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IMMUNITY FROM prosecution should be withdrawn from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and allegations of “maladministration” opened to investigation by the ombudsman, a Government report has found.
The review of the agency, commissioned 15 months ago by then minister for the environment John Gormley, has produced 58 recommendations to improve its structure and operation.
The review, by John McCarthy, assistant secretary at the Department of the Environment, is broadly supportive of the performance of the agency which it said provides “considerable benefit for Ireland’s environment, and for the health and wellbeing of its people”. However it said that legislative change was needed to make it more accountable and effective.
It also found that the agency was in danger of becoming under-resourced and that staffing levels were in urgent need of review to ensure the agency could meet its existing legislative obligations.
The agency enjoys absolute immunity from prosecution for failure to discharge its statutory functions, which was no longer acceptable the review found. “The EPA’s current blanket statutory immunity when carrying out its functions is difficult to justify in a modern context.”
In relation to the ombudsman, the report found that agency decisions should not be subject to review.
However, it would be appropriate for the agency to be brought under the remit of the ombudsman in respect of any alleged maladministration, it said.
The Oireachtas should also have greater powers over the agency, possibly through the extension of parliamentary questions to cover its activities, and the agency’s advisory committee should have a revised membership to include people with environmental expertise.
“The combination of a strengthened advisory committee, revision of the blanket statutory immunity, and the extension of the ombudsman’s powers to cover any alleged maladministration should together meet the concerns expressed by critics of the present agancy governance structure, without introducing unduly costly duplication of effort.”
The review notes that there was concern among some stakeholders at the “apparently relatively low” level of prosecutions being taken. It said its enforcement process is working with “reasonable effectiveness” but recommends the agency should always take into account the strong deterrent effect of prosecutions and “should pursue the prosecution route to optimum effect”.
The review noted the low levels of fines imposed by the courts and recommended the establishment of a new environmental court or tribunal with strengthened powers. Licence fees, which make up part of the funding for the agency, should also be increased.