[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 1999-2000, HC 341, and the Sixth Report from the Committee, Session 1998-99, HC 426, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4819.]
Mr. John Horam (Orpington): I am glad that you mentioned the heating, Mr. Deputy Speaker. To roast and steam in Westminster Hall does not contribute to the greening government initiative, although I am sure that the problem is not the Government's fault. Although energy efficiency is not at its greatest at the moment, our ever solicitous officials are doubtless attending to the matter.
It is often said that, "success has many fathers and failure is an orphan". The phrase "greening government initiative" is rather felicitous and I have tried to track down its author. Given its nature, one would imagine that it originated from the Government, but it appeared in 1997-98 in the second report of the Environmental Audit Committee, which stated:
'We must make the process of government green. Environmental considerations must be integrated into all our decisions, regardless of sector. They must be in at the start, not bolted on later'. Immediately after that quotation, the Committee thought it wise to state, in bold type, the following clear conclusion:
We applaud the Government's objectives on sustainable development. We believe that political leadership from the very top is absolutely vital for the implementation of this agenda.
I shall discuss some of the issues that have arisen during that time. We have produced several reports on matters of concern to us and to the Government, such as water, energy efficiency, genetically modified organisms, international treaties and multilateral agreements. Our work rate of seven or eight reports a year is commendably high by Select Committee standards and all my colleagues have contributed enormously to that. We have tried to give an overview of the Government's performance with regard not only to the greening government initiative, but to the actions of the Treasury in successive Budgets. Greening the budgetary processes of taxation and spending lies at the heart of a true greening government approach.
Frankly, the results have been mixed. I shall set out the aspects that I applaud. I pay tribute to the Minister's commitment to the cause and to his energy in trying to ensure that a genuine greening government approach is more widespread throughout government. He is to be commended for being an assiduous and effective Minister for the Environment. Sadly, perhaps in two months or so he will therefore relinquish his responsibilities in favour of someone else. Who knows? None the less, he can look back with some pleasure on his three and a half years in the job.
The Minister will recall that when we first discussed his role, we paid particular attention to that of Chairman of the Green Ministers Committee. Doubtless to his embarrassment, we pointed out that it had had two meetings in the first 12 months of the Parliament, one of which was a photocall. There was a tendency for civil servants to replace Ministers on the Committee, which made us less than comfortable about the level of importance that the Government attached to it. Since then, matters have improved. There are now three regular meetings a year with proper agendas and a much more coherent analysis of what individual Departments are doing. We asked for that, and we got it.
The "Greening Government" document published by the Government in November states that, apart from those three meetings at ministerial level, there are no fewer than six official meetings. That is interesting and perhaps unprecedented in Whitehall terms. Usually, ministerial meetings are shadowed and preceded by an official meeting to hammer out the details. In this case,
I am impressed by the work of members of the team at the sustainable development unit, who have been present at many of our discussions and press conferences. I am sure that the Minister would like me to pass on to them our approbation of their many efforts.
Having said that the framework is pretty good, it is hard to find anything to praise in the same terms beyond that. In my view, and the Minister is aware of this, environmental appraisal is at the heart of greening government. If policies are not appraised for their environmental consequences or their effects on sustainable development, there is no greening government approach: there is a hollow where there should be a policy.
Figure 4.2 below lists all the separate environmental appraisals published between April 1999 and March 2000, as well as listing a number of examples of environmental appraisals that were included in wider appraisal documents. That slightly fudges matters, but that was the Government's statement.
The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence are the four Departments doing serious environmental appraisal work. The DETR has no fewer than 27 environment appraisals, which is an impressive number--it has hardly had that many policies. The DTI has quite an impressive list, including something listed as "Pending", but now, I gather, extant, the UK coal operating aid scheme, which has been environmentally appraised. I understand that that has been produced quite recently. Then there is Her Majesty's Treasury and the Ministry of Defence, which is doing a strategic environmental assessment of the strategic defence review.
The first point is that the DETR's success shows the inertia of other Departments. I suspect that there are a few genuine enthusiasts and a lot of people who feel that the policy is being imposed on them. They are not enthusiastic in the way that the four Departments that I have named are. In any case, four Departments are too few, given the total number .
Those four, in particular the Treasury, demonstrate some of the difficulties that we face in trying to persuade the Government to undertake proper environmental appraisals. My colleagues on the EAC will recall that just before Christmas the Financial Secretary to the Treasury--the Green Minister--was before us to discuss fuel duty. That duty, which has caused perhaps the Government's biggest crisis, is a measure with environmental implications: the effect of the escalator in the first three years of the Government and then the abandonment of the escalator and the freezing of fuel duty.
What I would say is that we have supplied the information to the Committee and to members of the public. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North said:
Environmental appraisal is different. I said:
You have supplied conclusions. You have not supplied the reasoning. The Financial Secretary replied:
It is the case--and I am being prompted to remind me--that we do assess all budget measures for their environmental impacts using the guidance which has been set out by DETR. I asked:
Can we see that? Can we see the papers on the environmental appraisal which was done which you are now mentioning? Mr. Maxwell, a civil servant, replied:
I know that the Government has made available the documentation about environmental appraisal of measures it has introduced. I replied:
Not to this Committee. We have seen nothing in the nature of an environmental appraisal of the changes in fuel duty which have taken place. Remember that you did this back in 1999. You stopped the fuel duty escalator in 1999 so there has been plenty of time for you to do a thorough analysis exposed to the public on exactly why you are dropping the fuel duty escalator. The Financial Secretary, clearly deciding that he was on thin ground, shifted his argument:
What I would suggest is that not increasing fuel duty is not changing things. That is a dangerous argument. He continued:
I know you have some difficult things and you carry out an environmental impact assessment of them. I replied:
I would say it is changing things dramatically.
Surely we agree that there has been a change in policy. The Financial Secretary responded:
There has indeed. At last, the truth came out. I commented:
That is right. What we are saying is that every policy of this kind which has major environmental effects must have an environmental appraisal underneath it, sustaining it, discussing it and justifying it. That is Government policy. That is the difficulty that we face in extracting proper environmental appraisals.
This morning, we had an interesting session on fuel duty with a number of interviewees, including representatives of BMW, BP Oil and the Institute of European Environmental Policy. We discussed the greener fuel challenge, which the Government set up to encourage analysis of alternative fuels in the course of their change of policy on fuel duty. The Minister will agree that alternative fuels pose fundamental questions about the future. Our witnesses made it plain that the remit of the Chancellor's greener fuel challenge was based on fuels that could be delivered by the existing infrastructure; for example, one could switch from diesel to biodiesel without dramatic changes. In their view, it did not allow for the examination of hydrogen fuel, which many people believe to be the fuel of the future. Hydrogen fuel technology would mean huge changes to the infrastructure of our garage forecourts. However, it is excluded from the greener fuel challenge.
Our witnesses also pointed out that the greener fuel challenge relied on vested interests--the oil companies and so forth--putting forward their bids for Government support for the technology that they believed was theirs. Hydrogen does not have vested interest support behind it because it is a new fuel, so for that reason too there is concern that it is likely to fall by the wayside. Although the Government and the Treasury have learned a great deal while examining those significant matters, will the Minister consider, with his Treasury colleagues, what improvements can be made?
To be fair, when the Government took office in 1997 they instituted a plethora of reviews. That certainly slowed down the process of targeting. The Minister will probably say, and I fully accept this, that time must be taken to reflect on targets if they are to be sensible, that there ought not to be too many and that therefore the extent to which the Government have been able to proceed with targets has been limited. Accordingly, the extent to which we can examine and audit them is equally limited.
In addition to the complaint made by the Select Committee, I note that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport said that the search for measurable outputs from this Government appeared to be akin to that for the holy grail, which shows that others have experienced the same difficulty. Speaking non-politically, however, the Government inherited targets. The previous Conservative Government set a target to improve energy efficiency on the Government estate by 20 per cent. on 1990-91 levels by March 2000. That target is now nine months overdue. The Minister might be able to tell us more, but my latest information is that, despite best efforts, the Government will only be able to marshal the information on this Government-wide target on their own estate by Easter this year, a year after the deadline. The Minister is looking puzzled, but that is my information.
We have suggested, out of the goodness of our hearts, that the National Audit Office should then analyse the information to find out whether it is sound and what it shows. I imagine that that would take at least six months--I do not see that it could be done in less--after which it would report to the EAC, possibly in the next Parliament. We are therefore talking about two years after the Government deadline before we find out whether they have met their target.
