Select Committee on Environmental Audit First Report



32. Assessing the impact of a select committee is subject to some difficulties as previous exercises have shown. The links between 'cause' (a committee recommendation) and 'effect' (a government initiative or action) are rarely clear.[53] It is in the nature of select committee work (based as it is on evidence gathered from a range of independent witnesses and of course government itself) that few recommendations can be distinctively stamped "Made in Parliament".[54] Nevertheless, in the spirit of the Liaison Committee's current agenda, we have looked at our own effectiveness and impact over the last three years. We were assisted in this effort by the evidence of Ms Andrea Ross-Robertson, University of Dundee, and Ms Kathryn Hollingsworth, Cardiff Law School who had both, independently, undertaken studies of the EAC's role, remit and work and subsequently discussed this work with us in oral evidence.[55]

Some indicators

33. We selected indicators of impact as follows:

These have drawbacks[56] but we note that similar measures were settled upon by Ms Ross-Robertson in her analysis of the influence of the Committee.[57]

Government's formal responses to recommendations

34. The highlights of the Government's replies to our recommendations are set out below. The Government's response to our work on greening government is examined in more detail in Annex C.



Government statements on the EAC

35. The Government has made reference to the EAC in a number of texts. Ms Ross-Robertson believed that at least some credence could be lent to Government's own rhetoric about the Committee's work.[59] A traditional government line on select committee scrutiny has been that simply the existence of a select committee, with the power and penchant to call in ministers and officials to account for policy and performance, concentrates the minds of ministers and officials.[60] We recognise that the Government would be hard pressed not to make supportive noises about an institution which appeared in its general election manifesto. However, we regard the following references to be indicative both of initial support from the administration and subsequent influence flowing from the Committee's work.

    —  DETR guidance to Regional Development Agencies (RDAs): "The RDA will be expected to co-operate fully with the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which is charged with scrutinising the extent to which the policies and programmes of Government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development. The RDA will also be expected to act in accordance with all of the Committee's recommendations as accepted by the Government";[61]

    —  Treasury guidance to departments Spending Review 2000: "All departments make some contribution to sustainable development and should think about how this can be enhanced ... The Environmental Audit Committee will be closely watching the outcome of the review in terms of both resource allocation and departments' aims, objectives and targets ... Departments should be in a position to defend the outcome of the Spending Review as consistent with sustainable development, and overall the Government should be able to show that the resources announced in this Review will deliver real benefits across all three of the pillars of sustainable development: the environment, the economy and social progress. In the light of Green Ministers' collective responsibility to promote the integration of sustainable development across Government, departments should involve their Green Ministers fully in the preparation and conduct of the Review. Further advice on sustainable development issues can be obtained from DETR's Sustainable Development Unit, who can also refer departments to sources of expertise on environmental considerations."[62]

    —  the Sustainable Development Strategy: "Following a commitment in the 1997 Labour Party Manifesto, the House of Commons established an Environmental Audit Committee...The Government particularly welcomes the Committee's emerging practice of returning to topics to assess progress, and to identify where weaknesses still exist."[63]

    —  first annual Green Ministers Report: "The original idea for a published report came from the Environmental Audit Committee...Like so many of the recommendations from the EAC, it seemed to Government to offer a positive and practical way to take forward our work on Greening Government."[64]

    —  Budget 1999: "The establishment of the Environmental Audit Committee...has helped reinforce the Government's commitment to environmental appraisal."[65]

    —  Pre-Budget Report 1999: "The Government welcomes the role of the Environmental Audit Committee in scrutinising the contribution that government departments make to environmental protection. The EAC's work plays an important part in reinforcing the Government's commitment to environmental appraisal."[66]

    —  Budget 2000: "The Government is committed to appraising the environmental impact of all Budget measures and has refined its appraisal techniques in the light of suggestions from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) and others."[67]

    —  Government response to the EAC's inquiry into the 2000 Budget: "Contributions from the Environmental Audit Committee have played an invaluable role in taking forward the Government's environmental tax agenda, and will continue to do so."[68]

    —  Pre-Budget Report, 2000: "The Government is committed to appraising the environmental impact of all proposed Budget measures and evaluating them once they are introduced. The Government has refined its appraisal tables in the light of suggestions from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) and others."[69]

36. However, there were also disappointments in this area. In the Cabinet Office (Performance Innovation Unit) report on cross-cutting working, Wiring it up, sustainable development is mentioned only once (as an example not a case study) and, despite a firm recommendation to encourage Parliament to set up more cross-cutting committees, it is perhaps ironic that EAC does not merit even a single mention.[70] This disappointment is not mere pique on our part but evidence that the synergy between the modernising government agenda (a central initiative of the Cabinet Office and of No. 10) and sustainable development has not been fully recognised.

37. One further frustration was over the procedure by which select committee reports are noted as 'relevant' to particular debates in the House on the Order Paper. These 'tags' are in the gift of the Government[71] with agreement often a formality. In view of this—and especially the statements quoted above from budget and pre-budget documents—we were surprised that the Chancellor declined leave for a reference to our Report on his 1999 pre-budget report to appear on the Order Paper for the 2000 budget debate.[72]


38. Select committees formally exist to report to the House on specific matters. A reasonable measure of impact might therefore be to gauge the extent to which a committee's work has informed the House—in debate or in parliamentary questions.

39. EAC Reports have been the main subject of a debate in the House on two occasions. EAC Reports have been "tagged" on the Order Paper as relevant to a debate in the House on four occasions including both the 1998 and 1999 Budget debates (but see above). The EAC has been prayed in aid by Members other than its own 11 times in Commons debates and four times in the House of Lords. On the same basis there have been six written questions asked with specific reference to the Committee in the Commons and three in the House of Lords.

