Examination of witnesses (Questions 1
TUESDAY 25 MAY 1999
and DR TERENCE
1. Good morning,
Mr Adams and your colleagues. It is nice to see you again. Thank
you for the document, which we have all looked at with considerable
interest and I am sure is a fascinating start to this process.
Is there anything you would like to say by way of introductory
statement before we start asking you questions about it?
(Mr Adams) If I may, Chairman, but could I first introduce
my two colleagues and then perhaps say one or two brief things.
Hilary Hillier, who is the Head of the Environment Statistics
Division, whose responsibilities include the sustainable development
indicators and who has, therefore, had a big part to play in the
Strategy, given the importance of indicators to that, and Dr Terence
Ilott, who works with me in the Sustainable Development Unit.
I know the Committee has been very keen to see the Strategy published.
I think you have before you three people who are certainly even
keener than you have been and, therefore, we are especially glad
to be here because it marks the fact that publication has happened.
Of course, as far as we are concerned, this is the end of a chapter,
not the end of the story, and we are very aware of the importance
of following it through. That is why future monitoring and reporting
are so important in the Strategy and no doubt you will want to
tackle that this morning. The Strategy is much shorter than its
2. Yes, we are delighted about that.
(Mr Adams) Even so, it mentions quite a lot of policy
areas. I hope the Committee will forgive us if we are not absolutely
expert in every single one of them. If there are things that you
want to explore and we cannot give you much more than is in the
text, we shall, of course, point you in the direction of those
who can help or provide a note subsequently, but the structure,
why it is as it as and what happens next, are very much down to
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
We would like to start off with the heartland issues of the broad
thinking behind the document and whether it contains any new ideas
and balanced objectives and so forth. I know Mr Robertson would
like to start off on that.
3. May I ask, what do you see as the big new
ideas and commitments and priorities within the document?
(Mr Adams) Could I start by perhaps setting out what
we saw the aims as because I think defining what we saw the purpose
of the Strategy as being helps then to go on and say: in that
context, have we achieved that, do you think we have achieved
what is new in it? I saw the aims as perhaps threefold: one, explaining
sustainable development, given that it is still a concept which
has not entirely captured the understanding and imagination of
people. Secondly, to help other people to achieve it, and thirdly,
to set up a process for the future. The structure we adopted is
modelled fairly closely on Opportunities for Change, the consultation
document, which was received very well and, therefore, we thought
we would build on that. So to answer your specific question, what
we see this as being about is providing a framework. The new elements
are essentially the delivery of that framework, particularly the
cross-cutting objectives and the indicators. Many of those indicators
are new, the fact that they are not an add-on, they are integral
to the document as a whole and that they help to determine the
priorities. There are two new bits of process to help deliver
this. One is sustainable development frameworks in each English
region to sit between the national Strategy and Local Agenda 21
strategies, which we hope to have 100 per cent. by the end of
next year. So, given the increasing importance of the English
regions as a geographical entity, sustainable development will
be looked at at that level. The other new bit of process is the
Sustainable Development Commission, a new body to look at what
is happening on the ground, to help reporting and monitoring,
and to assess what different groups need to do to achieve it.
I think those are the main things. There are lots of parts of
the text which ought to be a guide for people in Whitehall and
elsewhere. The new set of principles on trade and the environment,
for example, is an important one but it is not the kind of policy
such that people will say, "This is a major announcement
of new thinking which has legislation or money attached,"
or whatever, but it is an attempt to provide a handbook for those
who want to commit to sustainable development and have to take
4. May I press you a little bit further then.
Certainly I think there will be some concerns. Certainly I have
some concern personally about some of the indicators, for example
levels of crime, proportion of people of working age who are in
work. Important though these are, crucial though these are, should
they be part of a Sustainable Development Strategy, and to narrow
it somewhat more, are we not in danger of losing sight of what
we are trying to achieve if we combine sustainable development
with things like social policy? Are we not in danger of missing
really what we are trying to achieve by doing that?
