Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



Mrs Ellman

  100.  In Chapter 10, Environment Protection, you list a number of international areas where we are involved. Would you like to distinguish those areas where we were prime movers, others where we may have been passengers, and others where we may have been reluctant; are they all equal?
  (Mr Leonard)  These are primarily subscriptions to a range of international organisations, several of them under the United Nations, such as the UNECE, and on the Climate Change line, for example, the Convention, the Secretariat of the Climate Change Convention; in all of these cases, the Department tries to play the most positive role it can, and I think its work on Climate Change has been a particular example of that. But there is a large number of subscriptions involved there, and I do not have a complete list with me.

  101.  Can you not say a little more?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  You asked us whether, in all the various levels at which we act internationally, are we equally an enthusiastic player in each of those.

  102.  Yes, with specific reference to the various items mentioned here; were we the movers in all of these, how important were we to the agreements?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  Brian can give the details of it, but it has been an aim of the past four or five years, under the old DoE and now the new Department, for the UK to be a prominent and positive player, that for many years we were characterised as the people who always said "No", ended up agreeing, reluctantly, sometimes not agreeing at all, and now we like to think that we are enthusiastic and constructive players, at the Kyoto Conference, the UK played a major part in bringing about the agreement that was eventually secured. And, likewise, in Europe, that we have been instrumental in getting in much earlier in the process of the development of an idea or a Framework Directive and being more positive about it, and less foot-dragging, and I think the result, we get two results from that. One is you get a better influence on what eventually comes out of the Directive, and, secondly, your whole perception is that you are no longer regarded as the laggard, and our influence as a country in various UN fora and various European fora has undoubtedly risen in the last few years.

  103.  So are you saying you were positive in all areas?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  We are a positive player, yes, but there are certain issues, for example, the Landfill Directive, where there are certain national interests we have sought to defend, but the general approach has been to recognise the case for a Water Directive or a Landfill Directive and then try to establish the particular UK interest in it, rather than try to say, "We don't want a Directive of this kind at all" because, by and large, we have found that that is not a very successful way of proceeding.

  104.  So you are saying then that we took a variable approach?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  We take a positive approach in recognising that in Europe there are many environmental issues that are better decided at the European level. If you take water, for example, you could say, "Well, what's water got to do with Europe?" We have our own water environment and, on kind of subsidiarity grounds, we could have argued against any kind of Water Directives. We have not done that, partly because we find that this is a way of helping to create the political pressure and acceptability for a rise in water standards, it ensures that where there are costs being passed on to business there is some co-ordination between the costs that UK businesses are accepting and the costs that other European businesses are accepting. And, finally, there is the recognition that we have the major players in the water industry; their position abroad is not going to be helped if the perception is that we have run a kind of second-rate water environment, and so we want to recognise that we aspire to a first-rate water environment, and that is not only good for the water customers, good for the water environment, but is actually good for the UK water industry.

  105.  You have spoken at some length about the water industry and what we might aspire to, but I do not get much of a feeling, from the Report here, of what we are prepared to do to achieve those ends. How do you equate discussions on subsidiarity with the achieving of high standards?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  I think I was saying that we have deliberately not played the subsidiarity card, and you could say, Drinking Water Standards, those should be entirely nationally determined, but we have engaged in discussions about drinking water, waste water, ground water, all that, we have accepted the premise that this is best developed on a European basis. Now, if we were somewhere like Belgium, or The Netherlands, you can do nothing about your water environment on your own, it is a transboundary problem. Therefore, many countries in the rest of the Community see water as a transboundary issue, just in the same way that we look at air quality, acid deposition. The fact that we could, in the UK, because we are a bit more remote, try to hive ourselves off, well it is possible but we have gone along with the view that this is an issue which it does make sense to deal with at a European level.

  106.  I must say, you sound extremely defensive. You are telling us how really you do not have to do this, which really goes against what is being advocated, that we are enthusiastic proponents of change?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  No, I am saying the opposite, that five years ago we were very defensive, for example, five years ago, we did not sign up to certain Sulphur Protocols, we then found that we managed to reduce sulphur by at least as much as was in those Protocols, that all our opposition to it turned out to be pointless and all we got was the bad publicity and the bad reputation of opposing it. So now we are positive players in these various environmental initiatives and we try to ensure that they are carried out in ways that take proper account of the science, take proper account of costs and benefits, and proper account of the particular UK needs. Now it is perfectly legitimate to try to defend a UK position and try to negotiate derogations, time limits, and so on, while being fully committed to the idea that this is a subject which is best dealt with at a European level.

