Examination of witnesses (Questions 120
TUESDAY 6 JULY 1999
MADDEN and MR
120. Why do you think that happened this time?
Why do you think there was not the same concerted approach across
government this time as there was last time?
(Mr Osborn) Well, I do not think I can speculate on
that. The question to which there is collective buy-in on this
is something you will want to probe.
121. I just wondered if you had any evidence
as to why it did not happen.
(Mr Dale) Could I just add, Chairman, that there was
a substantial process of consultation across Whitehall in preparation
of the document.
122. It seems even more disappointing, therefore,
really, looking at it collectively from your point of view and
our point of view that this was not evident in the way it was
presented to Parliament.
(Mr Dale) And when I say "consultation",
even that does not really go far enough and, as far as I understand
it, there was a joint effort of putting it together.
123. This all makes for a strange failure of
presentation curiously for this particular Government, that it
should not have made the most of what it had actually done.
(Mr Osborn) The Prime Minister contributed a foreword
and I am sure that if you pressed ministers, they would all say
there is collective support for this, so the proof of the pudding
is in the eating as tohow far they are all going to follow through
in their areas.
(Dr Bidwell) I just wanted briefly to defend sustainable
development. I think at the beginning of the document it talks
about the goal is to improve quality of life now and in the future.
Now, it is clear that environment is part of that and it is also
clear that we cannot deliver on the environment future we want
unless we deal with the economic and social aspects as well, so
I think, dare I say it, it is not a meaningless concept and I
think that the missing links are that there is insufficient about
integration and the way it happens.
124. I am still trying to get a handle a little
more on what you actually want in terms of giving further detailed
substance to the strategy. You have said you want some targets,
you have said you want a minister to take responsibility for each
of the targets and Dr Bidwell wanted some more warm words about
principles, but that is not a blueprint for action.
(Mr Osborn) Well, let me try and respond in relation
to some of the areas where this list could be extended. If you
took some specific areas, where we are not as sustainable in society
as we ought to be at the moment, in the transport field we are
not sustainable because we have got this enormous growth of road
traffic and climate change flowing from it and we have not yet
established the basis for trying to slow down that growth significantly
and re-establish public transport and all the alternatives. There
are words about it, but there is not enough actual shift yet.
In the energy sector, we have had the big move from coal to gas,
but we have not had the significant move yet, just a very small
move towards the next step which is renewable energy and that
needs to go further to make it more sustainable. In the agricultural
field, we are all very aware of the strong pressures to go on
with intensification and a greater use of chemicals; the move
towards better protection of the countryside, less application
of chemicals, more extensification and more organic farming is
still lagging behind in this country, and some of our European
competitors are more sustainable than us there. So those are various
examples of areas in which one would like to see significant policy
commitments. There are gestures in this direction and some movement,
but the perception in the Round Table would be that that has got
a lot further to go and the targets and the indicators and the
strategy need to be used vigorously to push that programme of
125. But carrying on Mr Thomas's point, surely
what he was saying was that there is a lack of prioritisation
in this document and you seem to be agreeing with that, that there
is a lack of prioritisation and prioritisation is precisely what
we need at this stage.
(Mr Osborn) Indeed.
126. And there is very little in this document.
Does this not point to the danger with the sustainable development
idea that precisely because it is an all-embracing idea, with
social and economic elements as well as environmental, we lose
that sharp edge and that prioritisation for the environmental
considerations which we do need?
(Mr Osborn) Well, always a balance has to be struck
and even if we did not have the concept of sustainable development,
there would in fact de facto be a kind of balance between
economic, social and environmental objectives at any one time
in society. Sustainable development has tended to be used, insofar
as it has got dynamism, as an argument for saying that particularly
the environmental and to some extent the social aspects are not
being emphasised enough and they need to be brought more centrally
into the overall management of the economy and I think that is
what sustainable development as a transforming idea is about.
I agree with you, that we need to make sure that this strategy
is a way of giving a further push on the environmental and social
objectives, that perhaps do not get emphasised enough in government
formulation of priorities.
127. Are you redefining sustainable development
as the process of bringing the environment closer into the economic
and social parts of Government in practice?
(Mr Osborn) Yes, in practice I think that is what
it is. As an instrument of making change, that is what it is about.
128. Is there not a danger that there is a trade-off
between the Environment Department on the one hand and, say, the
Treasury and the Social Security Department on the other, that
if you pay more attention to the environment we will pay more
attention to economic and social consequences and you will actually
not get very much progress?
(Mr Osborn) Might you not get progress that way? I
am an incrementalist in principle and I think that is how you
do get progress in our sort of politics. You have to have trade-offs,
you have to build support. You are never going to say "all
power to the Department of Environment" so you have to look
for the win-wins and look for the alliances.
