Investigations arise in a variety of ways. An investigation may, for instance, have its origin in a request from a Member of Parliament or in an issue that emerged in an earlier investigation.
Investigations can take different forms because the Commissioner’s functions under the Environment Act are wide-ranging. Most reports contain recommendations to Ministers, but some are educational in nature.
The investigation process
An investigation begins with gathering a wide range of information, including scientific literature and government documents. Often technical advice is contracted from experts. Meetings with people with particular knowledge of, or interest in, the topic are held.
Under section 19 of the Environment Act, the Commissioner has the power to obtain information that is not available to the general public. However, under section 20, he has a duty of secrecy and will not release information obtained under section 19 “except for purposes connected with the administration of this Act or with the carrying out of the provisions of this Act.”
Reports on investigations
A great deal of effort is put into making the reports as accurate as possible while keeping them accessible to the general reader. Where information has been provided by government agencies and others, its accuracy is checked with those who provided it. The final draft is sent to a number of expert reviewers chosen to cover all relevant technical aspects of the topic.
Prior to a report being released, the Commissioner and his staff offer briefings to various affected parties. These include Ministers to whom recommendations are being made and spokespeople from other political parties.
On its release, a report is tabled in Parliament and becomes public. The Commissioner presents the findings of the investigation formally to a Parliamentary select committee.
Updates on investigations are generally produced two or three years later. These summarise reactions to the original report, consider new developments, and assess responses to recommendations.