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ERMA not up to the job

ERMA not up to the job

The ERMA Review paints a damning picture of a dysfunctional organisation, incapable of handling the responsibility of approving GE organism releases, Green Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said today.

"The review released today, clearly shows that ERMA is not fit for purpose. We must start again from scratch," Ms Fitzsimons said.

The report's main criticisms of ERMA include poor oversight by ERMA of the conditions placed on GE approvals, poor accountability, and skewed weighing of evidence. It also notes serious gaps in essential skills, including gene technology, ecology, ethics and environmental effects assessment.

Criticisms also include ERMA giving preference to information from applicants over submitters; and having a flawed operational structure that undermines staff efforts and rejects alternative views. The report notes, among many other concerns, that: 'Monitoring is presently weak; tardy reports are common and errors have gone undetected.'

"These are extremely serious criticisms, and the report itself raises the question of whether ERMA can be fixed," Ms Fitzsimons said.

"The review has confirmed what many observers have noted for some time - that ERMA has failed to adequately monitor and ensure compliance with GE approval conditions. Coupled with poor coordination between ERMA and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the review team sees this as the greatest environmental risk from our present system.

"This is the organisation the Government is totally relying on to protect us from harm when it says we have 'the strictest regulatory system in the world'. ERMA's systemic failings now show that statement to be nonsense.

"The New Zealand public deserves much better than this - and will demand it. ERMA is clearly not an organisation to which we can entrust decisions about the release of GE organisms into our farms, forests and environment," Ms Fitzsimons said.

The ERMA review team reported to the Government in March, which raises questions over why the Government has waited three months to release it.

* See attached document 1 for a fuller outline of the ERMA review's main criticisms of ERMA (the Environmental Risk Management Authority).

The Review's main criticisms of ERMA

Green Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says the Review's main criticisms of ERMA (the Environmental Risk Management Authority) fall under five main headings:

- Poor oversight: There is poor oversight by ERMA of compliance and monitoring of conditions on GE approvals, with poor coordination between ERMA and the Agriculture Ministry and between their two separate pieces of legislation. This is seen by the review team as the greatest environmental risk from our present system of managing GE. It means that we cannot rely on enforcement of the conditions imposed on approvals for field tests or conditional release.

- Poor accountability: ERMA has allowed its staff and in particular its chief executive, to create a separate identity for itself which is not provided for in law ("ERMA New Zealand' - set up to carry out operations in support of or on behalf of the Authority), and to assume some of the functions the Authority should have. This has led to confusion over accountability.

- Skill gaps: There are serious gaps in the skill bases of both the Authority and the staff. These are in areas as crucial as gene technology, ecology, social science and ethics, environmental effects assessment, and strategic foresight. It is also too small to have the range of experience and skills necessary.

- Skewed approach to risk: In its approach to risk, ERMA is seen as giving greater weight to information supplied by applicants than submitters. Science is rated more heavily than other perspectives and there is selective inclusion of information in its reports.

- Flawed organisational culture: ERMA's organisational culture undermines staff efforts and does not respect alternative views. ERMA is bogged down in detail, unable to see the big picture, and driven by following rules rather than making good judgments. Its stated goals as an organisation do not include effective environmental risk management, which is the goal of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, and its approach to risk is not closely enough linked to public views on risk acceptability.

* See attached document 2 pages 3-7 for quotes from the report itself that support Ms Fitzsimons' summary.

Quotes from ERMA Review that support Green Party critique

- Green Party Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says: There is poor oversight of compliance and monitoring of conditions on consents, with poor coordination between ERMA and MAF and between their two separate pieces of legislation. This is seen by the review team as the greatest environmental risk from our system of managing GE.

The ERMA review says:

[s 5.5.3]: "Monitoring and coordinating compliance with the Act and Authority decisions has been patchy. There have been some notable oversights ... the recurrence of monitoring mishaps cannot be ruled out."

[s 5.9]: "Monitoring is presently weak: tardy reports are common and errors have gone undetected."

[s 5.2.2]: "There are tensions between staff in the Agency and their counterparts in MAF over the efficacy of some controls and the regularity of monitoring imposed ¡K

[s 1 Executive Summary] "It is at this point that ¡K the 'system' of risk management for new organisms is most vulnerable."

