Government accused of ‘gagging’ Environment Agency chairman

As students and police clashed outside the Environment Agency's annual conference got confrontational as its chairman attacked the Government for gagging the chairman and cutting its funding.

Against a background of police helicopters and loudly protesting students the Environment Agency annual conference yesterday (November 24) started with an attack on climate change scepticism and coalition cuts.

The event’s chair, the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin, tore into the coalition Government and the apathy he perceived around cuts as well as the climate change movement.

Mr Harrabin, who opened as well as chaired the event in central London, introduced the agency’s chairman Lord Chris Smith saying he’d been gagged: “His words will have been edited in his head otherwise he’s facing the sack.”

The presenter also criticised Caroline Spelman, the secretary of state for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), over the cuts to her department which described as ‘the very worst’.

He said: “Everything is being cut and there’s widespread support for what is happening, everyone seems to be persuaded that cuts are the only way ahead.

“And DEFRA, from the greenest government this country has ever seen, has some of the very worst cuts floods and biodiversity are challenged even more than they were before.

“I hear talk in DEFRA of a lack of confidence, a lack of a sense of direction from a lot officials they don’t quite know where this is all going.”

Mr Harrabin also branded reports of plans to sell of Forestry Commission assets as ‘extremely controversial’.

However Ms Spelman, who made only a fleeting appearance in front of audience who face redundancy and pay freezes because of the coalition Governments spending cuts, responded: “I didn’t come here to gag Lord Smith I came here to praise him and his staff.

“The Environment Agency, Natural England and the Forestry Commission are already planning how to work together to improve efficiency and service, so I don’t recognise the description as extremely controversial.

“I’d like to myth bust there for a moment and invite you all to look at DEFRA’s website to actually see what the position is.”

Lord Smith, a former Labour MP, started his talk saying: “You should never believe anything you hear from journalists.”

Luke Walsh

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