The Government should examine these problems carefully and consider whether they are putting enough effort into analysing and marshalling the information in a way that can be presented to those who have to audit it, whoever they may be--the NAO or ourselves--and if they are satisfied with that process. In our latest report, looking back on our three and a half years of existence, we suggest that the gap in our facilities was the audit gap. While on the whole we had done well on examination of policy, we had not done so well on the checking of Government targets. We said that what was needed was some sort of watchdog, possibly an independent green unit attached to the NAO, but the Committee was open to suggestions as to how it should be set up. We need such a body to help us as parliamentarians to examine some of the targets that are central to the greening government process.
I am pleased that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), is present. We went to Canada to see the arrangements there and made a worldwide trawl of
In conclusion, the Government are to be commended for laying down a proper framework to enable Parliament and the public to analyse the process of greening government. However, progress on individual policies has not been coherent and the ability to meet auditable targets has not been achieved. The Prime Minister's pledge in June 1997 at the United Nations to put greening policies at the heart of government has not been sustained or even achieved. Despite the best efforts of the two Ministers of State who are present, we shall not achieve that important objective until leadership is provided from the top--from the Prime Minister and No. 10.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): First, I welcome the debate and want to put on record the tremendous work load that was undertaken by all members of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, backed up by the Clerks. We have proved that we are a workhorse Select Committee.
As parliamentarians, one of our main objectives is to find ways to work with the Government to ensure that, having made so much progress on putting environmental audit and sustainability within the Government's role, we can now make progress on delivery. Before my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office leaves, I want to say that we have seen tremendous progress from the Government and I acknowledge the work of my hon. Friend on the environmental unit that has been set up in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Government have introduced many initiatives. We shall monitor them carefully to see how they are linked to everyday government.
My opening comments refer to progress. During the three and a half years since 1997, the Labour Government's achievement has been almost unprecedented, which is a credit to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and the Government. The Select Committee has been consistent in its views. We said at the outset that we wanted sustainability to be at the heart of government and that has been a thread throughout our reports.
I remind my right hon. Friend of our earlier report, in which we said that we want to review where the sustainable development unit should be. It is not a policy set in stone and, unless the sustainable
I do not want to underestimate the work of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but in the light of the Cabinet's sponsoring of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, perhaps the time has come to consider bringing the sustainable development unit into the Cabinet. Rather than being relevant to just one Department, the unit would thereby extend horizontally and vertically throughout Government, linking with the various partnerships. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.
Reference was made at the beginning of the debate to the heating in this Chamber and such problems frequently arise. Although it is not the job of the Select Committee to consider the greening of the parliamentary estate, we must recognise that in this building we do not, for example, recycle paper as we should, or deal properly with the commissioning of services, including heating. It was pointed out to me only a couple of weeks ago that this building has various underfloor ducts that could provide efficient heating. I put on record the need to conduct a full green assessment of the parliamentary estate.
Our Committee is very much a workhorse. Due to the issues with which it deals, it is not perceived as particularly glamorous. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who chairs the Committee, has done an exceptionally good job in dealing with issues, such as those to which he referred in his introductory remarks, and it is absolutely vital that we follow matters up. In particular, we must consider public procurement, which many of our reports have considered in a technical sense. There are many inconsistencies and contradictions throughout Government and European policy in that regard. We must consider public procurement in the context of the follow-up to Seattle, which is about to get under way. It is particularly relevant to the work of our Committee, because it is concerned as much with the operation of Government Departments as long-term policy.
One example concerns the G8 summit in Okinawa and the illegal timber trade. At the time of the summit, I pressed the Minister on issues relating to procurement. The Government and the Prime Minister undertook not to buy unsustainably logged timber. We have examined the implementation of that policy. Given that we have considered the matter in detail as part of our work on greening government, I hope that the Minister will refer to it in his response. Even a policy that aims to do no more than use recycled paper and sustainable timber has to take into account the Treasury guidance on purchasing policy. It is a classic case of whatever one
The Committee looked in detail at the Gershon review, which considered the relationship between procurement policies and public-private partnerships. We are concerned that the Office of Government Commerce does not allow Departments to factor environmental issues into the sum total of what should, or should not, be purchased, and that it is difficult to implement procurement policies that take account of how to save the environment.
We must mainstream environmental concerns into the Treasury rules on procurement. Many appendices and satellite guidances exist, but they are not part of the main document. On 28 July, the Minister made a statement about making binding the voluntary guidance to Departments on buying sustainable timber. How can that be achieved, given that it might not be consistent with Treasury guidance and European directives? Last summer, Greenpeace ran a major campaign against logging, which is destroying the environment and biodiversity and contributing to global warming. The Environmental Audit Committee must be able to monitor how policies are translated into practice. I would also be grateful for information about the Government's progress on ISO 1400 in terms of performance indicators.
On local authorities, I am pleased that compulsory competitive tendering has been replaced with best value, and that environmental duties have been placed on local authorities. However, those duties relate only to what is best within the geographical area covered by the relevant local authority or regional development agency. We must ensure that procurement policies, whether for contracts or buying pencils, attach a monetary value to environmental considerations, so that we consistently arrive at the most practicable measures.
One of our reports considers the Ministry of Defence, to try to assess how green Government policy is. In the past couple of weeks, I have been closely involved with matters relating to depleted uranium, mainly because some of the armed forces who took part in the Gulf war were recruited from Staffordshire. To see that issue through properly, the Government should ensure that the Ministry of Defence carries out an environmental appraisal of the use of depleted uranium in its shells. What procedures exist for that type of environmental assessment and how can they be mainstreamed into all aspects of policy making?
On global warming, the Government must be congratulated on the way in which our Ministers and our Deputy Prime Minister have been centre stage on the world scene in developing policy initiatives on climate change and global warming. A couple of weeks ago, I saw that forecasts predict that many of our traditional ski resorts will no longer exist because of global warming and climate change and that this issue is now coming home to people.
Much work has been done through the Kyoto agreement and we almost reached agreement in the last round of talks. We are on target for the 20 per cent. cut, which is fantastic, but in the long term we must see now how we can achieve the 60 per cent. cut recommended
Given the number of hon. Members who wish to speak, I shall flag up a final point--value added tax on brownfield developments, another issue to which the Environmental Audit Committee has consistently referred. If we are really to be a greening government, not only the comprehensive spending review but the Budget must take every opportunity to promote sustainable development. Sooner rather than later I would love to see an equalisation of VAT for brownfield sites, so that we have all the advantages of not building on greenfield sites and make best use of sustainable transport in urban areas. That does not come without a cost: it requires additional and transitional sums of money and also an acknowledgment from the Treasury that environmental appraisals of the sort to which the hon. Member for Orpington referred will be undertaken at the heart not only of Government but of the Treasury. If we can put the Government's successes of the past three and a half years behind us, start from where we are now and achieve the 60 per cent. cuts in global warming, we can build on the firm foundation that my right hon. Friend the Minister has done so much to establish.
The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions published "Quality of Life Counts" in 1999, which offers a baseline assessment of indicators for a sustainability strategy. That thick document is full of targets and juicy facts and figures. If it is opened at any page, the diagrams make it clear whether the Government are on track to deliver. For example, a rough glance suggests that the area of woodland in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is static, but is increasing slightly in Scotland, so there has been some success in Scotland but not elsewhere.
I would like to know why the EAC finds it so difficult to use the information and whether the presentation is lacking. Perhaps the Government should review how the information is put into the public domain to ensure that it is easier to use for monitoring purposes.
I agree with another of the Select Committee's statements--that the Government should sharpen their approach to target setting. Targets, and the auditing of them, should be a means of opening up government and making it more accountable to the public, but what are the public to make of those 429 targets? I am sure that since my researcher put pen to paper or finger to keyboard a few more have been added to that list. Should the Government not be setting priorities instead of simply producing a list of targets? That would be a more focused way to deliver important priorities.
With so many targets to monitor, it will be easy to miss failures and areas in which the Government are beginning to slip. A good example was revealed in a report by the Schroeder Salomon Smith and Barney working group, which was reported in the Financial Times yesterday. It warned that Britain is in danger of missing its target of generating 10 per cent. of its electricity from renewable resources by 2010. That target was worth setting and achieving and it is worthy of monitoring, as it will play a vital part in any strategy to fight greenhouse gas emissions or climate change. Liberal Democrats have called for that target to be even tougher and we would like an extra 1 per cent. of energy to be generated from renewable resources every year after 2010. That is a reasonable figure to aim for over a long period.
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government could set a good example if they started to make rapid progress towards a 10 per cent. renewable energy target for energy used by their own Departments?
