Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)




  200. Why did you not, Minister? Why is there no lead Minister?
  (Mr Meacher) I think we have.

  201. Not in this document.
  (Mr Meacher) Which document?

  202. In this Sustainable Development Strategy document.
  (Mr Meacher) The responsibility for delivering a Sustainable Development Strategy in each department rests, of course, with the Secretary of State. The actual responsibility for carrying it through does depend primarily on the Green Minister. We are now looking to extend that, to having a senior official at a top grade level taking responsibility together with the Green Minister for the implementation of that within the Department. I think that is the best way to ensure that responsibility at ministerial and executive level is carried through. In addition, the Green Ministers in their first annual report have set out in a very large table a baseline of where we are now, a series of targets not just on energy but on other areas like waste and transport impacts and we are looking to see on an annual basis the progress which has been made by each Department. Again, we have a framework in place. Some of it carries responsibility but at ministerial and top official level and a baseline against which we can measure actual progress in each department.

  203. One thing which concerned us—and you mentioned 15 headline indicators in the document and some of those go across departments like ozone depletion, for example—is that you do not assign responsibility for meeting those to a particular minister or a particular department.
  (Mr Prescott) You mean a kind of cross-cutting minister?

  204. Yes. Would it not be better to spell out in this document, which is your document, precisely who is responsible particularly for crosscutting indicators like ozone depletion?
  (Mr Prescott) I think that is a fair point. If we look at the machinery of government we have talked about, basically we have made a number of major changes—

  205. I accept that.
  (Mr Prescott)—not least following recommendations from this Committee as well. I think the new Commission on Sustainable Development will have extra powers reporting directly to the Prime Minister with annual reports to monitor and report and show where we are failing. The point you make is a sound one. I do not really know what a proper response to it should be, but I will have a discussion with Green Ministers about it. If we are talking about cross-cutting, we will try to do what we can across departments because we have a direct responsibility and, as in climate change, we are the lead department. So if you want to achieve objectives like in climate change it involves the DTI, ourselves and the Treasury. That is the way we do it at the moment. It is an interesting point as to whether we should designate a minister with a cross-cutting role because the Cabinet has been doing it with these new policy information units, for example, who look at cross-departmental issues and this is becoming an issue in just about every area. They have identified an individual minister to look at the broad response of a particular policy. I am quite prepared to discuss that with the Green Ministers and see if that is a way that might be useful, but at the moment we are highly departmentalised and the cross-cutting tends to be with the Cabinet Panel at No.10 getting those agreements, but we are making changes in these areas as to who to give a direct responsibility to. I will have a look at this and when I come back to you I will report back what the result of that idea is.

Joan Walley

  206. I think that is very welcome because we do want to quantify how things can be done and where the responsibility is. You have just mentioned the Sustainable Development Commission. What resources has it got? Have you sorted out its remit? I understand that the seminar that you proposed on the last page of the Sustainable Development Strategy has now been organised.
  (Mr Prescott) It has taken place.

  207. Are there any extra resources and why have we not got a chairman of it yet? What progress has or has there not been on it?
  (Mr Prescott) Michael has been dealing with this. The seminar you referred to took place yesterday and we are now putting more resources in to it.
  (Mr Meacher) There has been a substantial increase in resources. I think I am right in saying that it is more and it replaces the Sustainable Development Commission, the Round Table and the Panel. The resources we are proposing for the Sustainable Development Commission are greater than the combined resources of the two bodies it replaces.

  208. By how much?
  (Mr Prescott) It is 60 or 75 per cent more, is it not?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, about 60 per cent more. With regard to the chairman, we are in the middle of trying to secure that appointment. Obviously top level appointments require very careful handling.


  209. This has taken eight months so far. Can we expect an appointment soon?
  (Mr Meacher) I am well aware there have been other examples involving us where we have taken an inordinate period of time. I do not think that will happen, but there has to be a proper trawl, there has to be head hunting. A lot of people are approached, but we are in the middle of that and I hope that we will have a chairman in place before the summer.