40. One difficulty with this measure is that of course in debate, or in parliamentary questions, Members would not necessarily refer to the specific committee whose report or evidence informed, inspired or otherwise assisted their contribution. More sophisticated approaches would be either to track references to specific issues on which the Committee had published distinctive recommendations and relate these to the timing of our publications; or to conduct a 'consumer survey'. These are exercises which are beyond the resources available to us at this time.

The wider policy community

41. There are a number of advisory bodies in the environment and sustainable development policy area. There has been useful cross-fertilisation between the work and reports of these organisations and our own efforts. This has been particularly true of the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.[73]

42. From a little further afield we noted that New Zealand's Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment quoted extensively from the EAC's 1999 report on energy efficiency in his recent report on society, energy and sustainability—Getting more from less.[74]

43. Members and staff of the EAC have also taken part in conferences, seminars and other meetings, organised by government and others, to explain the role of the committee and to encourage further progress with greening government and interest in the sustainable development agenda.[75]

The media

44. Initial interest was caused by the establishment of the Committee. Coverage has been consistent and widespread across the more specialist publications such as (ENDS, Green Futures, other briefing services) but lower in the broadsheets as one might expect. The public sector magazine Green Government in contrast has adopted the Committee carrying news of all its activities, interviews with the Chairman and a number of Members including an 'EAC update' page. Some EAC reports and evidence sessions have been picked up by the mainstream media particularly inquiries into the pre-budget and budget reports and environmental taxation proposals, GM foods and water prices. Appearances by Ministers, particularly the Deputy Prime Minister, have also generated peaks of interest.[76]

45. The EAC has benefited from the growth in electronic media and e-mail has allowed EAC press notices to get quickly and directly to interested parties. This has resulted in pieces on EAC reports on the BBC News Website, PA News Website and various other electronic news outlets. The EAC has featured regularly down below in the London Underground newspaper 'Metro'.

Academic verdict

46. The story coming from the indicators of impact seems to suggest that the Committee has made progress in assessing Government's policies. Our academic critics agreed. Ms Ross-Robertson, Senior Lecturer in law at Dundee University, concluded that "all of this work appears to be making an impact. The Government, at least in its rhetoric, sees the Committee as an important part of the process of integrating sustainable development into government decision-making".[77] We are content so far with our approach to tackling the main mechanisms of Government and securing incremental improvements in the infrastructure such as the Green Ministers report and the environmental impact assessment of budget measures. Ms Ross-Robertson concluded that on this score the EAC had performed well and operated effective scrutiny meeting the objectives set out in our remit.[78]

47. The audit of performance against targets, what Ms Ross-Robertson described to us as the "nitty-gritty", we have clearly done less well. With regard to the actual audit role of the Committee Ms Ross-Robertson identifies a gap: "the Committee's audit function remains lacking".[79] Kathryn Hollingsworth, Lecturer in Law, Cardiff Law School, emphasised that if public financial audit was the model for the EAC, as it clearly was in many respects, then some important aspects were indeed missing.[80]

53  Second Report, Procedure Committee, 1989-90, Working of the Select Committee System, HC 19, paragraphs 327-369 Back

54  There are relatively few examples of instances such as the Children Act 1990 the genesis of which was the response by the government of the day to the 1984 report on of the then Social Services Select Committee on Children in Care, HC 360, 1983-84 Back

55  See Ev pp1-18 and, for a full account of their previous work, pp53-78 Back

56  Scoring the responses to the majority of committee recommendations calls for highly subjective judgements; not all government guidance is available for analysis; the wider policy sphere for sustainable development is a broad area which cannot be scanned easily; although committees formally report to the House for the benefit of other Members, recommendations are largely aimed at government; media coverage, whilst an aid to securing government attention, can skew an assessment of impact as it tends to follow highly critical findings Back

57  See ev pp64-66 Back

58  In addition new targets have been announced following SR2000 without reference to existing ones. See Cm 4345 and Cm 4807 Back

59  Ev p65 Back

60  Second Report from the Procedure Committee, 1989-90, Working of the Select Committee System, HC 19, para 360 Government's Osmotherly Rules and evidence to Procedure Committee in 1990 Back

61  Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Supplementary Guidance to Regional Development Agencies, Chapter 4: Sustainable Development, para 4.4.7 Back

62  See HC 175-i, annex A Back

63  Cm 4345, para 5.3 Back

64  Op cit Foreward by the Minister for the Environment. The second Green Ministers report (November 2000) contained a more prosaic reference to the work of the Committee and its website address Back

65  HC 298, 1998-99, para 5.80 Back

66  Cm 4479, para 6.112 Back

67  HC 346, 1999-2000, para 6.101 Back

68  Op cit para (a) Back

69  Cm 4917, para 6.99 Back

70  Op cit Performance and Innovation Unit, Cabinet Office, January 2000 Back

71  Formally 'the Member in charge of the debate' Back

72  See EDM No 552, 1999-2000 Back

73  See for example the Round Table's Fourth Annual Report, Annex C and Not too difficult!-economic instruments to promote sustainable development within a modernised economy, April 2000 and the report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP), Energy: the changing climate, Cm 4749, including paras 5.67, 6.61, 6.170 Back

74  Op cit February 2000 Back

75  See Annex C Back

76  See also ev p66 for Andrea Ross-Robertson's analysis of media references Back

77  Ibid Back

78  Ibid Back

79  Ibid Back

80  Ev p67and see Q61 Back

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