With 429 balls to juggle, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions risks fumbling some of them, which will fall to the ground. If their priorities were focused, their targets could be more ambitious. For example, the target for recycling household waste is 30 per cent. by 2010. A tougher target could be set: 60 per cent. by 2010 is not unrealistic. My own local authority is on target to achieve 50 per cent. within the next 12 months and has set a more ambitious target of 80 per cent. for a few years hence--in the face of stiff opposition from local Conservatives who prefer a scheme that would cost £850,000 more and achieve a lower recycling rate.
Sustainability must be at the heart of all policy making and the previous Government's record shows why. At the end of their period of office, the United Kingdom was at the bottom of the European Union league table for renewable energy and there does not appear to have been any improvement since.
I do not know whether any hon. Members have seen the article on sustainable energy in the Parliamentary Monitor. All the parties were invited to submit an article on the subject--my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) did so. In the article written by the Conservative spokesman, there is not one mention of sustainable energy. The title, which I suspect was written by the Parliamentary Monitor, is "Red tape strangles green future", but in the article there is nothing about sustainable energy. The only reference to environmental matters is that the Conservatives would take out of the Utilities Act 2000 the environmental objectives that have been set, but that is the only comment relating to sustainable energy.
Mr. Loughton : It is clear that I was not the author of that article, but if the hon. Gentleman does a little more research and looks into the Opposition's more comprehensive policy on the use of renewable energy, which involves more generous tax breaks than those currently available, he might be impressed by them.
To return to the position of the Government, despite their welcome commitments, renewable energy still accounts for only 2 per cent. of primary energy and the legal obligations on electricity companies are not restricted to UK-based renewables. We have argued for that policy to stimulate the UK renewables industry, in the same way that the Danes have cornered the wind turbine market. Putting sustainability at the heart of policy making would be a good example of joined-up thinking, benefiting the environment and generating thousands of jobs, particularly in the manufacturing industry.
Another good example would be transport. Getting people off the roads and back on to public transport is a vital part of any sustainability strategy, as I am sure all hon. Members would agree. What better target could there be than that in a statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister in 1997--one that I am sure he now regrets. He said:
In the past year, I have tabled a series of questions based on the 429 environmental targets set by the Deputy Prime Minister for the DETR. The answers revealed that waste disposed of in House of Commons sacks marked "Waste for Recycling" is incinerated, which is not especially green. The high-grade office waste paper that is diligently separated by some hon. Members is also incinerated, despite that being against Government advice that that is not the best environmental option. On a point made by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), the House of Commons has refused to set a target for purchasing electricity from renewable sources, yet that is an easy thing to do.
My local authority, the London borough of Sutton, which I love to quote because it is Liberal Democrat, has identified the five largest buildings that consume electricity in the borough. Contracts have been let for renewable energy to supply them and a substantial proportion of their electricity now comes from renewable sources. That did not take much work or effort, although it costs a little more. When our local party headquarters, which is being refurbished, is back on stream it will also be supplied with green electricity. A simple signature on a new contract can achieve a dramatic increase in renewable energy use.
Mr. Loughton : Although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's general election campaign launch, with references to his local Liberal Democrat party office, intrigues us, we are debating the report on greening government by the Environmental Audit Committee, which I cannot recollect him mentioning.
Mr. Brake : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was overcome by the heat in the Chamber and did not hear my comments. The debate concerns the work of the Environmental Audit Committee and greening government. It should be about hon. Members setting an example, which is why I illustrated how we can easily implement measures at little or no cost.
There is scope for composting within the Palace of Westminster, as there are nearby parks with which we could enter into an arrangement; no organic waste is composted in the Palace of Westminster. No targets have been set for reducing water consumption in line with the greening government initiative, which is something on which my local authority has embarked. It is easily done, so we should aim to do it here. Perhaps the frantic writing that is taking place precedes a confirmation from the Government that they have acted on my parliamentary questions. If they have not, will the Minister put on the record a commitment to take up those issues?
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's recital of what ought to happen in the House of Commons, which is not the Government's responsibility. It is the responsibility of hon. Members through the House of Commons Commission and the various Committees. I assume, therefore, that his colleagues on those Committees have taken up each of his arguments.
Mr. Brake : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, as it gives me an opportunity to comment on some of the good news. For instance, following the parliamentary question about how much paper is recycled and the answer that most of it was incinerated, I took up the matter with the Department of the Serjeant at Arms. It is investigating the possibility of joining a local paper scheme that would ensure that paper was purchased locally, recycled locally and that locally grown hemp was incorporated into the recycled paper to maintain the quality. Things are happening, therefore, since the parliamentary questions were returned.
Mr. Brake : I am happy to give hon. Members the opportunity to comment from a sedentary position, but it might be helpful if there were a monitor here to display how long hon. Members had been speaking.
The environment should not be thought about in five-year parliamentary Sessions, with eyes on the voters each time. Governments should not abandon their environmental principles in exchange for tax cuts or other inducements in the run-up to elections. Our policies, as set out in our sustainability paper, cover a 40-year period and would tackle the most important issues that we face--those on which the Environmental Audit Committee and the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and the Regions focus. They include the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly--by 60 per cent. in the next 40 to 50 years.
The Government have had plenty of opportunities to make Parliament an example of how sustainability can work. They have also had many opportunities to apply the principle of an integrated sustainability policy. So far, they have failed on both counts. Setting targets is not enough; achieving them is what counts.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I welcome the fact that this debate is taking place. I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), the Chairman of our Committee, and endorse much of his analysis. I would not go quite so far on some of the issues and I want to draw attention to the Government's enormous achievements over the past three years in many areas. They have moved environmental policy to the top of the agenda and established the framework and structures that will enable it to stay there. However, those opening remarks provided a good introduction to the debate.
I must dissent on one specific point. The hon. Gentleman made a slightly disparaging reference to the first meeting of the Green Ministers Committee, which was, apparently, for photocall purposes only. I remind him that this morning's meeting of the Environmental Audit Committee started with a photocall at the Chairman's request--apparently for the local newspaper in Orpington. I also remind him that, should he wish to reproduce that photograph in his election literature, he would need the signed permission of every member of the Committee.
This is a complex debate. It should be almost entirely about process, but most debates in the House are about policy. I find it a little difficult and confusing because I understood that we would be debating the Committee's fifth report, which was a review of the first report of the Green Ministers Committee, which was dated July 1999. The fifth report was completed in March 2000, so in a sense we are looking at historical events. I then discovered on today's Order Paper that we would also be considering our Committee's sixth report and the Government's joint response thereto. We therefore have a number of documents to consider. I question the practicality of combining two Committee reports and the Government's response to them both.
I also question the timing. I accept the inevitability of the arbitrary way in which topics, particularly Select Committee reports, are selected for debate in Westminster Hall, but it seems odd that, only a few weeks ago, our Committee published its first report of the 2000-01 Session, which is relevant to the issues that we are debating today, and next week the Government will launch the first report of the Sustainable Development Commission. We therefore have a multiplicity of documents to debate. The debate comes two years after some of the documents were published, immediately following the publication of another important document and shortly before the launch of an important Government statement. The process by which Select Committee reports are selected for debate needs to be reviewed.
We need to consider the availability of documents. I recall that, in their response to the Environmental Audit Committee's report, the Government argued that the report by the Green Ministers Committee should not be presented as a command paper. It was said that the Green Ministers Committee report had been widely circulated--1,500 copies were distributed--and that presenting it as a command paper would be more difficult and less cost effective.
The availability of documents and--this is a much wider point than is strictly relevant to our debate--the different ways in which the Vote Office and the Library make documents available is a problem. I say now, and I shall be saying it elsewhere, that I have always found the Vote Office and Library staff immensely helpful, but the systems and the facilities with which they have to work leave a lot to be desired. It is astonishing that the Vote Office does not yet seem to use information technology. Documentation is written by hand into a large Dickensian-style ledger. That seems to be the basis of the information for the more obscure documents.
I pay tribute to the staff who serve our Committee. They have worked extremely hard and provide invaluable help and information. The Committee Clerk has produced a useful chart that lists some of the issues that have been the subject of recommendations by the Environmental Audit Committee that have not yet been accepted by Government.
We made the point that the approach to developing the sustainable development strategy had been unsatisfactory, with other major policy reviews being completed first--environment took a back seat to some extent--and with no formal link to the comprehensive spending review. Two comprehensive spending reviews have now taken place. We do not know whether they will be a feature of government every three years from now on. If so, I endorse the Committee's recommendation. It is unfortunate that the Government have not yet accepted the crucial importance of building sustainable development policy into the process of the comprehensive spending reviews.
