Concerns raised about the employment of the spouse of the new environment secretary at a water company.
Activists have expressed worries about a possible conflict of interest regarding the recently appointed UK environment secretary, Steve Barclay, due to his wife’s high-ranking position at Anglian Water.
Barclay was appointed to the role of environment in Rishi Sunak’s recent cabinet reshuffle. His spouse, Karen Barclay, currently holds a high-ranking position at the water company as the head of major infrastructure (DCO) planning and stakeholder engagement.
Barclay, in his role as Secretary of State, is in charge of supervising the regulation of water companies. He is tasked with ensuring that these companies make necessary advancements in addressing sewage pollution, as outlined in the government’s plan to reduce storm overflow.
Ofwat is currently investigating Anglian Water along with five other companies for possible unlawful disposal of untreated sewage. The Environment Agency is also conducting a significant criminal inquiry into the dumping of sewage by water companies, which includes over 2000 water treatment plants.
Water providers are urging the government and regulator Ofwat to authorize a £96 billion investment in infrastructure enhancements to address leakages, prevent sewage discharges, and increase capacity at treatment facilities. They are proposing that customers cover these costs through increased bills. However, some detractors argue that the public has already contributed to this investment and should not be burdened with additional expenses to fix issues that violate the companies’ legal obligations.
Tim Farron, the rural representative for the Liberal Democrats, expressed concern about a potential conflict of interest for the person responsible for enforcing clean-up efforts by water companies, despite acknowledging that ministers’ spouses have the right to pursue their own careers.
“We must ensure that the secretary of state is fully dedicated to utilizing all available resources to put an end to the sewage scandal.”
During the summer season, Anglian Water admitted to being responsible for the release of millions of litres of untreated sewage from a water recycling facility in Essex. They were charged a fine of £2.65m, which is the highest penalty given for environmental violations in the eastern region of England.
Ashley Smith, from Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, expressed concern about a potential conflict of interest for the recently appointed secretary of state.
Smith stated that the issue is not only that the new secretary of the environment has a spouse in a high-ranking position at Anglian Water, but also that the water industry frequently operates unlawfully and has misused billions of dollars from customers. Additionally, they are currently holding the country hostage by increasing bills to cover the cost of fixing the problems they caused. Smith also expressed doubt that the industry can be relied upon to not take advantage of any future government benefits.
According to a spokesperson for the government, all Defra ministers disclose their interests in accordance with the ministerial code.
There is a set system in effect for ministers to declare and handle any interests they may hold. This guarantees that appropriate measures are taken to prevent or lessen any potential or perceived conflicts of interest.
The head of the Wildlife Trusts and chair of Anglian Water’s independent challenge board, Craig Bennett, stated that it would be wise for him to publicly declare and address any potential issues. This will ensure that the situation can be properly handled.
Karen Barclay has been asked to provide a statement. Anglian Water declined to comment.