  107.  When I asked you about subsidiarity, the only reply you gave is in relation to national government; does subsidiarity have any other meaning to the Department?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  It does, we tend not to use the term subsidiarity in relation to the whole effort of transferring power from central government, we tend to use the term decentralisation rather than subsidiarity, but it is really the same concept; so you have got a creation of London government.

  108.  Do you not find it strange that you are a Department, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, yet in the list here of means of delivery and in your replies you do not refer to regions once, you have made a reference to London, you have not referred to English regions; does that play no part in the thinking on subsidiarity?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  I do not think I have been asked questions on the regions. It is a very important part of the Department's work. It is significant that the Department is not simply the merger of the two old Departments, that we have added this question of a regional dimension, and in the process have taken two major steps. We have had a referendum in London and then now will introduce a London Bill to give effect to that; and we are in the process of setting up Regional Development Agencies and Regional Chambers. There is also a great mass of documents on the recasting of the relationship between central and local government. So it is a big part of the Department's work. The fact that I have not mentioned it is just that I did not have a chance to mention it.

  109.  It does seem strange, if that is a major perspective, it is not put forward as part of the thinking, but we will pursue that elsewhere. What has actually been achieved, in terms of Environmental Protection, during our Presidency of the European Union?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull)  I will ask Brian to deal with that.
  (Mr Leonard)  I think that there are several levels at which achievements have been gained. Overall, the Government set itself some objectives; one of those was integration inside the European Council, integrating the environment work with that of other policy areas. A second was the development of and the forwarding of very significant environmental policies, and particularly that of Climate Change. And the third was the advancement of the very important programme of business and the professional conduct of that business in the Environmental Council itself. At the integration, the Department has supported the Commission in producing a new Strategy, which was published a few weeks ago, for integrating environment into other policy areas; and at the Cardiff Council, the European Council, that Strategy was welcomed and, to a large extent, endorsed by the Heads of Government and will now be implemented. The Department has set that Strategy under way, in practical terms, by bringing together the Environment and Transport Councils in the Joint Council, which was held last week, and preceding informal Council, and Ministers in the Department held discussions with the three succeeding Presidencies, up to the year 2000, about how they would continue that process of integration, by bringing action and reports into their Presidencies for environmental integration. At the level of advancing policies which were of great significance to the European Union as a whole, in which Climate Change has been the dominant one, the Department's Ministers have taken all their achievements through during the Presidency on Climate Change, including by agreeing last week, at the Environment Council, conclusions on the sharing of what is called the burden of the greenhouse gases and conclusions on how policies and measures should be taken forward. And that was a major achievement, I think, for Ministers, with the support of the Department. At the level of business, virtually all the Department's objectives for carrying forward the dossiers which were outstanding, as you know, a six-month period of Presidency means you fundamentally pick up work which is left you by the previous Presidency. I think there is a general feeling in Europe that all the objectives which the Department and its Ministers might have achieved in the Environmental Council have been achieved during the period of the Presidency; several common positions, several Council Conclusions on important policy areas, several initial discussions on policy areas, that many people thought would never come forward for discussion, and that has been conducted in a professional way which has attracted quite considerable praise in the European Union. In addition, the Department and its Ministers have carried forward the Presidency role in international conferences and events, including the one in Denmark today.

Dr Whitehead

  110.  On the question of EU Environmental Directives and Regulations, what is your general feeling about the extent to which those Directives which concern the Department are being complied with, currently?
  (Mr Leonard)  There are over a hundred Directives which have some kind of environmental component to them, and I think in most of the main areas the Department's performance has been reasonable, or good, and it is an area where there has been some renewed rigour and positive thinking recently, which is now going to be carried on. And I think the leadership that the Department has shown during the Presidency, in achieving new standards in areas like air quality, in securing agreements on the auto-oil Programme and in Climate Change, raising those standards is going to be now followed up with a renewed activity on the implementation, the achievement of those standards through the various delivery mechanisms. At the moment, I would say, the performance is reasonable.

  111.  The problem is, we do not actually know any of this in the Report?
  (Mr Leonard)  We have presented the Report primarily in relation to the environmental issues, which, of course, include action at international, European, national and local level. If you would like to see more detail of the European component of that, we can certainly do that.

Mr Gray

  112.  There was a very good way of doing that, until recently, of course, which was This Common Inheritance and, indeed, Rural England, so why have you stopped them?
  (Mr Leonard)  This Common Inheritance was a ground-breaking document, which started, more or less, with a blank sheet of paper and it set out a series of achievements and outputs and performance indicators which were measured year by year since it was published. In the end, I think we were up to about 600 items, which took 150 pages, and there was a feeling, when we came to look at this last year, that that process, valuable as it had been, had perhaps begun to reduce its value; if you see the same 600 items year after year it gets rather heavy. And so, in launching the new Sustainable Development Strategy,——

Mr Olner:  You are able to track them though, are you not?