Another point that we made quite strongly takes us back to the question of targets or, strictly speaking, sustainable development indicators. More rigorous--and independent--monitoring of the indicators is needed. We suggested that that task should be given to the Office for National Statistics. For reasons that I cannot quite recall, the Government did not accept that recommendation. The idea has merit because the Office for National Statistics has an accepted track record in such work. It has the appropriate expertise, the necessary authority and the element of independence that would confer authority to the monitoring work.
Another report recommendation has not yet been agreed by the Government: a major sustainable development debate should take place in the House of Commons on a Government motion. I cannot stress enough how important that is. I do not want to enter the debate about modernisation and about continuing debates on obscure motions into the early hours of the morning to get around the spirit of the report by the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons but it is worth thinking about the allocation of time during the year and some of the issues that are guaranteed an annual debate. If it is part of the tradition--I do not say heritage--of the House to hold an annual debate on fisheries, it should be part of our tradition to hold an annual debate, on a Government motion, on sustainable development.
I endorse other hon. Members' comments about the need for more co-ordination. A multiplicity of activities goes on. A huge amount of work is done in different Departments, which, understandably, move at a differing pace according to the enthusiasm of Ministers and senior officials and the relevance of the environment to their work. I do not think that we shall ever achieve a uniform movement forward, but we need somehow to tie together the different locations of activity. The roles of the Cabinet Sub-Committee, the Green Ministers Committee and the sustainable development unit--it is important that that be placed within the Cabinet Office--need to be more clearly locked together. That will avoid fragmentation and prevent the different parts of the Government machine from moving in different directions.
Another question of process concerns appraisal. One of the aspects of appraisal that fascinates me is the extent to which the results are transparent, on the record and in the public domain. That point is linked to the debates that took place some months ago about freedom of information. I want to quote the Government's response to the recommendation that the sustainable development unit should provide six-monthly reports based on formal records of all major Government policies that are under review or in development which have a significant environmental impact. It states:
The Committee is, however, free to ask for an explanation of the handling of any policy it selects...the SDU will notify departments where it believes new policies may have significant environmental obligations. The difficulty is that we are being told that we can get an explanation after the event, but there can be no input in terms of environmental appraisal in advance of the policy being agreed.
The role of our Committee and its ability effectively to monitor Government policy is linked to the role of the National Audit Office. I take great pleasure in placing on the record my party's policy statement from 1994, which argued for the establishment of the Environmental Audit Committee and for the National Audit Office to have a role in servicing that Committee. It states:
We will expand the role of the National Audit Office to include undertaking specific investigations at request of the Environmental Audit Committee, as well as providing it with regular information and advice. Auditing the environmental impact of policies is a more complex task than carrying out financial scrutiny, even where financial scrutiny involves judging "value for money". Environmental scrutiny involves making judgments about trade-offs, acceptable environmental damage, and likely, long-term impacts, The National Audit Office will therefore need to develop close links with the new Environment Agency, the science and environmental academic community...The Audit Committee will exist alongside the existing Environment Select Committee. The case is made powerfully. I hope that the Government will consider that point further.
I briefly flag up the crucial importance of procurement in establishing markets for more environmentally friendly materials, whether paper, timber, or one of the many other examples. All senior officials and Ministers ought to be obliged to scrutinise rigorously the European directive and to be convinced about the extent to which it restricts us. I suspect that the advice that the Government have been given by some senior officials on the extent to which procurement policy could be used to the advantage of the environment is not as accurate as it might be and might be the result of an over-cautious approach.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) touched on the subject of renewables. In spite of my natural aversion to Liberal Democrat populism, I agreed with much of what he said. The Government's response makes the point, so I shall quote it exactly. If the Government chose to source all their energy needs from renewables, that would exceed the 10 per cent. target that has been set for 2010. Interestingly, paragraph 45 of the Government's response, which is on page 16, states:
We have to think seriously about the extent to which, for example, the Department of Trade and Industry, which has an important role in protecting existing energy sectors, could hold the Government and other Departments back from moving to expand the market for renewables. It would be unfortunate if we found that the Government were acting as a restriction in that way.
The figure of 10 per cent. is remarkable. If the whole of the Government estate switched to renewables, the 2010 target would be achieved at a stroke. I do not think that anyone would suggest that, as it would cause problems with supply in the future, affect pricing and might be too drastic. I return to the point that was made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington about our need to look beyond 2010 and to have more ambitious targets for renewables. The Government are ideally placed to intervene in the energy market in a positive way, so that we are not restricted to 10 per cent. and can move beyond that, preferably before 2010 but certainly by then.
I pay tribute to the Minister for the Environment and the other Ministers who have been with us this afternoon, however briefly. I do not share the negative view that the Government have sidelined environmental policy or that they are not interested in it. The Prime Minister's commitment to put environment at the heart of government is on the way to being implemented. The Government could afford to be bolder, more radical and to move ahead more quickly, but to do that we must streamline our procedures, structures and processes. That is why this afternoon's debate is so important.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I want to comment on three main areas of the Environmental Audit Committee report and the Government's response. Inevitably, in such a debate, we shall raise issues with Ministers on which we have a difference of view, or shall criticise what the Government may have said in response to our reports. However, like other hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that, since 1997, there has been a sea change in how environmental policies are dealt with in government. The agenda has shifted considerably. The creation of the Select Committee and the way in which it has been able to function and influence policy has been part of that change. Although I shall raise points on issues about which we might differ, it is important to put that on record.
The subjects that I want to speak about have already been raised by other members of the Committee. That reflects the degree of unanimity on the Environmental Audit Committee--a unanimity that still exists--on how we should approach some of the important questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) spoke about whether the Committee is functioning effectively, a question that was raised by other hon. Members.
We certainly said that we would like more of the raw data in the Green Ministers report to be made available, rather than simply reading the conclusions that Government Departments draw from it. That is where the audit might question the Committee's effectiveness. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) questioned whether the Committee had been effective. He might have consulted his Liberal Democrat colleague on the Committee, whoever it happens to be.
Mr. Gerrard : When we broke for the vote, I was referring to audit and the function of the National Audit Office in relation to the Select Committee. The Government have said that the Environmental Audit Committee is regarded as having the lead responsibility for audit, and clearly we accept that. The question that we have raised, and which I hope that Ministers will look at again, is the Committee's ability to perform that task. It would be difficult to imagine the Public Accounts Committee, which clearly has the prime responsibility for auditing public spending across Departments, being able to function without the spadework done for it by the NAO. That does not mean
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North raised questions about leadership and transparency, which are to some extent related. We have made the point, which I think the Government have accepted, about the need for political leadership. We have a Cabinet Committee, the "ENV" Committee, which is at the centre of government. However, we have not always been able to see the working relationship between ENV and the Green Ministers Committee. We commented in the report on the fact that there was no information about what the Green Ministers Committee had reported to ENV or what had come back from ENV regarding the future agenda and the tasks that should be performed.
We asked the Government to consider directing management and taking a strategic approach through environmental management systems. I noticed that, in their response, they quoted the Government target, which was
Ms Walley : Does my hon. Friend agree that, as an earlier Committee report noted, that is particularly important in respect of the environmental appraisal of transport options? We should not assume that investing in a particular mode of transport is the way to solve a given problem. A thorough environmental assessment
Mr. Gerrard : That is absolutely right. When evidence on transport was taken, the point was made on several occasions that it is difficult to consider the broader picture if one isolates and assesses only a specific aspect.
My hon. Friend mentioned an environmental impact assessment by the Ministry of Defence, and I must say that I am somewhat sceptical about that. I have a fairly good idea of the likely environmental impact of a Trident missile. She also mentioned depleted uranium, which is a good example. Recent reports suggest that British Nuclear Fuels is more or less putting depleted uranium in black sacks and disposing of it at waste tips. That might be a slight exaggeration, but disposal of depleted uranium is clearly an issue that needs to be considered.
Neither the Committee nor the Government has properly got to grips with how to carry out certain environmental impact assessments. I am thinking in particular of cases where spending and policy decisions are not made directly by Government Departments. The effects of procurement by Departments, and assessment of the decisions that they take and the operational policies that they develop, have been referred to frequently this afternoon. At the moment, much public policy and public money is delivered through other mechanisms such as agencies, the private finance initiative, local government and--in some areas, at least--public-private partnerships. It is also delivered through foreign policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North mentioned the Iliusu dam, which was not a Government project as such, in that someone else carried out the environmental impact assessment. Nevertheless, the outcome of that assessment and its influence on the policy decision by Government was clearly of great public interest.
