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Ombudsman makes first referral to Parliament in eight years over Environment Agency failure to implement recommendations

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) has taken the rare step of referring a report to Parliament after a seven-year dispute in which Ombudsman Rob Behrens said the Environment Agency had failed to follow his recommendations.

Mr Behrens said he acted to “bring this to the attention of Parliament for it to consider taking action to remedy the failure of the Environment Agency (EA) to provide adequate compensation and deliver justice to the Earl family”.

His spokesman said this was the first such referral since 2014 and the process was used to bring the matter to the attention of ministers and select committees.

The dispute goes back to 2010 and in 2015 an ombudsman report found in favour of brothers Steve and Ewan Earl, who had applied to the EA to use water from the River Avon to provide electricity for redevelopment of a mill.   

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Investigators found mistakes in how the EA managed the application and that the resulting delays caused the Earls stress and anxiety and prevented them from moving on to their next project. 

Although the EA agreed to apologise and pay the brothers £4,000 each for “their distress, frustration, and collapse of trust in the impartiality of the Agency”, another recommendation initially agreed was not followed.

This was for the EA  draw up an action plan setting out how it will conduct an independent review and assess the financial injustice caused to the Earls by its maladministration.

The plan should have detailed a process to gather all necessary information and include an assessment of the Earls’ losses attributable to maladministration, with a time frame. Once completed the EA should pay the Earls further compensation for losses identified by the review.

Although a review began it never concluded as relations broke down and the matter remains unresolved, the spokesman said.

Mr Behrens said: “Bodies in our jurisdiction should comply with PHSO's recommendations. Parliament gave me powers, on behalf of citizens, to investigate complaints about Government departments and their agencies.

“When I find failings, I can make recommendations for redress. However, it is highly unusual for my recommendations to be rejected.

“In this case, the Agency considers that its approach to compensation is appropriate and proportionate. I do not agree. In such circumstances, I can lay a report before Parliament so that MPs who created this failsafe for citizens using Government services, can examine the situation.”

He said there was an “unbridgeable gap between the PHSO and the Agency” and added that the emotional impact of the case on the Earls showed “why it is vital we hold Government departments to account for their mistakes”.  

Comment included by the Ombudsman in its statement on its referral suggested errors by the EA were common.

In it, Simon Hamlyn, chief executive of the British Hydropower Association, said:  “The failings, in this case, sadly echo the concerns of our members' experiences about the Environment Agency’s handling of hydropower licence applications.

“Many small hydropower operators and community schemes depend on the Environment Agency to get things right. If they don’t, they must fix their mistakes swiftly or risk causing long-term problems for businesses and communities.”

The EA has been contacted for comment.

Mark Smulian

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