Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 80 - 92)



Mr Grieve

  80. When we go to the very back of the report we have got future reporting on sustainable development, which I am sure you will agree is going to be rather a critical area in terms of raising public awareness and also ensuring accountability. Can we just explore for a moment the likely form the annual report on the Strategy is going to take. There is nothing to indicate what time of year it is going to be published, I wonder if you can help us on that? Will it take the same form as the This Common Inheritance Reporting in that will it address each of the commitments that have been made and then say something about how they are progressing and what the future commitments are? Will it bring together information on the contributions made by industry to local government and the voluntary sector or will they be publishing their own contributions? Could you just help us a little bit as to what you have in mind and when in the year it is expected to come in?
  (Mr Adams) I do not think we have got a fixed view of when. This time next year, perhaps slightly earlier depending partly on what makes sense in terms of collecting material on the headline indicators which will be an important part of it. The late winter, early spring was traditionally the time for the This Common Inheritance series of reports to come out. As we were discussing a few moments ago we see this as drawing from, but not superseding, the separate reporting by businesses, local authorities and others. We very much want to draw on what they are doing and describe it as part of the overall picture, but to use this as a way of encouraging more and better reporting rather than to allow others to think that we have taken over from them. We shall want to say what has happened on the commitments. One does not set commitments and then ignore them subsequently. I shall certainly be very keen that we do not descend into the kind of detail which in its later years the This Common Inheritance series fell into of pages and pages of relatively detailed tables explaining that conferences had been held and papers had been published and so on. The emphasis ought to be on what is happening in the real world, how far is all this activity actually producing sustainable development or, if it is not, what is the Government and what are others going to do about it.

  81. So far as the RDAs are concerned, will you be expecting them to be reporting regionally?
  (Mr Adams) RDAs will produce their own reports.

  82. As well as providing you with inputs?
  (Mr Adams) We shall be very keen to make sure those show RDAs' contribution to sustainable development, yes.

  83. The headline indicators, for those who I suppose are aficionados and trying to form their own conclusions, rather than having conclusions presented for them, are going to be very important. Are they going to be released as soon as they are available, as was originally set out in the consultation document, or not? How will that data be maintained on the full set of 150 indicators? How is that going to be made available to those who want to look at it?
  (Ms Hillier) It is an absolute principle of the code of practice on official statistics that all official statistics will be made available as soon as possible so that new data will be published as soon as it is available. Indeed, just last week we published the latest information on carbon dioxide emissions. Our hope is then to highlight those individual bits of data so that when those are published we will say this is part of the headline set of indicators.


  84. Could I just interrupt you. Are those decisions as to when they are published decided by you, by the statisticians, as opposed to the politicians?
  (Ms Hillier) Yes. Where we can we try to preannounce the dates.

  85. Sure.
  (Ms Hillier) So that people know that on such and such a date this figure will be published.

  86. Sorry?
  (Ms Hillier) Sorry, I have lost my thread. I would expect that once a year all of the material on the headline indicators will be gathered together and we will provide some commentary and interpretation about what is happening overall. As far as the individual 150 indicators are concerned the same principle holds true, that each one individually will be published as soon as the data becomes available. Individual indicators are the responsibility of a number of different departments, as you will recognise, and will therefore be published in the context of other material pertaining to that subject. So we will want to find some mechanism for highlighting the fact that some of these indicators are sustainable development indicators as well as being, say, education or health indicators. Again, periodically, I am not quite sure with what frequency, as I have said earlier, these will be brought together to present a package overall. We would intend to make the main set of indicators initially available on the Internet. Most departments are now publishing individual series of information on the Internet. We have not quite decided how it will be most helpful to provide an update of the package of indicators but I do not think we can be updating an indicator Internet site, if you like, on a real time basis in quite the same way that individual departments will be updating their series on a real time basis.

