Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)




  280. I think it is the case though, is it not, Secretary of State, that in most countries it is the environment department that is taking the lead?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think that is probably true in most countries but then that is partly because in most countries it is increasingly the case that it is the environment department that is the home of the pursuit of sustainable development. By definition, the environment departments are not the sole custodians and they are not wanting to be the only people who pursue sustainable development, they are wanting to spread that awareness right across government. We are the policy lead on the summit and I think that is true in most other countries. Indeed, one of the things we are encouraging other countries to do is to send a multi-disciplinary team and teams of ministers to the summit as we intend to do ourselves.

Ian Lucas

  281. Do you not think, Secretary of State, most people in Britain still see environmentalism and development as contradictory concepts?
  (Margaret Beckett) No, I do not think I would say that but I suppose it depends on whether you are talking in a UK context or in a world context.

  282. I am talking about most British people's understanding of the two ideas. I still think myself that when people think of environmentalism, and I do not mean the NGOs I mean the population generally, they think of environmentalism as an anti-development concept.
  (Margaret Beckett) I can understand why that point of view was held perhaps if you think back to the early days of awareness of the impact that we were having on our environment, but my own view would be that although of course in a developed country there will always be particular pressure on environmental issues because, frankly, that is where we have tended to do the most damage the fastest, I think for quite a long time it has been the case that people recognise that you have to balance these issues. Maybe, who knows, one of the things that will really bring that realisation to fruition is, in fact, the World Summit which we hope is going to force people to recognise that these are all important issues on their own but they are all issues that you have to balance because if you get one out of kilter with the other then your whole policy and approach is out of kilter.

Mr Thomas

  283. Just to follow that through a little bit because obviously it is of interest to this Committee to know exactly what attitude will be struck by the UK Government officially in Johannesburg and what effect that will have on sustainable development in international aid. Both yourself and John Prescott have said that access to clean energy is going to have to be one of the priorities discussed at the World Summit. In Johannesburg you are quoted as asking "What about clean energy for those who have no lights or heat and whose health and education are undermined by the lack of basic facilities?" That is a very good question to ask. It is the sort of question we did pose to Clare Short as well and she was very sceptical of the benefits that something like a solar energy programme could bring to rural Africa, and perhaps some people might be wedded to the old-fashioned idea of grid connections and massive infrastructure projects. The simple question is what is the view that is going to prevail from the UK Government's point of view in Johannesburg, is it your view or Clare Short's view?
  (Margaret Beckett) I would question whether there is such a dissonance between us. Obviously it is important that there is access to sustainable energy in Africa, in particular where there is such deprivation and poverty. I would have thought, in fact I am pretty confident from the many conversations that I have had with her, that Clare would be among the first to say that the alleviation of poverty has to be something that also carries with it sustainability otherwise you do not continue to alleviate poverty. I think that many of these issues will perhaps become a little clearer after we have had, I think it is, the New York PrepCom where people are going to try to look at some of the concrete details.


  284. That is the one next week?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes. To look at some of the concrete details of the action programme that we might all be working on over the summer to put to the summit. There is a little room for manoeuvre yet in terms of what the core issues will be. We have got our core issues that we have been working on as a Government and the South African Government has identified some of the things on which they want to see progress: water, water and sanitation by the way. That is very important. We must all learn to say "water and sanitation" as the mantra because one without the other is not nearly so useful. Also there is obviously an interest in energy, oceans as well as fresh water, where the South African Government has some of their perspectives. I think that we will see over the next few weeks hopefully something more like the shape of the core agenda because there is a list as long as your arm of things that people could talk about and would like to see pursued but we need to get it down to something more concrete.

