Every now and then a topic of some intrigue comes my way. Now I reckon I’m some way down the Welsh blogging food chain, so when people come to me with a big story it gets me wondering why any of the bigger beasts – like some of those I link to on the right – aren’t covering it. As far as I can tell, only Valleys Mam has done so up till now.
Nevertheless, I have covered topics of interest that are wider than simply Penarth, for example here, here and here. And perhaps that’s why my source – let’s call her “Source A” – approached me. Source A wanted to remain anonymous, for reasons that will become clear, so I’ll respect his wishes.
So this post is a compound of information that has been compiled by several other people and passed through me via email.
The Chair of the new Welsh environment/natural resources agency (a name has yet to be determined) was recently announced to be Professor Peter Matthews OBE. “Who?” was the response by everyone in the environment sector in Wales. The appointment was described by the local paper for Peter Matthews’ home area as “providing a generous pension top up for 69 year-old Peter Matthews who lives near Huntingdon… For eight days a month Mr Matthews will be handsomely rewarded to the tune of £50,000 a year”.
There has been muted fury about this decision in the environment sector. According to my sources, not one person working in the environment sector considers this to have been a good appointment. No-one, that is, outside the appointment panel. I’ll comment on the ‘muted’ nature of the response later, but let’s examine the reasons that this appointment was so disastrous.
Firstly, let’s check out Professor Matthews’ track record. His previous appointment was as head of the Utility Regulator for Electricity, Gas and Water in Northern Ireland, where he proudly announced in September 2010:
Our job is to act as an independent, expert regulator for Northern Ireland consumers. Protecting their interests means that we relentlessly challenge utility companies in Northern Ireland to make sure that their costs are as low as possible. Our scrutiny since 2006 has saved at least £210 million of costs that may otherwise been passed on in higher bills for consumers.
One man’s ‘costs as low as possible’ is another man’s ‘failure to invest’. So just three months after this declaration of value for money, the BBC reported that:
40,000 people across Northern Ireland are struggling to cope without water supplies… some people have been without water for eight days…
The head of customer services for NI Water, when asked why such horrendous problems were being caused in Northern Ireland when Scotland was doing fine (and offering bottled water to Northern Ireland residents), said:
Scotland has had investment, whereas we haven’t.
I’m sure that Peter Matthews’ penny-pinching approach was warmly welcomed by all those people who ended up flushing their toilets with lemonade. One GP described the situation as “a public health emergency”. Meanwhile the Environment Minister said:
NI Water was not properly prepared. In terms of communicating [their] problems with the community, they failed and failed very miserably
You can see from the Utility Regulator’s website that they’re responsible for regulating the electricity, gas, water and sewerage industries in Northern Ireland, promoting the short- and long-term interests of consumers. Their Vision is: “We will make a difference for consumers by listening, innovating and leading”. Well, they sure made a difference to the interests of consumers by scaling back investment.
Secondly, Professor Matthews is about as British establishment as they come. He’s been ‘awarded’ the OBE for services to the water industry. His UK frame of reference was highlighted in a recent speech to mark his appointment as Chair of the new body, when he said “we are a nation of 60 million people”. As Tom Jones from Cymdeithas Edward Llwyd points out, we’re actually a nation of 3 million people. The Chair of this new organisation will be responsible for steering the direction of the organisation and appointing and managing the Chief Executive. There’s plenty of evidence out there that people tend to recruit people similar to themselves. Should we be concerned that the new Chief Executive – who, unlike the Chair (who may be removed from post at any time by the Minister), can expect to spend the rest of their working life in this role – could, like Professor Matthews, have next to no knowledge about Wales, our needs and our priorities?
Thirdly, he’s the current Master of the Worshipful Company of Water Conservators. They might sound like a great bunch of people, but George Monbiot’s excoriating review of the City of London should be enough to persuade you of the livery companies’ unhealthy interest in “expounding the values of liberalisation” as the Lord Mayor used to say. Let’s hope the Livery Companies’ free-market fervour isn’t visited upon the Welsh environment under Professor Matthews’ stewardship! Apparently there is some discussion as to whether or not Professor Matthews is one of those vile creatures known as a freemason – after all, there’s no shortage of masonic lodges in Huntingdon.
Finally, Professor Matthews apparently developed a very strong reputation for flying in to Belfast to attend meetings of the Utility Regulator and flying straight back out to Huntingdon. I’m sure that’s a decent carbon footprint for someone who claims to be a Chartered Environmentalist. But of more concern is his commitment to the cause. One of Source A’s colleagues from Northern Ireland said “we’re used to Brits flying in to tell us what to do. I guess you in Wales are going to have to get used to it now”. But perhaps we should be reassured, after all, Professor Matthews claims to have “visited Wales on business and on holiday“.
So those are the concerns. But why might this appointment be bad for democracy?
I referred to the criticism of this appointment as being ‘muted’, despite the almost universal opprobrium among environmental groups. That’s because the post-holder is incredibly powerful. Any environmental group that receives any money or other support from this new all-encompassing environmental body is going to be beholden to it. That means no criticism, please. And the people who did the recruiting – they’re presumably the top civil servants in the environment section of the Welsh Government. So if you’re thinking of staying friendly with these influential people, you’d better keep quiet. Of course, if you criticise this appointment, you criticise the Minister (even though he had no part in the recruitment process), and no environmental group has an interest in upsetting him. And talking of the Minister, it’s an abdication of duty on his part not to have been on the recruitment panel. After all, this is the most important appointment to the most important body of his entire portfolio. It seems to me that the panel should have comprised himself, the Business Minister and the Agriculture Deputy Minister. But he’s making ‘Yes Minister‘ seem all too real – civil servants persuading him that they know best.
This paralysis on behalf of the environment sector is symptomatic of the grip the Welsh Government has over just about every aspect of civil society – health, education, environment, the works. There’s probably not one NGO in Wales that doesn’t think very carefully before coming out critical of the Welsh Government, and that’s not good for scrutiny of government or for democracy. Just look at what happened with AWEMA if you need to be persuaded of the apparent advantages of being friendly with Carwyn Jones. Zero scrutiny of an organisation that broke just about every employment law in the book.
I think there are a few questions that need to be answered by the Welsh Government on this one.
- What were the selection criteria for the post (Was knowledge of Wales, its people and institutions on the list? Fluency in the Welsh language?)
- Which candidates were eliminated from consideration at the shortlisting stage and why? What scores did the non-selected candidates achieve?
- Who was on the recruitment panel? What scores were achieved by the shortlisted candidates?
- What scrutiny, if any, was made of Professor Matthews’ role in the lack of investment in Northern Ireland Water that caused the catastrophic failure of supply in December 2010?
And I’ll be submitting an FOI request to the Welsh Government to that effect.
Watch this space.