Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 48)



  40. How do you see the linkage between a Sixth Environmental Action Plan and a European Union sustainable development strategy?
  (Ms Collins) I think it has to be nested, we have to have some coherence here so that the overarching strategy then refers directly to the sectoral strategies, but sets some frameworks for what they should contain and looks at the reports on them with a proper scrutiny, as a parliamentary committee might.

  41. Obviously, as English Nature, you have access to the European Environmental Advisory Councils.
  (Ms Collins) Yes; we are a European Environmental Advisory Council and we have been instrumental in getting our opposite numbers in other Member States to work together, over the last five years, in a more coherent way, and offer joint advice to, say, DGVI or DGXI on certain issues.

  42. Has it had any effect?
  (Ms Collins) It is interesting that the Commission tends to look to Member States, on the one hand, and it tends to look to NGOs, on the other, and statutory bodies full of expertise, like our own, are not well positioned in that process. The Commission feels uncomfortable; they suspect we might be on the side of a Member State, and therefore should not—

  43. They think you will have an English agenda, per se?
  (Ms Collins) Yes; and, therefore, I think that the working together of the European Environmental Councils, who have scientific and policy advisory responsibilities and expertise, is an important adjunct to the process. As I say, it is not easy. It is one of the institutional reforms that we would like to see that they would come to us, and we would like to be invited to give evidence to the European Parliament, for instance.

  44. You are not, at the moment?
  (Ms Collins) We have not ever given evidence to the European Parliament, no.
  (Mr Leafe) You asked if it has had any influence. I think we would like to say that it had some influence on the output of the Global Assessment, but you would have to ask others as to whether or not that was actually the case. But, certainly, some of the key things that we recommended, including the inclusion of fisheries in the Sixth Action Plan, have been produced as the draft Conclusions of the Global Assessment, so we hope we are getting somewhere there.
  (Ms Collins) And, obviously, we had meetings with Commissioners Fischler and Bjerregaard at stages through the Agenda 2000 discussions, as a collection of European Environmental Advisory Councils, promoting many of the things that we have discussed, and those things got into the Programme, but not enough money was forthcoming for agri-environmental programmes.
  (Mr Leafe) And the co-decision procedure in the Parliament is going to mean that the Environment Committee, in particular, is going to need access to expert advice to help them with the many technical aspects that crop up there, and we think the advisory council collaboration could be one source of independent expert advice that they could call on.
  (Ms Collins) And, in expert committees, they could call on us more than they do.

Mr Blizzard

  45. I would like to focus on Commission procedures. We know the Commission has already committed itself to a number of measures intended to ensure a better integration of environmental considerations into its policy-making and management, but in your opinion has the Commission made any effective progress in the areas it has identified, and I will take just three, if I can, as examples, bearing in mind the time. They decided they would undertake the screening of all policy and a full environmental appraisal, where appropriate. Secondly, to `green star' legislative proposals where a detailed assessment of environmental consequences is required; and to look at the environmental effects of European Union funding. Have they made any effective progress in those areas?
  (Ms Collins) I think screening and appraisal is underresourced, and DGXI is not able to carry out an effective process. In the UK, the DETR has issued a document on policy appraisal, and that is quite a good framework for doing it.

  46. Underresourced by what sort of factor, a half, a quarter; roughly?
  (Ms Collins) It needs significant reinforcement, yes. The green star system, I think, is inadequate, because that is all it is, a star, and it does not actually analyse and think through what needs to be done. Green funding: I do think the balance of power needs to change by a new resource allocation process within the European Union; if you give all the agri-environment resources to DGVI then maybe that will not ever really deliver the environmental goods. If the driving force is to improve the European environment through agriculture subsidies then maybe that budget should be held by the Environment Directorate; while it is small, underfunded and lacks political clout then progress will be slow. So those are pretty big issues for the Commission to address; there are pretty big, vested interests to be changed. And we would say that all the things that they are trying to do are steps in the right direction; they need to go deeper and further.
  (Mr Leafe) They have made some progress on the Structural Fund issue that you raised, too, in that the new round of Structural Fund programmes does contain some quite explicit advice about how you should go about integrating the environment into that, and the Commission have produced quite a lot of technical guidance to help Member States, and the partnerships that are set up to spend the money to ensure that happens. What they need to make sure they take care of is the monitoring of that process, and as single programming documents, the documents that govern where the spend will go in regions, come back to the Commission for approval, they need to be checking that that guidance has been taken account of in what comes from Member States, and that is an important thing to watch.