The Government have accepted that the private finance initiative is important. Such projects can indeed be important in terms of their environmental impact, and reference will be made to environmental issues in the PFI guidance. Given that the Government have no direct responsibility in this regard, I find it difficult to grasp how we can monitor the way in which those assessments are carried out, and by whom. The same can be said of a wide range of non-departmental public bodies.
The Public Accounts Committee examines public spending by any body that is at least at arm's length from the Government. I recall seeing PAC reports on health service trusts and the Housing Action Trust, which operates in my old constituency. We must work out how to develop the environmental agenda in that context. Non-departmental public bodies have received a Cabinet Office guide, but how do we monitor them to ensure that it is implemented?
With regard to local government, many local authorities have made good progress with the local Agenda 21 strategies that the Government asked them to develop. According to the most recent figure that I have seen, the Government expected 86 per cent. of local authorities to meet the target of having developed a local Agenda 21 strategy by 2000. That is a good
Can the Minister tell us about local authority response to local Agenda 21 strategies? How close to 86 per cent.--or 100 per cent.--was the figure achieved by the target date in 2000? Significant amounts of public money are spent by local authorities, some of which are innovative and forward-looking in developing environmental strategies, while others are not so impressive. The Environmental Audit Committee and the Government should consider how to ensure that best practice spreads and that we can monitor what is happening and whether policies are effective.
The Government have made real progress since 1997, and we should not appear to be hypercritical, but there is scope for improvement and development in several respects. I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with many of the points that hon. Members have raised.
Important policy areas such as the future functioning and structure of the Committee remain to be debated in the light of its most recent report. That is relevant to the issue of process, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North said, is an important feature of today's debate.
Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): I preface my remarks by saying that I firmly believe that, since 1997, the Government have made real strides in environmental matters. My speech should be viewed in that context. The Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment have made a huge contribution to that process.
I shall focus on the Environmental Audit Committee's work on policy appraisal. Moving towards a more sustainable pattern of development is a "push me, pull you" process. The pull comes from the top through various strategies: waste, climate change, rural policy, urban regeneration and the sustainable strategy, which is at the very top and about which we have rightly heard so much today. Further pressure from the very top would be appreciated in the form of more vocalism and perhaps more enthusiasm from No. 10 Downing street, but perhaps that is a speech for another day.
The push must come from the bottom--from individual Departments--in the form of better policy making and the integration of environmental appraisal. It is crucial that the initiative be implemented in all Departments, not only the DETR--we know what it is doing and we support it--and not simply with respect to environmental policies. After all, we are an environmental audit committee and environmental appraisal of an environmental policy is just that--just appraisal.
I was gratified to see, among the 27 DETR environmental appraisals listed in the 2000 annual report, at least three or four on transport, housing and other planning issues. Other than that, the Green Ministers report rests on the strategic environmental assessment of the strategic defence review, the
Progress on policy appraisal and the environment has been slow. Guidance has been around since 1991--nearly 10 years ago--and the DETR produced a user-friendly version in 1998. Despite that and a toughened Cabinet Office requirement, the first Green Ministers report said that some Departments were still
As I have said, environmental policy is just appraisal. That reflects my concern over the operation of "ENV"--the Cabinet Committee on the Environment--as a whole. That Committee's remit was expanded to add sustainable development--integration and co-ordination of policy--to its previous purely environmental remit. However, it seems clear from evidence from the Cabinet Office that the Committee remains in its green quarter--its green silo--which suggests that it may not consider the environmental impact of non-environmental policies; those are said to be the province of other Cabinet Committees.
The Government's reply reports the Deputy Prime Minister having to write to other Cabinet Committees advocating the use of the sustainable development strategy as a guide and encouraging them to involve ENV where appropriate. There seems to be some tension between Cabinet Committee autonomy and the need to join up and/or to integrate work on cross-cutting initiatives such as sustainable development. However, Cabinet Committees are largely a closed book to us because of a protocol--I was going to say mafia--of silence, so we must accept in good faith the claims made for ENV's co-ordinating role.
The second Green Ministers report contains some welcome commitments; we do not want comments to be negative. It includes a commitment that all free-standing appraisals will be published. That is an improvement, except that there is an explicit move to develop an integrated appraisal system in support of sustainable development in its broadest sense. I hope that the Government will be able to make a commitment to publish all relevant appraisals, especially when they are part of a broader agenda.
There is a welcome commitment to Departments having to screen all policy developments for their environmental implications to identify the need for fuller green study and scrutiny. I believe that that is the start of a more vigorous approach that could lead to the foundation of an environmental audit of policy, which would please the Environmental Audit Committee, if it were allowed access to the results. So far, that has been left to individual Departments, but I see no reason why it should remain an internal record.
Allied to that is an initiative by the Cabinet Office and the sustainable development unit in the DETR to scan the horizon for upcoming policies with significant environmental implications and to alert Departments to any less obvious environmental impact that is overlooked in the Cabinet Office review. We would all benefit from co-operation with the Government on that score.
The second Green Ministers report contains a long and detailed list of approaches by Departments to the screening initiative. Unfortunately, the individual parts do not add up to the bald statement that all Departments will now screen policy. That is what we need. However, the Cabinet Office has prepared a checklist. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport encourages policy makers to use a checklist. Department for International Development screening applies to projects and programmes. Department of Health guidance includes a screening tool. Policy managers in the Department of Social Security have guidance--that word again. The approach of the Department of Trade and Industry is under review.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office's clearance system applies only to policies with environmental implications. What about the environment being at the heart of government and who decided that in the first place? That evades or misses the point of screening. The Permanent Secretary to the Home Office has commended the use of its policy development checklist, which includes a section on the environment, to heads of units and is considering other options. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is working on its procedures.
The Treasury, Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise share a requirement that all budget proposals must be screened for environmental impact and the results included in table 6.2. As the Chairman of the Committee suggested, the table is a brief snapshot of the benefits of the Government's green tax measures. Those are welcome. However, it is disquieting that no non-environmental measure has yet made it into the table, despite the welcome and rigorous approach.
Treasury Ministers have said that that is because only those measures with quantifiable impact are included. There are, however, some environmental measures without quantification. That increases the suspicion that the table of appraisal is an environmental backwater listing green measures, and not an environmental assessment of budget as a whole. Environmental appraisal of non-environmental policies seems to have the potential to deliver the Prime Minister's commitment to make the process of government green. Appraisal must be undertaken and policies adjusted when negative impact is shown.
The Environmental Audit Committee was pleased with the DTI's publication of appraisals of the sources of power generation, the new electricity trading arrangements and the introduction of the Utilities Bill. However, we were less pleased to note that, where overall negative environmental impacts were predicted, little, if any, action resulted. In the case of the power sources review, there was merely an assertion that the Government's overall climate change targets would be met by other means. Appraisal is needed to identify where policies must be adjusted, rejigged and rethought to achieve--in a popular phrase--win-win solutions. Political will is essential to drive those changes through and deliver win-win results. The Committee will continue to seek action and I look forward to the Minister's response.
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I echo the popular sentiment in welcoming the opportunity to debate the activities of the Environmental Audit Committee and the report on greening government. The Committee is a terrier snapping at the ankles of the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister said that we do so ferociously.
This debate may be unique because both the Government and Opposition spokesmen--the Minister for the Environment and I--are also members of the Environmental Audit Committee. Any praise that I may give the Committee must be tempered by the fact that I have been a member since its inception, so modesty forbids me from being overly zealous in my congratulations.
The Conservative party takes the Committee's work seriously. Of its four Conservative members, three have participated since its inception and all have attended the debate today. A further four founder members were from the Labour party, two of whom have contributed to the debate. We have had two Welsh nationalist members, but they represented the same constituency, which provided a degree of continuity. In contrast, we have had no fewer than three different Liberal Democrats filling that party's single place. In a spirit of partisanship, I must point out that, strangely, one of them lasted less than a week after the election of the Chairman. Attendance by the Liberal Democrats has been rare, and if one discounts the trips that we made overseas, they were even rarer.
Mr. Loughton : I shall in a minute. Perhaps the lack of contributions by Liberal Democrat members of the Committee explains why the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) spoke for so long.
Mr. Brake : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that there has been a Liberal Democrat presence today and that my contribution was pertinent and helpful. He must examine the body of Liberal Democrat party policy to see what we deliver on environmental issues.