129. There is a conflict, is there not, between
some of these objects? Take the policy for the coal industry for
example. There was a clear conflict there and yet under the Sustainable
Development Policy you could argue that the policy of the Government
of limiting consents for gas fired power stations, which the Government
has pursued to protect the coal industry, has in fact been perfectly
consistent with the Sustainable Development Policy but it is not
consistent with their environmental policy. That sort of conflict
is not brought out by this rather bland "we agree with everything"
sort of line.
(Dr Bidwell) Can I slightly disagree with that last
comment and go back to my guiding principles. It seems to me that
we are in particular talking about other Government departments
bringing these principles into the policies which they are developing.
If you had a set of principles which in fact was informing the
decision making in terms of the coal debate then you might have
come to different conclusions if you believed that sustainable
development was particularly important. If Government decided
that this was one where they wanted to override it, again if those
principles had been well articulated the Commission could come
back and say "look, Government said that these are the principles
they would take into account in all their policies and integrate
these in, but here Government is clearly not doing so". You
are clearly right about priorities and, to tie it back to what
we said about the Commission, we do believe that the Commission
is going to need to focus and to say "here are some of the
key problems and there are these things which we think particular
attention ought to be paid to".
(Mr Madden) I do not think we can have it both ways,
on the one hand to argue that the environment needs to be a core
part of the Government philosophy and integrated into it and then
complain when that happens.
Chairman: I am just very concerned that
in a document that is warm words like this that in fact my experience
of Government is if you are going to succeed in a policy you push
very hard with a lot of local leadership and that does involve
conflicts with other departments which have other priorities.
I am afraid in the process of doing that you may lose a lot from
the pure environmental point of view, that is the danger of this
130. I think with sustainable development there
is always what might be described as a conflict of interests,
although more adequately described as "difficult trade-offs"
in the paper, between economic growth and indeed natural resources
and preserving them. What do you see as the main areas of possible
(Mr Osborn) Perhaps I could take one or two and I
think colleagues may want to add some. I think it follows through
from what the Chairman has just been asking. The potential conflict
between social objectives and environment/economic ones is one
very important area. I think I would like to follow what the Chairman
was directing us towards a moment ago. There is one way of doing
that that is a fudge and there is one way that is much clearer.
The clear way is to say "yes, economics and environmental
policy was pointing us towards closing down the coal mines quickly
and then we get a more prosperous economy more quickly and we
get environmental benefit", but that has now been fudged
by "but we need to proceed slowly and cautiously because
of the social effects". A more positive way of integrating
them and getting dynamism into the situation would be to say "we
must have those changes but we must deal with the social effects
in a positive way, more retraining or change-over more quickly".
In a similar way with the Climate Change Levy, one of the arguments
brought against extending that into the domestic sector was the
difficulty that overtook the VAT proposals, that it was going
to bear too hard on the poor. The compromise that has been achieved
is the weak compromise of retreating from the whole proposition.
The stronger compromise would have been to say "we need tax
on fuel for economic and environmental reasons; and to deal with
the social effects we will have benefit changes or adaptations
to people's houses so they can deal with that". I think there
is a positive compromise that we can be aiming for that would
be much stronger than the weaker compromise that we have gone
for. What we need is ways of getting strong dynamic trade-offs
rather than weak compromises.
131. That addresses the social side of it but
what about the business side of it?
(Mr Osborn) The business side of it?
132. Take, for example, the energy tax which
is couched in a more acceptable term which I cannot bring to mind
at the moment.
(Mr Osborn) The Climate Change Levy.
133. That kind of thing I suppose you would
say should be addressed in a similar sort of way?
(Mr Osborn) In a similar way, yes. To some extent
it is being. I am not a 100 per cent. advocate of every detail
of the Climate Change levy in its present form but nevertheless
I think it has got the right idea, that you want to make the price
of energy reflect the damage to the environment that is being
done by greenhouse gas emissions. You need taxation in that area
to get the price signals right. Then you need to incentivise.
You want to use the proceeds not just to swell the Treasury coffers
but to go back into the industry sector, either through the reduction
of the NI contributions so as to encourage the employment of labour
or through some means such as the incentives that the heavy energy
users might see to encourage them to adopt more efficient methods
more quickly. That way you have got a tax that rightly captures
the environmental costs that have been missing up to now but also
provides incentives for a dynamic change in getting industry moving
forward to what it will have to be in five or ten years rather
than continuing to do the old things that will be out of phase
in due course anyway. Dynamic trade-offs is what I think we should
be looking for.
(Mr Madden) I think you have covered the trade-offs
in areas of economic and social, I would add one other which is
a political one and that is about people's perceptions of their
individual freedoms and their freedoms to drive their car or their
freedoms to use resources or to shop how they like versus the
need for changes in individual behaviour in order to reach the
sustainable development outcomes we want. I do not think that
they have addressed that squarely enough.
