Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 66 - 79)




  66. Welcome, good afternoon, Deputy Prime Minister, always nice to see you in front of our Committee. Is there anything you would like to add to the memorandum which you put in to the Committee?

  (Mr Prescott) I would, if I may, thank you very much. I have Chris Wood with me who is Deputy Director of the policy unit in my Department. I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the UK's preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Indeed your inquiry is a very timely one. You will have seen the memorandum that we have provided and that set out my role in the United Kingdom's preparations for the summit. The Johannesburg summit is an opportunity to reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable development and take further steps to put the principles agreed at Rio ten years ago into practice. After 11 September, we have seen a very effective global coalition against terrorism. Now we want to see the same degree of global commitment applied to tackling other global issues such as poverty and environmental degradation. The Prime Minister asked me to take a key role in the preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. There are two main strands to my role in preparing for the summit: one is the international one and a role within the United Kingdom Government. Internationally I am seeking to use high level contacts, through my role as Deputy Prime Minister, to gain political commitment to the summit itself. This builds on the early lead the Prime Minister gave in announcing his intention to attend the summit (made in his speech to the CBI on 24 October). He was the first world leader to do so and that gave a clear indication of the importance this Government places on this summit. Over the last few months I have met around 20 Heads of State, Prime Ministers and Deputy Prime Ministers in meetings when I have received foreign politicians in London and also when I have made official visits abroad. I have used all these meetings to raise the profile of the summit and seek political commitment at the highest level. For example, last week the Chancellor and I met the Secretary-General of the United Nations to discuss preparations for the summit and the forthcoming Financing for Development Conference, which will take place in Monterrey in March. The truth is that for many world leaders the summit has not even begun to figure on their radar screens. In many countries sustainable development is something which is labelled as an "environment" issue and left to the Environment Ministry. Whilst in the United Kingdom we might have a joined-up approach, many others abroad do not. Often the Environment Ministry is weak and disconnected from the rest of government. If we are going to get the summit to give political commitment to the issues we have outlined as crucial—taking people out of poverty, giving them sustainable livelihoods, safe drinking water and modern energy supplies—we need to go to the highest levels for this summit. In fact there is a clear indication that the pressure we have been exerting is paying off. Awareness about the summit is increasing and, as momentum builds, a growing number of world leaders are demonstrating their commitment to attend Johannesburg. With regard to my role within the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister has asked me to chair a Cabinet Ministerial Group to develop, co-ordinate and deliver the Government's strategy for the summit. The group is composed of Ministers from key departments involved in developing the UK's input to the summit. Exceptionally that also includes Ministers from the devolved administrations. Later in the course of this inquiry you will be speaking to some of the Ministers involved in developing UK priorities for the summit, in particular Margaret Beckett and Clare Short. I am, of course, in frequent contact with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary also. We are working hard to establish a set of UK priorities and identify the practical inputs the UK can make. Sustainable development, by its nature, covers a broad range of issues. We need to concentrate on areas where the summit can make a real and practical difference. As Kofi Annan said in London last week, Rio told us what the problem is: Johannesburg needs to address how to solve it, how to get things done. Above all, the summit needs to address sustainable development in its fullest sense: development and economic growth as well as environmental issues. The summit needs to identify the practical progress on issues affecting people, especially the poorest people. It is unacceptable that one billion people have to survive on less than a dollar a day or that 1.1 billion people are without access to a safe and affordable water supply and two billion people without access to modern energy supplies. We need to recognise that practical progress cannot be achieved by governments alone. We need to involve the private sector, NGOs and local communities, backed up by a strong international framework, including the international financial institutions in a new partnership for delivery. I believe the UK is well positioned to make a strong and focused input to the summit and that our preparations are well advanced and co-ordinated. I should now be happy to answer the Committee's questions and thank you for the opportunity to make my opening address.

  67. Thank you, Deputy Prime Minister. You have with you Mr Wood, who is the Deputy Director of the Central Policy Group, is that correct?
  (Mr Wood) That is right.

