Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160
THURSDAY 8 JUNE 2000
160. They are still at base camp?
(Mr Rintoul) Yes; many of them are still at base camp,
one or two maybe have got up to South Col, but they are very exceptional
and they have still got a long way to go. I think the thing that
I would say is, it is potential trends. To me, it is completely
immaterial whether the sort of report we are talking about is
consolidated in their annual report or they do a stand-alone environmental
report; to me, that is immaterial, the important thing is they
report and they disclose. I think what you will see is, on the
back of, or following on behind, a number of the departmental
and associate bodies have put their neck above the parapet, for
good reasons, you will see more Departments following on, and
I think they will cut their teeth on green operations, they will
cut their teeth in terms of disclosure and reporting, they will
be much more happy about it on the operational side. And I think
what you will do is, so there is a cycle of confidence and competence
and the need to be built around that side of things, which is
very much what Tom was referring to, but the step change will
come where that competence and confidence go over then into the
sustainable development reporting, which is really the end point.
Because most Departments are like an iceberg, above the water-line
all the obvious impacts are what people are reporting now, the
operational, direct impacts are only sort of maybe one-eighth
of the story, seven-eighths of it is sitting below the water-line
and it is all the policy stuff, the impact on society more generally.
I think that is the sort of trend that, I would say, I would not
necessarily be able to see, but may be able to see the first start
of that and see where it would go. So more Departments reporting,
whether it is in stand-alone reports or consolidated into their
annual reports; cutting their teeth, first of all, on direct impacts
and operational impacts; and moving on then, from the confidence
that gives, into sustainability more generally.
(Ms MacGillivray) I think the exception may be new
Departments: devolved government, the RDAs, regional government,
starting with a blank sheet, they are thinking sustainability,
and we are currently helping quite a number put together sustainability
strategies, look at the sustainability of their operations, and
so on, and I think really they are in a position to be the standard-bearers,
if you like, for these kinds of initiatives.
(Dr Woollard) One of the things that I think offers
the Government a huge opportunity is what you have on your environmental
website, I think. And one specific example that I think is a really
good case in point is the BP Amoco `Ask Sir John', to respond
to a question a day, anyone can pose him a question a day, and
so he gets thousands of e-mails, and presumably he has got a group
of people who sieve all these e-mails. Then he will take one of
those questions, which can be really quite offensive, which can
say, "BP Amoco is a horrendous company and it employs children
in its supply chain," and he will then write anything from
a paragraph to a page, and he has offered to do this for a hundred
days, and you might think that is not the right use of the Chairman's
time, but actually what they feel is it is a huge early warning
system for them. They say, if they are going to China, they suddenly
get hundreds of e-mails all about China, "What is BP Amoco
doing in China?", or Alaska, and so it is actually a great
way of opening dialogue with their stakeholders and finding out
what their stakeholders want from them, on what topic, and it
really helps environmentally for them to know what we should report
on. I would have thought, even if Government Departments cannot
produce too much in the way of very hard, quantitative, technical,
performance data, or some of them can, but what they could do
is certainly go down the sort of open, transparent, sort of dialogue
path and actually ask, "What sort of information do you people
who are on the Internet want to know about the DETR?", and
where you will only be going for certain positions, those people
who log on, but you will still get some sort of feedback mechanism.
161. It sounds better than a focus group anyway.
(Mr Adams) My last point of view would just be really,
I think, I agree with my colleagues on my right, but, in a sense,
if the environment is important enough that you think Government
Departments ought to report on it then I think you should try
to avoid the completely voluntary route which has been followed
up till now, because you will be having this discussion again
in two years' time, or three years' time; and actually imposing
lots of incentives, inventing, thinking up thousands of incentives
to get people to report, is pain, and you will be back here. Just
take a short cut to the core of the matter and say, "If it's
important then we should do it." Not immediately. All the
words of wisdom here about the learning curves are completely
valid, but five years down the line; this is what resource accounting
was about, it did not come in in a year flat, sort of thing, it
was a very staged approach. But I think definitely do not go naming
and shaming again, it has been with us too long.
162. The problem is, what is the alternative;
the Government has no competition, there is only one Government?
BP has competition, Shell, they are competing with each other?
(Dr Woollard) I think it can work in reverse. I have
one company that I spoke to about reporting, we talked about being
named and shamed, and they said, "Doesn't matter; second
time it's happened, don't care."
163. Could I ask you to give some advice to
this Committee. We are the Environmental Audit Committee, as you
know, and we have two parts to our remit, one is to look at the
policies of Government and see the public effect there, take into
account environmental considerations, or sustainable development
considerations as well, and the other is to audit the Government
against the targets which they set themselves. And one reason
we are having this particular inquiry is because we feel they
are not setting themselves sufficient targets, and even if they
did we would not have enough resources to audit them properly.