134. Do you think that the Strategy really addresses
these issues? As a body does it give you more guidance than perhaps
you had before?
(Mr Osborn) Does it give more guidance to the Round
135. Does it give you a clearer picture than
perhaps you have had before?
(Mr Osborn) Yes, I think it will be a good document
for a body like the Round Table and the Commission, and perhaps
even your Committee to think "okay, this is a good survey
of the scene, this is the framework" and then to focus on
particular areas where either the indicators or the obvious inadequacies
of the text direct one's attention, "this is not strong enough,
what can we do here? How can we press for more action in this
area?" I think this will be an extremely useful framework
reference document. I am not sure that it will be a very useful
blueprint for what we have all got to do, that is still to come.
136. What about targets? Do you see them as
being the natural move forward? Would that be more helpful if
more targets were set?
(Mr Osborn) We certainly do think that. The Round
Table published a report on that subject previously and you picked
it up and endorsed it in your report, so I think we are absolutely
at one on that. Targets will be one way to make this more sharp,
more dynamic, perhaps something where vigorous debate can take
137. What institutional barriers are there within
Government to the development of a more sustainable approach and
in what ways do you think the Strategy could have tackled this?
(Mr Osborn) I am not sure I would refer to institutional
barriers within Government. I referred earlier to the need to
strengthen what regions and local government need to do about
this. I think the basic structure of ministerial responsibility
for particular areas, supplemented by integrating committees which
you have examined on several occasions, plus the role of the green
Ministers to keep the subject alive in their areas, I think that
is all right as an institutional structure. What it reveals of
course, as you keep discovering in your examination of this, is
that an institutional structure does not do the trick unless people
want to make it work, so it is finding the political will which
is the real issue here.
138. Could I also ask you to give a bit more
detail on what you think of the importance of sectoral strategies
and how far you feel that the present strategy falls short on
the subject sectorally?
(Mr Osborn) I think Peter may want to say something
here and perhaps Robin too. The history of the last two years
has seen a number of attempts in this country and in some other
European countries, and I think of the Netherlands in particular,
to have central dialogues with key industry areas to establish
what they can do on particular environmental sustainability objectives,
whether it is the climate change and the reduction of greenhouse
gas emissions or the better management of wastes or the management
of other use of resources, and I think there has been a rather
mixed outcome of those. Sometimes voluntary agreements appear
to have been established, but then are not strong enough for action
to be followed through and sometimes they have actually been a
part of the way of encouraging new technological development and
new, more stretching targets for achievement by industry. So I
think they have got something going for them, but I do not think
we have yet discovered the way to do them that makes them powerful
agents for change.
(Mr Madden) If I can add to that, negotiated voluntary
agreements and the kind of various sectoral strategies are being
seen as a new tool, a new part of the toolkit along with regulation
and taxation to deliver sustainable development and, as Derek
says, if that adds to the sum total of progress, then very good.
From the NGO movement there are a number of worries. The first
is that they will disguise business as usual and companies will
dress up what they were going to do anyway as a sectoral sustainable
development strategy and there would not be any additional gain
in there. The second concern is about accountability and transparency,
that there is a tendency for government and industry to go behind
closed doors and negotiate one of these packages and come out
and present it to the world, and if there is not wider buy-in
by civil society and by other groups in the process, then we think
that there are lots of dangers. You would not legislate in that
way and since this is bypassing legislation maybe in some senses,
then there is a worry there. The third worry obviously is about
whether they are the most efficient way of achieving these goals
and there are strong arguments for economic instruments in the
wider sense, that taxation and economic signals lead to more efficient
responses by industry to these kind of issues than negotiated
agreements which are the lowest common denominator and may reward
those who have not moved rather than those who are moving.
(Dr Bidwell) Can I take us back to sectoral strategies
perhaps and just slightly away from just voluntary agreements.
It is clear that we all have difficulties thinking about sustainable
development at the top level, what is going to happen and what
are the issues. It is clearer, it seems to me, when you are talking
about what does sustainability look like in relation to transport
or housing or agriculture or, in particular, what does it not
look like. So I would have thought that this is their value and
why I think that certainly some emphasis should be put on sectoral
strategies is that it does push other departments to be much clearer
on how they see themselves focusing on what their policies are
going to be in order to take account of the goals of sustainable
139. Can I pick up for a moment that point you
were making, Mr Madden. You were saying that to some extent sectoral
strategies rather too often end up in bilateral discussions between
government broadly and the industry and that they possibly ought
to involve wider involvement, shall we say.
