Procedures for Dealing with Complaints Received in the Department

Procedures for Dealing with Complaints
Received in the
Department of the Environment, Community &
Local Government
January 2015
Contents
The Department’s Objectives in dealing with complaints ....................................................... 3
Investigating and addressing complaints ........................................................................... 3
General points in relation to Complaint Handling ............................................................... 4
Section 1 Customer Service Complaints ............................................................................... 6
Complaints Relating to Customer Service in the Department ............................................ 6
Complaints Relating to Customer Service in a Local Authority .......................................... 6
Complaints Relating to Customer Service in Agencies ...................................................... 6
The Office of the Ombudsman ........................................................................................... 6
Section 2 Complaints Relating to Access to Information ....................................................... 8
Complaints relating to Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests ......................................... 8
Complaints relating to Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Requests ............ 8
Section 3 Complaints Relating to the Environment .............................................................. 10
Complaints relating to local environmental matters .......................................................... 10
Complaints relating to implementation of EU Directives and International Conventions on
Environmental matters ..................................................................................................... 11
Complaints in relation to implementation of Aarhus Convention, Public Participation in
certain environmental decision making and related EU Directives ................................... 13
Section 4 Allegations of Wrongdoing or Illegality ................................................................. 15
Allegations of wrongdoing or illegality relating to staff of the Department......................... 15
Allegations of wrongdoing or illegality relating to certain Community programmes .......... 17
Allegations of wrongdoing relating to the Planning System .............................................. 18
Allegations relating to Local Authorities (other than in relation to planning) ..................... 21
Allegations relating to an Agency under the remit of the Department of the Environment,
Community and Local Government ................................................................................. 23
Allegations relating to the Electoral System or Ethics in Public Office .............................. 25
2
The Department’s Objectives in dealing with complaints
In responding to complaints or allegations of wrongdoing or illegality the Department has the
following objectives:
 Delivering good customer service and timely discharge of its responsibilities;
 Preventing and detecting fraud, wrongdoing or illegal activity;
 Preserving the integrity of the State, the Department, its agencies and the local
government system;
 Preserving the Rule of Law and acting at all times within the law;
 Providing better opportunities to deal with certain complaints at national level,
thereby reducing the need for EU Commission involvement;
 Not intruding on the work of other state systems such as the Gardaí or the Standards
in Public Office Commission (SIPO).
Investigating and addressing complaints
Complaints received by the Department can generally be grouped into four categories.
These are complaints relating to:
1. The quality of the services the Department provides;
2. Access to information under the Freedom of Information Act 2014 (FOI) and Access
to Information on the Environment Regulations 2007 -2014(AIE);
3. The environment including alleged breaches of environmental legislation and
allegations of failure to act where action is required;
4. Allegations of wrongdoing or illegality.
Each of these categories is dealt with in greater detail in this document.
Customer service complaints and complaints or allegations relating to Department staff are
investigated by the Department in the first instance. However, in the case of other
complaints and allegations, which may be received by the Department, it may be more
appropriate that they be investigated by other offices or institutions including:
 The Gardaí
 Local authorities
 Agencies
 SIPO
 The Office of the Ombudsman.
3
Where a matter is being investigated by the appropriate office or institution, the Department
will provide assistance as required and as appropriate.
While the Department does not generally investigate complaints about other bodies, there
are a number of areas, set out later in this document, where the Department may
investigate, or appoint an independent person to investigate, including: Some local authority activity
 Certain activities of a planning authority
 Matters in respect of certain grants.
On occasion, complaints arise because of misinterpretations of the law, or because the legal
and valid actions of local authorities and State Agencies challenge the interests or
preferences of individuals, as distinct from any breach of the law. Not every complaint or
allegation of wrongdoing is necessarily justified, substantiated or proven.
It should be noted that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government
is precluded in law from involvement in individual cases governed by certain planning and
environmental legislation.
General points in relation to Complaint Handling
 The Department will implement a system to record and categorise complaints and
allegations received in a central register;
 Complaints (other than customer service complaints) or allegations received by
phone or verbally, cannot be fully considered or allegations fully assessed unless
submitted in writing;
 Anonymous complaints will generally not be considered1;
 In general, where a complaint or allegation is received which should be directed to
another body (including another Department, Minister or agency under the remit of
another Department) the complainant will be informed that the matter should more
appropriately be dealt with by that body. In such circumstances the complaint will not
be forwarded as it will be a matter for the complainant to decide whether he or she
wishes to pursue the matter through that channel;
1
Where a complaint or allegation relates to EU Funding it may be investigated.
