware of potential breaches of environmental law, and the power to receive complaints is an important element of that. However, it would not be appropriate for one public authority to be able to submit a complaint to the OEP about another public authority; it would amount to one part of the government system complaining about another. There are more appropriate ways for public authorities to resolve such disputes.

Public authorities are expected to work together constructively to resolve any instances of alleged non-compliance. For example, the Government’s code of good practice is clear that Government Departments and arm’s length bodies should

“develop constructive working relationships based on trust, respect and shared values.”

Furthermore, if a public authority has a specific role in regulating other public authorities, mechanisms will already be in place to enable the relevant bodies to enforce the relevant regimes. For example, when a local authority applies to the Environment Agency for an environmental permit and is subject to permit conditions, the Environment Agency already has powers to take the necessary enforcement action under existing legislation if the local authority fails to abide by the conditions.

There are also relevant precedents for our approach, which is broadly similar to that in the Local Government Act 1974 in relation to what is now called the local government and social care ombudsman. In that Act, public authorities are also excluded from submitting complaints to the ombudsman.

I note that a person who works for a public authority would still be able to submit a complaint in a personal capacity, rather than on behalf of their organisation. As such, I hope that the hon. Member is reassured that the provision in clause 29(4) is appropriate, and ask her to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am not entirely convinced by the Minister’s response. My point about public bodies being more likely to hear of potential breaches from other public bodies still stands, but I will reflect a little more on what he has said. I will withdraw the amendment, but I might revisit it in future. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.