Mr Bennett

  113.  Do you mean people could understand it?
  (Mr Leonard)  Yes.

Mr Olner:  Is that a problem for you?

Mr Gray

  114.  It is heavy stuff, you are quite right in saying it is heavy, of course it is heavy, any statistical analysis of anything is heavy, naturally; but, surely, the entire principle behind setting out This Common Inheritance, in the first place, which is to say, "Here are our targets for the next year, and a year from now we will analyse how well we have done in achieving them", surely, that principle applies for all time, it is not a question of doing it for a few years and stopping it?
  (Mr Leonard)  Yes, indeed, and it is not a principle that we want to abandon. In launching the new Sustainable Development Strategy, which is a replacement on a broader scope than This Common Inheritance had, one of the most important issues has been how to carry that forward, but on top of it we have wanted to introduce measures which actually specify action at a strategic level and we want to introduce indicators.

  115.  I am sorry to interrupt, and, you and I are very old friends, I am particularly sorry to interrupt you, but, nonetheless, quite honestly, that is a lot of Sir Humphrey waffle, is it not? We used to have some nice targets, "Here's what we're going to do in biodiversity; here's what we're going to do this time next year", and as recently as last year's Report, 1997, the DoE said, black and white: "To maintain the momentum, annual progress reports will be published." That was the last Report, and the DoE committed the Government to publishing annual reports. You are now telling us that, instead of these firm commitments, identifiable statistical analysis, what we are going to have is sort of the generalities that you were describing?
  (Mr Leonard)  No. I am sorry if I gave that impression. What we are doing is reshaping the strategic framework within which this is going to be considered, and that will be in the Strategy that will be published about the end of the year. In the course of representing that framework and what it means, monitoring of targets and achievements at several levels, including some new broader Sustainable Development targets, will be introduced. During our consultation exercise, one of the comments that has been made many times, in the several hundred detailed responses we have had, is "What are you going to do?" that very point you made; that is why we are going to take it very seriously over the next few months. The Round Table on Sustainable Development has agreed to act as an adviser to the Department on how it can best show this information, it is having a first discussion later this summer on that, and it will be engaged throughout the next few months on exactly how to most effectively present that. In addition to the points you make, the force of which I accept, there has been a feeling in some areas that having so many targets, on so many pages, has been, despite the value of them, a little obliterating to progress that has been made on key targets.

  116.  And so do you regret the commitment which you made this time last year, in the last Report, to continue them? That was a mistake, in retrospect, was it not?
  (Mr Leonard)  No. The commitment remains, in principle. What we are doing is, in this transitional period, reshaping the strategic framework which will carry it.

  117.  Let us move on to a more important point then, which is this. In that case, given that This Common Inheritance has bitten the dust, will you publish some of that statistical information in next year's Annual Report, because this Report is very light indeed on what you are going to do in some of these areas; if you have not got This Common Inheritance, how about publishing it in the Department's Annual Report?
  (Mr Leonard)  We will publish any information which is valuable and in a form which is valuable. We do wish to tie it into the Sustainable Development approach.

Dr Whitehead

  118.  Could I draw your attention to page 79, which is the Figure 10.b, International Work: Departmental Support. On the line on international work on Climate Change, and if you compare the 1996-97 outturn with what it was estimated would be the outturn in last year's Report, you seem to have undershot very considerably, by about £200,000, I think. Why was that so?
  (Mr Leonard)  This is a line which represents five subscriptions, the majority of which to international bodies, the most significant of which is the Secretariat of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. What this represents is a lower call on that subscription than we had anticipated. There were substantial new developments in that Secretariat around 1995-96 which coincided with the renewed international commitment to Climate Change. Our best understanding at the moment is that in the estimates that were made, because the Government wished to pay any reasonable subscription, whatever the subscription was, provided it was reasonable, it wished to pay it, it set an estimate which turned out to be higher than was called for by the United Nations. So it is not a decision by the Department to pay a lower amount, it was the amount that was called upon for us to pay. There are several factors involved there, which we are still looking into, including, for example, that the subscriptions are payable in dollars, and so the exchange rate affects it. And we are still looking at what turns out to be several factors involved in that lower call. But, if I could emphasise, it was not a decision to pay less, it was, we paid everything we were asked to pay, we just——

  119.  So you could pay subscriptions in yen and save even more money perhaps?
  (Mr Leonard)  I do not know. The United Nations works out its own formulas and we comply with the formula.

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