Green light for OEP in DEFRA review amid calls for future appraisals to seek external evidence

The first DEFRA review of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has found the watchdog in “good health”, but green groups have urged that future reviews “must seek evidence from outside government”.

The review of the OEP was part of the government’s Public Bodies Review Programme. It has identified 12 recommendations seeking to “to improve administration and governance processes”, to ensure that both the watchdog and DEFRA continue to meet “minimum requirements as the OEP develops, and the relationship with DEFRA matures”.

The document, published on 11 August, states that as “further evidence” becomes available the government will review the OEP’s budget and permitted headcount ahead of the next financial year, which will be reviewed again in 2023 to 2024.

The status of the OEP’s funding and staff resources were a subject of debate during the passing of the Environment Act last year, after green group and parliamentarian calls for ring-fenced funding saw DEFRA pledge to ensure a five year budget for the watchdog, ring-fenced within each spending review.

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Commenting, Ruth Chambers, senior fellow for Greener UK, said that any upcoming fiscal events must reiterate this funding commitment.

“DEFRA says it will review the OEP’s budget and permitted headcount ahead of the next financial year, with a further review in 2023 to 2024. In view of the significant public and parliamentary interest in [the OEP] these reviews must seek evidence from outside government,” she said.

Since the OEP was formally established this year, green groups say they have been largely encouraged by what they have seen, and welcomed the certainty brought about when environment secretary George Eustice confirmed the OEP’s budget in March.

However, while long-term resourcing questions still hang over the watchdog, such as potential constraints on numbers, Chambers told ENDS that there was a legitimate public interest in there being non-governmental input into similar reviews in the future, and clarity over the process. She said external evidence could take various forms, from meetings with stakeholders, to select committee involvement. 

The DEFRA review also recommends that the OEP should “develop and agree a memorandum of understanding with its equivalent bodies in Scotland and Wales by March 2023”. DEFRA says this memorandum should cover how the watchdogs work together to meet their objectives.  

It also says that the OEP “should agree its performance metrics with DEFRA” by April 2023, and that the OEP chair, Dame Glenys Stacey, should work with the watchdog’s departmental senior sponsor “to consider the current and future skills and diversity needs of the board”, which DEFRA says should commence by January 2023.

Commenting, Natalie Prosser, OEP chief executive officer said: “We welcome DEFRA’s commitment to review the OEP budget and headcount before the next financial year, and again next year as our experience in delivering our work grows. We agree with the remaining recommendations and have plans already in place to deliver. 

“We have provided information about our developing performance framework and how we will evaluate the impact of our work in our Corporate Plan, which was published in June. We are in discussion with DEFRA about which parts of this will be useful to it in considering how effectively we use public funds. We set our priorities and plans independently of government.”