4
 Where this Department refers a complainant to another body it shall consider that it
has discharged its duties at that point and no further action will be taken;
 Complaints received about another Department, Minister or agency under the remit
of another Department, or a complaint regarding the discharge of a function of a local
authority that is proper to another Department, Minister or agency, that are copied to
this Department/Minister will be acknowledged for receipt and no further action taken.
The Department has no role in reviewing the investigation of a complaint made to a
body with responsibility in that regard
Given the breadth of the Department’s remit and the range of correspondence received it is
acknowledged that there may be complaints or allegations received that fall outside the
circumstances outlined in this document. These will be dealt with on a case by case basis.
5
Section 1 Customer Service Complaints
Complaints Relating to Customer Service in the Department
Customer service complaints include complaints about the quality of service provided: e.g.
delays in responding to communications, delays in processing applications or claim forms,
wrong information being given to the customer, complaints about individual members of
staff, complaints about decisions taken in the operation of a scheme or service - e.g. a
customer may have been refused a grant because they did not comply with, or qualify under,
the terms of the scheme.
Customer service complaints are dealt with through the Department’s Customer Service
Complaints Process as set out in the Customer Charter.
Where the complaint relates to a decision made by the Department, the complainant is
advised of any options available for appealing the decision.
Complaints Relating to Customer Service in a Local Authority
Where the customer service complaint relates to customer service or decisions of a local
authority, the customer is referred to the local authority concerned as local authorities have
independent complaints procedures in place.
Complaints Relating to Customer Service in Agencies
Where the complaint relates to customer service or decisions or actions of an agency under
the remit of this Department, or any other Department or agency, the customer is advised to
contact the relevant organisation directly.
The Office of the Ombudsman
The Office of the Ombudsman examines and assesses complaints from citizens who feel
they have been unfairly treated by certain public bodies including Government Departments,
agencies and local authorities. Where a person is not satisfied with the outcome of making a
complaint to the public body concerned, they may make a complaint to the Office of the
Ombudsman.
6
Pathways for complaints
relating to Customer Service
7
Section 2 Complaints Relating to Access to Information
Complaints relating to Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests
Complaints alleging failure to appropriately comply with relevant legislation in relation to an
FOI request made to this Department may be addressed in the first instance by contacting
the FOI Officer (foi@environ.ie) and requesting an Internal Review. Where a person is not
satisfied with the outcome of the Internal Review, they may appeal the matter to Office of the
Information Commissioner. Apart from complaints in relation to specific compliance with the
Act, it should be noted that failure to respond within the prescribed time limits is deemed a
refusal under the FOI Act and the requester may, at that point, initiate a request for an
internal review. Further information is available on the FOI section of the Department’s
Website.
Complaints relating to Access to Information on the Environment (AIE)
Requests
Complaints alleging failure to appropriately comply with relevant legislation in relation to an
AIE request made to this Department may be addressed in the first instance by contacting
the AIE officer (aie@environ.ie) and requesting an Internal Review. Where a person is not
satisfied with the outcome of the Internal Review, they may appeal the matter to the Office of
the Commissioner for Environmental Information. Further details are available on the Access
to Information on the Environment section of the Department’s Website.
8
Pathways for complaints
relating to Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests
9
Section 3 Complaints Relating to the Environment
Complaints relating to local environmental matters
Complaints relating to environmental matters such as littering, backyard burning, water
pollution, noise, dust and smells may be made either to the local authority concerned or the
EPA National Environmental Complaints Line 1850 365 121 or through the See it - Say it
App.
In cases where a local authority has investigated an allegation relating to an environmental
matter, and the problem persists, a complaint may be made to the Office of Environmental
Enforcement (OEE) within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA will not
become involved in investigating an issue that should be resolved by a local authority, until
the relevant local authority has been given an opportunity to investigate and resolve the
issue. The OEE provides complaint forms to assist with the making of a complaint.
Complaints relating to EPA licensed facilities should be made directly to the EPA.
Complaints in relation to problems with street lighting, drainage, graffiti, waste collection or
road and path maintenance may be made directly to the relevant local authority or through
the website www.fixyourstreet.ie.
10
Pathways for complaints
relating to local environmental matters
Complaints relating to implementation of EU Directives and International
Conventions on Environmental matters
Allegations regarding non-implementation or inadequate implementation of EU Directives or
International Conventions on Environmental matters may be raised with the Department in
the first instance. They can be raised by individuals, organisations or by the Environmental
Non-Governmental Organisation (ENGO) partners of the Environment Law Implementation
Group (ELIG)2 of the Environmental Pillar. The Department’s aim is to address these and
similar complaints from individual citizens without the matter going any further. However, if a
complainant (whether an ENGO or individual) remains unhappy with the final outcome on a
2
ELIG is a joint initiative between The Environmental Pillar (environment NGOs), An Taisce, and The
Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The objective of ELIG is to assist in the
protection and enhancement of Ireland’s environment by seeking to improve the transposition,
implementation and enforcement of Environmental Law.