Mr Thomas

  285. Within that core agenda as it emerges if there was a serious proposal, for example, for a solar renewable energy programme for rural Africa or any other form of clean energy programme for developing parts of the globe, you would not characterise those as a Northern obsession with narrow environmentalism?
  (Margaret Beckett) I would always be reluctant to use such phraseology. I would simply say to you that one of the five partnership projects that the UK Government has been working on for probably over a year is a sustainable energy project that came out of the G8 about a year ago where we have had British businessmen in the lead. It is one of these multi-stakeholder partnerships where we have had a whole lot of people engaged. That, I think, was an FCO lead. My own Department, for example, is working with, again, a multi-stakeholder partnership in terms of water and we are working on projects for some peri-urban developments. Part of what we are all trying to do is to find ways in which we can make an additional contribution over and above the one that has been there in the past.

Joan Walley

  286. I think that the contradiction that has just been brought in front of us by both Mr Thomas and Mrs Clark is really about how we bring together economic developments, environmental issues and where the interface between them all is. I think that during the time between now and Johannesburg perhaps the Commission for Sustainable Development could help to explore some of the issues arising out of that. I think this Committee wants to have at the very heart of the Government's agenda the fact that environmental renewable issues should be, wherever possible, prioritised and steering the way forward so that there is that emphasis on sustainable development and we do not think about it as an afterthought. I am thinking of solar and photovoltaics when we have had large private investment in energy.
  (Margaret Beckett) I did not want to get drawn into the issue of solar particularly because solar may or may not be the right source depending on where you are.

  287. I am just wondering whether or not you would agree with me that maybe the Commission for Sustainable Development under the chairmanship of Jonathon Porritt might be a way of perhaps exploring some of these issues?
  (Margaret Beckett) They are engaged in various of the discussions, which is no doubt why they came to give evidence.

  288. Excellent. Maybe that is a way forward. One of the things that I really wanted to ask you at this stage is given once in a generation or once in a decade we have a chance to really shape things and make a real difference, given that we had Rio and so much success from Rio and then we had the world trade negotiations and the Uruguay Round shortly afterwards, could you give the Committee some indication—in your introduction I welcomed the fact that you made reference to the continuous process of what is happening now with Monterrey and so on—how this is relating to trade agreements and how what is going to be happening at Johannesburg will fit into the continuing WTO discussions that will be taking place in Mexico and reaching a conclusion in Rio 2005? Could you comment on how we can make sure that sustainable development gets fed through into that agenda from Johannesburg and that we avoid the pitfalls of post-Rio when that did not quite happen with the World Trade Organisation, as it was then, and the Uruguay Round?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think the principal thing that I would say is that, as you know, our agenda for the WTO and for the Uruguay Round was to make globalisation work for the benefit of everybody and not least for the poor, perhaps particularly for the poor. It seems to me that if we are able to get, for example, moves to free up markets for access to agricultural products that is in itself an enormously important contribution for the developing world. I think I am right in saying—I see so many pieces of paper I cannot remember exactly what my source for this is—I have seen some comments from President Museveni to the effect that it will be excellent and admirable if we get a greater flow of aid and it will be excellent and admirable if we get a range of other partnerships which may involve the business community and so on, so it is not just government aid, it is the private sector, etc., etc., but on the other hand, and I am paraphrasing but something along the lines of, all of that would not do very much good if nevertheless the developed world was not going to open up its markets to the developing world, in particular for agricultural products. I think that, in fact, all of this is very much part of a developing approach. These are not the same moves, they are moves, if you like, in parallel. I share your view and your hope that what we will see at Johannesburg is a very different summit from Rio, it is not Rio plus ten. That was one of the first things that we said to the South African Government, that we do not want it to be Rio plus ten, we want it to be Johannesburg and a fresh start. What it can be is something which creates an attitude and an awareness that can spread across a whole series of international negotiations, including into the WTO negotiations. It is certainly part of the background and part of the pressures within the European Union for our own negotiating mandate for the WTO talks and it may well be, and I would certainly welcome it myself, that out of the Johannesburg Summit will come pressure on the EU and the United States and the other players who have committed themselves to phasing out agricultural subsidies and so on at the WTO and we will see parallel processes which are moving us in the same direction.

