Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  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 1994 predecessor.

  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 us.

  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.

Mr Robertson

  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 it forward.

  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 each other.

  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 first priority?
  (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 GDP—and I think there are some quite powerful figures in the Strategy—a trebling of GDP by 2050 on the basis simply of historical growth factors—the 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 Bevan—it seems strange for a Conservative to quote Nye Bevan—who 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 about priorities.

  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.

Mr Grieve

  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 be?
  (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.

Mr Savidge

  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 poverty—to the stage where it is becoming difficult to watch all the dials at once—I 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.

Mr Thomas

  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.

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