Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. I do not know when it came out, but there has been one report already which this memorandum, which is to this Committee, draws on. What it essentially says is that by comparison with what the Prime Minister has been saying about the need —
  (Mr Prescott) Is that the one from January 2001?

  81. That is right.
  (Mr Prescott) Which says Annual Report—Achieving a Better Quality of Life?

  82. There was one which came out last year.
  (Mr Prescott) Reports are coming out from the Sustainable Development Commission and there is one about to come out by Jonathon Porritt. There are the ones we produce each year.

  83. We are talking about Jonathon Porritt's Commission, not the Government.
  (Mr Prescott) I understand that has not yet been published. You have the memorandum. I do not know. The one you have been given which is out is Annual Report—Achieving a Better Quality of Life.

  84. That is yours.
  (Mr Prescott) Yes, that is the annual report which is produced by government. If I take the indicators in that, of the 15 indicators eight have improved, about four or five have not materially changed and three of them have got worse. That is over two years and shows we are meeting our targets, we are doing well. A lot done, a lot more to do, to coin a phrase. So what are you talking about?

Mr Barker

  85. I am talking about the criticism by the Sustainable Development Commission, but if we may move on, have other politicians from other nations been tasked with a similar kind of ambassadorial role for their countries?
  (Mr Prescott) Is there another Deputy Prime Minister going round doing this job? I do not think so. In fact their ambassadors, ministers, foreign secretaries, leaders, prime ministers, are all in some way enunciating how they feel about this issue. Tony Blair has made it clear that it is a very important issue for him and has called upon them to do that. In Europe they are even meeting today on the Environment Council talking about the targets we need to set as Europe within those negotiations. Tony Blair has made it clear that he thinks it is important, he wants to set an example and has said that he is going to attend that conference. My job is to encourage others in that process to explain what we have in mind. What you have to remember about this conference is that the preparatory conferences decide what the final deal is going to be. There is also another international development which will affect people's attitude about attending and that is the Monterrey conference which is coming on the financing of development. In those cases people might feel, if the conclusions of the Monterrey conference mean you are going to have to pay money, it might influence the attitude of some of the leaders who are going to attend. That is what I find. At the moment I am hopeful that we will begin to get an increasing number of heads of state going to this conference: our Foreign Secretary, our Development Secretary, Margaret Beckett all those are actively involved in this process of encouraging all governments to attend at the highest possible levels.

  86. To what extent have you noticed in your discussion the north-south divide which has been spoken of?
  (Mr Prescott) Yes, that is an extremely important point and it dominated a great deal of the Kyoto negotiations. If you cannot get Group 77 to agree, where this north-south concept was identified, then you will have difficulty in making progress. At Kyoto where they eventually came to that compromise and later at Marrakesh most of the developed countries faced up to that responsibility—except the Americans, as you know, because they did not want to accept that responsibility at that time, and the Third World—and Group 77, identified as the south, co-operated with it and have gone along and we think we shall see the ratification of that protocol. That is very important. In these negotiations we are advocating that developed countries have a greater responsibility to help those countries more than they have done before; they have not moved much on it since those statements were made in 1992 at the Rio conference and they very much want to see the developed countries playing a more positive role in that. Our approach is to go a little further and say that both the Doha negotiations on trade and the Monterrey conference on finance will give us an opportunity to have a new global structure to work towards that sustainability. If we get that we shall be able to introduce another principle which is important to us, that even some of the countries of the south, or the Group 77, have advanced quite well and others have not advanced at all, particularly in the African countries and we believe greater aid should be given to those in greater need. These are some of the arguments being developed in the preparatory conferences at the moment which will not be established until June. I have no reason to doubt that the Group 77 countries will not play as positive a part as they did in Kyoto.

