Two unions back strikes at Environment Agency over 'derisory' pay

Prospect: “There comes a point where passion is not enough for you to carry on in the face of tough times”
Environment Agency officials could now go on strike. Photo: Simon Vine/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

22 Nov 2022

Environment Agency officials at two unions have voted to go on strike over the body's "derisory" pay offer.

An announcement by the Prospect union that its members had backed industrial action followed a similar announcement by Unison announcement last week.

Prospect members voted by 67% in favour of strike action, with 92% backing action short of strike. In Unison's ballot, 73% of members voted for walkouts, and 92% for ASOS.

Both ballots passed the legal threshold of 50% of eligible members voting. In response, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said it is working on plans to "minimise" the impact of any impending strikes.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said: “Our members work in the Environment Agency because they are passionate about their work but there comes a point where passion is not enough for you to carry on in the face of tough times – that point has been reached.”

Environment Agency officials, like most other civil servants, were this year offered an average wage increase of 3%, while inflation is currently 11.1%.

EA's chief executive has described the pay deal as “unjust, unwise, and unfair”. In a letter to the then-environment secretary, leaked to CSW, Sir James Bevan said staff were facing “experiencing real hardship” and some were using foodbanks.

Unison's head of environment, Donna Rowe-Merriman, said it is "not hard to see" why so many officials voted to strike given the "derisory wage offer".

Environment Agency workers have been "taken for granted for long enough and feel it’s now time to take a stand", she added.

Prospect said the pay offer “follows more than a decade of real-terms pay cuts which have resulted in staffing issues and the enforced scaling back of the agency’s vital regulatory work”.

The union said real-terms pay in the agency has fallen by more than 20% since austerity began in 2010 and from a relatively low base compared to the rest of the civil service. Experienced staff at the agency are “increasingly looking to alternative employment options, leaving a skills and experience gap within the agency”, Prospect added.

“The Environment Agency is already struggling to fulfil its regulatory duties due to resourcing issues and experienced staff leaving,” Clancy said.

“The bottom line is, if you have a higher proportion of less experienced staff then either the quantity of what you do suffers, or the quality. Eventually, it’s both which is why you see pollution incidents on the rise, fewer events being investigated, fewer prosecutions and fewer penalties handed out.

“We already know about the climate emergency, feeding into a biodiversity emergency and an environmental emergency. When your regulators have a pay and recruitment crisis at the same time we are in serious trouble.”

Prospect members at the agency work in roles such as forecasting floods, building and maintaining flood defences, regulating industry to prevent environmental harm and protecting and enhancing the environment.

“Everyone in England relies on the Environment Agency, whether they realise it or not,” the union said.

Prospect said it will consult with members and other unions and decide what action to take “in due course”.

The votes for industrial action come after PCS officials at more than 100 departments and agencies voted to go on strike, with the civil service’s biggest union announcing its first round of action last week. EA does not have a PCS branch but its sponsoring department, Defra, will be among the first departments to be hit by walkouts in mid-December.

An EA spokesperson said: “Our staff work tirelessly to protect and enhance the environment. As a public sector organisation the Environment Agency is bound by the pay policy of the government of the day.

“Decisions on industrial action are for unions and their members. We are making plans to minimise any disruption to our work to protect the environment, people and wildlife from harm should industrial action take place.”

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