The report that we debate today is another good report. It comes in the wake of a number of excellent reports: the two others on the greening government initiative, in 1998 and 1999; the pre-Budget reports and those on the comprehensive spending review; and the reports on the sustainability of world trade, on EU environment policy and climate change, genetically modified organisms, and water and energy efficiency. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who queried how these reports come up for debate. I am certain that the work that we have produced merits a wider airing and I concur, on behalf of the Opposition, with his sentiments that this House, at the very least, deserves an annual debate in the main Chamber on the Government's sustainable development initiative and policy. It is so important and it has featured greatly in the contributions today.
The attractions and strengths of the Select Committee are that it cuts across all the Departments of Government. It has the power to report and to seek witnesses from all of them and to recall those witnesses and re-report if their initial answers are found to be lacking. That is why Ministers have been well advised to do their homework before appearing as witnesses. In many cases, that has happened. However, as the Government have stated, it is important to have a lead from the very top on this environmental issue. That lead should influence all the Departments and the initiatives by all the different parts of Government--as the Cabinet Office put it, "wiring it up".
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), who is a major contributor to the Select Committee and who made, as always, a number of interesting points, stated that the approach to environmental sustainability is still not holistic, as it desperately needs to be. She suggested that the sustainable development unit should be put into the Cabinet itself and that idea has great merit and would not be without precedent. It would help to bring environmental sustainability into the horizontal and vertical of government, as she so rightly put it, and procurement, which is a key part of that.
It is clear that we have commitment today from the Minister for the Environment. All members of the Select Committee hold him in great respect. It is always well worth turning out for his attendances as a witness and he
It is also clear that we have audible commitment from the Deputy Prime Minister, although at times that does not quite translate into action--as was the case recently with the French Environment Minister, over which we shall pass rather rapidly. What is not clear, however, as the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) rightly mentioned, is to what extent the project has the active support of Downing street. It is noticeable that the Prime Minister, for whatever reason, has made only one major speech on the environment and the jury is still out on his green credentials.
As we found in the Committee's three reports on greening government, progress by individual Departments is patchy to say the least. That is why the departmental progress charts that we produce in the reports are so important. They are rather difficult to work out, but all the facts are there if one reads the instructions. The hon. Member for Peterborough mentioned the different responses to screening among different Departments and different initiatives.
The naming and shaming of the worst offending Departments has been a major weapon, which the Committee has used with notable success. I cite one example that I remember well, which was when we questioned senior civil servants from the Prison Service a while ago. They were baffled, to say the least, by our inquiries about what role environmental considerations played in their day-to-day operations. They thought us rather impertinent, but I gather that they went away and were made to think about what had been put in front of them. The question was largely one of communication. The subject had never really dawned on them, but I gather that some progress has been made as a result in the Prison Service, in which many environmental considerations can be promoted.
It is perhaps a shame that the Home Office as a whole still rather lags behind other Departments, according to our tables. In contrast, as our report shows, only the Department for Education and Employment is explicitly committed to the systematic publication of its results of screening and of the appraisal of the environmental impact of its policy proposals. Many Departments could do a lot worse than take a leaf out of its book.
As a contrast, the Department of Health is one of the worst offenders, yet it is the biggest employer in the country, one of the biggest operators of buildings--all of which need to be lit, heated and maintained--one of the biggest purchasers of equipment and supplies and one of the biggest producers of waste, both inert and toxic. It lags behind many Departments which could be construed as less close to the aim of putting environmental considerations into practice.
The Committee has started to raise its profile and its meetings have become more frequent. However, if it is really to work, there must be much greater transparency in the publishing of its minutes, a full list of the policies for which environmental appraisals have been undertaken and properly comparable and auditable performance targets. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) mentioned that our report was critical of the transparency of details of the Committee's interaction with the "ENV" Committee, which must also be improved.
The Government also need to lead by example. The hon. Member for Bury, North told us that the Government could do dramatically more on renewable energy. We need to have a greater handle on the involvement with public-private partnerships and public finance initiatives, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow mentioned. Much can be done on procurement. I hope that something meaningful will arise from the recent procurement systems review.
Regional development agencies were mentioned. In one of our noticeable interviews with the Deputy Prime Minister, we questioned him on their role and their environmental instructions, credentials and criteria. He had to admit that the RDAs were specifically and primarily for economic development and that the environmental credentials featured low down the ladder. Given that the Government regard the RDAs as increasingly important agents, a progress report from the Minister on them would be helpful.
It might be useful if the Government took up the challenge that they set to business. They requested that 75 per cent. of FT 100 companies have at least one site registered to ISO 14,001 standards by 2001. Departments are in a position to take a lead on such matters and by doing so would reinforce the seriousness of their case when dealing with the wider world, particularly the business world. As with so much else, however, government is not only about setting targets, announcing reviews, setting up inquiries and establishing more targets, however elaborate. We have heard much today about establishing targets, but that does not solve the problem unless meaningful action results from all that other paraphernalia.
As far as the Committee is concerned, the Treasury is a specific problem and the cause of many of the hurdles and barriers against which we have had to operate. To all intents and purposes, as we found during our deliberations, the Treasury acts as a major constraint on the environmentalism that other Departments would like to exercise. We requested the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury, now the Paymaster General, to attend the Committee, but, for the sake of a better word, we were given the bum's rush--by the look in your eyes, Mrs. Adams, I think that I might have got
My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, the Chairman of the Select Committee, mentioned the performance of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, a widely respected Minister, who has attended our Committee several times. However, he was completely at sea when questioned on the fuel duty escalator, and when pressed he had to admit that the Government had made no assessment of its environmental impact. Worse still, if achieving a gain on carbon emissions was its objective, the Treasury had not properly assessed the environmental effects of alternatives. The reasons for the fuel duty escalator were not clear and we did not know whether the Government believed that it might continue to be a useful instrument when congestion and the growth of car use continued apace.
There was a clear division in thinking on regeneration measures when the Treasury was challenged on the usefulness of the Chancellor's announcement on using stamp duty exemptions in regeneration areas. We were not sure whether they were intended to benefit businesses and attract them to deprived areas, or to help residential property owners. We were given two very different answers--an oral answer from the Financial Secretary and a written answer from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. There is a lack of joined-up thinking between the Treasury and certain other Departments.
It is a shame that the Treasury does not seem to have grasped the fact that there is a long-term payback for many environmental measures. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington said that the comprehensive spending review was a classic example. When the review was introduced, the Chancellor billed it as a device to ensure that Departments would not automatically receive year-on-year rises because they would have to prove that they were putting the money to good use.
The Government are keen to promote various performance target grants for local authorities. Whether or not one agrees, one wants to see an end result. The comprehensive spending review would allow environmental matters to be considered when making departmental revenue allocations and the Departments would have to report on their environmental sustainability achievements each year, just as they have to report on whether the money has been put to good use--for instance, producing better exam results, smaller class sizes or more hospital operations. That is a missed trick. I fear that the Treasury has not been the biggest fan of the Environmental Audit Committee, and I suppose that it will continue not to be its biggest fan because we will not hold back from the course of scrutiny that we have undertaken.
We are trying to establish improvement throughout Government. There is no excuse now, because many of the structures that the Chairman of the Select Committee mentioned are in place. However, we are still not convinced that this so-called joined-up government is leading to a sufficient grasp of the over-reaching nature of environmental and sustainable development issues. The Committee, quite rightly, wants those issues
I shall refer to some of the Committee's main gripes and highlight some issues on which we want a more positive response from the Government. One such issue is that of an annual debate on environmental sustainability, which is an easy matter to resolve. The Government have merely expressed sympathy with the Committee's suggested targets for the establishment of an accredited environmental management system and with our long-held ideas for a green tax commission that is independent of other constraints on the Treasury. We also want to deal with the audit gap, and inaugurate an independent approach backed by the National Audit Office, as we found in Canada on one of our trips there. As hon. Members have said, that is only fulfilling the other side of the pledge that the Labour party made before the election.
On behalf of the Environmental Audit Committee, I would like to say that good work has been done, and good structures, particularly on performance and reporting, have been put in place. We have received many warm words from Ministers who have appeared before the Committee. However, there is much more to do. Therefore, although we are encouraged by what we hear, we are disappointed by what we see in practice and hope that the Minister will encourage all his colleagues to speed up the process of greening government, which we all hold so dear.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher ): I enjoyed listening to the debate. The debates in Westminster Hall, about which I initially had some reservations, are really rather good. They are certainly not riven with party-political rancour--at least not those that I have attended. They are sensible, thoughtful discussions, and today's was a prime example of that.