Ian Lucas

  87. If I may paraphrase you, Deputy Prime Minister —
  (Mr Prescott) The press often do, so join in.

  88. I will do since so many of them are here. You said practical objectives will dominate the conference which is coming up. I am interested in the relationship which you see between the conference to come in Johannesburg and the Kyoto conference you mentioned and also Rio ten years ago. Do you believe that the focus of this conference will be markedly different to the two earlier conferences? Do you believe, for example, that environmental matters, which were very much to the fore in the earlier conference, take a back seat?
  (Mr Prescott) I would not like to put it like that because people would feel and perhaps speculate that we were backing up the environmental objectives. They are very important but the Kyoto agreement and then the legal framework established at the Marrakesh conference meant that environment was well under way. All we have to do now is implement it and make sure we do in the ratification of it. It has dominated most of the nations' approach to the Rio 10, but there are many other objectives about poverty, about access to clean water, about reducing the amount of poverty we have in the world. Those were highlighted and we are trying to bring them more to the fore. I believe there needs to be a change of gear at Johannesburg which is being organised by the South Africans and is not called the Rio 10 conference; they now use the term People, Planet and Prosperity. That gives us an opportunity to begin to focus on those areas where we have not done so well. The various preparatory conferences at the moment are trying to establish exactly what those objectives should be. We have given a lead by saying they should be concentrating on poverty eradication, greater resource productivity, science and technology to help them develop their education base, access to fresh water and oceans, for example, many of these countries which are coastal states have been driven into poverty by the raiding of their fish stock areas by fleets from other countries and that is extremely serious to them, capacity building programmes, education. We have said that if we can concentrate on those and get the agreements along the lines of the millennium targets set by the UN we would reduce poverty by a certain time, get more children into schools, improve the amount of access to clean water. These are objectives set for 2015. I rather think the emphasis at Johannesburg should be a plan of action based around the title of the conference: People, Planet and Prosperity. It is not moving away from the importance of environment but is trying to bring up all the other issues which are practical issues, which are things we can do positive things about such as access to clean water.

  89. You met Kofi Annan last week to discuss preparations. In what respects does his approach differ from yours?
  (Mr Prescott) It does not at all. When I first met him in December in the United States he was very worried that enough importance was not being given to the conference in the regional reports he was receiving; people did not think it was very important to be involved in this conference. He was concerned about that, therefore he set up a group of people to encourage the regional groups to participate and determine their order of priorities and not to have too many and come to political agreements about it. That is what the five regional groups are. His view was that this was a conference from the grassroots up, not from the top down and therefore you would get many, many demands reflecting the different regions. The real challenge for us in the next few months is to boil them down to very practical aims. Many of our proposals have been accepted as an approach to that. We did discuss with the Secretary General, the business of finance, the coming Monterrey conference which Gordon Brown was extremely concerned about. He wanted to see the Secretary General take into account that aspect of the trust fund, the possibility of making sure more resources were available and devoted very much to eradicating poverty and increasing education. He very much agreed with that, indeed he went on to make a speech which we discussed in December saying from Doha to Monterrey and on to Johannesburg. I do think we are now talking about a new global structure, if we can get that framework right instead of operating just trade, just finance, just sustainable development. We need to bring it together in a complete frame, as indeed the Rio conference was in 1992. We think this is now an opportunity for South Africa in the Johannesburg conference to lay out a plan of action. The Secretary General made that clear, it is in line with what we were saying and we found great encouragement from that.

  90. As far as Monterrey itself is concerned, what are the particular vital decisions you think need to be taken there to make Johannesburg a success?
  (Mr Prescott) If Johannesburg is to be a success, you want an awful lot of people to go to it and heads of state to go to it to be honest. It is not so much about the decisions it takes, it is the decisions it might not take. For example, if the agreement is to increase aid to these countries or doubling it, there will be a number of countries who will say they are not going to Johannesburg if that is what it is about. We have a commitment to increase the target of 0.7 per cent of GDP. We are going to increase ours over the next couple of years to at least half that level and many countries have actually reduced it. If Monterrey were to identify that it was only about aid, I think countries might shy away from it; some obvious ones. If it is about getting a practical set of proposals which will implement programmes better than at the moment and move to eradicate poverty and get free access to water, I think many countries will not want to get trapped in that. To my mind it is very important at all these international conference not to be too ambitious in what you are demanding if you want consensus. Remember, at the end of the day, as with Kyoto, it is not easy to get 140 nations to agree. They are small steps but they are important ones. The important point is to avoid failure and that is what is important about Monterrey: not to make too many obstacles to achieving what we want at Johannesburg. Take Gordon Brown's commitment to the trust fund, which you probably heard about, the idea of having a special fund which would help these countries. That fund itself is quite a considerable amount. If you try to agree that at Monterrey in March, you will not find agreement. If the Johannesburg conference were dependent on getting that agreement, it would be a pity to approach the conference almost expecting failure because you had not achieved success at Monterrey. It is small steps, step by step.

