Clause 30 - Investigations

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

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Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 2:30 pm, 5th November 2020

I beg to move amendment 5, in clause 30, page 18, line 6, leave out “may” and insert “must”

Where the OEP carries out an investigation this amendment seeks to ensure that it is made public.

This is another “may” and “must” amendment, which draws attention to an interesting passage of “mays” and “musts” in this clause that culminates in letting the OEP off. Subsection (1) states:

“The OEP may carry out an investigation under this section if it receives a complaint” made under the previous section. Subsection (2) states that it

“may carry out an investigation under this section without having received such a complaint if it has information that, in its view, indicates that…a public authority may have failed to comply with environmental law, and…if…the failure would be a serious failure.”

So it can carry out an investigation.

However, subsection (4) states:

“The OEP must notify the public authority of the commencement of the investigation.”

So there is a requirement and a duty on the OEP to tell the public authority what it is doing about the investigation. Not only must it tell the public authority, but under subsection (5) it must

“prepare a report on the investigation and provide it to the public authority.”

Then, subsection (8) states that the report should set out

“whether the OEP considers that the public authority has failed to comply with environmental law…the reasons the OEP came to that conclusion, and…any recommendations the OEP may have”.

So there is quite a powerful set of instructions to the OEP as to what it may do when it carries out an investigation into a public authority and how it is supposed to prepare a report. It must set out the things that I have just cited.

After all that, subsection (9) states:

“The OEP may publish the report or parts of it.”

Or it may not; it may keep it to itself and put it in a cupboard. Having done all that, the OEP is not required to do anything about it. However, subsection (10) states:

“If the public authority is not a Minister of the Crown, the OEP must also…notify the…Minister of the commencement of the investigation, and…provide the relevant Minister with the report prepared under subsection (5).”

So the OEP must provide the Minister with something if the public authority is not a Minister of the Crown, but it does not have to publish the report. It is not clear whether the Minister has to do anything if the OEP does not, although the OEP, instead of leaving the report in the cupboard, might send it across the Minister’s desk.

We therefore have a circularity that ends in a dead end, if it is possible to conceive of such a thing. That concerns me, because if I were the interim chair of the OEP and I was not completely au fait with everything that it ought to do or not do, I would take that passage to mean that the OEP does not actually have to do very much. I do not think that is good enough; the OEP should be bound by what it is required to do in the case of these investigations.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:45 pm, 5th November 2020

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill cannot make up its mind whether the OEP is a strong body that stands for environmental rights or a puppy of the Government?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

That is an interesting point. This clause does not appear to be able to decide whether the OEP should or should not do something. Having said that it should be a strong, independent body, to the extent that the Government are thinking about how the word “independent” may be interpreted, the Bill seems to let it perform less than its best, in terms of what that independence might consist of.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

We have seen today a number of further insinuations that the Office for Environmental Protection will be less than satisfactorily independent. This is the first time that such an office has been created in this country—it is a unique historical moment—and all the evidence we have heard so far clearly suggests that it is up to the OEP to define a large amount of its role and that the Government are giving it the opportunity to do so. Surely we should accept that this will be a great step forward and stop undermining it.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

It is not a question of undermining the integrity of the OEP at all. As the hon. Gentleman says, it does not exist yet, although bits of it are gradually coming into existence and may materialise in corporeal form in due course. It is therefore not easy to say that anyone in this room is undermining its performance and actions. We are talking about whether the framework within which it functions will work well or not. It is incumbent on us to ensure that, as the OEP comes into existence, the framework is as good as it can be and that the lines of its relationship with Parliament and Ministers are as clear as they should be. We are not undermining what the OEP will do; we are trying to support it by clarifying, before it is under way, what the boundaries are, how they work and who is expected to do what. That is not clear in this passage of the Bill.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

