Clause 30 - Investigations

Part of Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 5th November 2020.

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Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Assistant Whip 2:45 pm, 5th November 2020

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.