Mr Challen

  91. In your meetings with leaders of developing countries have any of them raised the issue of entering this conference on a level playing field? In the past, for example, developing nations have felt disadvantaged in WTO negotiations and we have addressed that by contributing to a fund to help them attend and prepare properly. Have you formed any opinion on that in your meetings with leaders of developing countries?
  (Mr Prescott) I have no doubt the developing countries feel strongly and the terms of trade have been very much against them. Aid in some cases has not helped many countries; it has been okay for some but the poorer have got poorer and some better. They feel it is not a very fair way of doing it. We understand the CAP in the European Union is something which has not been particularly advantageous despite the Lomé agreements and other agreements which followed from that. They feel strongly about that. These issues, particularly the posers we are setting here, are about how you help them with their education, reducing poverty, access to fresh water, all these kinds of things are things which they agree with and look to us to help deliver on that. This conference at Johannesburg should be not only about defining the aims and being practical about them, but at the same time making sure they are delivered and delivered in a different way, that is through partnerships with industry and the civil society, so we can achieve that and on a political principle to argue that we should recognise that some countries are not doing well and if that is the case they should get greater help from that. Within the Group 77 there are sensitivities about those countries which have benefited from the international agreements they have had and those who have not. Africa frankly belongs to one of those groups of countries where it is not going too well.

Joan Walley

  92. Thank you for coming to our Committee, Deputy Prime Minister. May I take you back to the meeting you had with Kofi Annan in terms of the outcomes you would like to see from the Johannesburg summit? In view of what you have just said about the importance of the partnership with industry, may I ask whether or not in the discussions you have had with Kofi Annan the issue of a binding corporate accountability came up? You mentioned the role of industry and the way in which you have to have a partnership round the table with industry. It seems to me that this was one of the issues which many people would have liked to have seen as a long-term outcome out of Rio and it seems to be stalled. There are many NGOs who wish to get it back onto the agenda for Johannesburg. If we are looking at this whole issue within the context of sustainable development and poverty, may I ask what you are hoping will come out of Johannesburg in respect of binding commitments from international, multinational, transnational companies?
  (Mr Prescott) I am aware that people have been wanting to make the issue of corporate accountability a major issue for the conference. It is for the conference to decide whether they want to accept that. I have put a great deal of emphasis on getting the kind of co-operation to achieve the more limited objectives I have set out and they are important for billions of people. The corporate responsibility we are asking for as a minimum is getting in to help us deliver the water projects, to deal with sanitation, to help us with the education, to deal with resource and greater energy efficiencies. All these are things in which we look to the private sector in the south to co-operate with us to be able to achieve that and working with a number of countries who are the recipients of these benefits, particularly Group 77. When you talk about accountability, I recall my discussions with the Nigerian leader who said he pulls on the levers and often nothing happens. Therefore he was looking to a better form of governance and governance is an issue increasingly brought to the fore. When you talk about accountability it is often felt that money is put into places and not enough accountability falls on the recipients. We want to tighten that up and the Monterrey conference is about setting some of those standards. All these will be competing demands to be put at the conference; the ones being consulted upon now and the ones being prepared by different groups. The NGOs are participants in this conference, so I am sure they will be able to put what they wish to it.

  93. Might it be possible for there to be even further discussions at this stage with the different government departments who are contributing to your own ministerial conference on this?
  (Mr Prescott) Yes, we are still in active discussion in a number of those areas as we get ready to prepare for the conference which takes place end April/beginning May where the Ministers and the preparatory conference come together to decide the kind of agenda and the importance of those issues. Those issues are still ongoing but do not forget NGOs are involved in the international discussions as well as in the national ones.

  94. Will the UK Government be pushing for this to be part of the agenda outcomes which are desired for Johannesburg?
  (Mr Prescott) No, we have said we do not think we agree with that proposal and what we want is the agenda we are proposing at the moment. We are discussing these matters with various groups but my own judgement is that we have made our position clear that we shall not take that directly as one of our major worries.