  289. That means presumably then that DEFRA will be working very closely with the DTI in the run-up to Johannesburg to make sure that what is being taken forward is going to be consistent with having that same emphasis on environmental issues and the effects of the trade round as well?
  (Margaret Beckett) Just as we have a very good relationship with DFID, so we do with DTI. I think Michael is certainly the only EU Environment Minister, possibly one of the few from anywhere in the world, who was at Doha. I know that there was a very, very constructive relationship between the cross-departmental team there and we were able to get environmental issues on to the agenda in a way that we had not dared hope that we might succeed in doing.

  290. It is a question of where the trump card is, is it not, whether or not trade trumps environment or whether environment trumps trade and how it could be a win-win situation?
  (Margaret Beckett) To have a win-win situation it has not got to be an issue of one trumping the other, it has got to be how can they support each other.

David Wright

  291. Secretary of State, last time you came to talk to the Committee we concentrated on the reorganisation of departments post the General Election and you will recall that we talked about some of the recruiting difficulties your Department had experienced. I understand that around 400 posts came across from DETR and at the end of January about 17 per cent of those posts were vacant. In the light of those difficulties, have you had any problems in preparing for the summit? Have you been happy with the amount of resources you have been able to deploy?
  (Margaret Beckett) Those difficulties to the extent that they remain, and we have, as you know, had a dispute understandably, frankly, in the aftermath of trying to reconcile very different working conditions and pay for different staff, hopefully are now well on the way to being dealt with. We have had a fair amount of change. If you look, for example, in the document that we have just produced at the management board at the back of the document, there are a substantial number of changes there, people have come in from other departments, a range of changes, and that is happening throughout the Department. In terms of the resources, we would always like more, of course, but my perspective is that we are reasonably well resourced for the summit and, of course, all of those who are engaged in it are very enthusiastic about it so we probably get more for our money, so to speak, than we are really entitled to get because they all work extraordinarily hard. We have got something like 12 people working full-time on preparations for the summit. One of those is working specifically on the projects that I referred to earlier on that the Prime Minister gave within the last year. Eleven within the Department, four of those are working on the British end of things. We have got two people on loan to the South African Government, one from my own Department and one from DFID. We have got someone from my own Department in New York in the Secretariat there and we have got one in UNEP. Coming in, we have got two secondees, one co-ordinating business response and one co-ordinating the response particularly related to the water industry. Those are the people who are working directly and full-time, but we have also got a very collaborative effort across Whitehall. Our Director General chairs a steering committee which has something of the order of 33 members from the whole range of departments who are engaged. Apart from those people who I referred to who are working full-time, we have a very substantial chunk of the time of the Director General and the Director and Divisional Head. Then there are others in the Department, for example people who are engaged in water policy who are also engaged for part of their time. We have got quite a substantial team, I do not think one could complain about that.

  292. What is your impression about how that compares with other players, European partners, other countries?
  (Margaret Beckett) Pretty well actually. This always sounds terribly immodest but since a lot of it happened before I came to this post maybe I can be a little bit immodest on behalf of the Government. We have built up a very substantial reputation over the years as a result of the work of departments like my own, so partly we are engaged with others, we are asked to participate and contribute to the process and so on, and that has continued. On the whole, I think both in terms of their effectiveness and the quality of their contribution, and also in terms of numbers, we do compare quite well. I think I have said to the Committee before, to take a slightly different example in terms of a specific subject, at climate change conferences both in Bonn and in Marrakesh, it may be immodest but it is perfectly true to say that key contributions came from the British delegation. I am not just talking about the lead negotiator and myself or whatever. If you met the team, they are enormously impressive. We have people who are climate change experts who look about 14 who go and kind of buttonhole ministers and make them negotiate with other ministers to sort out this problem and so on, they are just fantastic.

