What can you complain about?
Your complaint must relate to a suspected failure to comply with “environmental law”. The Environment Bill defines “environmental law” as any legislative provision (other than devolved provisions in Scotland or Wales) to the extent that it is mainly concerned with environmental protection.
Environmental protection means any of the following:
- protecting the natural environment from the effects of human activity
- protecting people from the effects of human activity on the natural environment
- maintaining, restoring or enhancing the natural environment
- monitoring, assessing, considering, advising or reporting on anything under points (1) to (3).
The natural environment means any of the following:
- plants, wild animals and other living organisms
- their habitats
- land (except buildings or other structures), air, water and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact.
Examples of environmental law include legislative provisions covering:
- air pollution
- water pollution
- contaminated land
- nature conservation
- waste and resource use
- climate change
- environmental assessment and monitoring
If your complaint does not relate to environmental law, we will not be able to consider it because it falls outside of our remit. However, we may be able to advise you on what you could do next (for example, whether you could complain to a different body).
If you have a complaint about environmental law in Scotland please contact Environmental Standards Scotland. Their website and contact details can be found at: www.environmentalstandards.scot.
If your complaint relates to Wales please see: https://gov.wales/raising-concern-about-functioning-environmental-law
What is an excluded matter?
The Environment Bill defines excluded matters as
- disclosure of or access to information
- the armed forces or national security
- taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within government.
Legislative provisions concerning these specific topics, whether or not they are also mainly concerned with environmental protection, are excluded from the definition of environmental law. Therefore, we would not be able to investigate complaints relating to these matters.
Is there a time limit on complaints?
You can complain about an event that has happened at any point in time, even if it took place before the Interim OEP started operating in July 2021. However, please keep in mind there is no guarantee that the OEP will investigate any individual complaint, and the OEP may choose not to prioritise investigations into historic matters.
According to the Environment Bill, complaints should normally be submitted within certain time limits and the OEP should only exceptionally consider complaints outside of these limits. The time limit is whichever is the later of:
- a year after the environmental law was last broken, OR:
- if the public authority you are complaining about has an internal complaints procedure, three months since you finished that procedure.
Who can I complain about?
Your complaint should relate to a “public authority”. The Environment Bill defines a public authority as a person carrying out any function of a public nature, apart from certain bodies which are specifically excluded such as a court or tribunal, or Parliament. Public authorities therefore include central and local government, government agencies and other public sector organisations. They can also include private or third sector organisations, but only if they are carrying out functions of a public nature.
How might a public authority have failed to comply with environmental law?
The Environment Bill describes two ways in which a public authority could fail to comply with environmental law. Firstly, a public authority might unlawfully fail to take proper account of environmental law when exercising its functions. For example, a public authority could fail to carry out an environmental impact assessment that is required by law. Secondly, a public authority might unlawfully exercise, or fail to exercise, any function it has under environmental law. An example of this would be an authority responsible for licensing environmentally harmful activities failing to properly regulate those activities (for instance, by applying standards that are less rigorous than the law demands).
What if more than one public authority is involved?
If your complaint relates to more than one public authority, you only need to submit one complaint. However, in your complaint you should list all the authorities you think are involved. Please also submit any evidence you have about all of the authorities that you identify.
Do I need a lawyer to help me submit a complaint?
No. The complaint form has been designed to be filled in by anyone.
How will the Interim OEP manage conflicts of interest?
We have put measures in place to manage potential conflicts of interest that may arise as a result of the nature of the Interim OEP. The OEP will be an independent body, separate from government, but it will not come into being until the Environment Bill becomes law, which is expected to happen in autumn 2021. In the meaning, the Interim OEP is preparing for the OEP’s establishment and carrying out some non-statutory environmental governance functions. This includes receiving complaints about potential breaches of environmental law, and validating them against a criteria.
Unlike the OEP, the Interim OEP is not a fully independent legal entity, separate from government. Instead, it is staffed by a team within Defra, with input from DAERA officials in relation to the validation of complaints in Northern Ireland. Therefore, we recognise that the Interim handling of complaints about UK or Northern Ireland government could therefore give rise to perceptions of conflicts of interest.
We have measures in place to address these concerns. For example, the Interim OEP’s functions will operate distinctly from other parts of Defra and DAERA. We handle complaints on a standalone IT system, which is only accessible to Interim OEP team members. We also have access to our own independent legal advice. All of the complaints that we receive, together with our initial assessments of them, will be considered by the OEP once it is established as an independent statutory body. As the Interim OEP, we will not be making final decisions about whether complaints fall within the OEP’s remit, nor on their seriousness or priority for investigation. Nor will we make judgements about whether a public authority has failed to comply with environmental law. These will be matters for the OEP to finally determine when it is operational.
When will the OEP be fully operational?
Work to establish the OEP is underway. The OEP will formally commence its statutory functions after Royal Assent of the Environment Bill. It is our expectation that the Bill will reach Royal Assent by autumn 2021.
What is the Interim OEP?
From July, the OEP will be set up in an interim, non-statutory form. This will enable independent oversight of the government’s environmental progress and accelerate the foundation of the full body.
The Interim OEP will be led by the OEP Board-designate, chaired by Dame Glenys Stacey. It will be able to receive complaints from the public about alleged failures of public authorities to comply with environmental law. It will also monitor progress against the Government's 25 Year Environment Plan.
What is the Interim OEP doing?
Ahead of the OEP being formally established later this year, we are:
- getting the organisation ready, including our independent strategy, systems, processes, people and resources
- collecting complaints about potential breaches of environmental law (we will officially investigate these when we gain our powers)
- monitoring the government’s progress against the 25 Year Environment Plan, in preparation for a non-statutory report in the Autumn
- undertaking preparatory work so that the OEP is ready to scrutinise and provide advice on environmental law
- supporting decision-makers in Northern Ireland to help them decide whether they want the OEP to operate there
- building relationships with public authorities and non-governmental organisations
What is the OEP’s role in Northern Ireland?
The Environment Bill gives the OEP a remit to cover England and UK-wide reserved matters. The Bill provides for us to also cover Northern Ireland, subject to the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
We are currently receiving complaints from Northern Ireland in order to avoid any gap in coverage between now and when the Assembly makes its decision on our remit. We are doing this work with DAERA.
As there is currently no Environmental Improvement Plan in Northern Ireland, for now our role there will involve complaint handling only.