  95. That is something you think can be left to voluntary agreements.
  (Mr Prescott) I should like it to be voluntary. I should like to avoid all the excesses which have brought about these demands for greater accountability. We are concentrating on how much we can meet those demands and get the maximum co-operation from people to deliver. Deliver, deliver is the important issue of this conference and that is why we want to make sure we have a programme which people think is practicable, meets the demands of it and deals with those millions in poverty and denied access to clean water.

  96. May I go back to the meeting you had with Kofi Annan? In view of the huge success many people felt came from the fact that a convention on biodiversity was agreed at Rio, I have looked through the papers and it does not seem to me that biodiversity is a really central theme of what the objectives are which are coming out at Johannesburg. Is that something you would like to comment on, particularly in respect of issues for example like the Brazilian rain forest and the illegal logging of timber? Is that not something which should be maintained on the agenda?
  (Mr Prescott) Yes and in fact it is one of the demands which is being made but it is a convention. We had that one on climate change, we have this one now on biodiversity and the issue of forests is something which is being discussed within the climate change issues and at the UN Conference on Sustainability which you are aware of; highly controversial, no agreement about it at this stage. We have advanced so far to a convention: what we should like is to advance some of these social problems which are important at the moment, which could be solved and where there is less controversy.

  97. Will you be looking to make sure that each of the government departments, including Customs and Excise, Department of Trade and Industry, DEFRA and so on are all looking to carry out the detail of what has been agreed at Rio in preparation for what hopefully will be further agreed at Johannesburg?
  (Mr Prescott) That is our obligation and particularly under forestry. We shall be doing all we can to observe the obligations which come from that.

Mr Jones

  98. You spoke powerfully and persuasively about the need to achieve consensus and not to put too ambitious targets forward. I suppose few people would have been more aware of the problems of achieving consensus in these matters than you. Is there a danger that we seem to be having these sorts of international conferences more frequently now and developing an ever-widening range of objectives at each conference? In answer to my colleague Joan Walley just now you spoke about the problem of delivery. Is there not a case for concentrating on a smaller number of targets and fewer conferences and trying to ensure that we meet those targets for delivery rather than talking about ambitions which are empty promises if not met?
  (Mr Prescott) I agree with a great deal of what you said. May I take the point about aims, targets and objectives? You have to be practical. What Kyoto taught me was that the European demand for a 15 per cent cut in gases just was not possible. You either go in and the conference breaks down or you change your position. Fortunately we all began to change that position and we came to an agreement at Kyoto. One of the problems with international conferences is that sometimes everybody sets impossible demands and you have to try to find a formula; you start working all through the nights for the compromise. What is important is to get the preparatory work done beforehand so that the arguments do not come at the final conference. The example of the UN conference in South Africa on race was a classic example where the work was not done. If you take the Doha conference on trade, at least that was more successful than the one in Seattle. You have to do the work beforehand. If I presume the preparatory conferences are not really conferences, they are trying to get a realistic collection of demands to be put to a conference and agreed, the reality is that if you are talking with 140, 170, 180, whatever countries who are involved and you have to get consensus, there is no vote in the main. It is extremely difficult to get a consensus and it is perhaps the speed of the convoy. You need to know the speed of the slowest ship and get everybody to agree it. The worst is to fail. Once you fail on these kinds of conference you have put it off for another ten years. The real priority is to get something that everybody can accept across a diverse group of nations from very rich to very poor and something they can agree with. What we have settled on is this programme where I think we will find agreement.

  99. Are the issues which the United Kingdom have settled on raising ones which have a strong practical approach which is achievable or are they shopping lists filled with pious objectives which everyone needs to show they are supporting?
  (Mr Prescott) They are pretty basic: the access people should have to good sanitation facilities or access to clean water. We find there is very much agreement about all those things. Do not forget that this was agreed at the 1992 Rio summit, though most of the effort went into the environment. What we are saying is bring them back to the floor. They were agreed then. Implement the rest of that Earth Summit programme but give a higher priority to it under this People, Planet and Prosperity one being proposed at Johannesburg and spell out what they are. The United Nations has agreed certain millennium targets including a reduction in the number of people suffering poverty—over 1.5 billion on less than a dollar a day. We are looking to halving that by 2015. The same with access to clean water. We have set a series of targets which are practicable and should be ones we should all endorse and ones which will be acceptable. We have to wait for the preparatory conferences. We have some very ambitious demands which I do not think we have a chance of getting accepted internationally, but we are still in negotiation for them.

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