Report by Mr Andrew
F Bennett, Chairman of the Committee
1. This Report summarises
the work of the Select Committee on the Environment in the 1992-97
Parliament and then comments on a number of matters on which the
Liaison Committee has invited views.
Summary of the work of the
2. The Committee had by
the end of 1996 made 20 substantive Reports to the House. The
Government has responded to 18 of these Reports; replies are awaited
to the two most recent. Disregarding one untypical case (considered
in para 22 below) the average time elapsing between publication
of a Committee Report and receipt of a Government Response was
3 months, performance being better in the early Sessions than
in the later. In almost every case, agreement was reached with
the Department on late publication of responses.
3. In contrast to the Committees
nominated in the previous two Parliaments, the Committee in the
1992-97 Parliament has conducted inquiries into the full range
of the Department of the Environment's responsibilities. Whereas
the previous Committees focused on environmental protection issues,
the 1992 Committee also considered housing, planning and local
government matters. The Committee continued its predecessors'
practice of conducting annual inquiries into the Department of
the Environment's Main Estimates and Annual Report and also instituted
a series of annual appearances by the Secretary of State to answer
questions on the Department's environment White Paper.
4. Turnover among membership
of the Committee was high in the early Sessions of the Parliament,
but tailed off towards the end. Attendance followed a similar
pattern. The Committee had two changes of Chairman during the
Parliament: Mr Robert Jones (Conservative) left the Committee
on his acceptance of a Ministerial appointment in July 1994; he
was succeeded by Mr Barry Field (Conservative), who left later
that year to become Chairman of the Deregulation Committee; following
negotiations between the usual channels, Mr Andrew F Bennett then
became the Committee's first Labour Chairman since the 1979-83
5. The Committee had the
same Clerk and the same Committee Assistant throughout the Parliament.
Its staff was increased by one in 1993 when an Assistant Clerk
was appointed, since when two further Assistant Clerks have served
the Committee. Over the period, two Specialist Assistants and
four Secretaries have also been part of the Committee staff (one
of each at any one time).
Comments on the various recommendations
of the Trade and Industry and Public Service Committees
Scrutiny of Agencies and other
6. The Environment Committee
has taken steps to monitor the work of a range of agencies which
are responsible to the Department of the Environment. Witnesses
representing such agencies have frequently appeared before the
Committee in the course of its regular inquiries. The Committee
has also conducted inquiries into the work of individual agencies,
chief among which was the 1993 inquiry into the Housing Corporation.
This Report led to significant changes in the management of the
Corporation and to its relationship with the Department of the
7. The Public Service Committee's
recommendation calling on the Government to invite select committees
to comment on framework documents and corporate plans before publication
echoes the Environment Committee's recommendation that the Housing
Corporation's corporate plan should be published, or at least
sent to the Committee. That recommendation was rejected, but
a less detailed forward plan has been published.
8. The experience of the
Environment Committee suggests that the Public Service Committee's
proposal fails to recognise that select committees monitoring
several agencies would have neither the time nor the resources
to comment on all framework documents and corporate plans. However,
a power to send for and obtain such papers would be useful.
9. The Environment Committee
has not experienced any difficulty in securing the attendance
of a chief executive or other agency staff.
Resources - constraints caused
by lack of staff and Members' time, and use made by committees
of specialist advisers
10. In recent Sessions,
the Environment Committee has met more frequently than most departmentally-related
committees and has heard more evidence than any of them. The
main problem experienced directly by members has been the demands
made on their time and it has proved difficult to achieve a consistently
good attendance rate when the Committee has met more than once
11. At times the Committee's
staff has also been overburdened, although the situation has always
remained manageable. Assuming that it is reappointed in the next
Parliament with substantially the same terms of reference, the
Environment Committee would benefit from the addition of a second
specialist assistant qualified or experienced in respect of one
or more of the following: housing; local government; and planning.
There will be a continuing need for a specialist assistant with
qualifications or experience in environmental science.
12. The Environment Committee
has made extensive use of specialist advisers. While the Committee
has experienced no difficulty in obtaining advice of sufficient
quality, there are signs that the low rates of remuneration are
restricting the field from which candidates may be chosen.
Relations with the PAC and
13. The Environment Committee
has not had cause to have formal relations with the Public Accounts
Committee in the 1992-97 Parliament. The Clerk of the Committee
has held regular meetings with the relevant Associate Director
in the National Audit Office.
The concept of Parliamentary
14. The Environment Committee
has not considered the case for Parliamentary commissions and
can offer no comments based on experience.
Difficulties in obtaining
evidence from Government Departments and summoning of named officials
15. The Environment Committee
has experienced few difficulties in obtaining papers from government
departments. In the course of the 1993 Inquiry into the Housing
Corporation, the Committee's request for a copy of the Corporation's
corporate plan was initially refused, but granted after discussion
between the Clerk and officials. A single copy was received,
which members were able to consult in the Clerk's office.
