Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 269 - 279)




  269. Good afternoon, Secretary of State. We are delighted to see you. I understand that you would like to make a brief statement on Kyoto and your visit to Africa?

  (Margaret Beckett) It is mostly about my visit to South Africa because it is part of the run-up to WSSD.

  270. Please do.
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not know if this is the right moment or not but can I also say that this morning we published a short document about the Department. I hope we have brought enough copies for all the Committee.[1]

  271. About the Department?
  (Margaret Beckett) It is about the Department, yes. Put simply, we get quite a lot of queries about what is the Department, what does it mean, what does it do. We have tried to prepare a short accessible document that gives answers to some of those questions and we thought, as we published it this morning, that the Committee might like copies.

  272. Thank you very much indeed, that is a very good idea. I think we might do the same thing for the Environmental Audit Committee since we are always asked how we are different from the Environment Committee and so forth.
  (Margaret Beckett) Especially with pictures. Chairman, thank you. You have already had our memorandum as a Department which is setting out all of the work we are doing on WSSD and giving an outline of how we are implementing sustainable development at home. I thought it might be helpful, I hope it will be, if I say a little to the Committee about the outcome of my visit to South Africa last week to discuss WSSD. I was there from the 12 to 14 March and accompanied by an inter-departmental team of officials including our High Commissioner in South Africa, officials from DEFRA obviously, from FCO, the Cabinet office and the local DFID Director. While I was there I met quite a range of people involved in the summit. It included Valli Moosa, the Environment and Tourism Minister, who is leading on the summit, officials from the Water and Forestry Department, business and NGO representatives and the Johannesburg World Summit Company who are dealing with many of the practical arrangements. I also visited a DFID coast project near Cape Town and launched a DEFRA funded teachers' guide to WSSD at a school in Soweto and I addressed a meeting of NGOs and educationalists. I also had the chance to exchange ideas with Jan Pronk, who is Kofi Annan's Emissary for the summit, who was also visiting. The purpose of the visit was to reinforce the United Kingdom's support for the summit to the South African Government and to explore areas where the UK can assist and advance discussions. So the timing of the visit was just before PrepCom II in New York and the G8 Environment Ministers' meeting in Canada in April. It was clear from my discussions that South Africa and we share many of the same aims for the summit. First, that it should focus on sustainable development and not on environment issues alone. Secondly, it is part of a wider process stretching from Doha through Monterrey to Johannesburg and also linked to the New Partnership for African Development. Third, that it must focus on practical action to help deliver the Millennium Development Goals. The key issues for South Africa are water and sanitation, energy, health, education, technology and food security, and they are very similar to our own. I was particularly struck by their interest in using WSSD to progress and to push for agricultural trade reform. I understand that has been reflected in statements elsewhere by other African ministers and obviously we will be exploring the opportunities for that. Valli Moosa and I discussed how we might generate greater political impetus into the negotiations. Obviously it has to be handled carefully within the UN negotiating system but delivering significant advances at WSSD will, we believe, require engagement and commitment by Heads. There are a lot of ideas, a great wealth of ideas out there, but they need much further work, more concrete work, if they are to deliver action at the summit. We also spoke about the development of implementation projects, engaging a variety of stakeholders, the so-called Type II outcomes where the United Kingdom has shown leadership in developing ideas. This is a new concept for the UN system and we need to develop mechanisms to deliver them, both through the UN and in other parallel processes, and I hope to take some of these ideas forward when I visit the World Bank on 11 April. As far as the organisation of the summit is concerned, the South Africans still face a funding gap of 190 million rand, over £10 million. The UK is among the largest donors so far at about £1.25 million pounds, but regrettably some large EU countries have yet to make any commitment and we are exploring how to encourage them to contribute. Despite that uncertainty there has already been a substantial amount of planning around the summit in Johannesburg and we were impressed with the comprehensive planning that is already under way. The summit company, which is known as JOWSCO, is well aware of the need to minimise the adverse effects of the summit, to deliver legacy projects and to engage the general public in South Africa. Lastly, I also met some business representatives and the NGO Preparatory Committee. There is plenty of opportunity for business to exhibit at the summit and there will be a day concentrating on business's contribution to sustainable development at the summit on 1 September. There have been some difficulties over the NGO preparations, due in part to the NGO Committee being tasked both to prepare the South African NGO position and to organise the NGO events, but they seem now to have resolved those problems with maturity and sensitivity and are firmly committed to organising an effective NGO element. I understand that they were hoping to progress that work at Monterrey this week. Thank you.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed, Secretary of State. I am glad to hear that the practical preparations are going well. This Committee will be sending a delegation to the Johannesburg Summit.

