Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 58-79)




  58. Welcome to our Committee. We apologise for keeping you waiting. May I also thank you for the memorandum which the department has put in on this subject. It is obviously a topical subject and also an important one in the context of sustainable development. Is there anything you would like to add briefly to the memorandum that you have already put in before we ask you some questions about it?
  (Mr Andrew) Not at this stage, thank you.

  Chairman: We will start off with the issue of public procurement, which is at the heart of the concern.

Mr Barker

  59. It is now over two years since the Government made the previously voluntary guidance on purchasing timbers binding on departments. The wording in that guidance actually states that purchasers should "actively seek to purchase" from legal and sustainable timber sources. What does that actually mean and who is responsible for arbitrating or auditing what is, to all intents and purposes, a relatively subjective term, that they have actually actively sought to purchase?
  (Mr Andrew) Actively seeking to buy timber from sustainable sources means that prior to that it was a model policy that they adopt or adapt. Now that statement made it an obligation for them, when buying timber or timber products, to obtain them from sources that they could be satisfied were sustainable and legal.

  60. It obliges them to obtain or just seek to obtain?
  (Mr Andrew) To seek to obtain.

  61. How do you differentiate between "obliged" to and "seek to"?
  (Mr Andrew) Because of some of the complexities and difficulties in determining whether timber has been obtained from a legal or sustainable source, the words "actively seek" are included, in recognition that in some cases it would be difficult, if not impossible, to actually achieve that particular target. Your second question is on how it is audited and monitored. Government departments have to report on their timber purchases annually through the Green Ministers report and so they submit annual returns to indicate the progress that they are making.

  62. It is interesting that you say they have to indicate the progress that they are making because the WWF have argued that, despite the role that the UK Government had in achieving the commitments at the G8 Ministerial Conference, to quote them, two years on, no progress has been made. Is that correct, that no progress has been made?
  (Mr Andrew) I would not agree that no progress has been made. I think it is true to say that progress has been slower than perhaps we in DEFRA and Ministers would have liked.

  63. Can you quantify that progress for us?
  (Mr Andrew) Not off-hand. The Green Ministers report indicates that some departments, out of the 18 that are asked the question, have been able to identify some of the timber that they purchase has been acquired from sustainable legal sources, but many in the first Green Ministers report were unable, because they have not got the monitoring systems in place.

  64. Can you tell us how many were able and how may were not and, of those who were able, what percentage had?
  (Mr Andrew) Yes. I have the figures here. I think there are seven department reports. This is published in the report to Green Ministers. Out of the 18 departments that were sent a questionnaire, 11 were unable to provide any information at that stage and seven were able to provide information on spend.

  65. What was that information?
  (Mr Andrew) The total spend on timber products; the spend on certified products; the spend with evidence of sustainable sourcing but not certified; and the spend with no evidence about sustainability.

  66. Can you give us those percentages?
  (Mr Andrew) I have not got percentages, but I have the figures.

  67. Given the name of this committee and its audit nature, it would be very useful in any meaningful discussion to actually quantify this.
  (Mr Andrew) I have not got percentages with me but I could let you have them. That is available.[4]


Sue Doughty

  68. I assume that these regulations originated when you were part of DETR?
  (Mr Andrew) Yes. They are not regulations. It is a policy.

  69. Did DETR report last year on their spend?
  (Mr Andrew) My recollection is that DETR were unable to report.

Mr Barker

  70. What activities have the inter-departmental timber procurement group, announced by Mr Meacher in July 2000, undertaken since then?
  (Mr Andrew) The Timber Buyers Group, as we know them as a nickname, have met seven times: five times since Mr Meacher's statement and twice before.

Sue Doughty

  71. Could you just clarify that? They have met five times since when?
  (Mr Andrew) Since Michael Meacher made his statement in answer to Colin Burgon's parliamentary questions.


  72. Does that mean July 2000?
  (Mr Andrew) July 2000 was when Michael Meacher made the statement. The group in fact met the day before that statement was made.

Joan Walley

  73. On those occasions when they have met, how many times did they meet before my parliamentary question and how many times after my parliamentary question?
  (Mr Andrew) I am not sure when your parliamentary question was?

  74. 14 February 2002.
  (Mr Andrew) To my recollection, they have met twice since then.

Mr Barker

  75. Could you confirm who is actually represented on that group?
  (Mr Andrew) It varies from meeting to meeting. When it was first set up, an invitation was sent out to all Heads of Procurement for representatives from their department. It was done on a voluntary basis. The major departments are the Ministry of Defence, Inland Revenue, Department of Health, Department for Education, DETR, DFID and DEFRA, of course.

Sue Doughty

  76. Obviously we are very concerned about the commitment here because we are hearing about this report and yet it is quite clear that when you were in the DETR, you were not even producing the report yourselves?
  (Mr Andrew) There have been problems with compiling the information. There have also possibly been problems with communications within departments themselves. The Timber Buyers Group discussed why the information was not as fulsome as we expected. There are a number of reasons for that. Some of them is that the contracts were already in place and therefore there were no new contracts to which the policy could be applied; and the information data-capturing systems were not geared up to produce the evidence in the format in which the question was asked. Those might be the reasons. Having worked in the DETR, I can confirm that some of the furniture purchased was certainly purchased from sustainable and legal sources, and so I cannot explain why DETR was unable to provide more information at that time.

  77. That is deeply worrying because we are seeing the ramifications coming through from that point about: we are now going to introduce a new way of working. One of the key departments involved with this has not actually worked out what the questions are and how it is going to answer the questions, but presumably it puts in a nil return to say, "the information is not available for the following reasons and this is what we will do about it". Was anything like that said?
  (Mr Andrew) Since that first report, there have been meetings of the departments involved in greening operations, and it has been made clear at those meetings that data-capturing systems, management information systems, had to be reviewed in order to produce more meaningful information for the next report. Recently, Michael Meacher has written to all Green Ministers asking them to conduct a review in their departments, and the question of data information systems was addressed in that, too.


  78. You said that Mr Meacher has asked for a review to take place of data collection systems.
  (Mr Andrew) Of timber procurement activities in general, but as one of those in particular.

  79. When did that happen?
  (Mr Andrew) That happened very recently. I think on 13 May the letter was issued.


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