16. While the Committee
has been able to obtain all departmental papers it has requested,
it is in no position to know the extent to which papers the existence
of which it is unaware might have been withheld. On occasion,
the Committee has become aware of papers which have then been
supplied on request, leaving open the question of why they were
not volunteered in the first place as being relevant to the Committee's
17. Generally, it has been
the Environment Committee's practice to allow agencies and departments
to determine for themselves which officials should appear before
it. On those few occasions where attendance of a named official
has been requested, the request has been complied with.
Ordering the attendance of
18. This matter has not
The "Crown Jewels"
19. The Environment Committee
has not sought access to intelligence material.
Any other issues or difficulties
which have arisen
20. Constraints on opportunities
to travel outside the United Kingdom have affected the Committee's
ability to pursue its inquiries in the way it would wish. The
present system of allocating funds in the Liaison Committee for
a financial year has caused a rush of applications before the
summer recess each year, at a time when the Committee may not
have fully defined its working programme for the Autumn. The
natural tendency of those dividing a cake to wish to claim an
equal slice has acted against the best allocation of funds and
may have meant they have been spent to less than the best effect.
21. A better system for
allocating funds should be devised. This has been discussed before
and has proven to be problematic. However, the final months of
a Parliament might be the best time for the Liaison Committee
to reconsider this question and to propose a new procedure which
could be adopted in the next Parliament.
22. The other major difficulty
experienced by the Committee was the late production of a Government
response to one of its Reports. The Second Report of Session
1994-95 was published on 13 June 1995 and the Government's response
was published on 6 June 1996. The delay in production of the
response was the subject of much discussion at official level
and, eventually, of correspondence at Ministerial level. The
delay was primarily the responsibility of the agency which the
Department regarded as being "in the lead" in preparation
of the response. However, it is not acceptable for Departments
to hide behind agencies in this way; it is Ministers who are responsible
to the House and it is they who should cause responses to Reports
to be produced, preferably within the two-month period which applies
by convention, or if necessary by agreement at a later date.
A delay of almost one year is quite unacceptable.
23. A more general difficulty
in relation to Government responses concerns the format in which
they are made. The Environment Committee has preferred that all
responses, except those to its annual Reports on the Main Estimates,
should be made in the form of a Command Paper; this gives them
a status which in the Committee's view is appropriate and also
avoids the confusion which it is felt might arise when a Government
paper is published as a Special Report. However, the Command
Paper route does incur a time penalty. All Command Papers have
to be cleared at Cabinet Committee level and the Department of
the Environment's service level agreement with its publisher provides
for a three-week period to elapse between delivery of copy and
publication. While the Department's performance in the face of
these constraints has-with the sole exception referred to above-been
very creditable, it should be possible to reduce the time taken
to print Command Papers.
Suggestions for the future
24. The Environment Committee
heard oral evidence on the draft Environment Agencies Bill, which
later received Royal Assent as the Environment Act 1995. The
exercise was useful, though how useful it is difficult to tell.
The Committee would certainly have welcomed the opportunity to
conduct further such sessions on other draft bills, subject to
other demands on its time.
Scrutiny of Statutory Instruments
25. Following the Liaison
Committee's recommendations on scrutiny of SIs, the Clerk of the
Environment Committee, with the co-operation of the Department
of the Environment, conducted an exercise in order to determine
the degree to which any assumption of a scrutiny function by the
Committee would add to the workload of Members, staff and the
Department. The main conclusions of this exercise were that the
Department would incur substantial extra work; the Committee's
staff would incur significant extra work; there would also be
a burden on the Chairman, and to a lesser extent on other members
of the Committee. This caused the Chairman and Clerk to conclude
that other areas of the Committee's work would suffer were this
extra function to be taken on.
Scrutiny of European Legislation
26. Similar considerations
would apply here as in the previous section. However, the Environment
Committee has on several occasions taken evidence from Commission
officials and towards the end of the Parliament sought to establish
a pattern of annual visits to Brussels for wide-ranging discussions
on environmental matters. Agendas for forthcoming meetings of
the Council of Ministers and reports on the outcome of such meetings
are circulated to Members.
27. Relations with the European
Parliament's Committee on Environment and Consumer Protection,
which at the end of the 1987-92 Parliament were poor, have improved.
Senior public appointments
28. The Committee has not
discussed whether it should take on a scrutiny role in relation
to certain public appointments. Assumption of such a role would,
once again, take time from the Committee's other activities.
29. The Committee is still
in the early stages of exploiting the opportunities offered by
information technology. The Chairman and staff communicate using
the PDVN's electronic mail service but not all Members are yet
connected to the PDVN.
30. The Committee intends
when considering its next draft Report to conduct an experiment
in the use of a computer projector to throw the text of the Report
and amendments on to a screen so that Members can see the effect
on the text of various amendments and of changes to them as they
are discussed. If this experiment proves that the technique is
worthwhile, the Committee is likely to press for permanent facilities
in one or more committee rooms.