(Mr Adams) I hope not. One of the main reactions we
had to Opportunities for Change was that, if anything, it still
did not give sufficient attention particularly to the social dimension
but also perhaps to the economic dimension. You asked what was
new, Mr Robertson. I think what is new here is the attempt to
go beyond environmental integration and to look coherently at
the three elements of sustainable development and how you bring
them together. If you are going to do that, then I think you need
some markers which cover the economic and social as well as the
environmental. The headline indicators deliberately cover the
piece. The crime indicator is one that has been added since the
consultation last autumn on the headline indicators, again very
much in response to concern that that was one of the local social
and environmental problems that people were worried about, and
that unless they saw those trends going in the right direction,
too, they were not convinced that sustainable development was
happening in their areas. So I think that, provided one can be
clear how things relate to each other, we are not losing anything
and we ought to be gaining a great deal by putting them all alongside
5. As regards economics, though, there are things.
For example, if people had better housing then there could be
heat conservation, but there is an economic cost to getting to
that situation and certainly when we have discussed this with
ministers in the past I have certainly picked up a bit of a concern
from ministers that, "Okay, we are all for sustainable development,
we are all for the environment unless it actually costs money,
unless it actually means people today have to give something up,"
which is not really sustainable development, is it? How do you
view that kind of approach? Should the environment not be the
(Mr Adams) I think the approach here is deliberately
not to make any of the three the first priority. You will have
seen the Prime Minister's foreword, which says in effect: "We
want a better quality of life measured on all these parameters."
If we are achieving increasing living standards, higher GDPand
I think there are some quite powerful figures in the Strategya
trebling of GDP by 2050 on the basis simply of historical growth
factorsthe challenge is then how on earth do you achieve
that without simply increased resource use and an increase in
pollution. Essentially one is continuously trying to run up a
down escalator. How can you make improvements faster than the
rate of economic growth? That is one of the challenges but you
do not get to see things in that way, it seems to me, unless you
put the economic and the social alongside the environmental.
6. I think it was Nye Bevanit seems strange
for a Conservative to quote Nye Bevanwho said, "The
language of politics is the religion of priority." Are you
not actually simply deprioritising the environment, which is rather
a strange thing to do?
(Mr Adams) I can imagine what response Michael Meacher
or the Deputy Prime Minister would give you, Chairman, on that,
and I suspect the Committee can imagine, too. No, this is certainly
not an attempt to give less priority to the environment.
7. If you are giving equal priority to social
and economic matters, you are by definition giving less focus
to the environment?
(Mr Adams) I do not think that is necessarily so on
the basis that the whole ought to be more than the sum of its
parts. If we have learned anything it is that often the best way
to achieve environmental objectives may not be simply or only
through environmental legislation or environmental measures. It
can be through transport, health, or other types of policies,
because they actually are the areas in which the environmental
problems are in danger of happening.
8. True, but that is not how government works,
is it? Government works on priorities. If you do not send them
a clear signal about priorities you are in danger of not having
any impact at all?
(Mr Adams) There are clear signals in the Strategy
9. But not in your ultimate aims and objectives?
(Mr Adams) The aim and objective is integration, which
is the nature of sustainable development and a matter of close
interest to this Committee and which we have discussed on a number
of occasions. The strategy is, hopefully, a further attempt to
explain the nature of the task confronting not just government
departments but others in getting integration to work and providing
some of the tools to do so.
(Ms Hillier) May I make a comment there. It is very
interesting because of the discussion we had about the headline
indicators, which initially were proposed by Michael Meacher.
