Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



Dr Iddon

  20. Do we take it from what you have said so far that there are no targets for headline indicators, the 14 headline indicators, and are you just going to observe whether they are (in your expression in the document) moving in the right direction? How will you detect that they are moving in the right direction, if that is the case?
  (Ms Hillier) There are targets for several of the headline indicators already. Possibly further targets will be set, for example in relation to waste arisings later in the year, and when the health strategy is published there will be targets for health. One of the things we have tried to do with these headline indicators is to make very high-level, overarching outcome measures and, as Mr Grieve said earlier, linked in a way to aspirations. Many of the targets that are set are actually at a slightly lower level. For example, I understand that in the health strategy they are looking at targets for accidents and cardiovascular disease and so on, which are at a rather more detailed level than our high-level headline indicator. But there are targets, for example, on climate change; there is a target on the land use indicator; there are targets associated with river quality and air quality, and there will be targets set in relation to waste. So there are targets for a number of these indicators. For the birds indicator, the wild bird population indicator, it does say in the document that we must reverse the decline in populations of farmland birds. It does not quite say by when but this is a target of a sort and I would expect people then to be coming back to the Department and to ministers and saying, "You said you were going to do this. What progress are we making and when do you expect to turn that around?"

  21. In Europe, for example, other countries deal with this topic in a different way. Sweden, for example, has set itself a target that sustainability will be obtained, hopefully, within a generation. Have you examined your Strategy with those of the other European countries?
  (Mr Adams) We have looked at quite a lot of sustainable development strategies from Europe and other countries. I am intrigued by the idea of achieving sustainability in a generation because I think inherent in the approach we have taken is that sustainable development is never something you have finally achieved. It is something you need to keep on working at. So I would be a bit suspicious about people who set a target, they were going to do it and then thought they could sit back. I think both in terms of the way in which the Strategy is put together and also the way that the indicators underpin it—something that Hilary can speak about with more authority than I—we are ahead of any other country whose strategy I have seen in terms of an ability to bring things together and really integrate them, to deliver progress on the ground and to be able to measure that, and to know what is happening. I referred earlier to going on a stage from environmental integration to proper sustainable development and I think this is about the first proper sustainable development strategy I have seen. There are a lot of strategies which have three or four chapters at the beginning about integration and then you turn the page and you get on to air quality and water quality and it turns much more into a kind of environment White Paper again. We have deliberately tried to avoid that. The second half of this document does not deal with environmental media in that way. It looks at the economic, the social and the environmental but all mixed up together. So I think a lot of countries will actually be trying to follow our lead, both in terms of the way the Strategy is put together and also on the indicators.

  22. So it is going to be difficult to benchmark our performance at the moment against the performance of other countries, for the reasons you have just indicated?
  (Ms Hillier) No, I do not think it will actually, because several other countries are producing headline indicators now, really following the UK track. The Germans have already produced their proposals for a set of environmental headline indicators and the Swedes have done the same. We are discussing a European Union-wide set of headline indicators, again focusing initially on the environment but we are hoping that that will spread to other aspects where, in general terms, a lot of data, social and economic data, are available on a European Union-wide basis already. So it would be possible to make comparisons with other countries for many of these indicators.

  23. I am very pleased to hear you say you have set targets and I am sure the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development will be pleased to know this, too. They have this concept of setting targets. Rather like a pressure meter, you set the target above which you are in the danger zone and I am just wondering when these indicators will trigger to the Government that the Government has gone into the danger zone in certain areas. Are you able to make a comment on that?
  (Ms Hillier) Where we have got targets and have failed to meet those targets, obviously that will trigger a signal. Where we have an implicit target, for example, for wild birds, then if the trend is not reversed then will trigger a danger signal as well.
  (Mr Adams) I think it is possible to see how you could work that in areas where you can define environmental limits, although the science of that may be tricky in some cases. Climate change is an obvious example where eventually you may be able to calculate by how much carbon emissions in the atmosphere need to be reduced. With some of the others it is not so easy to see technically how you would do that. What is the proportion of housing that ought to be built on brownfield land? Clearly it is as much as you can manage without causing problems elsewhere. The target is 60 per cent. Education and training, similarly, you want the figures to go up but I am not sure that the same kind of philosophy of a danger level arising if you fall below a certain benchmark can be calculated in quite the same way.