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matter which involves European law, he/she may refer their complaint to the European
Commission. Any complaint or infringement case initiated by the Commission could,
ultimately, be determined by the European Court of Justice.
Pathways for complaints relating to implementation of EU Directives and
International Conventions on Environmental matters
12
Complaints in relation to implementation of Aarhus Convention, Public
Participation in certain environmental decision making and related EU
Directives
Complaints relating to failure to appropriately provide for public participation in certain
environmental decision making can be addressed to the relevant decision maker3 and,
ultimately, may be pursued through the courts in the form of a Judicial Review (JR), where
the substantive and procedural legality of the decision will be examined.
In addition to domestic complaint processes outlined above, allegations of failure to
implement the requirements of the Aarhus Convention4 may be addressed directly to the
UNECE Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee who will decide whether a formal
investigation is required.
3
The “relevant decision maker” would depend on the type of decision being made. The Aarhus Convention
breaks such decision making into three categories requiring a different level of public participation for each.
4
The Aarhus Convention lays down a set of basic rules to promote the involvement of citizens in
environmental matters and improve enforcement of environmental law.
13
Pathways for complaints in relation to implementation of Aarhus Convention,
Public Participation in certain environmental decision making and related EU
Directives
14
Section 4 Allegations of Wrongdoing or Illegality
In all cases where people have specific allegations of corruption or other criminal activity
they are advised to report them to the Gardaí in the first instance.
Allegations of wrongdoing or illegality relating to staff of the Department of the
Environment, Community and Local Government
Where specific allegations of wrongdoing are made against a member of staff of the
Department, the complaint is referred to the Personnel Officer for consideration. Where the
result of this consideration indicates that there is, on the face of it, some substance to the
allegation, the Department’s Disciplinary Procedure will be invoked. This could result in,
among other outcomes, the matter being closed if it is found by the investigator(s) that the
allegation is unfounded; disciplinary action taken where appropriate, or the matter being
referred to the SIPO. SIPO is the office responsible for investigating alleged contraventions
of the Ethics in Public Office Acts, by certain public servants/officials. In circumstances
where criminal investigation is warranted, such complaints or allegations will be referred to
the Gardaí.
In addition to the examination of a complaint under the Disciplinary Procedure, where an
action of the Department is identified as a result of a complaint or allegation as requiring
correction, this will be undertaken as a priority.
15
Pathways for allegations of wrongdoing or illegality relating to staff of the
Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government
16
Allegations of wrongdoing or illegality relating to certain Community
Programmes under the remit of the Department of the Environment
Community and Local Government
The Inspection Services Section of the Department investigates specific allegations of
corruption or illegality made in relation to grants provided under the Department’s
Community grant giving functions such as under the EU funded Rural Development
Programme; certain programmes funded exclusively from the National Exchequer (the Local
Community Development Programme (LCDP)/Social Inclusion Community Activation
Programmes (SICAP)) and certain other programmes managed by the Department’s
Community Division.
Where specific complaints relating to these schemes are received by the Department they
are referred to the Inspection Service which carries out an assessment, followed by an
investigation, as required. For the EU co-funded programme, the outcome of all
investigations is notified to the relevant Managing Authority, the Certifying Body, the
European Commission Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the EU Commission and the Comptroller
and Auditor General. In some cases, the matters may require to be brought to the attention
of SIPO and/or the Gardaí. For programmes funded exclusively by the National Exchequer,
the outcome of all investigations is notified to the Secretary General who may bring matters
to the attention of the SIPO and/or the Gardaí, if necessary.
While this Department does not generally investigate anonymous complaints, the EU
Commission requires that all complaints relating to allegations in respect EU
funding/programmes, anonymous or otherwise, are investigated.
17
Pathways for allegations of wrongdoing or illegality relating to certain
Community Programmes under the remit of the Department of the
Environment Community and Local Government
Allegations of wrongdoing relating to the Planning System
The Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government has overall responsibility
for the policy and legislative framework in respect of the planning system and consequently
may directly receive allegations of wrongdoing, including corruption, in respect of the
planning system. The action taken by the Minister in dealing with any such allegations in
relation to the planning system depends on the specific nature of the complaint and the
information available.