  68. Before we come to cross-question you, Deputy Prime Minister, I should just like to ask a couple of questions of Mr Wood. What exactly does the Central Policy Group, Cabinet Office do?
  (Mr Wood) It is a group which was established following the machinery of government changes to support the Deputy Prime Minister in his new functions.

  69. Does it co-ordinate?
  (Mr Wood) We deal with international issues, domestic issues coming before the committees which the Deputy Prime Minister chairs and also the Deputy Prime Minister's work on regional governance.

  70. How do you relate to the No.10 Policy Unit?
  (Mr Wood) We have regular contacts with the No.10 Policy Unit.

  71. But you are completely separate.
  (Mr Wood) We are a separate organisation.

  The Committee suspended from 4.37 pm to 4.50 pm for a division in the House.

  Chairman: We will move on now to the main points in your memorandum and the substance of the approach to Johannesburg.

Mr Barker

  72. I should like to probe your international role, if I may? You have obviously been charged by the Prime Minister with a very important task and I note that you have already had numerous meetings with foreign heads of government both here and abroad. To what extent do you think that you as a Minister and the Government actually have credibility in this area to act as an international cheerleader for Johannesburg, with your record at Transport, which is a critical issue.
  (Mr Prescott) Would you like to define that and explain what is critical?

  73. The indicators are headed in the wrong direction, if you take the memorandum we have had for example from the Sustainable Development Commission set up by the Prime Minister in October 2000.
  (Mr Prescott) I meant on transport.

  74. In particular they have said, as of yet "we are nowhere near the kind of structural and policy changes that will need to be made to the economy and to society to deliver sustainable outcomes", nor has the Government "yet embraced sustainable development as a central driver of policy formulation". They finish by saying "tangible government leadership is needed to deliver the real outcomes that the Rio process demands". Given those sorts of criticisms of our domestic policy, why should foreign governments take you seriously.
  (Mr Prescott) For the role we played in Kyoto; that is a good start. Everybody agreed that the role Britain played in Kyoto was a leading part. We led in the last three negotiations where the final deal was settled between the umbrella group which was the Americans particular and the Japanese, Group 77 and indeed the Euro group and led to those final conclusions. That came from meeting very often with leaders in China and India, which were important groups inside the Group 77, particularly with America, Japan and Australia and we were invited by Japan to play a leading part in bringing what are called the developed countries together for those negotiations. From that it was generally assumed that the contacts we developed would be very useful in taking this further forward. The Prime Minister saw the importance of the Sustainable Conference, Rio 10, which will take place in September this year and thought it was perhaps important to identify the different approach we should take this time. The Kyoto agreement rather dominated most of the Rio 10 and people thought it was all about the environment. There were many other objectives, such as poverty, access to clean water all matters of importance. We thought these practical objectives should dominate the conference and we have tried to put our views and our objectives to other countries and also to increase the awareness of the importance of the Sustainable Conference. I have been well received by these leaders who played a positive part in it.

  75. Specifically what are the structural and policy changes within the UK that you are most proud of?
  (Mr Prescott) The fact that we have recognised sustainability and first of all from Kyoto getting the recognition that there had to be an international agreement. All the voluntary systems were not working so that international role was quite important. That meant we had a target set for us of a 12 per cent cut in gases on the 1990 levels, which meant we had to have a sustainable policy. We produced that and we believe, if you take it on the indicators that there are in that sustainable policy, that we are doing very well. We have produced the annual reports for that which show we are doing very well. We have reached an agreement on the climate negotiation levies and these are all part and parcel of what we believe will now not only achieve the European target, which is 12 per cent, but we are going to do every better than that. I think that is a success and it can be seen and measured, indeed out of the European countries we are seen to be ahead of everybody in achieving those targets. I would call that success. I do not know what you would call it.

  76. So you do not accept the criticism of the Sustainable Development Commission.
  (Mr Prescott) I have not read their report. Presumably you have. This is one yet to come out, is it not?

  77. This was a memorandum to this Committee.
  (Mr Prescott) I have not read that.


  78. It actually refers to the first report of the Sustainable Development Commission.
  (Mr Prescott) Not the one which is due out now.

  79. One came out earlier which made these criticisms.
  (Mr Prescott) So this is over a year, 18 months, old.

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