  210. Is this a No.10 appointment?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.
  (Mr Prescott) Can I just give you the exact figures. The two receive £320,000 and it is now going to get £450,000, so it is about a 40 per cent increase.
  (Mr Meacher) On the question of the terms of reference of the Commission, again we have drawn these up and there is nothing particularly surprising about it. It is done in order to review how far sustainable development is being achieved, what are the gaps and how they should be met in order to identify any unsustainable trends that may exist and what action should be taken to reverse them and to deepen an awareness of sustainable development, which is what we have been talking about not only within local government but within business and amongst the general population and how we can progress that.

Mr Savidge

  211. When the Committee visited Denmark we found that they were supplementing the idea of bottle banks with bringing back the returnable bottle that most of us probably remember from our youth. I wondered if there were any thoughts of that sort going on either commercially or in other ways in Britain at the moment?
  (Mr Meacher) By returnable bottle you do not mean taking a bottle back to a recycling bank and popping it through the hole because that exists all over the place and it is provided by local authorities and in some car parks of major departmental stores. I think you are probably referring as to whether the retailer might sell the bottle at a slightly higher charge and then return a proportion of the cost if the bottle is returned which is known within the jargon as "producer responsibility". We certainly are doing that in respect of packaging waste. We are looking to achieve it and I think this will probably come from Europe in terms of end of life vehicles, in terms of electronic and electrical equipment, in terms of batteries, but there are a lot more regularly sold domestic articles sold in the high street where many of us believe that producer responsibility could play its part, not only with sellers of food but a number of other products which are sold in vast quantities every day and where the containers could be returned. I would like to see an expansion of producer responsibility. We are certainly looking at this in respect of newsprint recycling whereby we will try to push up the rates substantially, but there are many other areas. We will be making some proposals in our Waste Management Strategy not least in regard to junk mail.
  (Mr Prescott) We could make that part of the election address!

Mr Loughton

  212. I remember many of us supplemented our pocket money greatly by bringing back bootleg beer bottles to pubs. Can we just come back to business. The Sustainable Development Strategy document puts an emphasis on business adopting more responsible attitudes to environmental impacts and you are looking for systematic reporting of progress made there. Was there no discussion of the current review of company law going on as a possible avenue in which some requirements could be inserted onto corporations?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. DTI is in the lead on this. We are very keen and we have certainly been discussing with them whether we should consider requiring an environmental performance report in addition to the financial report to be part of normal reporting by companies. This is a difficult issue. I have been very keen to advance this on a voluntary basis on the grounds that you are much more likely to get genuine commitment if people take on the responsibility themselves. This has happened to a large extent. Ninety per cent of the FTSE 100 companies and I think about 70 per cent of the FTSE 350 companies now report in some form on environmental issues. That is quite high. The problem is the next batch if you get below that total where the proportion falls off dramatically. We are relaunching MACC, a corporate commitment project in order to try and get this batch of companies below the biggest companies to increase significantly their environmental reporting not only on energy efficiency but on waste and water, transport and the rest. We are also concerned not just to have reporting but to try and get a common and adequate standard agreed. A paragraph is better than nothing, but it is not a lot better than nothing. Without dictating and without trying to control it we would like to get some agreement on guidance as to what is an adequate environmental report. So that is where the matter stands. We would certainly like to see it regarded as a normal expectation of a responsible company that it provides a significant report on its environmental impacts.

  213. That is a very valid point in terms of second tier companies. There is the parallel of what is happening to pension funds and ethical investment policy where they will have to have a statement on what their policy is. It is those sort of requirements across the board that could improve it. Can you give us any progress reports on the establishment of sectoral business strategies for sustainable development? I think six were mentioned by the end of 2000 in the report. What has been done there?
  (Mr Meacher) I did indicate in an earlier answer to Joan Walley that there has been progress in a number of areas. I will not repeat them because I did set them out a few minutes ago. I think only one or two have been produced, though I am certainly aware that there are some which they are coming close to producing. It has been slower than we expected. There is no doubt, there is interest and more than interest. It is actually getting all sections within a trading association to agree to do this and to set meaningful targets. They do not have to do it, it is a voluntary commitment and actually getting them gratuitously to make commitments is quite difficult. One has to decide how far we should persevere with this or simply slap down a requirement. My whole instinct is to keep on trying to get agreement rather than simply making it a statutory requirement.