  293. The PrepCom III process has been mentioned, it is five days away. Do you think that we are up to speed in terms of the work that we have done on that? Are we ready to proceed with that particular meeting?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think that we are. I think we are reasonably optimistic.
  (Ms McCabe) As you know, we negotiate through the Presidency in the PrepComs so a lot of the work has to be done in the EU working group where different subjects are being prepared by different lead countries and the UK is in the lead on three papers which are poverty and the environment, Africa and science and technology. Last week there was a two day meeting at which I think there were about six or seven UK officials taking forward that work. Also, in the absence of anybody else really taking the lead on this in the EU, we have done a lot of work on the Type II initiatives. A long time ago DEFRA commissioned this work by Chatham House which I think you may have seen, which we can certainly send to you, on what criteria and elements we would like to see in a Type II initiative, which has been very widely shared with colleagues. We have had Chatham House experts out in New York, we have had them at the UNEP meetings, so we have had a chance to engage with people from North and South. We have had a lot of congratulations for the quality and appropriateness of that work at this time of negotiations. We are very keen to take forward some Type II initiatives so at that meeting the UK called a meeting with EU partners to share experience and we will probably be leading on that in the EU. There is a lot of work going on by different countries in the EU, there are so many different subjects to be covered that you cannot expect the Presidency to do everything.

  294. How will that work at the summit? How will that interaction work between the objectives of the EU and different countries taking up different strands?
  (Margaret Beckett) At all of these international events we work through an EU co-ordinating group and then ultimately it depends a little bit on how well the pattern then works. Sometimes when you have a wider set of negotiations, as in Bonn and Marrakesh, you get a slightly wider group, of which we are usually a part.

  295. I noticed in your memorandum that the EU Environment Council has been leading EU preparations for the summit so far. Would you like to have seen engagement from other councils?
  (Margaret Beckett) Other councils have been engaged. The GAC has been engaged, ECOFIN, particularly in preparations for Monterrey ECOFIN has been engaged, and indeed the European Council itself, and also the Development Council. Others have been engaged. I think we are hopeful of getting the GAC a bit more engaged.


  296. Sorry, the GAC?
  (Margaret Beckett) The General Affairs Council, I beg your pardon. We are hopeful of getting the GAC a little more engaged even in the future. It is just that the core stuff has to come from somewhere. It would not be fair to say that it is only being done through the Environment Council.

David Wright

  297. One of my concerns and, I am sure, that of members of the Committee, is that we do need an outcome, a programme of action, to come out of Johannesburg, do we not?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes.

  298. Could you give some examples of the types of commitments you might want to see coming out, what kind of targets we are pushing for as a UK Government and what you would like to see as global headline indicators?
  (Margaret Beckett) If I can pick up on what you last said, I am not sure that I am particularly looking for global headline indicators. We are looking much more for practical projects and outcomes. I know that when we have in the past had, say, climate change conferences and so on there has been a tendency—and, indeed, in terms of an approach to the environment as a whole there has been a tendency—to have targets and things of that kind, but I think the feeling this time is that out of Johannesburg we are looking more for a range of specific projects and perhaps seeing them as part of an overall process. There is quite a lot of discussion about this. I am sorry, this is going to sound a bit airy-fairy at the moment, but that is partly because everybody is trying to thrash out exactly what we can most usefully achieve. Certainly, as you know, it was in our memorandum of evidence that the thinking is that there will be a political declaration and a plan of action, and then we hope these Type II partnerships will be mooted. I think the feeling is that what we will want to do is to try to get a range of proposals for actual partnership work which will include the Type II partnerships, which will include what the Government themselves do, which will draw on what we hope will be a successful new African partnership where you are getting better governance, things that they are bringing to the table, and so you draw in private sector investment and so on. I think people are looking very much to see whether there is a framework, if you like, for a global plan of action or a global deal or whatever. There is a lot of sensitivity about the words. The words do not really matter very much. What matters is whether we can get the right framework actually to have something to show for this in two, five, ten years' time, other than just a lot of very nice words and some potential targets that have not actually been delivered. As I say, there is a lot of discussion going on about exactly what is the best way to do that and harness all these different voices and different initiatives.

  299. It is going to be difficult to sell it to the public, is it not?
  (Margaret Beckett) Not necessarily. If we actually get concrete outcomes and concrete projects, then I think that the public understand that a lot better than some of the things that we all tend to talk about in terms of projects and so on.

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