Sepa Is environmental regulation in Scotland failing?

Concerns over ongoing ‘bullying’ and secretive culture at environmental regulator

Staff at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency claim that a bullying, “male dominated culture” persists at the regulator, despite the departure of its chief executive after allegations of misconduct, including those of a “sexual nature”.

Responses to an internal survey at SEPA, seen by The Ferret, also claimed “it is not safe to speak out” at the agency, while some staff said they have lost trust and confidence in the board and management.

The revelations come as former CEO, Terry A’Hearn – who left the organisation in January 2022 amid “accusations over his conduct” – spoke exclusively to The Ferret for the first time since his departure. He apologised for “any times when behaviour fell below the high level expected”.

It was confirmed in May that some of the allegations which led to his sudden departure were “of a sexual nature” but did not include claims of sexual assault.

Following A’Hearn’s departure, employees were asked to take part in a “listening exercise”. Staff, it was acknowledged, “felt let down” by the organisation.  

The Ferret obtained a redacted copy of the report – written following the staff survey – under freedom of information legislation (FoI). Some of the 75 respondents said a “culture developed over a number of years” at SEPA “where it was not safe to speak up” about negative behaviours.

Responses also claimed that there was “insufficient awareness and training” around bullying and harassment, and that the board and agency management team (AMT) had “failed” to hold A’Hearn to account.

Scottish Labour said the reports of a “toxic” culture were concerning and called for the Scottish Government to provide an urgent ministerial statement on the problems facing its environmental protection agency.

Unison — SEPA staff’s union —  said that it shared concerns and had used “every avenue to challenge the bullying and harassment within SEPA”. It claimed it would take time to address the problems and “sustained action” was needed from management.

SEPA said the listening exercise was the first stage in a commitment to address issues identified. It is working on new whistleblowing and grievance policies and procedures as well as a code of conduct for its board. 

Many contributors expressed concern that some of the behaviours and culture that subsisted under the previous CEO persisted today.

Internal documents – also released under FoI – reveal that those conducting the interviews were “struck by the depth of feeling of the participants” and “their desire to be heard”.

Although 30 minutes had been allotted for each interview, most took “more than 90 minutes with some taking more than 2.5 hours”.

Under the heading “ethical behaviours” the report states that there was “strong negative focus” from respondents “in particular relating to bullying and harassment”. It continued: “Many contributors expressed concern that some of the behaviours and culture that subsisted under the previous CEO persisted today.”

It added: “Some had concerns about whether this trust could be restored, with some expressing that the AMT couldn’t recover from this.”

Some staff who contributed were considering leaving the organisation due to these issues.

Other felt that SEPA had moved away from its core statutory duties and said regulation was “undervalued” under new priorities set by the former CEO. 

Concerns were also raised about “a lack of planning” and the way the organisation “moved from one project to another”. This meant that “projects failed or disappeared with no communication about outcomes or objectives”.

More positive comments included views from some that the culture was friendlier than elsewhere. It was also noted that – despite a longstanding male dominated culture – there were more women in senior positions while A’Hearn was in post.

It has been a turbulent period for SEPA, which was hit by a criminal cyber attack in December 2020 which resulted in it losing information on thousands of environmental checks and pollution breaches. 

UNISON organiser Emma Phillips, claimed that its work to challenge bullying and harassment in the organisation contributed to “building the case that eventually resulted in the former CEO, Terry A’Hearn, leaving the organisation”.

She said the union had welcomed the listening exercise.

But she was clear it was not enough. “We will need a period of sustained action to support staff and managers through what has been a turbulent time for the organisation,” she said. “We know it will take time to change the culture at SEPA and we share the deep concern about the current state of the organisation expressed by the staff. “

We know it will take time to change the culture at SEPA and we share the deep concern about the current state of the organisation expressed by the staff.

Emma Phillips, UNISON

The union said it is now working productively with management on solving issues.

Mercedes Villalba MSP, Scottish Labour’s environment and biodiversity spokesperson, said that the Scottish Government had to “get to grips” with problems at its environmental agency.

She added: “These reports of a toxic culture at Scotland’s environmental regulator are highly alarming.

“SEPA is meant to be leading the charge against climate change, and promoting environmental protection in Scotland. However, these reports of chaos at the heart of our environmental regulator cast doubt on whether it is currently fit for purpose.

“The Scottish Government needs to get to grips with this apparent mismanagement, and explain precisely how it will do this, in an urgent ministerial statement to parliament.”

Speaking publicly for the first time since his departure Terry A’Hearn, former chief executive of SEPA, said he was “proud” to have led SEPA for seven years. “During my tenure I received regular feedback from colleagues, positive and negative but all constructive, and many messages thanking me for my leadership,” he added. 

“I am pleased that former colleagues who took part in the review recognised I had encouraged more collaborative and flexible ways of working; increased the number of women in senior positions; and created a friendlier culture.

“I tried to be a supportive and helpful CEO and I am saddened if this is not the way some other former colleagues view me. If there were any times when my behaviour fell below the high level expected of a CEO, or if it was misinterpreted, I am sorry.”

Bob Downes, chair of Scottish Environment Protection Agency, said SEPA was “committed to being a modern, progressive and inclusive organisation” with clear standards for all its employees.

He said it acted swiftly when allegations of “inappropriate conduct” and concerns about a culture of bullying and harassment came to light. 

“We’ve taken time to listen carefully and talked directly with staff on both the key findings and, importantly, on the range of work underway to address those concerns and the themes which will inform priorities for our 2023-24 operating plan,” he added. 

“Nicole Paterson was appointed chief executive in October and is committed to continuing to listen, support our people and work together with a firm focus on delivering nationally important public services for Scotland.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Following the resignation of the former chief executive, it is welcome that SEPA has sought to address concerns around organisational culture by proactively holding this internal listening exercise. We expect the SEPA leadership to carefully consider the findings and respond accordingly.”

Additional reporting by Ally Tibbitt

Cover image thanks to Scottish Environment Protection Agency

  1. Until a few years ago, I worked in a UK Govt Agency with offices in all Nations. It became clear to me that the increasing right wing extremism of the UK government had a direct effect upon the nature of CEO’s that were subsequently appointed. They became more incompetent at the same time as becoming more ideologically active. Attacks on the trade unions and its officials increased massively at the same time as pushing an overt agenda of “inclusion” and tolerance including a supposed “anti-bullying” approach. However, the anti-bullying policy was mainly directed at those who spoke out about terms and conditions (trade unionists) or who were seen as troublemakers. This had a chilling effect upon the workforce whose only outlet became internal surveys. These were disastrously bad for the organisation, but the response from management was not to do anything to change the fear culture but rather to subtly change the wording of the surveys while applying line management pressure to seek improvements in survey results. Ultimately, the approach of senior management is determined by Ministers, so it is very disappointing that it appears the Scottish Government is appointing and encouraging the same type of leadership culture to its own Agencies as the UK government.

  2. SEPA is stuffed, in the Sturgeon era, with actual polluters. The River Esk, which was a glittering example of a cleaned-up river, is a case in point. I noticed and reported its appalling state in 2016 to SEPA and was told the filthy water was due to a “mains burst”. Since then it has only got worse. George Kerevan, among others, has reported that the agency is these days made up largely of “industry figures”. So it seems the corruption of the agency is more or less complete. Well done, Nicola, another great “achievement”.

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