Select Committee on Environmental Audit First Report


The Environmental Audit Committee has agreed to the following Report:

Departmental Responsibilities of Sustainable Development

List of Conclusions and Recommendations

1. Mrs Beckett and Mr Byers argued that environmental policy areas had increasingly gained importance since 1997, consuming an ever larger proportion of Ministerial time, especially in terms of the international framework for sustainable development, and that this had led to a recognition that "there was much to be said for having a department that has sustainable development as its prime focus". (Paragraph 5)

2. Working on the basis that it takes two years to complete the merger process, which may be optimistic in the case of DEFRA with all the problems of civil service transfers, pay and structures, four out of six years between 1997 and 2003 will have been spent in transition. (Paragraph 11)

3. The new logic in UK policy organisation has caused disquiet in some quarters, not least because some issues excluded from DEFRA's portfolio—transport, industry, planning and urban regeneration—are those where integration with environmental protection is not only fundamental to making progress on sustainable development but also most difficult to achieve. (Paragraph 12)

4. The perception that DEFRA is a department concerned principally with rural issues may result in a lack of engagement over sustainability issues between DEFRA on the one hand and NGOs, international partners and the public on the other. (Paragraph 13)

5. There is also a risk that other Government departments will not, as a matter of course, consult with DEFRA colleagues when developing and implementing policy which may impact on the environment or sustainability and that even the good working practices and relationships developed within DETR will erode over time. (Paragraph 15)

6. Under the new arrangements, responsibility for regional policy has been split between the Regional Co-ordination Unit in the Cabinet Office, the Department of Trade and Industry through its sponsorship of the RDAs, DTLR with its responsibilities for regional planning and DEFRA which has oversight of Regional Sustainable Development Frameworks. This represents a fragmentation of regional policy and separates the majority of regional policy responsibility from the environment policy. (Paragraph 18)

7. The Government as a whole, and not just the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and DEFRA, needs to underline a belief in a new consensus, one which puts sustainable development at the top of the political agenda both nationally and regionally, and to counter the impression that DEFRA was unplanned. As part of this we recommend the Government produces and disseminates a statement of clarification on the responsibilities for the promotion of sustainable development at a regional level. (Paragraph 21)

8. It has taken considerable effort to establish precisely the role of the Deputy Prime Minister vis a vis the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. If it was difficult for us to do, with our close links with Government and the powers bestowed by the House of Commons, it must have been an almost impossible task for others. (Paragraph 24)

9. We were only partially reassured to find that Ministers did not share the confusion we and others sensed over lines of responsibility. (Paragraph 24)

10. We recommend that significant changes to the machinery of government are in future accompanied by a memorandum to the relevant select committee(s) providing a robust reasoning for the changes and detailed information on their nature. It is particularly important that policy imperatives which cut across departmental boundaries are not downgraded in departmental reorganisations. (Paragraph 25)

11. When we examined Mrs Beckett, she convinced us of her personal commitment to sustainable development. (Paragraph 28)

12. We welcome the requirement set in the Treasury's SR2002 guidance on sustainable development that each department should prepare and submit a Sustainable Development Report, but we are disconcerted by the bald statement, despite the reassurances on joint working and effective communications we received from DEFRA, DTLR and DTI, that "Departments are not expected to add new 'sustainable development' targets" to their Public Service Agreements. To the contrary, we expect to see DEFRA working with other Departments to ensure that sustainable development becomes an operational priority across Government and for this to be reflected in Public Service Agreements. (Paragraph 29)

13. There would have been arguments of logic and consistency in favour of moving the Sustainable Development Unit to the Cabinet Office in the post-election re-organisation. Combined with Mrs Beckett's and Mr Meacher's support, it would have redoubled the chances of sustainable development being taken seriously by other Ministers and Government departments. That opportunity has been missed. To compensate for this we recommend that central units such as the Performance and Innovation Unit and the Social Exclusion Unit should be obliged to take account of sustainable development in all their activities. (Paragraph 30)

14. The Sustainable Development Unit needs to have committed, consistent and overt support from all Ministers. Under whichever Government Department it is placed, it can only function effectively if it is treated as a critical component of the very centre of Government. (Paragraph 31)

15. Progress to date on implementing a thorough programme of environmental appraisal of policy has been disappointingly slow. One of DEFRA's key challenges is to ensure that it becomes routine. (Paragraph 32)

16. We will continue to monitor the Government's progress on policy screening and environmental appraisals in the near future as we review the whole of the Government's Greening Government Initiative. (Paragraph 33)

17. If DEFRA is to position itself as the champion of sustainable development it will need to work effectively across departmental boundaries, to demonstrate strong leadership with a visible commitment to sustainable development, and to work tirelessly to ensure that sustainability issues are integrated into every aspect of Government policy and that all Ministers recognise the responsibility they have to take sustainable development into account, in much the same way that finance and expenditure already are. DEFRA also has operate in a transparent manner, making itself open to audit and scrutiny. That is the challenge that faces DEFRA. (Paragraph 34)

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Prepared 31 January 2002