  47. Surely, further than that, I know it was raised earlier by my colleague, but beyond the SPD the actual compliance would; because nothing undermines confidence in the European Union more than people just feeling that. By and large, I think it is accepted that we are fairly rigorous at compliance in this country; my experience of dealing with our Ministries and an SPD is that they are down to the letter; and there is this ongoing feeling, and you mentioned fisheries. I represent a fishing community, and they would be hostile to the sorts of suggestions you are making, not in themselves but they would have no belief that they would be enforced and complied with across the European Union. So is there anything more you wish to say about the necessity for compliance, because my belief is unless they comply the whole thing becomes a waste of time and then eventually interest in the whole thing wanes?
  (Ms Collins) Maybe what we need is a `red star' system, to rule out things that actually damage the environment; there needs to be a judgement "This is damaging and it is not consistent with sustainable development, it breaches environmental limits," therefore it gets a red star and it does not get funding.
  (Mr Leafe) In the case of Structural Funds, the SPD, in a Member State like the UK, is all-important, really, because once it is there and it is in place it is implemented to the nth degree, and if it does not contain the environment or, more importantly, if it contains measures which are going to damage the environment, one way or the other, then they get implemented, and therein lies the problem. So we have to make sure that they are right from the start, what they take on board, and, ideally, specifically, have environmental measures for environmental projects, as well as ensuring that there is decent assessment of the other programmes to make sure that they do not cause any harm.
  (Ms Collins) Infrastructure development has been seriously environmentally damaging in some Member States.

  48. Can I raise just one more question, because I am aware of the time. I think events of June told us that there is not a lot of interest from our public at the moment in the European Union, and yet it was not that long ago that the public were very positive about the capacity of the European Union to make environmental progress, and I think about two European elections ago that was reflected in the way people voted. What do you think can be done by the European Union, or by the UK Government, to make the public more aware, the UK public, of the importance and capacity of the European Union to make environmental progress, because it just strikes me, if the public are really up about it then that pressure comes back on the Member States and we are more likely to achieve something, rather than going round in circles? But how can we rekindle what we had in this country several years ago, a great belief and a great interest in what the European Union can do with environment?
  (Ms Collins) You are absolutely right to point to the public interest in all this. We believe the public does care about environmental policy, both for now and for our children and grandchildren. I think, in looking at what needs to change in the environmental scene at the European level, we must also remember that achievements have been made, and the Habitats Directive and the implementation of European Marine Sites, in the UK, will be a very important development, the extra protection given to Birds Directive sites, and so on. The Framework Directive on Water is an acknowledgement of the importance of water quality and catchment management; air quality has improved. There have been positive developments that we have; the front of The Times today has got the 1952 smog on it. The air quality issues still need to be addressed, but they are not of the same order of magnitude as they used to be. So one needs to get a holistic picture across Europe of the fact that environmental improvements have been made, but the economic sectors are so powerful that it is still not enough, and global warming needs to be addressed, and so on. So I think we need not present not too gloomy a picture to the public, which can be done, and maybe the weight of the evidence that we have given has been on what needs to change. But I would not like people to go away with the impression that we do not value a lot of the achievements that have been achieved through European Union legislation, which I think has been progressive, it has persuaded Member States to be challenging some of their sacred cows, and so on. And so I think that we could rekindle that, but we also need to make very plain the results of carrying on as we are, to rekindle political action.

  (Mr Leafe) I think a few more campaigns would not go amiss. Part of the reason why people were so turned on about this a few years back was because of the label that Britain had of being the dirty man of Europe. Now that situation has cleared up considerably, but there are other pressures still; the agricultural policy in particular, as Sue mentioned, is causing problems with upland areas, farmland birds, these kinds of things. Now, if we can start some kind of a campaign running on those issues in this country and in other European countries as well that catches the public imagination, we might be able to get back to that position we were in a few years ago.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. It was a very helpful session, and we are grateful for your attendance.

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 25 November 1999