Joan Walley

  87. I realise that the wheels of Government are very, very slow but in terms of the reporting arrangements that you include at the end of the report, and you say that there is going to be a full review of the Strategy after five years, do you see it as possible within that to try and quicken things if that is necessary? I am mindful, for example, of the business sectors and trade associations where you envisage six sectors having a policy by the end of the year 2000. That seems to me, wonderful if we can get six trade associations on board, nonetheless there are an awful lot that will not be included in that. How are we going to get people to take this journey forward? Is it going to accelerate once it gets under way? It just seems to me to be so slow at the moment. It seems to be at a snail's pacem which might not be a bad thing in some ways if we do it thoroughly, but there is just so much that has got to be done before it is too late.
  (Mr Adams) I think there is an awful lot which is happening quite quickly. I think of the speed with which the agenda is being taken forward within. The number of businesses which are recognising the importance of sustainable development to them and the contribution that sustainable development thinking can make to the future of their organisation has changed out of all recognition over the last three or five years. I agree with you, some of those slightly more bureaucratic processes alas do tend to take a bit longer. I think discussing with particular business sectors through their trade associations things which they in turn believe they can sell back to individual businesses is not going to be something that is fulfilled in a few weeks. Hopefully once there are good examples in place other sectors can then see how they can relate to that and build in much of the thinking and just add on elements which are specific to them. Yes, there ought to be an acceleration but I fear that in many of these areas the initial process is quite agonizingly slow. That is why it has taken us almost two years to produce a Sustainable Development Strategy. Getting participation and getting everybody to see what it means for them and how they can contribute does take rather a long time.

Dr Iddon

  88. A couple of final points. We notice that the Strategy proposes that a new Sustainable Development Commission shall begin work at the beginning of the new millennium and this appears to subsume the Panel and the Round Table. Other environmental agencies, for example the Trades Union and Sustainable Development Advisory Committee, will be left out of that Commission. Could you just give us some of the thinking that went into combining the Panel and the Round Table and the setting up of the new Commission whilst leaving out other groups?
  (Mr Adams) Certainly. The Panel and the Round Table were, of course, the two main creations of the 1994 Strategy and in a sense the two higher level bodies which were looked to to help drive forward the sustainable development agenda. The assessment, when we came to make it, was that they had achieved much of what there was to achieve given their remits. Five years ago there was relatively little acceptance or understanding of sustainable development but now there is a lot more, thanks in part to the efforts of the Panel and the Round Table. Increasingly, sustainable development is being taken forward in other ways, so ACBE, the Trades Unions and Sustainable Development Advisory Committee and others are beginning to look at how it affects them. We are about to have a new Commission for Integrated Transport. Transport which will look at work on sustainable development in a transport context. A lot of the detailed work on specific policy areas which the Panel and Round Table have been doing ought now to pass to other bodies who recognise that it is something for everybody and not just something for a few aficionados at the centre. In the light of that, the question obviously was what sort of a body do we need? The feeling was that we needed a body which was more strategic, which was more outgoing and which was more concerned with helping to monitor progress, to encourage reporting and to see where the gaps were and to identify, particularly in the priority areas, where further action was needed, whether action by Government or action by other sectors. So a stakeholder body but at a slightly higher level, a more general one, focused particularly on the monitoring and reporting side rather than looking at so many specific topic areas.

  89. I think what you are saying is it is going to have a new remit.
  (Mr Adams) Yes.

  90. And it is going to have new working methods, but is it going to have a new membership or will this be the combined membership of the Panel and Round Table as at present?
  (Mr Adams) It will be a new body and, therefore, there will need to be decisions about who is the chair and who the members are to be. Clearly existing, particularly recently appointed, members of the Round Table and the Panel, if they are interested in continuing, will be in a good position to do so. There will be decisions in each case as to what should happen.

  91. The second issue I want to raise with you is the holding of a seminar at which stakeholders will be able to advise you on monitoring and reporting hopefully. Can you tell us when that seminar is likely to be held and what will be up for discussion by the participants and how will they be able to influence affairs?
  (Mr Adams) If we are going to get on with this then the seminar needs to take place in the early autumn. We clearly need to do some preparation with others. I envisage that all the matters we have been discussing in the last 20 minutes or so will be up for discussion. The Government should explain what it sees as being necessary and desirable but, particularly if the reporting is not just to be reporting by Government about itself but reporting on behalf of sustainable development in the UK, then others must also say what they think would be useful, how they can best feed into it and what they see as their relationship to it. This is deliberately fairly tentative at this stage and we shall want to work up the details in consultation with other people.


  92. Just going back for a moment to the proposed Sustainable Development Commission, membership of that presumably will be determined by the Government?
  (Mr Adams) Yes, it will be Government appointed. As with the current Round Table, we want as wide as possible coverage of different sectors so that it can reflect the whole of the country in terms of its deliberations.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed, that is the end of our questioning. It has been a genuinely helpful session, I think we have a much clearer idea of how you see the document fitting into the whole scheme of things. Thank you very much indeed.

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