Staff at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) have demanded an independent inquiry into allegations of bullying and harassment following the sudden resignation of the agency’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn.
The Ferret understands that early in February trade union members at Sepa made a submission to management claiming there had been a “culture of bullying and harassment” that should be investigated.
A’Hearn’s departure because of unspecified “conduct allegations” was announced by Sepa on 21 January. He has been replaced by Sepa’s chief officer, Jo Green, who is now acting as chief executive, supported by the agency’s senior management team.
A’Hearn’s resignation is believed to have followed complaints from colleagues but no details have been confirmed “in order to protect anonymity”. Similarly, no details are available on the new allegations because they are also regarded as highly sensitive.
Sepa is responsible for controlling pollution from more than 5,000 sites across Scotland. It employs over 1,200 people at 22 offices and is funded to the tune of £37 million a year by the Scottish Government.
The Ferret reported on 6 February that Sepa had lost information on thousands of environmental checks and pollution breaches over 15 months, as a result of a criminal cyber attack in December 2020.
Many Sepa staff are members of the trade union, Unison. “I cannot formally comment as the investigation is ongoing,” said the union’s regional organiser, Emma Phillips.
‘“I have been asked to respect the members’ privacy and confidentiality and wish to do this.”
Phillips added: “Bullying and harassment is clearly unacceptable. In any organisation there needs to be a culture where people can have the confidence to come forward and know their allegations will be taken seriously.”
One Sepa insider, who did not wish to be named, said trade unionists submitted “a group grievance alleging a senior management culture of bullying and harassment and demanding an independent inquiry” on 2 February.
The insider added: “The grievance was submitted despite the fact that A’Hearn resigned. He was being investigated for misconduct but the investigation was stopped when he resigned.”
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency stressed that it was committed to modern, progressive public services and a positive, open culture. “Our code of conduct is clear on our expectations of all staff and we take conduct allegations very seriously,” said the acting chief executive, Jo Green.
“We have a range of supportive processes and procedures to address concerns. We have and continue to work closely with Unison.”
She told The Ferret: “We support a culture of working together, constructive engagement and trust, including addressing concerns and protecting anonymity.”
Green reiterated that A’Hearn left on 19 January “following conduct allegations”. Sepa was unable to comment further “in order to protect anonymity,” she said.
A’Hearn is understood to have left without any financial settlement and without having to give any notice. In an interview with the environment magazine, ENDS, he declined to comment on why he resigned.
He said he was proud of his legacy after seven years leading Sepa, citing improvements in the environmental performance of the whisky industry and an overhaul of the regulation of salmon farms as examples.
Cover image thanks to Scottish Environment Protection Agency.