  24. Over what timescale are we looking? Are we looking at annually or are we looking over a longer timescale before the Government can take action if it saw some danger limits arising?
  (Mr Adams) Again I think it depends very much on the indicator, what lags there are in the system. Clearly if we have an annual publication, as is the intention, which looks at the headline indicators, and also at other priority areas, there will need every year to be an assessment of whether enough is being done and whether more needs to be done. That assessment will obviously include action that is in the pipeline but there will need to be a debate then about whether that action looks as if it is sufficient and whether more should be done.

Mr Gerrard

  25. If we compare what is in this report with some of the targets that were in the last Government's White Paper, "This Common Inheritance", some things remain—the Kyoto targets—but there are others that seem to have disappeared and there is nothing specific on reductions in SO2 emissions. There was a target in "This Common Inheritance" for doubling forest cover over a 50-year period. Are we to assume that those are no longer government policy or no longer targets?
  (Mr Adams) No, not at all. I think what you should infer from that is that they have found their proper place, which may be in a forestry strategy or an air quality strategy or a health strategy or elsewhere. A lot of those targets are driven by international commitments to which the United Kingdom is a signatory and all of them remain. But I go back to what I said at the beginning about the purpose and the level at which this document is set. It is not attempting to be a comprehensive analysis even of the environment policies and targets which are set out there. It is to be read as a companion piece to the climate change strategy, to the air quality strategy, to a waste strategy when it comes out and so on, and that is where the more detailed targets will be and ought to be.

  26. I understand the point that this document is written in a different way. So we cannot make any assumption that they have now disappeared?
  (Mr Adams) No, not at all.

  27. Fine. On the indicators, you have talked about 150 possible indicators being developed, and looking through the list I think I counted 25 that were marked with a `D', as being either difficult conceptually or requiring new data collection. That is nearly a sixth of them. So can we expect, when you do produce a more detailed document later this year, that they are all going to be developed? Are some of these marked with `D's likely to disappear?
  (Ms Hillier) I hope they will not disappear but they will not all be shown in the indicators report, although we would want to comment on them and describe where we have got to. Those indicators marked with a `D' fall into a couple of different categories. For example, there is one here on competitiveness and productivity, and it is just a question of deciding how precisely we illustrate that. There is plenty of material available. There are others on access to services, where we need to do a bit more thinking about precisely what we would illustrate. There is another one, pressure on key sites for tourism, where the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is doing some work as part of its tourism strategy. Various material is available but we are not quite sure yet what the key indicator may be. There is one here on United Kingdom resource use, where we have seen some work that has been done for Germany, Japan and The Netherlands, and we are hoping to apply similar methodology to the United Kingdom but it will take some months to do the work to develop that indicator. So some of the indicators will be available more readily than others but we may need to be looking into precisely the formulation of the indicator that would be most appropriate. Others are more difficult and will be developed in the longer term. Perhaps one of the most difficult ones is on quality of the countryside, something that has come up time and again in consultation and in discussions. People feel—and it is true—that there is a real danger with indicators that we focus most on the things that we can measure. Therefore, we are sending a signal that those things which we cannot easily measure and which are not readily quantifiable are less important because they are not reflected in the indicators. Aesthetics—the beauty and quality of the countryside—is one of those difficult areas. There is quite a lot of impetus to trying to find suitable indicators in that area, but at the moment we are not at all clear how we could do it and we are asking for advice from the Countryside Commission and others to give us help with that sort of thing; we do not yet have a feel for how we might do it. So that sort of area is going to be particularly difficult but we do not want to lose sight of the issue.

