The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) is facing criticism for paying a consultant nearly £1,000 a day for 66 days to head its new specialist enforcement unit.
Chris Mills will receive more than the annual salary of the recently-appointed head of enforcement, Jennifer Shearer. Mills was hired to establish Sepa’s new enforcement unit and support Shearer’s introduction to the role during her phased return from maternity leave.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats called the pay difference “absurd” and said the arrangement could constitute “gender discrimination and maternity discrimination”.
Shearer responded that she had no issue with the arrangement or her pay. She said the fact that Sepa appointed her during maternity leave “knocks on the head any suggestion of unfairness.”
The Unite trade union called Mills’s fee “an obscene amount of public money”.
Mills, who has held many notable environmental roles, was paid £995 a day for 44 days of work from 8 October to 14 December 2018 and will receive the same rate for a further 22 days between January and March 2019.
This fee includes his national insurance, travel and accommodation liabilities. However, the total amount he will receive for 66 days would equate to £65,670 before tax – more than the annual salary of the full time head of enforcement.
A Sepa spokesman confirmed that Shearer was hired internally and is being paid at the bottom end of the scale of between £61,118 to £70,465, which they said is routine practice.
It is absurd that Sepa is paying this male consultant more in 66 days than the female permanent employee he is covering for earns in a year. Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat deputy leader
LibDem Deputy Leader Jo Swinson MP said: “It is absurd that Sepa is paying this male consultant more in 66 days than the female permanent employee he is covering for earns in a year. It is open to accusations of both gender discrimination and maternity discrimination.”
But Shearer said she was “grateful for and welcome the continued short-term support of Chris Mills” and was “respectfully clear that Ms Swinson doesn’t speak for me.”
She stressed that she had been supported throughout her nearly 10 years at Sepa and benefitted from the green watchdog’s women in leadership programme.
“The fact that my employer appointed me whilst on maternity leave, following a competitive recruitment process, fully supports workplace flexibility and family friendly policies, knocks on the head any suggestion of unfairness,” said Shearer.
She added: “Sepa is a positive workplace for women and men and I’d be happy to meet with Ms Swinson in my new capacity when I return from maternity leave.”
A LibDem spokesman told The Ferret that Swinson had accepted Shearer’s offer of a meeting.
Unite’s regional industrial officer, Paul Bennett, said: “The scale of these consultancy fees are astounding and an obscene amount of public money. At a time when public sector workers are having to fight to just maintain living costs, the consultancy fees over a couple of days total the annual increase being offered to Scotland’s lowest paid public service workers.
“It’s ironic that this information has come to light at a time when Unite members at Sepa are fighting for a job re-evaluation due to the fact that they are being undervalued.”
He called for “a public debate about why such individuals are able to command such substantial fees for their work” while “those at the bottom and in the middle have found their bargaining power reduced”.
“Sepa cite Mr Mills’s extensive senior management experience in environmental regulation as justification for his pay. While not everybody would be able to do these kind of demanding jobs, it does show that very often people are highly paid because they have been given a chance in positions of responsibility.
“We should be a bit wary of creating a superstar culture that venerates those at the top as being vastly more capable than the rest of us and results in an unjustifiably unfair and unequal pay culture.”
A Sepa spokesman said that Mills had been hired to help “establish a new enforcement unit on a short, fixed-term basis.” The unit aims to “help deliver better outcomes for Scottish communities” and make clear “that compliance with Scotland’s environmental laws is non-negotiable”.
They added: “Reflecting the scale of our ambition, we sought the support of one of the UK’s most experienced enforcement regulators.”
The spokesman highlighted that Mills had “held a series of senior management roles in the English Environment Agency, as Chief Executive of the Welsh Environment Agency and with the Northern Ireland Environment Minister conducting a major review of illegal waste”.
Sepa’s salary bands are published via its online disclosure log. The spokesman said that Mills consented to disclose all of the information provided to The Ferret by Sepa in line with Article 6 of EU’s General Data Protection Regulation law.
Update: When this story was published, Sepa provided a further clarifying statement and we made two changes as a result. An earlier version said that Mills was hired to cover Shearer’s maternity cover. He was hired to set-up a new enforcement unit, which Shearer was subsequently employed to manage. Sepa also said that there was no formal pay dispute with Unite. Sepa has a formal recognition agreement with Unison, not Unite. Unison declined to comment.