Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
TUESDAY 18 APRIL 2000
60. I hope that you can help me with a question
which has bothered me since I have been on this Committee, which
is a very short period of time, and bothered me before then as
a former green minister; which body, if not this body or something
like this body, has the responsibility to look at what counts?
We can get easily buried in a plethora of information about trying
to measure small steps upon this distant desirable goal, and whilst
we are looking at all that we may be missing the key policy decisions
which really deliver larger environmental goals. In fact you can
achieve a whole range of small environmental steps forward whilst
taking some huge environmental steps back and pat yourself on
the back for all these wonderful small achievements whilst you
have missed the big picture. Who looks for the big picture?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) In my mind there should be two
bodies, the Cabinet Committee should be looking at the bigpicture
and this Committee, in terms of Parliament, should be looking
at the big picture. If there is no leadership and commitment in
Parliament for this Committee and commitment in Government for
the Cabinet Committee, then the whole thing is sunk. In terms
of dealing with the unbelievable amount of information, to give
you an idea I think there were 28 strategic reports submitted
in Canada. The Sustainable Development Commissioner looked at
six in detail. Similarly they looked at two departments in detail
for its last report. So getting all this detail does not necessarily
improve the review process. You are very limited by your time
and all these other things.
(Ms Hollingsworth) In Canada the Commissioner did
the kind of general overview of all the strategies as a kind of
checklist and then focused on six based on looking at which of
the departments have the greatest impact on the environment and
looking at what they do. He is limited because he can only report
annually, so that is going to impact; whereas an auditor generally
should not have any limits on when they can report, because that
obviously affects the topicality of the reports and can impact
indirectly on independence. So if you had an Environmental Commissioner
who can report as and when, then that would feed in more information
to you rather than being so limited.
61. Does anyone look academically or otherwise
at what the impact of having various structures like environmental
audit committees and Commissioners and so on is upon the individual
impact upon the environment within that country? Is that not the
(Ms Ross-Robertson) I tried to make a judgment in
my paper on the influence of this Committee and you cannot measure
influence given the number of other factors influencing Government.
I can give some indications of your influence in terms of statements
from the Government itself. Recommendations that have been accepted
or placed under review, exposure in the House, these things are
indications, but there is no way of actually measuring it.
(Ms Hollingsworth) I think where you are going to
get the greatest impact is where what is going on in Government
and what Government wants to happen coincides with what Parliament
wants to happen or you want to happen. So your democratic accountability
is coinciding with the managerial goals and that is why you need
a strong leadership within Government as well. This is very difficult,
it is not the sort of thing that this Committee can do, but I
think that that is essential for the system to be successful,
you have to all pull in the same direction and that leadership
has to come from within Government as well.
62. Is it this Committee's responsibility to
show if it is not?
(Ms Hollingsworth) Yes.
63. I want to confirm what you are saying. The
two of you are saying that in effect there should be an environmental
auditor, we also know there is a Sustainable Development Commission.
Both of these could usefully report to this Committee. Both of
these things will be operating in this area but doing slightly
different things, the Commission on strategic things across Government,
and the Environmental Auditor doing more limited specific things,
but both would report to this Committee?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes. I think the only difference
between the two of us is that I am not entirely convinced that
you need a specialist environmental auditor.
64. As opposed to the C&AG doing it and
having an enlarged 4th E, that is the difference between you?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) That is the difference.
Chairman: That is absolutely clear.
65. Can I move us back to the United Kingdom?
I think Andrea mentioned Wiring Up, the Cabinet Office
Report, which addresses all of the promises of effective work
on cross-cutting issues, and there is of course the chapter on
the role of public audits. Can I just quote a little bit of that?
I think the public auditors are quite sympathetic to the special
demands of auditing or the cross-cutting issues, provided "there
is a clear framework of government and appropriate accountability
and reporting arrangements." The question that I would like
to ask you is, do you actually think that these have been put
in place for progress towards sustainable development?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) No. The reporting requirements
are lacking. I think everyone is in agreement in that respect.
