The Guardian Jan 29th Sandra Laville and Rachel Salvidge

‘It is desperate’: how Environment Agency staff were silenced as pollution worsened

As public disgust at foul waterways in England grew, the body responsible for protecting them tried to stifle internal criticism

The internal email dropped into staff inboxes at a time when public outrage about pollution in English rivers was in full cry, generating parliamentary debates, demonstrations and mass petitions.

But within the agency responsible for protecting and enhancing the environment the focus was on gagging staff with the threat of dismissal if they discussed its work both inside and outside the organisation.

Chief executive James Bevan, a former Foreign Office mandarin who was appointed in 2015 to run the regulator, issued a draconian warning silencing staff after a wave of criticism about its performance protecting rivers.

Staff should not, he said, “openly criticise or discredit the organisation in the media or on social media” or “disclose any confidential information in connection with the Environment Agency to anyone who is not authorised to received it”. All breaches could lead to disciplinary action or, in serious cases, dismissal. Comments made “inside or outside work”, including derogatory statements about the organisation, managers, colleagues, stakeholders, customers or contractors, and anything that brought the agency into disrepute, or reflected on its performance, were all subject to sanction.

Although pressures on the agency and its staff have grown each year as its government grant has been incrementally slashed by nearly two-thirds, this threat from Bevan marked a nadir. “It is desperate,” said Nick Measham of Salmon and Trout Conservation. “It shows a lack of confidence and suggests a very unhappy workplace.”

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