Today I am publishing the reports of the triennial reviews of DEFRA’s Science Advisory Council (SAC) and the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), which were jointly launched on 25 March 2014. Triennial reviews of non-departmental public bodies are part of the Government’s commitment to ensuring accountability in public life.
DEFRA’s SAC was established administratively in 2004 to challenge and support DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser (CSA) in independently assuring the evidence underpinning DEFRA policies and ensuring commissioned evidence meets DEFRA’s needs.
ACRE is a statutory advisory committee appointed under section 124 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. It advises the UK Government and the devolved Administrations on risks to human health and the environment from the release and marketing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The SAC review found a high level of support for the SAC’s overall function. All respondents who commented during the review agreed that an evidence-based Department needs independent scientific advice. This view is shared by DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser (CSA) and the Government CSA.
The review concluded that SAC’s overarching function is right, and essential to ensuring public trust in DEFRA’s policy process. To improve delivery of this function, the review recommended that:
SAC should focus at a high level, across all aspects of DEFRA’s evidence, not on the detail of specific evidence questions.
SAC’s role and remit should be more tightly and clearly defined focusing on advising and supporting the Department on an effective and efficient strategy for obtaining and using evidence and scientific advice; and overseeing and assuring evidence use.
SAC’s profile within the Department should be raised, and links with the devolved Administrations strengthened.
The review considered alternative models for delivery but concluded that an advisory NPDB is the most appropriate form to deliver SAC’s functions, as it is the only model which can deliver these functions independently and transparently, with the right governance and level of expertise.
The review of governance arrangements has found that they are appropriate to the size and functions of an advisory NDPB, however the governance structure should include a formal process to assess the SAC’s overall performance.
The ACRE review concludes that the committee is important in underpinning the Government’s policy of ensuring that GM technology is used in a safe and responsible way and therefore it is necessary for its functions to continue. Following consideration of stakeholder views, the review concludes that ACRE is effective and delivers a high-quality service and, following consideration of alternative models, it remains appropriate for ACRE to remain as an advisory NDPB.
Both SAC and ACRE meet the Cabinet Office principles of good corporate governance.
The review team worked closely with SAC and ACRE members throughout and are grateful for the invaluable support and information they provided.
The full report of the reviews of SAC and ACRE can be found on the gov.uk website, and copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.