Dr Iddon

  214. This Committee was very pleased to see that there was a focus in the SDS on the role that research could play in delivering sustainable development until at a meeting in May last year when John Adams was before us and said, "I understand that the ESRC has not, after all, decided to construct a new programme for delivering sustainability", and he apologised to the Committee and said he would apologise to the ESRC for the mistake in the document. As far as we are aware the ESRC did not have a forward programme following the completion this year of the Global Environmental Change Programme. I wonder whether we could be brought up-to-date with the role of that major research council in delivering sustainable development?
  (Mr Meacher) You have put your finger on a slightly embarrassing spot. I am aware that we thought there was that commitment and subsequently, after making it public, it appeared that that was not correct. I am not briefed on what has happened since. Even though the official is sitting right behind me, I am not sure whether he can come to the table and advise the Committee. If not, we will certainly give you a note.

  215. Could I turn now to the indicators.
  (Mr Meacher) I have been given a note even quicker than I had expected. Although the ESRC has decided not to mount a full-scale replacement it will continue to fund much relevant work. This includes a new competition for research centres on environmental decision making and DETR officials are involved in that selection process. That does fall short of what we originally said, but I think it does indicate some further useful work in that area.

  216. Thank you very much. It is helpful to have that information. This Committee found that the publication of the Government's 15 headline indicators and more than 100 others was a helpful addition to this debate. Is the current set of headline indicators now complete or can we subtract or add to them in the near future? Is that under consideration? Indeed, could I apply the same question to the full set of indicators?
  (Mr Prescott) We do have a statement of the indicators. We inherited something like 144 indicators and we thought we needed to bring them down to something that was much more manageable. The previous administration did quite a lot of work in establishing those indicators. We thought by bringing them down to about 15 headline indicators or so it would be much better if we could get people to see what we were doing and to give them targets. What we have set targets for is 12 of the headline indicators and 41 of the supporting set of indicators. We think that is over a third of the total number set have been given targets. We are prepared to set more targets where it is sensible to do so, but I think you need to have a proper basis for it and be clear that the target you are setting is achievable. I feel politicians are a bit target daft at times as you almost feel sometimes as though you might be setting the criteria for your own failure or success. In the end the balance of the argument must be that it gives people an indication of something to aim for. It does discipline the thinking. If you have many targets it defeats the purpose. What we need to do is to get people focused in on those and the 15 that we have chosen are important ones, as we have identified in the report and do affect the quality of life. We are looking at other targets as well. At the moment I think more of my energy is going into making sure the Government implements these targets across Government as they just do not apply solely to my Department.