Really his initial ideas as he put them to officials and, indeed,
spoke about them outside, were to have a set of green indicators,
environmental indicators only. As we discussed this and developed
it we concluded that the right thing to do was to produce a set
of sustainable development indicators which did include these
economic and social measures as well, because we saw that as elevating
the status of the green measures to the same importance and priority
as what have heretofore been the most important indicators, which
have been the economic ones. Undoubtedly, GDP and employment in
particular, or unemployment, have been the key headline indicators
which have driven a lot of government policy. We saw the danger
of having a suite of green indicators which were very nice but
which were largely ignored; but the power of bringing them together
seems to us to be that these things were being put on the same
par, on the same level, with the key recognised economic indicators
and social indicators. So we do see that as quite important and
it also then facilitates making the sort of comparisons which
Mr Robertson was just talking about, where we can look at GDP
growth alongside the growth of waste or the growth in greenhouse
gas emissions and look at these ratios or intensities to see whether,
in fact, sustainable development is compatible with continued
economic growth; whether we are able to uncouple pollution from
economic growth, for example. So we see that as very much part
of this Strategy.
10. The headline indicators are obviously an
important key component of this document. Indeed, you have described
the way in which they were mulled over and expanded from what
was an initially quite small idea into covering a whole range
of issues. I find it difficult to marry that up with the summary
for the United Kingdom priorities for the future, because I hope
you will forgive my saying so but there is something a bit about
the "motherhood and apple pie" element in the summary,
because there is a list of priorities set out which any person
would happily go out and say a lot about on the floor of the House
of Commons, ministers particularly, but how do they really link
in with the headline indicators? Just to take one example, on
the basis that the headline indicators, that one of the aims is
about reducing the level of social exclusion, you might have expected
that a headline indicator would have measures of poverty but there
is not one there. So how are the two supposed to link up, and
when it comes to these priorities, are they really priorities,
have they been prioritised between one and another, and do they
really involve any change of direction in government as opposed
to the expression of what I will describe as commonplace aspirations?
(Ms Hillier) To deal particularly with your question
about poverty, there was a problem of timing here, in that the
Government is developing an anti-poverty strategy and indicators
to accompany that strategy and that work is still on-going and
has not come to conclusion. The Deputy Prime Minister did announce,
at the launch of this Strategy last Monday, that in due course
the headline indicators will be extended to cover poverty more
thoroughly because we do recognise that is a dimension that is
missing. But it was, as I say, a matter of timing. To decide what
might be the appropriate indicators on poverty is not something
that the Government felt able to do yet until further work had
been done into that issue; but in the longer term it will be covered.
11. Just so that we can look at that, that is
something which will be done? It simply has not been put in because
you have not been able to work out what the indicators should
(Ms Hillier) That is right.
12. How about more generally? As usual, I asked
about three questions in one, but coming back to the basic issue
of what do these priorities actually mean in terms of delivery
of policy and their relationship with the headline indicators,
if you have not looked at the headline indicators and then said,
"In order to achieve these and meet these we are going to
deliver the following priorities in policy," the priorities
are much woollier than the indicators.
(Mr Adams) With respect, I think the key actions and
commitments do follow through, not just the headline indicators
but many other areas of policy and say, what is necessary in order
to achieve them? And the headline indicators, the trends shown
by the indicators, are an important guide as to some of the relative
priorities. We are not saying the other areas which are not mentioned
should not have attention at all but to take an example between
two of the headline indicators, if you look at the one on water
quality as compared with the one on traffic, the one on water
quality shows that most rivers are in pretty good condition and
the trend has not been worse except that there is a suspicion
of a slight downturn in the last two or three years, which one
might want to keep an eye on. So basically, that looks like a
policy area where we may not have got absolutely everything right
yet but we know how to deal with it and we can park it. Meanwhile,
the traffic indicator shows a graph going up at right angles to
the axis and that is clearly something where we need to continue
to give extra effort to finding solutions. There are areas where
the United Kingdom is actually doing pretty well in comparison
with other countries. There are others where we and others may
not be doing as well as we would like and there are some, frankly,
where we may be falling behind, and those are the ones where we
need to give extra special priority and those are the ones which
are drawn out here.