18
Where an allegation of corruption or any other criminal offence relating to a planning
authority is received, the Department will advise the person making the allegation that they
should address their allegation to the Gardaí, which is the appropriate investigating authority
for such matters.
Where allegations of a serious nature relating to the planning functions or processes of a
planning authority are received, the Department will engage with the Chief Executive of the
planning authority, in the first instance, to determine if there is any basis to the allegation.
Where there is, on the face of it, a basis to the allegation, the planning authority may be able
to deal with the matter through its procedures or through referral to SIPO and/or the Gardaí.
In all other cases, the Minister will consider what further steps or action, if any, are
necessary to address the matter. In this regard, the Minister may decide to appoint a person
either on a non-statutory or statutory basis to prepare a report for him or her in relation to the
matter. The outcome of such a report may be to require changes or improvements in
procedures and practices or, if such an examination indicates evidence of corruption, the
matter would be referred to the Gardaí. Where the examination indicates there was no
apparent case to answer the matter would be closed.
Where any uncertainty remains, further consideration would be given to the matter including,
as necessary, in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General as to the appropriate
actions available to pursue the matter.
19
Pathways for allegations of wrongdoing relating to the Planning System
20
Allegations relating to Local Authorities (other than in relation to planning)
Allegations of corruption or any other criminal offence relating to a local authority should be
addressed to the Gardaí.
Allegations of wrongdoing or omissions in respect of matters covered by Ethics Legislation in
relation to a local authority should be addressed, in the first instance, to the Ethics Registrar
of that local authority. It is his or her duty to bring the matter to the attention of either the
Chief Executive or the Cathaoirleach/Mayor of the local authority, who shall consider what
action should be taken. Having examined the matter, the Chief Executive or
Cathaoirleach/Mayor may refer the matter to SIPO. SIPO require that all local avenues
provided for by the Local Government Act 2001 should be pursued prior to making a
complaint to it.
Allegations of wrongdoing in respect of matters other than those covered by Ethics
Legislation in relation to a local authority should be addressed to the Chief Executive or the
Cathaoirleach/Mayor, in the first instance.
Allegations relating to the annual financial statement, records and other documents relating
to the accounts of a local authority should be addressed in writing to the Local Government
Audit Service within ten days of the commencement of an audit of a local authority. The
auditor shall consider such written objection in accordance with the Local Government
Financial and Audit Procedures Regulations 2014.
Where responsibility for the matter does not rest with the Gardaí or other body, and the
matter cannot be, or has not been properly, dealt with by the local authority, the Minister may
consider taking further steps to address the matter. In the first instance, it is open to the
Minister to appoint an individual, on a non-statutory basis, to examine the issue further and
prepare a report for consideration. It is also possible, where it appears necessary and
justified, for the Minister to appoint a person on a statutory basis (under section 224 of the
Local Government Act 2001) to examine and report on any matter arising from, or in relation
to, any of the functions of a local authority or the performance of those functions by either
the elected members or the executive.5
5
Note that certain functions of local authorities are the responsibility of Ministers other than the Minister for
Environment, Community and Local Government, and decisions in relation to complaints regarding such functions that fall
to be decided by a Minister or Department will be the responsibility of that Minister/ Department.
21
Section 83 of the Local Government Act 1941 also provides the Minister with powers to
cause local inquiries to be held; however, these powers have not been used in many years,
and more modern remedies are provided in more recent legislation, such as the Commission
of Investigations Act 2004.
Pathways for allegations relating to Local Authorities
(other than in relation to planning)
22
Allegations relating to an Agency under the remit of the Department of the
Environment, Community and Local Government
Allegations of corruption or any other criminal offence relating to any agency should be
addressed to the Gardaí.
Allegations of wrongdoing in relation to an Agency under the remit of the Department should
be addressed in the first instance to the agency concerned. Where the allegation relates to
the Chief Executive, it should be addressed to the Chairperson and where it relates to any
other officer of the agency it should be addressed to the Chief Executive of the agency
concerned.
Allegations relating to wrongdoing or illegality by board members of an agency should be
addressed, in the first instance, to the agency concerned. Similar to local authorities, SIPO
require that all local avenues should be pursued prior to considering making a complaint to
it.
23
Pathways for allegations relating to an agency under the remit of the
Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government
24
Allegations relating to the Electoral System or Ethics in Public Office
Allegations in relation to non-compliance with ethics legislation or electoral legislation or
other related alleged offences by office holders and public servants should be addressed to
SIPO. However, SIPO require that all local avenues should be pursued prior to considering
making a complaint to it.
Pathways for allegations relating to the
Electoral System or Ethics in Public Office
25