Perhaps that is also because the subject of the debate has been the Environmental Audit Committee. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who chairs the Committee, introduced the debate in his characteristically fair-minded manner, and raised several issues, as did all the other members of the Committee. I am in a unusual position. Normally, I am constrained by the fact that I have about an hour's worth of things to say and 10 minutes in which to say them. I am not implying that I intend to continue until 6 o'clock, but I am not constrained in the normal way. I will, for once, try--briefly--to answer the points that have been raised.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his compliment to me at the start of his speech. I am glad that he also referred to the impressive work of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions team. That is entirely fair and I am glad that some of that team were present to hear it. They will also read it--I am glad that he put it on the record.
The Environmental Audit Committee, as much as any other Select Committee of which I have experience, has made an impressive contribution to influencing Government policy. It has had a big impact on us. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) may be unsatisfied because the impact is still not complete but, despite all that that we have done, there are some aims to which we are only sympathetic. We have done a great deal of what the Committee wanted. We were right to do so, and the relationship with the Committee is, on our side, positive.
The Committee was set up as a terrier to bite our ankles. It has carried out that remit effectively. I am sorry that reference was made to starting off with a photocall. I see nothing wrong with that, but, as the hon. Member for Orpington who made the comment realises, those who live in glass houses--or perhaps I should say greenhouses--should not throw stones.
The hon. Gentleman made several points. He referred, first, to the number of meetings of Green Ministers. The greening of government--persuading other Departments to think environmentally--does not depend simply, thank goodness, on Cabinet Sub-Committee meetings. It is a far more subtle and pervasive process relating to issues that cannot be resolved or issues that are still outstanding on which one needs a face-to-face exchange, and that is why meetings are required. Therefore, one cannot judge the Government by the number of meetings; it is by outcomes, as many hon. Members said later.
The hon. Gentleman also stated that there were six official meetings. I believe that that is a good thing. Not just Green Ministers are concerned. If we do not infuse senior officers in each of our Departments with a commitment--they are full-time professionals dealing with these areas--we shall not have the impact that we want. We recently set up a new structure. I had a meeting with very senior officials--grades 2 and 3--from many Departments and we have established a network of senior officials leading on sustainable development in their own Departments. I agree that the outcome must be witnessed and monitored. We will see whether it makes a difference. I believe that that is very important.
Environmental appraisals are key. I would be the first to say that integrated appraisal still needs to be developed. Integrated appraisals that look not just at the environmental impact but at the social and economic impact are important. They are not easy to do, but it is the right concept. However, it is not fully developed. Some Departments are a great deal better than others. As several hon. Members said, there is a clear requirement on Departments to screen new policies for environmental impact. I get at them, if they fail to do so, at the Ministers meeting. I look to the members of the Select Committee to get at them publicly to hold them to account. It is important that they should do so; that is the relationship between us.
We all know that the environmental impact of some policies is negligible but, where it may be significant, Departments must carry out a full environmental appraisal. That is clear Government policy. I underline that. Other than in exceptional circumstances, such as where confidentiality considerations arise, all free-standing environmental appraisals will be published.
The hon. Member for Orpington and several other hon. Members referred to the fuel duty escalator policy. We inherited that policy from the previous Government. We supported it and thought that it was right. We were not in at the start of the policy, and so it would have looked odd to have had an environmental appraisal on a policy already in play that we had inherited from a previous Government, but we looked at the environmental impact and we have repeatedly said in our climate change programme that it is responsible by 2010 for saving 2.5 million to 4.5 million tonnes of carbon a year.
The rise in the international price of oil through the pressure of Oil Producing and Exporting Countries has dramatically pushed up the price at the pump by two or three times more than the fuel duty escalator would ever have done. Other forces are having the same effect. That is why we do not need to rely on that policy, nor will we in the foreseeable future.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the greener fuel challenge. That is not confined to existing infrastructures, as he suggested. The Treasury has said that it will consider appropriate fiscal support measures if industry or voluntary or community groups can present viable practical proposals, and we look forward to receiving those submissions.
On targets, I was surprised by the chiding of the hon. Gentleman. I would not go as far as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), who quoted the figure of 429 and said that thousands have been set across government. I am not aware of those figures, although there are certainly a heck of lot.
The hon. Member for Orpington said that we will not know the precise results of the Government's energy targets for another two years. According to my information, he is correct in stating that the target is a 20 per cent. reduction in consumption over 1990-91 levels by March 2000. As we have already said, nearly 19 per cent. had been achieved by March 1999. I cannot advance the figures beyond that point, but we have clearly almost reached, if not exceeded, the target.
I shall not bore the Committee by going through the whole list of targets for waste. There is a target for the recovery of 40 per cent. of office waste by 2000-01. On travel, all key buildings were to have travel plans in place by March 2000. In fact--this has not received publicity, but it is worthy of it--743 travel plans covering more than 1,100 sites had been introduced by autumn 2000, just after the target date. All Departments were expected to have begun introducing an environmental management system by the end of this Parliament. In fact, nine Departments already have an EMS certified to ISO 1401 and others are developing systems.
There are plenty of targets, and the evidence shows that we have made a great deal of progress in meeting nearly all of them. Even where no cross-Government target is set, that does not mean that Departments are
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) always makes extremely well prepared and relevant points that get me racking my brains, and she always, justifiably, presses me to go that much further. Several hon. Members asked whether, if sustainability is at the heart of government, the sustainable development unit should be located in the Cabinet Office. I understand the argument for mainstreaming it like some of the other cross-cutting units and I am not saying that the Government will not or should not look further at that, but one of the objections of the Committee was precisely the fact that the environmental dimension of sustainable development tends to be squeezed out. We remain dominated by economics and to some extent increasingly by social targets, but the environment is a bit marginalised. For that reason, there is some benefit in retaining it in a big, powerful Department that has the capacity to keep pressing. However, I hear the argument and understand the reasons behind it.
On the full review of the parliamentary estate, my hon. Friend mentioned heating in particular. I have talked about energy. Up to now, we have an on-going 1 per cent. improvement target. The Buying Agency's watermark project has the potential drastically to reduce the current £600 million public sector water and sewerage bill. I have mentioned the large number of existing travel plans. Eight Departments have also moved to paying single motor mileage rates, irrespective of engine capacity, to discourage the use of large vehicles. In other words, that assessment across the parliamentary estate is--this always sounds bad in Whitehall--under review. It is being looked at year on year and reported annually in the Green Ministers' report.
My hon. Friend also mentioned procurement and in particular the question of timber. That is, of course, a vital part of the Government's environmental impact--the footprint--and we have strengthened our efforts to ensure that the timber that we buy is from sustainable and legally logged sources. My hon. Friend correctly referred to my statement earlier last year about that. As she said, Departments are no longer encouraged to buy sustainable timber--they are now required to do so and can be held to that if there is any evidence that they have not done so. I should want an explanation as, I hope, would this Committee.
One learns in government, that many targets prove to be much more difficult to deliver. For example, the agreement made at Okinawa on timber is a complex issue involving establishment of the chain of custody and deciding which independent verification schemes are appropriate--there are several options at present.
Ms Walley : May I press my right hon. Friend a little further on that point? Is he satisfied that there is no inconsistency with the way in which he is now progressing on that policy in respect of European directives and Treasury guidance that predetermines the procurement process? If not, will he provide further references so that the Committee can investigate further and keep pressing?
Mr. Meacher : I understand the point made by my hon. Friend. Of course, when I refer to the sustainable policies that DETR is pursuing, these apply across the Government as a whole. They have to be sanctioned by the Treasury. It is not the case that the Treasury is concerned only with value for money and that dear old DETR goes out on a limb looking at sustainability. We do not get an agreement to a policy unless the Treasury accepts it. In practice, there is no conflict. The Treasury has accepted that, and we wish to see it fully carried through.
My hon. Friend referred, as did one or two other hon. Members, to depleted uranium. I mention that with some trepidation. If I say that it is a controversial issue that has blown up recently, that is perhaps not the right metaphor. It has, of course, only just become an issue. The spread of radioactive dust around tanks that have been destroyed is being looked at carefully and lessons will no doubt be drawn from that. A colleague on the Environment Council, Peka Havisto, who is the Finnish Minister, visited Kosovo shortly after the end of the conflict--I believe that he has now returned there--and produced a report on precisely that issue. That is undoubtedly a good example of the need for the long-term environmental consequences to be taken fully into account.