13. What is the baseline going to be against
which the success of the Strategy is going to be measured?
(Mr Adams) I think different baselines are appropriate
for different parts of the subject, but if you look at the general
commitment, it is that the trends in all the indicators should
over time be going in the right direction and that if they are
not going in the right direction, then policies will be adjusted
to take account of that and to push them there. Clearly that will
take much longer in some cases than in others, and in some areas
the trends are already going in the right direction, but it is
a rate and direction of change challenge which is the baseline.
14. Following straight on from there, in 3.09
of your report you go against the idea of having an overall index
of progress and you explain that, apart from its being inclined
to be subjective and simplistic, there is the obvious danger that
it can be difficult to interpret a combined index. One can see
all those arguments but one could possibly see the other side
of it, that a multiplicity of different headline indicators could
lead to a position where one could both either get confusion or
selective usage and abusage of the indicators, and, taking up
a point that you were making earlier, Ms Hillier, about GDP or
GNP, which one could equally say in some cases are subjective,
working out exactly what goes in, they are powerful enough that
they can drive government policy. If one is taking that comparison
and wondering whether there should be a single measure like GDP
or GNP, easily understandable by politicians and the media, against
a whole lot of headline indicators, might there not be an argument
for revisiting that one and considering whether a new call for
some sort of index of progress might be valuable?
(Mr Adams) Hilary may want to answer but may I say
something first about the generality. Particularly given the background
that Hilary described, where to start out with Mr Meacher's ambition
was six or eight indicators, primarily of an environmental sort,
and we have now got up to 14, or 15 with povertyto the
stage where it is becoming difficult to watch all the dials at
onceI think it is legitimate to ask that. On the other
hand, the question is, how can you get sufficient coverage of
the main policy areas which comprise sustainable development without
going into the second and third order of things? Hopefully, this
sort of number of headline indicators provides that sort of coverage.
So you are unlikely to be missing anything significant which will
be going wrong but the number is still manageable. The main set
of indicators then gives you more detail in other areas. If there
were to be a breakthrough and somebody were to find a single indicator
which looked as if it was a reliable guide, then I am sure we
would be delighted to look again at it, but I think we are quite
a long way from that at the moment.
(Ms Hillier) We have worked on this for quite a long
time. We have talked to a lot of people. As a government statistician,
I am particularly aware of the problems of credibility. I am sure
all Members of the Committee are aware of the controversy that
there has been for years about the unemployment figures because
of changes of definition and so on; that has destroyed the credibility
of all government statistics, certainly as far as members of the
public are concerned. If we were to concoct some sort of index
adding these indicators together, there would be so much argument
about the components and the weightings that they had been given.
I think if you look at the trends in the indicators themselves
at the moment, as John indicated, quite a lot of them are moving
in a reasonably steady, favourable direction or do not look too
bad; but there is one in particular, the population of farmland
birds, which has really plummeted in a quite worrying direction.
Now, how worried should we be about that compared with, say, the
climate change one or the health indicator; that is the sort of
judgment you would have to make in weighting them together. I
have talked to a lot of experts about this and there are some
who are very in favour of having a single index and saying, "Unless
we get one number we will not be able to rival GDP as a key indicator,"
but there are others who say, "Yes, but I could make this
index show anything I wanted it to, simply by picking appropriate
weightings and appropriate components." Another problem that
we have is that many of these components are actually related
to one another. So there would be an element of double-counting.
The health outcomes are affected by employment rates and by education,
for example, so that adding those things together people, could
argue, is double-counting to some extent. So there are real problems
with doing that and I think we are quite a long way off, although,
interestingly, Eurostat is doing quite a bit of work on this at
the moment, a project that we are following closely. They came
up with the idea of panelling a group of experts and asking them
what weights they would give, to try to see whether, on a subjective
level, at least, you could come up with some sort of consensus.