I completely support the OEP’s independence, but I am confused. At the moment, the OEP can decide whether it publishes a report, but the hon. Gentleman’s amendment proposes that it must publish a report, which presumably reduces rather than increases its independence of action. When it does a report, it might decide that there are certain things that it does not want to publish for certain reasons—we do not know, because we cannot pre-empt it. The hon. Gentleman is saying that it has to do something, which surely reduces its independence.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

With respect, independence has nothing to do with an authority not doing what it should do or just deciding that it cannot be bothered to do something or other. That is not independence, but sloth. We would expect the framework for an independent body to support its independence by giving it a framework within which to work that makes sure it can work as well as it should—by determining on what lines the expectations about what it does should be determined, and, indeed, how the public will see that independence in action. Our suggestions would not downgrade or undermine the independence of the OEP. On the contrary, they would help it to act in the best possible way as an independent body.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

There are many reasons why an organisation such as the OEP might not want to publish a report, other than sloth. As a former journalist, I am all in favour of openness—I think everything should be as open as possible—but there might be reasons for wanting a private, or non-public, investigation, and the amendment would remove the ability to decide to carry out a private investigation. It would curtail the OEP’s course of action and reduce its independence. I think everything should be public, but I can certainly see that there are scenarios where the OEP might decide to do something that it did not want put in the public domain. The Opposition would remove that course of action.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

There are a number of existing laws, protocols and arrangements for all public bodies that give them, in certain circumstances, discretion not to do certain things, such as in relation to national security or the revelation of individual contracts—there are all sorts of things of that kind. Guidelines already allow that discretion.

I do not think that the idea that a Department should, under normal circumstances, publish reports to elucidate matters for the public, where those existing areas of discretion in the law do not apply, is in any way undermined. That is part of the process by which we express our confidence in that public body in the first place as a body that operates transparently and in concert with the Minister and Parliament to get the relevant matters out on the table and discussed and that can demonstrate that it is doing that. That is a perfectly appropriate way to ensure that the public and indeed this place are confident about its independent operation. I am not, therefore, sure that the point made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, well-intentioned as I think it was, has a great deal of substance in relation to the clause.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Assistant Whip

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and agree that it is extremely important that the OEP should operate as transparently as possible. However, it is also important that it should be allowed the discretion it needs to operate effectively.

Investigation reports prepared under the clause will play an important role in ensuring that the OEP’s enforcement activities are transparent and in enabling public authorities to learn from its recommendations. We expect that, in the majority of cases, the OEP would choose to publish its report. However, it is important that it should have the discretion to choose whether that is appropriate. Some investigations may involve matters of significant sensitivity or confidentiality. For instance, the OEP may investigate a complaint that has been motivated by bad faith or factually incorrect information. There may be no public interest in its widely publishing a report containing entirely groundless allegations.

The OEP should be able to decide whether it is in the public interest to publish a report, and to determine whether any other restrictions on the publication of information need to be taken into account. It is of course required by clause 22(2)(b) to have regard to the need to act transparently. It will need to exercise its discretion concerning publication in line with that duty. Also, clause 38 already requires it to publish a statement at key stages in the enforcement process, to ensure that it is as transparent as possible. Furthermore, any information that the OEP does not proactively publish or report will still be subject to requests for disclosure under the relevant legislation.

The clauses therefore strike the right balance and make clear provision to ensure that the OEP acts as transparently as possible. Although I acknowledge the positive intent behind it, the amendment is unnecessary and could hinder the OEP’s ability to make decisions in the public interest. It could also lead to the unnecessary publication of baseless allegations. On those grounds, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Assistant Whip

It is only a matter of time.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Something that we have been trying to point out fairly consistently as we have gone through the Bill is the use of “may” and “must”, and we will come shortly to another one of those areas in a moment. I do not intend to push for a Division. I just want to say, as I have done when debating previous clauses, that our concern about this issue has some substance. It would be a good idea to reflect on how we want the OEP to be set up and to operate. We should consider whether there are other ways to ensure that the OEP is established as a busy and transparent advocate of its area, and whether we can find other methods of doing that, other than through this part of the Bill. I am sure the Minister will want to think about that over the next period. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.