Joan Walley

  273. In view of what you have said, and I really welcome everything you have just said to the Committee, could I ask which of the European countries still have not made their contributions? I think it might be helpful for this Committee to know in order that we can pursue that with our counterparts in those countries.
  (Margaret Beckett) I am not entirely sure whether it is quite proper for me, to be honest. I am not sure that it is in the public domain because this is information that we sought semi-privately from the South African Government so that we can put on pressure behind the scenes.


  274. We can no doubt find out.
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes. Can I just say if you think of some fairly large names.

Joan Walley

  275. Beginning with?
  (Margaret Beckett) You may find they have not all done so, although some say that they are going to.


  276. Physically large, you mean, geographically?
  (Margaret Beckett) Physically and financially.

  Joan Walley: Thank you.

  Chairman: Thank you for that statement and for making it brief too. We will start off the questioning and Mrs Clark, I know, wants to come in.

Mrs Clark

  277. Yes, thank you. I am very encouraged that you started off immediately talking about sustainable development and that it really should be the focus of Johannesburg, that is what we are concerned should be the focus as well. You mentioned that it was very important that it was not about the environment alone. I think we are concerned that it is not actually about development alone. Are you concerned yourself that, in fact, Johannesburg might end up, despite all the best intentions, just being yet another UN development summit, say, without the interfaces between development, environmental concerns and obviously economic issues addressed, which is of course sustainable development?
  (Margaret Beckett) Quite. Obviously there is always a risk but I am extremely encouraged. From right back at the beginning when we first had a conversation with the South African Government about the preparations for the summit I recall that I went to that meeting briefed with the point of view that this is not a summit about the environment, this is a summit about sustainable development, and I found that coming back at me across the table from the South African Government. I think they and we have been clear from the very, very beginning and deeply relieved to find that we very much wanted the same kind of outcomes. For my own part, and this is something that I keep shoving into all the speeches that I make on this issue, I think it is so patently obvious that dire poverty and environmental degradation actually feed one off the other and they are a kind of vicious circle that it seems to me to be self-evident as an issue that you have to balance the social and environmental and economic effects. We say about climate change that it is something which affects everybody but particularly the poor who are most vulnerable to it, and again it is the poor who most need sustainable development.

  278. Again, I think from a DEFRA point of view that is very, very encouraging indeed. I am also encouraged that you said that South Africa is working to the same hymn sheet as our ideals. I think what we are slightly concerned about as a Committee is not the position of DEFRA, which is absolutely clear, but rather the position of DFID. We did interview Clare Short a couple of weeks ago at Committee about these matters and she did say that actually DFID was working very closely with DEFRA on these matters.
  (Margaret Beckett) Indeed.

  279. But then went on to posit a rather different perspective herself. She said that in her opinion the environmental agenda often tended to be a Northern agenda, an anti-development agenda, so therefore not making the connections that you have made yourself about the whole business of environmental degradation and dire poverty actually going hand-in-hand. Following on from that, Jonathon Porritt happened to be sitting in and obviously heard some of the comments that she was making and he went much further. Having admitted that the two of them had never actually sat down and talked and thrashed out these issues, and some of my colleagues think that perhaps they should, he said she was talking "rubbish", that she was "extremely well-known for" what he described as "her difficulty encompassing where the modern environmental movement was" and what he described as her "one-woman campaign to seek to belittle the work of a number of environmental NGOs . . ." etc., etc. On the one hand we have got the DEFRA and South African perspective absolutely united and then we have got all the contra-indications of a completely different line being peddled by another department in Her Majesty's UK Government.
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not think that I would accept that a different line is being peddled. In fact, as I think you said yourself at the outset, and I am sure Clare would say, as departments we work together extremely closely and extremely well on the preparations for the summit and, indeed, on the agenda for it. Without wanting to get into a dispute between two people who apparently said things to this Committee, neither of which I heard, I think certainly there have been times, although I would myself be inclined to say perhaps in the past, when people who were passionately concerned about the environment have tended to look more in their own context because this was where people could first get a handle on things. I think for quite some considerable time it has been the case that the wider perspective of sustainable development is very much the context of what those who care most about and work most on the environment have become involved with. Certainly we were anxious quite early on that because it was a sustainable development agenda, and that is very much the concern of environment ministers, I do not mean exclusively but environment ministers are involved in that because of the environment aspect of it, we were worried we might find that it was mostly environmental NGOs who were looking to come to and be involved in the preparations for the World Summit and, for precisely the reasons that you and I have just been discussing, we were extremely anxious that that did not happen and, indeed, quite early on we put out feelers through DFID and their contacts and through various observations I made at public gatherings, we thought it was extremely important that we got environment and development NGOs engaged in the work and working together, and they are engaged in our Communications Strategy Group and so on.

1   "Working for the Essentials of Life", Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, March 2002. Back

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