They have concluded at the moment that you might be able to do
that for individual subject areas. For example, if you are looking
at water quality, you might be able to aggregate a number of indicators
on water to give you one water pressures index, but they do not
think at the moment that it is feasible to weight together water
and air and other even environmental issues, let alone start weighting
those against the social ones.
15. That is interesting. I know when we went
to the European Environment Agency they were trying to look at
some possible unified index. I do not know if you have had any
discussions with them?
(Ms Hillier) Yes. I am, in fact, on the board of the
Environment Agency. I am the United Kingdom's representative there.
They have not actually made any progress in trying to develop
a single index. Currently they are due to produce an indicator
report at the end of this year but it will have about 100 indicators
in it and they have no plans to produce a single indicator. They
do not think that it would be credible.
16. I like your idea of sophisticated separate
measurements as being much more sensible in many ways. I just
think when you actually look at what governments do and one looks
at the power of GDP or, to take a completely different measure,
PSBR, and the obsession sometimes governments can have with them,
one does see that they can sometimes be useful, too.
(Mr Adams) But again, if I may draw you back to the
Prime Minister's foreword to the Strategy, which in effect says:
"Those obsessions have been unhealthy in the past and we
must break away from them and begin to look at things in a more
holistic way". Having a holistic set of indicators is one
means of doing that.
17. Taking that argument on, you have obviously
rejected, for the moment anyway, the idea of one headline figure
but in the document there are a whole series of aspects of sustainable
development which either you have not targeted as a headline indicator
or you have not said need further work on them. Will you be publishing
evidence of how much progress has been made in some of the areas
within the document which you have not had headline indicators
for? For example, you have talked about investment. You have said
there are ways of measuring economic investment. Social investment
you have not targeted for a headline indicator or further work.
How will you be measuring that and reporting on that?
(Ms Hillier) Supporting the 14 headline indicators
which will, as I said earlier, will be extended to cover poverty
in due course, we will have 150 indicators going down into a little
more detail into some of these different aspects and they are
published in a separate document which is entitled, "Monitoring
Progress". This is a summary of the key commitments and objectives
from the Strategy and the indicators to which they relate. So
we will be planning to report on all of those; for the headline
indicators on an annual basis. I do not think it would be sensible
to attempt to publish about 150 or so supporting indicators on
an annual basis but we will be reporting on them and updating
them on a regular basis.
18. Two years? Three years?
(Ms Hillier) I am not entirely sure. Part of that
will depend on whatever is determined as the reporting regime
for the Strategy itself, which has not yet been determined. The
new Sustainable Development Commission will be taking a part in
that and will be wanting to think about how frequently it will
report and it would seem to me that we ought to be tying the indicators
into that cycle.
(Mr Adams) Before that, of course, there will be a
separate companion publication to the Strategy itself which will
give details of the new set of 150 indicators, where they come
from, what they show and so on, which will be part of the infrastructure
and which is implied by the Strategy, but there simply is not
room to have it all in there without overweighting it. That will
come out in a few months' time and will deal with many of the
specific subject areas which you have mentioned.
19. But is there not a danger that if you do
not publish annually more than just the 13 or 14 indicators, people
will lose sight of the rest of the picture?
(Ms Hillier) Yes, but there is also a danger of over-interpretation.
We are trying to look at the longer term here and people do tend
to focus sometimes on changes from one year to the next which
may not be so significant. Most of the data, the individual elements,
will be available on an annual basis and will be published as
they become available, which is our code of practice for official
statistics. To actually bring them all together in an integrated
way and put a commentary over the top saying this is what is happening
and drawing attention to certain elements would be a very large
undertaking on an annual basis. One solution might be to look
at particular topics perhaps each year and break it down a little
bit. If you are not careful you get driven into a very resource-intensive
reporting cycle and you do not actually stand back and take further
actions that need to be taken, in my case to develop new indicators
and so on.