Now, if you look at what we could do, we could go down several
paths, in terms of enlarging our resources for audit, we could
ask the National Audit Office to do it, you could set up an Environmental
Commissioning Department, separate from the National Audit Office,
as they have done in Canada, we went to see them for that reason,
you could ask the Audit Commission to do it, you could ask private
consultants to do it.
(Mr Adams) You have internal audit as well, in all
164. There are various ways we could do this.
Have you any thoughts how we, as a Committee, might best add to
our resources for doing our job, which is parliamentary scrutiny
of what the Government is doing?
(Mr Adams) I feel that it is difficult to talk about
verification, and those types of things, before you have got some
idea of what it is you want to verify; it is rather like putting
the cart before the horse. Really, I think, you need to
165. What we need to verify is how far they
are meeting their targets; it does not matter how good or bad
their targets are, how they are meeting their targets, like on
renewable energy, for example?
(Mr Adams) Yes, but is that independent of departmental
166. No; it embraces both really.
(Mr Rintoul) I agree with what Roger was saying, we
need to know how big the cake is before we decide how to bake
it and what ingredients you need and how they cut it up. But,
if one moved to more regular and routine reporting, whether it
is annually or whatever, the indexed performance specifically
within Government now, strictly within Government, against agreed
cross-Government targets and maybe some global departmental targets,
and so on and so forth, and there was a requirement on the publishing
Department to have some level of verification on that report,
and there might be appropriate models of verification that could
be chosen by the Department, whether they went externally for
third party independent, whether they use the NAO, or whatever,
the information that would then come into this organisation, into
the Audit Committee, would always have a level of verification
and would have been audited in some way, shape or form. What you
could then consider doing is not re-auditing it, but, periodically,
in the same way as you have Departments in, to answer queries,
is looking in detail at their practices and processes, for maybe
one or two Departments a year. What you can also do, and this
is where it becomes interesting with the potential Sustainable
Development Commission, and so on and so forth, is have panels
like this to talk to you about, "This is our raft of reports
this year, this is all that has come in; go away and read them
and let's have a debate about, as practitioners in this field,
what it tells you, what these things say to you," to inform
you and advise you and commit you for the wider debate. So it
may not be as simple as who does the audit, there may be other
ways of getting into that, to improve the level of assurance that
you have, as a Committee, about what is going on and whether the
report is honest, truthful and decent.
(Ms MacGillivray) I think you need to actually start
getting people to generate some information, before you have anything
to audit, really. We did a study for the European Environment
Agency, looking at the progress in integration, or mainstreaming
environment into different sectors, and ended up falling back
on asking questions, across Europe, as to whether a Department
has an environmental management system, whether it has any sort
of environmental target, rather than how it is actually performing
against it; because everybody is at such an early stage, really.
(Dr Woollard) Maybe it is self-interest speaking here,
but I know, in private sector companies, if they have something
that is serious enough, that they have had an incident or an issue,
they will often ask a consultancy to go and really audit them
thoroughly, and go to a third party. In the ERM we have 35 full-time
auditors who do auditing every day of the week, and they have
got to audit something like 120 sites in the next three weeks,
and they do it, they will do it, and I am sure at Aspinwall, and
lots of consultancies have those relatively large, full-time,
professional auditors, who have audited maybe 200, 300 sites each.
And if you want a very fast-track, let us not have discussion
groups, and you can actually do it all in a very quick space of
time and go out to
167. That is all the private sector, is it not,
all that capacity is in the private sector?
(Dr Woollard) Yes.
168. There is none of that in the public sector?
(Dr Woollard) No; that is usually companies either
doing mergers and acquisitions, or a company that just has an
issue, and an issue that it thinks is really serious enough that
they will say, "Within two months, you will go to all of
our sites and you will do an audit of every single site and you
will report within two months; and we wont have any sort of debate,
what we are trusting in is the professionalism of the auditors
and what they're going to say, and we're going to accept the findings."
That is maybe too radical a suggestion
169. No, it is not.
(Dr Woollard) But it is fast, it is focused, you might
not like the results, I am sorry if I am selling consultancy,
but that is what we are there for.
(Mr Rintoul) I think it is an option to be considered.
There are very few organisations out there, and I do not know
the structure and the resource of the National Audit Office in
any intimate detail, that have the sorts of resource level that
Tom was talking about, with the auditing skill-set associated
with the environmental literacy. What we are talking about here
is people who are either environmental or safety or sustainability
auditors in some appropriate way, shape or form, you might find
30 auditors somewhere else, but have they got the skill-set, other
than a basic audit process, to do it. So, if somewhere you wanted
to go for a big bang, I think, for the foreseeable future, you
would have to look outside the public service to bring in the
resources; you would have to, you would have to.
Chairman: Thank you all very much indeed.
As you can see, that was extremely relevant and very, very interesting,
and I think we have thrown up quite a lot of ideas. I am grateful
to all four of you. Thank you very much indeed.