  217. The Government has said that it would consider changing its policies if a trend in a headline indicator is unacceptable. If a trend in a headline indicator is unacceptable, might that lead to a change in an aspect of Government policy or would it be trends in the overall set of headline indicators? Exactly how will that work?
  (Mr Prescott) I think it is in the individual ones and the trends as they present for us. The indicators are a good example of whether you are achieving the targets you have set for yourselves, but at the same time there are consequential effects in other areas of policy. If you pursue one and you are very effective in it it may have a consequential effect on another and Government reserves the right to use these as indicators to affect its policy, that is the whole purpose of it. We believe we want to achieve this objective. If we find as we begin to develop the consequential effect it is not exactly as we want it we would have to change that. It has to be open and transparent. We would be criticised if we moved off one because we were failing to achieve it or using it as an excuse to pursue another target. Frankly, it is a difficult one. As we have set it out in such a transparent way we could not move from these targets without it becoming a matter of concern for this Committee or a matter of public debate. The more transparent it is and the more specific the targets the more accountable is Government for its failure or success in those areas.
  (Mr Meacher) We did consult very extensively before we finally lit on this set of headline indicators and having done that, I think it would be a mistake to add or subtract. That is not to say that we cannot do so, but we have no intention of doing so. This seemed to us the right package. If we subtracted or played down the indicators everyone would smell a rat. I think it is very important that we stick with what we have decided to do. It is a rod to our own back and we have got to deliver and get all the indicators moving in the right direction.
  (Mr Prescott) A good example of that may have been air quality where we were given about six or seven. We were failing to achieve one largely because it had a European consequence. We had to adjust that. We were attacked for the one that we changed even though we had been successful in about six or seven of them. The one that we changed was not our fault, we had to change the target and we were criticised.
  (Mr Meacher) That is a good example of it. We have not backtracked on it. There are eight key air pollutants. We have tightened the targets in respect of five pollutants, we are retaining those for two as they are and another is for PM10s. We have been obliged to accept that they are affected by extensive shifts from Europe. They receive some of our particulates and we get quite a lot of theirs and in those circumstances it is impossible to guarantee that we can achieve a particular target because so much of it is outside our control. So we are not backtracking from it. We have simply resorted initially to the EU proposal for a target in this area and we are reviewing very carefully how far we can improve on that and we will be making a further statement about it.
  (Mr Prescott) We took scientific advice on this. We said, "Look, here is the problem. What do you suggest?", and they gave us a recommendation. We got blamed for it, but we had to change it because it was an impossible target, it could not be achieved at the time and we publicly had to declare it to be so having taken proper advice.

  218. If a single indicator or a group of indicators are continuously going in the wrong direction, over what period of time would you be considering a change of policy? Is it long term or does it depend on the indicator? Have you given any consideration to what would trigger a change of policy?
  (Mr Meacher) The important thing is that we change the policy not the indicator. There is always a temptation in Government to move the goalposts. We do not propose to do that. Clearly we should respond quickly. It is difficult to give an answer in generalities. If it is a mere glitch then maybe we would not need to change it, but if there is a significant short-term change in direction, yes, we have to got to change policies and we will do so.

  219. Can we look at a specific example which might illustrate the point and that is the farmland bird population which we know has been badly deteriorating over quite a significant period of time mainly due to pesticides, but there are other factors like intensive farming. Where are the baselines drawn for something like that? That deterioration has been going on for at least a decade or more. Where is the baseline which would trigger a change of policy? May I just say that we are disappointed about the dropping of the pesticide tax with respect to the forthcoming Budget, although we recognise that the Government have merely deferred it, hopefully and not dropped it altogether.
  (Mr Prescott) All we have said is it is important to achieve the baseline and, indeed, it has been declining at something like 5 or 6 per cent, quite considerably, since 1970 when it was identified as a trend. Clearly there may be a lot of things that are affecting it. It might even be climate change itself in some cases in regard to wildlife and in other cases it may be chemicals. In that sense all we have said is that we want to reverse that decline. On the other side we have said that 60 per cent of houses must be built on brownfield sites instead of greenfield sites and we have set that target for 2008. We will not really know until we get to that stage whether we have achieved it, but we will set targets in between to see that we are on target to achieve it. Some of them are medium term, some are long, some are not so specific except to achieve the reversal because it is very difficult to know precisely how we make the changes, although some of the things we recommend in the Sustainable Development Strategy coming from MAFF, ourselves and other departments hopefully will achieve that.
  (Mr Meacher) The main causes in terms of loss of population of farmland birds are the reduction in grasslands, in hay meadows, the switch from spring to autumn sewing of cereals so that there are much more stubble fields to provide food during the winter, the huge cut back in hedgerows and the over-use of pesticides and fertilizers. I take your point on the last one, but the others are being addressed by MAFF through the Agenda 2000 reforms, through increased use of agri-environment measures which will come through partly with the modulation money and the rural development regulation over the next five years. That is a major change of direction within agricultural practice and it has been reinforced by the PIU report on rural economies. I do think we are going to see significant changes which should reverse those causes of decline in the number of birds and we should begin to see a steady increase. The other factor is biodiversity action plans directed at priority species which are in danger.

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