Dame Glenys Stacey, chair of the interim OEP, confirmed in a committee hearing this morning that although the watchdog body’s budget had originally been trailed as being ring-fenced for five years, the current proposition is now for a reduced three year budget.
Green MP Caroline Lucas additionally queried if Stacey was concerned that the exact number of years the money would be ring-fenced for was not currently written into the Environment Bill, but she dismissed the concerns.
Stacey said that the issue with ring-fenced budgets is that they are “concretised”, so if “something unexpected comes along we’re there with our begging bowl being asked to be treated with exception ... Yes [a ring-fenced budget] gives us some protection but the real question is will government fund us appropriately year in year out”.
Natalie Prosser, interim chief executive for the OEP, added later that the final budget would be settled in the spending review.
Stacey and Prosser were also questioned on how the OEP would demonstrate its independence from government, to which Stacey responded that she had “absolutely no doubt” that the OEP would think and act independently.
With the OEP as an expert body, Stacey “would expect to be approached about the detail of [the Environment Bill] targets”, she said, adding that “we would also expect to see a deal of ambition in these targets”, including a “golden thread” linking together the ambitions of the 25 Year Environment Plan, the bill’s targets, environmental principles, and policy statements supporting those targets.
Yesterday, the OEP published its first advice document to DEFRA, saying the department should revisit and clarify its draft environment principles policy statement, which is designed to ensure that all government policymaking takes account of the environment.
Asked later in the session about what approach the OEP would take to enforcement, Stacey said that she considered many matters best sorted outside of legal proceedings, referencing the “cup of tea with a stick in the cupboard” approach.
However, Conservative MP Jerome Mayhew probed the OEP chair on this, using the example of what he described as the Environment Agency having “fallen off a cliff” on enforcement around water pollution.
When asked if the OEP would really be any different, Stacey confirmed that the OEP board had already begun thinking about the issue of water pollution and it was a “very good example of how the OEP has to think intelligently”.
She suggested that it could be a “strong contender” for a priority area of investigation, though added that it sounded to her like “thematic review territory”, meaning rather than investigating specific incidents or complaints, the OEP would look at the problem as a whole to “get to the nub” of the issue.
Thus far, Stacey said the watchdog has had fewer than 20 complaints, all of which from individual members of the public.
She also described her priority still being to establish the “OEP proper” with a focus on recruiting, as well as developing relationships with other public bodies, and “tending carefully” to those with parliament and government.