  28. So some we may not see actually in here for a rather longer period?
  (Ms Hillier) Yes.

  29. One of the other points you made in this document was that the indicators were not fixed and would need to be revised in response to changing circumstances and as knowledge develops. I understand that point but is there a danger that if you keep revising indicators you actually make it very difficult to see where you are going? How much revision do you expect to do?
  (Ms Hillier) I hope not too much. I would hope that 90 per cent. or so of the indicators would be fixed, but it is an evolving process. We published 120 indicators in 1996 but they were primarily environmental, although we did call them sustainable development indicators at the time. We have revised those fairly substantially. Perhaps 60 or 70 per cent. of them remain in this document and all the issues they cover remain, but we have extended them to cover the social and economic dimensions more fully. There may be new issues which emerge. Oestrogen-mimicking compounds, for example, may turn out to be more of an issue. We may decide we need to reflect that, just like the ozone issue which was something that suddenly sprang to prominence and public concern. We would need to have the flexibility to reflect that within the indicators, but at the same time we would expect most of them now, hopefully, remain fixed.
  (Mr Adams) If I may say so, I think that is an important general point, perhaps particularly to this Committee, given your responsibility for auditing what is happening. There is a paragraph near the end of the Strategy, 10.12, which calls attention to this. I think we would all admit that our present state of knowledge or ignorance about sustainable development means that we must have some scope to say that we got it wrong, we over-estimated some problems, we under-estimated others, and we need to adjust the package of things. But clearly we need that room for change without diluting accountability, without having an escape hatch which people use for convenience rather than for any good purpose. How we can devise something which meets both those objectives simultaneously is an important and interesting challenge and one which this Committee might like to think about, too.

  30. As you develop some of these more difficult indicators, such as some of the countryside ones, and another one we have is "community spirit", where I see perhaps some difficulty in finding an objective measure, would you expect them all to have numerical baselines that would then give the possibility of targets or are there going to be some that really it will be impossible to have numerical baselines for?
  (Ms Hillier) I do not think it is impossible to have numerical baselines but it may be more sensible to give slightly qualitative rather than quantitative information in some cases. But we envisage with the community spirit indicator using information from social surveys. There have been questions asked in the health survey, for example, about the extent to which people feel that they get support from neighbours, from the local community, from friends and so on, in maintaining independent living. So that sort of question of quantitative information derived from a survey like that is the sort of idea that we had in that particular area, so that it would be possible to get some quantitative information, but we would want to supplement it with some discursive material as well, I expect.


  31. I wonder whether what you are doing is really intellectually valid because it seems to me that you could extend this forever. You have included social matters, economic matters. To be fully balanced you ought to include personal liberty or privacy, for example, as well if you want to take a total indicator of the human spirit, if you like, or the nature of what is happening culturally in the nation. You have gone so far. You have said, "We are not just about the environment. We are not thinking solely about whether this generation can take out enough but leaving future generations relatively undamaged." One connects to economic and social but you have got a halfway house which seems to me to have no intellectual justification.
  (Ms Hillier) I think it is interesting, if you look at the indicators proposed by the UN Commission for Sustainable Development, that they have produced a menu of 140 indicators and some of those indicators do, indeed, go into the sort of institutional issues which you have mentioned. As we know, lack of democracy in some of these countries is a key issue for them. There is a question of balance here and of priorities and I suppose it is arguable that perhaps we should have included some of these other matters which you have raised.

  32. You would want to go even further. What worries me is that you are the officials in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, correct? You are within that Department, and whatever we argue about the definition of "sustainable development", we are concerned that environmental matters are not given sufficient attention by the Government. Here you are coming to us and saying, "Actually we think we ought to not give sufficient importance to it, not give priority to environmental matters but actually make social and economic matters just as important in our thinking." We would rather look to you to give environmental matters top priority.
  (Ms Hillier) I do not think we said that. We said that we thought we wanted environmental matters to be given the same priority as economic and social matters.

  33. But what has happened is the reverse. In the previous document in 1994 environmental matters were given priority and social matters were not. Now all you have done is raised social and economic matters to the same level as environmental matters in this document.
  (Mr Adams) I think the test is what happened to the 1994 strategy, what influence did it have over other departments and, alas, I do not think it had as much influence as it might have done or should have done.

  34. Do you think it would have more influence on environmental matters by including more on social and economic matters?
  (Mr Adams) I think it is much easier for us to go to, for example, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and ask them to take environment seriously if we are acknowledging the importance of culture in the life of the nation as well and that is what we are attempting to do.

