Second in a series of blogs about WASP's investigation which revealed the absence of effective corruption control in one of the most vulnerable regulators of polluters - the Environment Agency.
NOTE - We are not alleging illegal activity on the part of the individuals named in these blogs - just reporting on what we have been able to extract from an opaque and reluctant Agency. Resistance to scrutiny has been an insidious feature that apparently emanated from the very top of an organisation that extolled transparency in public but demonstrated the opposite in practice.
We move on from industrial agriculture in the first blog, to interests in private water companies. The water industry has been allowed to function illegally, often, and with impunity. Perhaps consequently, has become reliant on being able to pollute to the vast extent that has been exposed by campaigners, countering the false claims of compliance with regulation that came from the Agency's leadership as recently as 2019.
However, this blog is not about the former Chair of the Agency, but the first of three directors that we know of, who declared an interest in a water company.
Dr. Clive Elphick was, according to .gov.uk records, appointed to the EA Board as a Non-Executive Director on 1 August 2011. As part of his portfolio, according to Defra itself, Dr Elphick would be the lead Board member for the Environment Agency North West region. He left the Agency in July 2017.
Prior to this, he was a Managing Director at the water company United Utilities Group plc (UU) until May 2009 and declared that he was in receipt of a United Utilities pension and was also a shareholder.
Yes, you read that right - he was appointed to lead the Environment Agency board for the area served by the water company for which he had been a Director and was a shareholder.
We wrote to Sir James Bevan, the CEO of the Agency to ask a series of questions about corruption control and in respect of Dr Elphick, asked: 'What considerations were given to the selection and deployment of this director, with such clear conflicts of interest, directly to the area of highest risk of compromise, who authorised it and who managed it? '
The response eventually received from the Agency's Chief Operating Officer, Lucy Hunt was this: 'With regard to the conflicts of interests of (name of another director, redacted for now) and Clive Elphick these people no longer work for the Environment Agency. However, I can assure you that these declarations of interest were recorded at the time and we are confident that any risks were appropriately managed as per the process for managing conflicts set out in the beginning of this letter.'
We derive no assurance from the evasive reply and we wonder upon what evidence Ms Hunt's assurance can be based - because none was provided.
Our attempts to get at the detail that would show whether or not some very weak measures were actually applied as has been claimed, have been resisted for many months.
Part of the guidance quoted by Ms Hunt states:'... the Environment Act 1995 which requires a non-executive Board member who is in any way directly or indirectly interested in any matter which is considered at a meeting of the Board or its committees to disclose the existence and nature of their interest at the meeting and to not take part in the relevant deliberation or decision'
If Dr Elphick had adhered to this rule - and we have no evidence that he did not - he would surely have had to exclude himself from any aspect involving the regulation of the water industry, yet he was the lead member of the Board for the region. How could he have performed his role effectively?
All the Agency will tell us, without a hint of substantiation, is that they did everything properly, but it is clear that merely by appointing him to be 'the lead Board member for the Environment Agency North West region' they just didn't.
He was, after all, leading the Board for the very region of the Agency that was regulating his former employer and pension provider, a company that he held shares in - of value unknown.
On a wider view, we hope that under its new leadership, the Environment Agency, the revelations of whistleblowers may be more welcome and the organisation may become more willing to learn and less inclined to conceal than we have observed in the past.
It is becoming clear from the Agency's resistance to answering questions of matters of public interest, public confidence and transparency, that an independent inquiry into what has been going on inside the regulator is long overdue.
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