On global warming, I hope that I can satisfy my hon. Friend that we have put in place delivery mechanisms--that is what the climate change programme is all about. Each delivery mechanism is quantified and detailed. I understand the arguments relating to VAT on brownfield developments, given our policy of 60 per cent. build on brownfield. I take note of them, and so will my colleagues in the Treasury. However, that is of course a matter for them.
I shall abstain from the cross-party bickering that took place a little earlier--at one point, I thought that the election had already begun in the south of England--but I shall deal with the matters to which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred. I have already answered his point about targets, but he is right to say that there are an awful lot of them. We have set ourselves specific, quantifiable objectives and time scales within which to achieve those targets, even though
Mr. Meacher : There certainly is prioritisation. In terms of environmental impact, we are fundamentally concerned about the key issues of climate change, CO2 energy efficiency, waste management, water conservation and the effect on travel, but there is a whole range of other issues. We inherited from the previous Government 150 environmental targets, and although I do not complain about that, it is important to establish headline indicators, because they prioritise the attention of the nation. The intention is to enable people to understand, albeit in a fairly limited way, whether the nation is going in the right direction in environmental terms.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned sustainable energy and renewables. That is unquestionably a major priority, but I would argue that the policies and targets are in place. Electricity suppliers will be obliged to provide at least 10 per cent. of their output from renewable sources by 2010. It is of course true that we need significantly to exceed the 10 per cent. figure by 2010, if not before.
We have also put in place the necessary mechanisms. In respect of industrial energy efficiency, there are powerful drivers: the climate change levy, and exemption from it for renewables and good quality combined heat and power. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a figure of 2 per cent., although I believe that it is actually 2.6 per cent. It is certainly true that there is a long way to go, but those drivers are being put in place. In terms of the green fuels challenge, there will be major increases in onshore and offshore wind, biomass, biofuels and biodiesel.
I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments on incineration. As a Minister, one always learns new things in debates such as this. I thought that I knew the House reasonably well, but I did not know that paper from this place is incinerated. I find that rather alarming. All that I can say is that, if the authorities in the House use Westminster council, I understand that it does incinerate. I shall speak to them in the light of the debate because I think that there are better ways of handling the matter. It is between the parliamentary body corporate and the local council, but I understand that Departments in Whitehall use alternative contractors for waste. Nevertheless, I shall look into it further.
On the question of composting, the last point raised by the hon. Gentleman, we certainly can and should increase composting in local authority recycling re-use recovery. However, we have to agree with the European Union what constitutes an adequate and proper composting standard. Something like 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes a year is probably composted by private households, but that does not count because it is not taken to a public place.
On the issue of appraisals being made known at an earlier stage, my hon. Friend referred to paragraph 34 in the Government's response. As he correctly stated, we say that it is not possible for the sustainable development unit to provide this information. It is standard practice that details of Cabinet Committee meetings, including the issues that they discuss, should not be disclosed. That has always been the tradition of government, but he did not say--it is an important point--that the Committee is free to ask for an explanation of the handling of any policy that it selects. The sustainable development unit will be notifying Departments where it believes that new policies may have significant environmental implications. The last thing that I want to do is to block access to these appraisals--it is a question of the manner in which they are obtained. We do not believe that it can be automatic, but if they are requested, they will be made available.
A number of hon. Members raised an interesting point made in the Committee with regard to an environmental auditor-general being established within the NAO, mirroring the arrangements for performance audit of public spending. The Government received the Committee's report only last week, and there are widespread implications that must considered. I cannot therefore give an answer today. I have a great deal of sympathy with the suggestion and understand the reasons behind it. We will examine it closely and give a response over the next weeks.
On renewable energy, my hon. Friend suggested that the Government could meet its 10 per cent. target by Government procurement alone, getting all its electricity from renewable sources. Theoretically, that is a nice idea, but Departments would more than consume the entire present supply of renewable energy if we bought nothing but renewable energy immediately. The only practical way is to plan the move to a cross-government target for stepped purchase. We would certainly signal that intention to the suppliers, and Green Ministers would want to make that move this year. We shall report further on that. We shall play our part, but it would be unwise, and probably impractical, to do so ourselves.
A question was raised about Green Ministers and the leadership issue. I understand that concern. There is a feeling that Green Ministers are fine, but it is not a Cabinet body, they are not Cabinet Ministers, nor do they have thrust and punch in government. As I have said, Green Ministers report twice a year to ENV, the Cabinet Committee on the Environment, which is intended to provide strategic oversight of the whole process. The idea of Green Ministers, which again we inherited from the previous Government, has been revitalised under the Government and made more transparent through annual reports that go into considerable detail. We have established a network of senior officials from each Department, from which I expect valuable results.
My hon. Friend mentioned wider environmental monitoring. First, as he said, associated bodies--non-departmental public bodies--are required to report on their environmental performance, and the Cabinet Office's guidance for NDPBs has recently been amended to require just that. Of course it applies to other bodies and to companies, not just to Government. We are putting a great deal of pressure on companies to increase their reporting on priority environmental targets. That would apply to something like Ilisu dam, which I do not want to discuss in more detail today. Those who are making an application would be expected to produce an environmental impact statement, which would be carefully examined. It would also apply to local authorities. Waste strategy, water use, building regulations and energy efficiency are all covered by a range of statutory regulation. The Government are also looking to bodies outside government to respond in the same way.
I realise that time is moving on. I want to respond briefly to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) and thank her for all the effort that she so regularly makes in this area. She asked for the sustainable development unit to scan the horizon with regard to upcoming policies. As I have said, all Departments should screen their policies in an environmental impact statement. They are already required to do so. I repeat that I look for assistance not just of DETR Ministers but other Ministers who equally have these environmental responsibilities. All Budget proposals should have an environmental impact statement, which should apply to all non-environmental policies, as long as there is a significant environmental impact. It would be perverse and bizarre to impose it automatically in every case.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised several points in a fair-minded way. I think that I have responded to his point about the debate in the main Chamber. At the end of his remarks, he said that he wanted a more positive response on the green tax commission. I realise that that again is a serious and thoughtful proposal, which the Government need to think about further. The Chancellor's shift to a pre-Budget report goes some way in that direction. By announcing his intentions for the Budget several months ahead, he allows consideration and debate of not only the environmental impact, but of the financial and other economic aspects. I accept that the green tax commission goes further and I take on board the request to consider that.
I should respond to something that is often said about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I am continually embarrassed to receive plaudits for my environmental commitment, as I am sure are all members of the Committee, but the Prime Minister is not included. That is unfair. It is not true that he has made only one speech on the matter. He made a major speech at the Rio plus five conference, and many people said that it was the best speech of the conference, but that is another matter. He made a comprehensive speech a couple of months ago and he may make other speeches in the near future. He is the only head of state who has announced that he will attend Rio plus 10. The point is not whether he is doing something environmental or attending an environmental photocall, however desirable that may be, but that he heads a Government who are committed to an environmental agenda, which includes setting up ENV, the Environmental Audit Committee and the sustainable development commission, which has a chairman who immediately criticised him. The Prime Minister is ultimately responsible for those policies, and if I have done anything valuable in this area, it is because I have had support from not only the Deputy Prime Minister but the Prime Minister, and it is fair to recognise that.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham wanted a full list of environmental appraisals and auditable targets. I have responded to that and given a commitment. I want the Committee to have the environmental appraisals that it seeks and I shall do my best to ensure that, if the Committee wants them, it shall have them. Auditable targets exist aplenty, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington recognised.
We have said that 75 per cent. of the top FTSE companies should have at least one department with an audited environmental management system, but what about the Government? We require the same of ourselves. Nine Departments have EMSs accredited to the international standard ISO 14,001 and nine others are actively seeking that benchmark. To help Departments, we have established an EMS practitioners group to share expertise. We have held two major seminars with several hundred people present on both occasions. We have produced a guide. We have established a call-off contract which allows Departments pre-arranged consultancy advice on implementing EMSs. We are vigorously suggesting to industry measures that we are trying to implement in government.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that the Budget environmental appraisal was confined to a couple of paragraphs, but perhaps I misunderstood him. That was the case originally, but perhaps he has not read the latest Red Book, which includes a significant section on environmental impact.
The hon. Gentleman made the fair point that the comprehensive spending review provides an opportunity to establish integrated, value-for-public-expenditure environmental objectives, but that is exactly the purpose of public service agreements. They include environmental targets and are not concerned just with value for money.
I apologise for the length of my comments. I thank the Committee for its admirable work and the hon. Member for Orpington, who chairs it and is doing an excellent job. I hope that he will continue to do so long after the event that may be coming and I look forward to working closely with the Committee.