  Chairman: I leave that as a question mark.

Mr Shaw

  35. I would like to talk about your key actions and commitments. They do seem to be operating at different levels. Some are very specific, some have cross-references such as the New Deal for the Community which takes into account a number of different areas of government policy, and then there are others which are really unspecific in terms of action to be taken or timescale. I am looking particularly at people buying fridges and freezers and things on page 41. I think the indicator is on page 42, and it says you want to stimulate the market for the transformation of domestic appliances. What do we mean? Key actions and commitments are operating at different levels, so what do we mean by them and what is the purpose of them if they are hopes and aspirations, a bit vague, some might say?
  (Mr Adams) I think the purpose of them maybe is so that the text is not too uniform. They are a few peaks we can draw attention to. These are key actions and commitments by Government. As you say, they include both general things and some which are very specifically time-limited, but they are an attempt to highlight some of the things which the Government is doing or commitments it is making to action in the near future which will help to deliver improvements in sustainable development in these specific areas. To that extent I think they are again an attempt to bind other government departments into this document and to illustrate some of the ways in which commitments they are making will help us to achieve sustainable development in a number of different ways.

  36. We will be monitoring closely, will we, the purchase of more environmentally-friendly white goods such as we have seen illustrated here?
  (Mr Adams) That is an important area of policy and these are the sorts of things set out here so that future reporting on the Strategy will need to take account of them.

  37. And there will be discussions with DTI to encourage people to do the same, the manufacturers?
  (Mr Adams) Absolutely. This section, the sustainable economy section of the Strategy, was written in close collaboration not only with DTI but with the Treasury, DfEE and other departments as well. Again I hope it has provided a further unifying force for seeing what sustainable development means and how some of the work which was already being done and activities in train can be best geared towards sustainable development. If we can achieve that then, with this Committee's interest in greening government, for example, also in mind, this is a further way of explaining to ministers and officials in other departments how we can align their objectives with ours and through these specific activities produce worthwhile outcomes.

Mr Loughton

  38. One of the main strategies or reasons behind this Committee is to make sure that all departments of government know that there is an environment strategy and for us to judge that they are actually taking part and participating in it. One measure of this document is, you cover the work of many departments obviously and you have mentioned several of them, but the Strategy does not actually detail the individual responsibilities of those departments and their commitments. Was that discussed? Is that deliberately not part of the way you have gone about it?
  (Mr Adams) We did not discuss it, I cannot recall discussing it in those terms, but, as you say, the Strategy was the combined work of almost every department in Whitehall. I have certainly never been involved in a project in my time in the Civil Service which had more participants. The official level steering group was an affair which had just about every department on it. A lot of the work was done in smaller groups of officials from a combination of departments contributing their material. At this level it is a government document and it sets out commitments on the basis of what the Government is going to do. It will be possible quite readily to unpick that and say these combinations of departments are signed up to do particular things. In terms of, for example, the key commitments we have not done that. The document does not do that. I do not think it would be difficult to do that and it may be as part of the follow-up we will need to broker with other departments exactly what that means. I think there is a danger in this of saying X department is in the lead or X department has the main ownership of this area of policy, because that works against integration. It begins again to get to the idea that DETR is looking after that and, therefore, there is no need to worry, or economic instruments are solely a matter for the Treasury and if they are not interested then other departments have not got a look in. So I think we would want it to be in terms of groupings of departments but that is implicit in the way it has been put together.

  39. Conversely what also happens, and we are finding this when we interview various people, ministers from the various departments, that if you do not give specific tasks or targets or responsibilities, then it does not get done. We have seen an awful lot and last week was a terribly clear example, everybody is very keen to shake their hand out and say: "Of course we are going to take part" but when you actually unravel what they have done, apart from saying that if you substitute officials at these meetings and tick a few boxes that is not actually happening. That is one of the concerns. I think we would certainly like to see a clear delineation of responsibilities so that we can judge that individual departments are doing their bit. I would hope that we will see some more clear evidence that can be achieved.
  (Mr Adams) Thank you. I think we share the Committee's interest in that and if I may I will take that away and think how best we can improve.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 15 December 1999