The question is, how do we fix the reporting requirements? In
terms of the accountability, again, with this Committee, we should
have that accountability in terms of a Parliamentary accountability
if the auditor, or whoever did the environmental audits, came
and reported to this Committee as well as reporting to the PAC,
because we are dealing with wiring it up. It is going to affect
a number of different cross-cutting issues; social inclusion,
exclusion etc. I am conscious that as we say we want more environmental
appraisals for different things by departments, that is one of
however many other appraisals they have to do. We have somehow
to make it more integrated, and more integrated reporting and
appraisals may be two ways of doing that.
66. Can I ask you about the information and
the appraisals that are already available? Would you like to comment
on their adequacy or otherwise?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) Again, I am just quoting yourselves
saying they are not. Similarly there has to be an easier way of
getting at the material. First of all, you have to know that the
appraisal exists and then you have to actually get hold of it.
There has to be some sort of mechanism which says, "Here
are all of the appraisals that have been done. Here are the ones
that had environmental appraisals done." We do not want to
just have the environmental appraisals, we want to have the ones
that did not have an environmental component as well, then you
can actually decide which ones you actually want to see and where
you think there is a problem.
(Ms Hollingsworth) That is my concern with the appraisals.
They should be published. I do not see any reason why they should
not be publicly available.
67. If you have had the opportunity to look
at the departmental reports, particularly the DETR one or the
first annual report from the Green Ministers Committee, what do
you feel about the quality of those?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) I have seen it, yes. I thought
it was definitely a step forward. I thought it was actually quite
good in that respect. It was lacking in specificity. It is wonderful
to say great things like, "You need to have some means of
measuring progress", and, "It is measuring progress
that we are all learning", and they are exactly the same
comments that are made in the Canadian Sustainable Development
Commissioner's Annual Report. We do not have measurable targets
or measurable means of assessing progress. The Canadians are that
little step beyond, saying, "Energy efficiency; how can we
show that this department has saved so much money?" The department
wants to do this but they do not have any mechanism for doing
it. These are the sort of problems that we are also going to run
into as the process evolves.
(Ms Hollingsworth) There is also a lack of consistency
across government. You get different things from different departments,
which is obviously problematic. There needs to be some proper
statutory requirements on what they should be reporting and what
format that should take to enable proper scrutiny to go on. We
do not want to be leaving it up to the individual departments
to determine how they report.
68. Would you stick your head above the parapets
and pull out any one particular report, appraisal or document
that you feel you could commend as good practice?
(Ms Hollingsworth) I have not got enough experience
of having looked at them in detail.
69. Or maybe a Canadian one?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) In terms of an overall policy
in making some progress, I think a Better Quality of Life
was definitely a move forward compared to its predecessor, because
it does deal with all aspects of sustainable development. That
is probably the main point, but, obviously, if there is a lot
of fluff and not much meat we have got to get measurable targets.
That particular white paper however does what it is supposed to
do. It is the later pieces, in terms of getting indicators, etc
that hopefully will add the necessary detail.
70. Just to defend the Government, for a moment,
I am sure it would say that it produces quite a lot of material
in one form or another. It produces the departmental agri-reports,
it produces the Green Minister's report, it produces ad hoc papers
associated with policy statements, it produces a Budget Report
with its timetable, and there are the headline indicators which
it will report on. So there is quite a lot.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes.
71. How would that compare, for example, with
what is produced in Canada?
(Ms Hollingsworth) Probably the primary difference,
as far as I can see, is that there is a lot of cross-governmental
kind of documents, perhaps, as opposed to particular departments.
When you look at the individual departments they are all doing
different things, so some of them will have a specific environmental
annual report, or some of them have environmental sections within
their general annual report. That is the main difference, I think,
in Canada, in that each of the departments have produced a sustainable
development strategy and annual reports which follow those things
72. So, once again, we come back to the same
thing, which you have emphasised throughout and which we emphasise
as well, namely, the lack of environmental appraisal policy within
the individual departments and, also, the lack of statutory responsibility
to actually do that properly and thoroughly. That is a big gap.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) And consistency.
Again, this is the problem in Canada as well, having consistent,
readable, measurable reporting.
73. So not only do it, but do it in a standardised,
accessible way and an auditable way.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes.
