Water companies were required to monitor their own performance and compliance with their permits in 2010.
The Environment Agency, possibly directed by the Government, came up with the idea of requiring private profit-focused companies - that would be financially punished for breaking permit requirements - to monitor themselves.
This would save money for the taxpayer funded Agency but clearly presented great risk and potentially far greater future costs (here they come) for said taxpayer, billpayer, future generations and, of course, the environment which is already paying dearly.
Because even the most naive regulator could foresee that this would present a gift to cheats and profit-focused businesses with a history of breaking the law, they introduced a system of annual audits.
On paper this looks reasonably thorough but hard to execute with a need for highly trained auditors, well supported and effectively supervised with strong oversight to ensure that high standards of integrity would be maintained. Without this the whole exercise would simply turn into a charade exploited by water companies controlling and manipulating the data. Spoiler alert...
For a glimpse of the attitude of the Agency's senior management we can go to this clip of Environment Agency Director John Leyland, talking to Joe Crowley for Panorama in 2021.
The incredibly naive Agency Director's comment about it not being in his nature to think people would cheat was followed by his claim that where companies do not abide by their permits the Agency 'will take robust action', This is demonstrably untrue - most permit breaches are ignored and a huge number are never disclosed and never discovered as WASP's data analyst Professor Peter Hammond has previously revealed with his 'dark spills' expose' that kicked the big illegality story off and his more recent report on the misrepresentative data recorded by companies.
You may have guessed what's coming next.
Having heard all sorts of grandiose claims made by the outgoing Chief Executive of the Agency, Sir James Bevan, and with considerable experience of the reality of his organisation's true performance, we decided to check a few of his facts. One of those was that this Operator Self Monitoring was working.
To the Environmental Audit Committee on 23 June 2021, Sir James said:
“There is a lot of monitoring going on. Some of it is done by the water companies, but it is audited and checked by us, so we have faith in the data.”
To the Efra Committee on 19 Jan 2021;
“Operator self-monitoring is working in the sense that we normally do get good, timely data from the water companies about what they are doing and when they do things wrong. We check and, if they do not tell us quickly, we will take action against them. The broader picture of the water environment, we can all agree, is not in the state that we want it to be, but OSM is not the main problem.”
We checked - Something that the Committees could have done more easily than unpaid campaigners.
By applying for the audit results under the Freedom of information Act, we eventually dragged the information out of the Agency which incredibly broke the law in delaying its reply to around 100 working days where it was allowed 20 days and despite the fact that the Agency had been served with an Enforcement Notice by the Information Commissioner for its systematic corporate failure to comply with the law and deliver information on time to many other applicants prior to this.
We were not asking for anything complicated, simply audit reports which should be publicly available and certainly should have been in some sort of order under the control of a Director - but this was not the case. The Agency had trouble, both in accessing them and in sending them.
The irony and disgrace of a publicly funded regulator that itself systematically and cynically breaks the law would at some point in the not too distant history of the UK have resulted in the responsible people, including the leadership, being replaced, but not now - it is simply normalised business as usual for this Defra led body. Leading by appalling example.
Note - The Agency Freedom of Information staff actually delivering the information appeared to try hard to get it on time but the Agency management simply allows the people implicated by information that can identify failure, incompetence or even corruption control over providing it.
The information finaly arrived and we were not surprised to find that Sir James Bevan's claims bore little resemblance to the truth.
The short version? The audit and supervision of Operator Self-Monitoring is a shambles.
The WASP report was sent to the Environment Secretary - and we await a response from the head of Defra, itself under investigation and accused of law breaking by the Office for Environmental Protection.
The Guardian reported on the story.
Here is the article.
This is the full WASP report.
It's an interesting read but if you only want the headlines - here are seven points from the summary:
1. 36% or about one in three of the Environment Agency’s annual audits of water company Operator Self-Monitoring have been missed since the process was introduced in 2010.
2. Southern Water, one of the worst offenders and convicted criminal cheats of the self-monitoring system has not been audited since 2013.
3. South West Water, a two-star (requires improvement) company, has not been audited since 2015.
4. Northumbrian Water failed to address major nonconformities with Environment Agency permits over five years yet was awarded 4-star industry leading status in 2018, 2020 and 2021.
5. United Utilities auditors favourably misapplied grades and avoided conducting assessments on the grounds that there was ‘no evidence of issues’. The company has not been audited since 2017 but has twice been awarded 4-star status in the period.
6. Yorkshire Water audits were not conducted by the Environment Agency on 7 of the 13years since OSM commenced, yet the company achieved 3 stars or above ratings on 8 out of 12 years including four stars on two occasions.
7. There are significant regional variations in the conduct of the audit process indicating an absence of leadership and oversight at Director level.
In brief, the system provides fake reassurance that water companies have been prevented from cheating - they haven't. The latest Ofwat report showed a decline in water company performance but a more accurate analysis of the situation is that the companies have not got that much worse, the dip is the result of the failure of the cover up that was propping up industry performance and increasing its earnings.
And the veneer has been ripped away by campaigners - not the regulators.
The very serious backdrop to this is that it reveals another example of how Parliamentary oversight committees can be misled by people who should be held accountable for deceiving them but are not fact checked and are allowed to get away with it. In that way, false information finds its way into transcripts and reports from which it can be picked up by credible researchers for respected organisations who inadvertently launder lies into respectable report content.
More to come on that..