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Can we trust the Environment Agency when..?..

The Environment Agency won't tell us which of its Area and Regional Directors, past and present, have financial interests in regulated businesses like the water industry.


Stock image - sample certificate.

Last year, WASP ran a series of blogs on the outrageous conflicts of interests of Executive and Non-Executive Directors from directorships in industrial meat and dairy industries to shares in water companies. Unbelievable but true.


For example, the lead Non-Exec Director for the Northwest Environment Agency between 2011 and 2017 - that's Save Windermere territory, was a shareholder and previously a managing Director of United Utilities - the water company that operates in that area. That really happened!


Scroll back in the blogs for more on that scandal.


The disclosures we dragged out of an obstructive and reluctant Agency back then stopped short of revealing regional and Area Directors' interests, so on receipt of new information that got our attention, on11 January 2024 we sent this Freedom of Information Act request:


'Please provide copies of the declarations of interest forms submitted by staff in the roles of Area and Regional Director across the Environment Agency from 1. Jan 2019 to the present date.

 

I am referring to financial and other business interests.'


On Feb 8th, after spinning it out as usual to the full 20 days allowed, the response was -


NO.


The reason given by the Agency was essentially this: 'We consider that the disclosure of the declarations of interest of Directors has no lawful basis as it isn’t necessary to satisfy a legitimate interest. In addition, it would be unfair to individuals to disclose such information to the world at large in response to a freedom of information request.'


So, the Environment Agency that is charged with the regulation of water companies that we know are operating extensively outside the law, have been convicted on many occasions, been let off on many more, and are subject to the biggest criminal investigation the Agency has ever undertaken doesn't think the public, potential witnesses, partners, councillors, MPs, Ministers, whoever, should know if any of the Directors in charge of various areas of the Agency's work have financial interests connected with those companies or are otherwise compromised.


Most people, we believe, would be shocked to know that they are actually allowed to have interests in companies they may investigate and regulate.


The Civil Service code takes an opposing view and extols transparency, but it does not apply to the Agency which has made specific decisions to maintain a cloak of secrecy with its own disclosure policy.


This is inappropriate and wrong, not just in our view but also according to the Nolan Principles - the seven principles of public life which definitely do apply to the Agency and its staff


Here is the main link to them in full.




Click below


All of the principles apply but some really jump out in respect of hiding financial interests.


1.2 Integrity

Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.


1.4 Accountability

Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.


1.5 Openness

Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.


This brings into question how this secretive arrangement was developed through the HR, Legal departments and the Board of the Environmental Regulator.

Ironically, the Agency has just launched a 'Whistleblowers portal' encouraging water company and other regulated industry staff to come forward with information about wrongdoing. People in that position need and deserve to be treated with extreme care to protect them from a range of threats (real and feared) from the minor to the extreme, and they need to be able to trust the people they are talking to.


Here is the Whistleblower link.



Imagine going to the Agency as an employee of Southern Water with information about wrongdoing by the company in 2021 and then finding that the Director of Operations at the Environment Agency had effectively defected to Southern Water in the final days of the trial at which it was fined £90M - and then discovering that the Agency's leadership did nothing to investigate the circumstances. That happened - WASP Blog July 7 2023.


Perhaps a credible and secure whistleblower portal for Agency staff would be a better first step as telling the truth was stamped on by Sir James Bevan, the previous CEO at the EA - and as for expecting people to declare and manage their own conflicts of interest - what planet is the Agency inhabiting?


Guardian article on whistleblowing crackdown



We hope the 'new' CEO, Philip Duffy - now with a year in the job, will start to turn the opaque and frankly dodgy approach to transparency and integrity that he inherited from his predecessor into something more appropriate for the regulator of the criminal practices of the water industry. The honest and hard-working staff at the Agency also need that to succeed and to thrive.





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