Regulators were told not to criticise the UK government, says agency chair

By on 06/10/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The Environment Agency plays a key role in preventing flooding, as here in concert with the RAF. But it’s been told not to criticise the government publicly on environmental issues (Image courtesy: SSgt Mark Nesbit RLC).

Regulatory bodies in England have been told not to publicly criticise the government and instead to raise concerns privately with ministers, the chair of the Environment Agency (EA) has said.

Emma Howard Boyd made the comment on last week’s edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme Costing the Earth, which looked at whether the agency was fit for purpose after seven years of deep cuts to its staffing and budgets.

“One of the things that was made very clear back in 2010 was that government asked ‘arm’s length’ bodies not to air their grievances in public and do much more in private,” she said, in response to a question from presenter Tom Heap as to why she doesn’t speak out more in public to press the government on environmental issues.

“So the whole style of relationship – and it’s not just the Environment Agency – has changed in terms of raising issues of importance to us, and to the environment, with the ministerial teams.

“And there will be times, periodically, where I’m sure that is the line that we will take and speak out in public. But I think it is really important to choose those moments and work in the current style of engaging with government.”

But Lord Deben, who set up the Environment Agency in 1996 as secretary of state for the environment, told Radio 4 that the EA was intended to be “completely independent and able to criticise the government, and to give confidence to the notion that there was an independent voice for the environment”.

“It has increasingly been brought within the gambit of government and made less and less able publicly to criticise the government,” he said.

“But Britain needs to have a voice which speaks without party politics about the need to protect the environment, not just for this generation and the immediate electorate but for the next generation and thereafter.”

Barred from criticism: the Environment Agency has been told not to call out the government publicly (Image courtesy: Bob Jones).

Howard Boyd’s comments will raise concerns among environmental campaigners and in other fields overseen by arm’s length bodies, many of which were founded with a specific mandate to hold the government to account publicly.

The Labour governments of 1997-2010 created a wide range of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, or ‘quangos’; and when the incoming Tory-Lib Dem coalition embarked on a “bonfire of the quangos” in 2010, prime minister David Cameron pledged to retain those which needed to retain independent of central government in order to fulfil their regulatory or accountability mandates. The EA was one such survivor – but if the leaders of these arm’s length bodies feel unable to publicly criticise government, then the structures designed to uphold standards in fields such as the environment, health and safety, finance and health cannot be operating as intended.

The EA’s remit is particularly sensitive because the agency is responsible for many flood defences, and the agency has come under criticism from ministers when parts of England have experienced severe flooding. The coalition government initially cut flood defence spending in 2010; but in 2014 serious floods prompted a clash between the then-EA chair and the communities secretary, after which funding rose again.

Asked by Heap whether the agency is truly independent of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which sponsors it, Howard Boyd replied: “Our independence as an arm’s length body is set out in statute and we have only just published a new statutory framework, which sets out the role of the board of the EA, myself as chair and our relationship with Defra.

“We are working very closely with Defra, not least because we have gone through this recent period of cuts. It is important that across Defra and the Defra group, we together are as efficient as possible. That doesn’t mean that I’m not prepared as chair of the Environment Agency to raise hard issues with the ministerial team.”

Asked to give an example of something that she had “gone in and banged on the table about” with Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Howard Boyd said that she had been discussing issues in the waste industry with Gove and the ministerial team throughout the summer.

“One of the issues that was really important for us after the 2015-16 floods, where a lot of local communities were talking about natural flood management, was to have a conversation with our ministers but also with Treasury about getting additional funding for natural flood measures,” she said.

The agency received an additional £15m (US$20m) for research on natural flood measures and hopes the sum will become part of its long-term funding, she added.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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