FLEET STREET editors are suddenly muting criticism of Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith of Finsbury, aka former culture secretary Chris Smith, because they think he may be put in charge of the new press regulator (see last Eye). If his tenure at the Environment Agency is anything to go by, however, they should be sounding the alarm.
During Smith’s time in the chair the outfit became embroiled in legal battles with former employees – alleging bullying and harassment – that cost £3m in settlements and legal fees, all of which have until now gone unreported. So too has a report into bullying at the agency that Smith commissioned at taxpayers’ expense and then suppressed.
The Guardian did its bit of arslikhan with a piece by Stephen Moss on 16 February which caused some astonishment in former employees. “I’m not having my staff belittled,” Smith told the paper. But that is exactly what happened at the EA for years under his stewardship.
Bullying, harassment and discrimination
There were 33 “special severance payments”, all of which carried draconian confidentiality clauses aimed at silencing aggrieved employees (and potential whistleblowers). With senior QCs being involved in many of the actions, the cost to taxpayers in severance payments and legal fees was more than £3m. The figures were uncovered by the GMB trade union under freedom of information rules.
After one employee complained formally of bullying, harassment and discrimination at the quango, Smith ordered a confidential inquiry. The report was completed in April 2011 but it has never been published and had only a limited circulation at the agency. It was completed months before the government renewed Smith’s three-year contract as chairman, so sitting on it may have helped him into his second term.
Cronies on the payroll
The report found that there was a “macho culture” at the agency: staff described their workplace as “combative, aggressive, non-collaborative”. (This tallies with the verdict of the agency’s former head of HR, Ruth Cornish, who says the EA was run by “power crazed… people that couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag”.) Others said their bosses were “overly aggressive, intimidating, overly robust, and bullish in nature”, with a “my way or the highway attitude”. Female employees complained that there was a football-terraces culture.
When not authorising payoffs, Smith was busy putting political cronies on the payroll. At one point in his first term, between 2008 and 2011, there were four former Labour ministerial advisers working at the agency at a collective cost of £389,000 a year. They included Adrian Long, the executive director of communications, who had previously advised John Prescott.
The agency’s public relations budget – not including salaries – is more than £2.5m. If it didn’t have to spend so much on image-buffing and payoffs and well-rewarded cronies, perhaps it could afford to dredge a few more rivers.