(Mr Madden) If they are going to be seen to replace
regulation and economic instruments, then we think they need to
have a wider involvement of other stakeholders in the process
of negotiation, monitoring and setting targets because, to think
about it practically, a hard-pressed civil servant is probably
sitting there negotiating with the whole industry which knows
its own figures and capabilities and so on much better than that
civil servant will and that you may need to involve wider actors
in order to get the best outcome.
(Mr Osborn) If I may just add one more there, there
are examples of doing this successfully. There were the very lengthy
negotiations that took place mainly under the last Government
about the Packaging Directive and then setting up industry-wide
agreements to achieve the recycling targets. Now, they are not
getting there yet, but they are making some progress and the whole
process of forcing the industry to propose itself how that should
be administered and enforced and so on was, I think, quite a good
model of the way forward, so setting a very clear target and then
saying to the industry, "Now, you tell us how this can be
140. The strategy says that the Government is
encouraging trade associations and other representative bodies
to develop and implement sustainable strategies, and is seeking
to do so within six business sectors by the end of the year 2000.
I think you agree that that kind of strategy is vital, but you
are worried about the timescale, so would you just like to elaborate
on that a little further for us and tell us why you see sectoral
strategies as being vital?
(Mr Osborn) I think for the similar sort of reasons
we have just been saying in the previous answers, that if you
can set them up with a clear target of what has to be delivered,
then there is nobody better than an industry, a particular firm
or a group of firms for finding a way forward. There are a lot
of examples now of progress where that has been achieved by an
agreement, or an agreement backed up by the threat of legislation,
or by some regulation which has actually been asked for, which
has been the best way forward. Apart from the Packaging Directive,
which I have already mentioned, I think there is the whole series
of improvements in the outputs from vehicles that have been achieved
under the Auto Oil Directives and the gradual improvement in the
quality of fuel which have set down targets for several years
ahead. It has been a good process really and I am sure people
think it was not far enough or fast enough, but they have at least
got somewhere, they have got buy-in, and there will really be
progress in these areas. So I think, looking at the climate change
thing, it is bigger and faster than anything that has gone before
and breaking down how much of the climate change targets can sensibly
be allocated to different sectors of industry is an enormous intellectual
and political problem, but I am sure it is better just to try
and work through that with the key sectors and I think it is encouraging
that the Government is attempting that.
141. The strategy also talks about the Government's
commitment to spread best practice, supporting scientific research
into climate change, et cetera. As far as I am aware, the Global
Environmental Change Research Programme has come to an end and
there was to be a successor. I am not sure where we are at with
that. However, do you think the Government has demonstrated enough
commitment by putting enough money into research, including supplying
a successor to that programme if it has come to an end?
(Mr Osborn) Well, I am very saddened that the ESRC
apparently has reached a conclusion. I am not sure at the moment
whether it is irrevocable or whether it is a preliminary decision
by the Resources Board, but it does seem to me and to the whole
of the Round Table which has discussed this briefly and I think
to the DETR which gave evidence on this point to you, that this
is really an unfortunate decision by the Resources Board. Of course
the research councils are their own masters in this respect and
they have to take their own view of where the priorities lie,
but it does seem to me odd that at a time when so much effort
is attempted to be put into this area, when there are so many
fundamental questions that need research that the ESRC should
have reached that conclusion.
(Dr Bidwell) I sit on the council of NERC, the Natural
Environment Research Council, and in the last round of the spending
review additional money was made available for climate change
and I think that we certainly felt that there was a focus on this
142. Could I ask you, Dr Bidwellyou are
a Consultant, Chairman of ERMhow you would compare this
document to an environmental management system which you would
recommend to a company?
(Dr Bidwell) That is a nice question and it goes to
the heart of the issue that I was trying to get at, probably not
very coherently. I think the first thing we would say to a company
or to a Government is "you need to be clear about your goals"
and I think the goals are fairly well articulated in this report.
Then you need to say "how does that then translate in looking
at every subsequent decision? What are the important guiding principles
you are going to use?" One needs a second level there. Then
you need to go down to saying "all right, in terms of the
different issues that you are dealing with", obviously in
terms of a company with transport production and so on and so
forth, "what are the specific concerns we have over the resource
use, waste management and so on and so forth, bearing in mind
what your goals, your principles are, what do these look like"
and then to bring it back again and say "let us set some
targets so we know you are making progress in terms of goals,
principles, specific measures in your different areas". I
think the answer is there are a good many elements of that in
this particular report but in terms of creating a strategy where
progress can be measured and in terms of clear commitment as to
how decisions will be taken in the future it is a bit thin.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
That has been a very, very helpful and I think illuminating session,
we have enjoyed it and we hope you have. Sorry for the interruption
but I do not think it put us off our stride. Thank you very much.