Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Thérèse Coffey moves to allay EFRA Committee fears over Northeast sea life mortality investigation
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dr Thérèse Coffey MP has replied to the letter from the Chair, Environment Food and Rural Affairs (FEFRA) Committee, Sir Robert Goodwill on the issue of “Sea life mortality off the northeast coast”.
The EFRA Committee Chair had written to Dr Coffey on 13 December 2022 regarding the independent group of external experts that was set-up by the government to analyse the evidence behind the competing theories of algal bloom and pyridine pollution.
In the letter, the EFRA Committee expressed concerns that Dr Coffey could not explain how the members of the panel would be chosen or provide details about its composition when she had appeared before the Committee itself.
The Committee said it had also been shown emails from an official involved in the inquiry which states that membership of the panel will not be shared outside of Government until the panel has published its findings. The Committee told Dr Coffey that this fell short of the collaborative process that it had envisaged for this review. They Committee wrote: “This lack of transparency and communication is unlikely to build trust with scientists who have been critical of the previous Defra report and the local community, which feels that its concerns have not been listened to. Indeed, the current approach risks making this conflict worse.”
The letter proceeded to call on the Government to conduct this review in a more open, transparent and collaborative way. It said: “As a minimum – and before the end of the year – the Government should publish the panel’s terms of reference; its membership; and a document setting out the panel’s ways of working – including how it will ensure all viewpoints will input into the panels’ work.”
The Committee asked the Minister if she could confirm that:
- the final report will be published in its entirety, and
- that while Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser is leading on the appointment of members to the panel, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser has been consulted on them.
Replying to the EFRA Committee letter on 11 January 2023, Dr Coffey moved to allay its fears over the independence and composition of the investigating group of experts saying:
“I can confirm that the independent Crustacean Mortality Expert Panel has already been stood up by my Chief Scientific Advisor, who consulted the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, to assess the evidence from all parties involved with a view to determine the most likely cause of the crustacean mortality event in the Northeast of England. Terms of reference were agreed at the first panel meeting held in December.
“Membership is comprised from from 11 different organisations, including many leading UK marine science universities. To ensure independence, institutes and individuals with past involvement in assessment of the crustacean mortality have not been included, nor is any member from a Defra agency. The identities of the panel members have not been made public yet to enable them to assess the scientific evidence without pressure or influence from interested parties. Names and affiliations of members will be released when the report of the panel is published.
“Regarding ways of working, the panel will focus on the scientific evidence, including scientific data from key stakeholders, and rely on the diverse expertise of its members to consider all possible causes of crustacean deaths.
“I expect to receive the report this month.”