Scotland’s green watchdog held back a planned attack on polluting farmers after consulting government spin doctors, according to internal documents obtained by the Sunday Herald.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) completely rewrote a draft news release, after circulating it to ministerial media officials. An accusation that farmers’ leaders were being “misleading” was left out in favour of bland comments about the “key role” of agriculture in protecting the environment.
The revelation has prompted accusations from environmentalists that SEPA was “muzzled” by ministers in order not to offend the powerful farming lobby, though that is denied by SEPA and the Scottish government.
Emails disclosing communications with the former Scottish Executive were released by SEPA last week after an investigation by the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion. The Sunday Herald originally requested the documents under freedom of information legislation in August 2006.
In July 2006 SEPA was preparing a response to a new regulation action group being launched by the National Farmers Union in Scotland (NFUS). Farmers were angry about what they saw as the “unnecessary red tape” imposed by SEPA and other regulators.
A draft news release was circulated within SEPA and to the head of environment media at the Scottish Executive. It explained at length all the consultations that had been taking place with farmers, and ended with some forthright criticisms.
“SEPA is concerned that some of the examples of red tape provided by NFUS are misleading,” it said, going on to take specific issue with four claims made by NFUS. One - that field stones had to be treated as “dangerous waste” - particularly annoyed SEPA.
“SEPA has never said that field stones are waste, except when they are being dumped in landfills,” said the draft release. “We are surprised that this matter is still being raised.”
But when the release was finally issued, on 24 July 2006, all these sentiments had been excised. “SEPA welcomes the creation of a regulatory action group by NFUS and looks forward to being involved in its work,” it said.
The Green MSP, Robin Harper, argued that SEPA was meant to be independent of ministers and capable of holding them to account. “It would be disappointing if the last executive did indeed interfere in SEPA's work for political reasons, and I hope to hear a reassurance from current ministers that they will not act in this way,” he said.
“For Scots to respect an independent organisation like SEPA it needs to be free from ministerial manipulation and interference. There would no point establishing a watchdog and then muzzling it.”
He was backed up by WWF Scotland's acting director, Dr Dan Barlow. “It is vital that a government watchdog charged with protecting Scotland's environment is able to speak out about issues of concern,” he said.
“SEPA is right to highlight the need to tackle pollution from farming and it would be worrying if government had sought to water down any statements on this.”
The Scottish Government pointed out that it worked closely on communications with all its environment agencies. “It would be strange if we did not, given that we are collectively working to improve Scotland's environment,” said a government spokeswoman.
“Ultimately, however, it is for the organisation responsible for a particular piece of communications work, for example a news release, to take the final decision on content.”
According to SEPA, it had decided on the final wording after pursuing the usual good practice of consulting widely on public statements before issuing them. “It is no secret that there had been public disagreements between SEPA and the NFUS in 2006,” said a SEPA spokeswoman.
“The regulation action group was a very positive development and it was very much SEPA's wish and intention to rebuild a positive working relationship. The tone, content and style of the final press release reflect that intention.”
She added: “It is in everyone’s interests, not least the environment’s, for SEPA to work positively with other sectors so environmental improvement can go hand in hand with business and economic success.”
A few weeks after the draft news release was ditched, SEPA’s chief executive, Campbell Gemmell, gave a briefing to agriculture journalists, where he criticised NFUS. He said they didn’t always represent the whole farming sector, and accused union leaders of “campaigning for their own interests”.
“There was a public falling out, but the world has moved on since then,” said NFUS deputy chief executive, James Withers. “SEPA took exception to some of our remarks and we had a real problem with what we felt was a pretty over the top and personal attack on us.”
He added: “But it was all 18 months ago and is very much water under the bridge. Obviously we still have differences of opinion with SEPA, but both sides are very open and constructive about it.”
The Sunday Herald reported in October 2006 that SEPA played down the risks of radioactive contamination at Dalgety Bay in Fife following a last-minute intervention by government spin doctors.
Download a copy of the internal documents released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency here (300KB pdf).