- Green Party Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says: The Authority has allowed the staff, and in particular the Chief Executive, to create a separate identity for itself which is not provided for in law and to assume some of the functions the Authority should have. This has led to confusion over accountability.

The ERMA review says:

[s 4.5.4]: "Common themes were ¡K that the Authority is 'invisible' and that it is 'staff-driven' ¡K There seems to be confusion not only about where accountability for decision-making ultimately lies but also as to whom is actually making the decisions (i.e. Authority or staff)."

[s 4.5.4]: "The marked separation in ERMA has created in some minds the impression that there are separate entities potentially heading in different directions."

[s 4.5.5]: " ... these (governance policies and procedures) have largely been promulgated and even mostly approved by the Chief Executive."

- Green Party Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says: There are serious gaps in the skill bases of both the Authority and the staff. These are in areas as crucial as gene technology, ecology, social science and ethics, environmental effects assessment, strategic foresight. It is also too small to have the range of experience and skills necessary.

The ERMA review says:

[s 4.6.3]: "It is apparent ... that a significant element of the Authority's decision-making challenge concerns matters other than hard .... science. This has to do with matters such as philosophy, ethics, spirituality, cultural awareness, social psychology, community values, and the like. At least one Member of the Authority should ... be a competent social scientist ....."

[s 4.6.3]: "... particular attention should be made to strengthening the Authority in respect of Members with the ability to contribute in the fields of: gene technology, ecology, social science."

[s 6.1.1]: "There is a notable lack of professional representation in environmental or public policy development and in strategic planning at senior management level."

[s 7.1.1]: "No staff have advanced analytic skills in the social domain, so cultural or ethical perspectives are at risk. Environmental effects assessment also lacks a specialist."

[s 4.7 Conclusions and Recommendations]: 13. "That future appointments address the areas of comparative inexperience and under-resourcing that are identified in the report"

[s 7.4.1]: "The Authority has requested independent advice infrequently" (despite its weaknesses and the skill gaps of the Agency)

- Green Party Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says: In its approach to risk, ERMA is seen as giving greater weight to information supplied by applicants rather than submitters. Science is rated more heavily than other perspectives and there is selective inclusion of information in its reports.

The ERMA review says:

[s 5.2]: "It (the Methodology) has been used to justify the formation of a set of work processes in which unwritten rules on inclusion or exclusion dominate the expert judgment of authors."

[s 5.2]: "The balance of risk against benefit, in practice, has been subjugated by a process-driven style that is perceived to weight science inputs more heavily ... than other considerations."

[s 5.4]: [Past Criticisms of the ERMA Approval Process]: "The process still appears to exclude the general public from the risk identification phase."

[s 5.5] "... staff are inclined to accept data where it is available and regard non-scientific, especially non-quantified aspects as less significant."

[s 5.8.1] "The benefit of not approving a risky development or containment .... has not been given the same attention as the supposed benefit of taking the risk."

[s 5.7.6] "... some staff appear unwilling to accept that ... genetic engineering is likely to contain some unpleasant events, even disasters and subsequent remedies. The precautionary approach is the first line of defence against these unknowable risks."

- Green Party Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says: The organisational culture undermines staff efforts and does not respect alternative views. ERMA is bogged down in detail, unable to see the big picture, and driven by following rules rather than making good judgments. Its stated goals as an organisation do not include effective environmental risk management, which is the goal of the Act, and its approach to risk is not closely enough linked to public views on risk acceptability.

The ERMA review says:

[s 6.2] "¡K .this (decisions being made by some parts of senior management team about issues pertaining to other managers) reflects a general expectation throughout the organisation that the chief executive will rewrite significant specialist plans and advice, sometimes returning work to authors without discussion ..."

[s 6.4]: "When pressed to explain the consequences of daring to enquire outside one's assigned domain, a number of staff independently described a process of ignoring advice given and undermining the individual, with or without insulting remarks."

[s 7.2]: "(referring to staff descriptions of organisational culture) ¡K .unpleasant experiences are frequent, involving apparent disrespect for the professional capabilities of staff."

[s 7.2]: "This (the Agency's goal for its organisational culture) does not capture the ... values in the HSNO Act: commitment to effective environmental risk management ..."

[s 7.4]: "Motivation among staff is patchy: some appear to be performing well below the best of their ability, due in part to knock-backs. Over-ruling their professional expertise and experience is having a direct impact on focus and performance."


ENDS

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