74. Of course, as we have agreed, the absence
of this is what has made the work of this Committee more difficult,
if not impossible, in this area.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) I would argue that, actually,
the absence of this information has meant you have moved on to
different things and that this has been quite advantageous.
Chairman: So would I. I thoroughly agree
75. I think it was Ms Hollingsworth who commented
that it was unlikely that any government would place environmental
accounting on a par with financial accounting for the foreseeable
future. What do you think is realistic to do?
(Ms Hollingsworth) I think having the accountability
mechanisms put in placefor example, having an auditor who
reports to his departmentwill start to increase the profile
of sustainable development, which might then start to filter through.
If you can get people on board at the DETRwhich has possibly
not got the power that the Treasury has in governmentyou
need to start somewhere, basically, and if the mechanisms are
in place that will help filter down and change attitudes. I think,
though, the financial side is always going to be, I would imagine,
the prime concern.
76. Do you think that there are any lessons
being learned from the private sector in terms of the increased
environmental reporting and the degree of auditing starting to
creep in, perhaps?
(Ms Hollingsworth) I think in the private sector environmental
auditing tends to refer to environmental management systems, as
I said, which I think is just one aspect. I was looking at the
DETR guidance in terms of environmental reporting, which is published
for companies, and I think that looks very useful. I would say
if they are going to recommend standards for the private sector
then why not, equally, apply it to the public sector. Usually,
in the public sector, you have much higher standards of reporting.
That is why we have VFM requirements in the public sector as a
statutory requirement but not in the private sector, so it seems
strange to have environmental reporting in the private sector
but not, also, in the public sector. I think that guidance looks
77. So you would agree with our criticism, and
that unless the private sector gets its act together on environmental
reporting then various mandatory requirements may be passed in
terms of putting them in their annual report and performing some
auditing role on them. Yet we do not have that willingness in
practice. We have lots of warm words and lots of reports and consultations
about it, but in practice it is not happening in the public sector
to nearly the degree we want. It should be seamless between the
public and private sectors.
(Ms Hollingsworth) Exactly. Generally, in terms of
the way that functions are carried out these days, there is so
much more relation between the private sector and the public sector.
That would fit in with the way the Government has done that.
78. Going back to the question of auditing,
there is a school of thought that says that one of the problems
with government is auditing. It makes civil servants desperately
risk-averse because they have always known there is this ghastly
National Audit Office looking over their shoulder, and if there
is the slightest mistake they are up in front of the television
cameras and embarrassed by what happens. Not only that, but if
you have a cross-government audit you get more paperwork and more
burdensome tasks to do. The whole thing can actually be counter-productive.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) That is my real worry. I went
to a conference on equal opportunities the other day where they
were talking about mainstreaming, and all I could think was "This
sounds very familiar. This is yet another appraisal people are
going through, another hoop, and all this paper is being generated".
There has to be a way out, and the way out is sustainable development,
because sustainable development encompasses all these things.
It encompasses equal opportunities, open government and economic
issues. If we do this properly there has to be some mechanism
we can create that will encompass all these things. Yes, it means
that we have to start trading off some of them, but that is what
appraisals are about, it is about trade-offs, it is about looking
at all the impacts, all the influences that a particular policy
is going to have on a variety of issues, and then picking the
best option overall. So, if you do ten appraisals you should come
up with the same solution, but surely we can come up with one
appraisal that does all that. But that is a dream world, maybe.
79. You provoke me by mentioning this twice
now. I listened to you earlier and now, again. This concept that
sustainability incorporates equal opportunities, and that government
incorporates social sustainability, economic sustainability, etc.
Is there not a danger that the definition becomes so broad as
to be meaningless?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) The definition is probably meaningless.
I think if we start getting into definitional problems of sustainable
development you get bogged down. What we ought to be moving towards
is more sustainable development. What is more sustainable? Right
now what we are at is unsustainable. How do we become more sustainable?
If we look at these precise definitions, I think we run into difficulty.
It is very difficult to pin sustainable development down, and
that is the beauty of itthat a lot of different ideologies
can grab hold of it, and move towards a kind of goal.
Chairman: You would not say it was a