Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 190-199)




  190. Good morning, Minister. Thank you very much for coming at relatively short notice to see the Committee on this important topic which goes to the heart of Government procurement and sustainable development. I would be grateful if you would introduce your two officials since we do not have their names. Secondly, if there is anything you would like to say by way of a brief statement before you are questioned, please do.

  (Mr Meacher) Chairman, my experience of all these matters is a statement initially by the Minister is listened to even less than the initial answer given by Ministers when they answer questions downstairs. Let us get to the real meat, which is the supplementaries. On my left is Bob Andrew who is Procurement Advisor for DEFRA and Bob Ford who is the CITES Advisor.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Mr Francois.

Mr Francois

  191. Minister, good morning. I think we recognise as a Committee that greening timber procurement across Government is quite a challenge, we accept that, but if we cannot achieve sustainable practices as opposed to just articulating policies in this area, where (1) the issue is really quite clearly identified, (2) there is relatively high public awareness about it, and (3) there is already a model to follow from the private sector, and an accepted certification process, then what does this say about our ability to tackle more complex issues if we cannot tackle this one?
  (Mr Meacher) This is, as you are kind enough to recognise, an unusually complex area. It is something that with the best will in the world, and I would insist that we do have very goodwill on this issue, we want the policy as we have stated to succeed. We do require co-operation, not only across Government but in other departments. That is within our responsibility and it has not succeeded as well as it should, I would be the first to recognise that and I am determined to make that change. Secondly, of course, we need co-operation with bodies outside of Government like local authorities and with the private sector. Above all, we need co-operation from the developing countries themselves. The key issue of whether timber has been legally or illegally harvested is not a matter on which any governments in the northern hemisphere are able to make a judgment. We do require co-operation from the competent authorities in those countries. Nevertheless, having said that, I would be the first to recognise that we could and should have done more to engage other departments and to communicate the policy. I did send out a very clear statement of that policy in July 2000 but it did not communicate as efficiently as we would have expected because we now have a very devolved and fragmented structure in procurement and I think we under-estimated that. We could and should have done more to train buyers, to raise awareness and of course to supervise the implementation and to monitor progress. I would insist that there has been, and will continue to be as we get the report about the Cabinet Office incident, as we get the report of the ERM consultancy, in terms of rolling this out across Government and doing it more efficiently. I believe this year we can and will do better. I will not say how many out of ten, it was not out of ten, but we are going to get a lot closer this year.192. We kind of got your opening statement there I think.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.193. In your own words, what priority does the Government accord to combatting the importation and use of illegally logged timber into the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Meacher) We give that absolute priority. It was stated in the Prime Minister's speech following my statement in July 2000, his speech in March 2001, and I quote his words: We have already promised that as a Government we will only purchase timber from legal and sustainable sources". The policy is simply to require contractors to supply timber, as he said, from legal and sustainable sources and to produce independent verification to prove compliance. Of course, the Cabinet Office incident showed that was not working as it should have done. Government buyers have been issued with advice to guide them through the process and we are working to produce fresh guidance with regard to the lessons that we have learned. In short, we give high priority to it. It is a difficult area but we expect to be held to account over it and we are going to do our very best to achieve those high standards.194. You will be aware that domestically a large number of our own woods and forests are in areas currently designated as Green Belt. You might recall that when you appeared before the Committee talking about sustainable development indicators we pressed you on rumours that the Government were seeking to relax Green Belt controls and I think you were able to give us some reassurance about that at the time. There have been a lot of rumours in the press that when we get the Comprehensive Spending Review announcement it is going to include some relaxation of planning controls which will also include a degradation of the protection that is offered to Green Belt. As we have you here this morning, are you able to tell us that that is just spin and that is not true because I think the Committee would like some reassurance on that?
  (Mr Meacher) I would advise Mr Francois not to believe all you read in the newspapers. I think it is a very tenuous and fragmentary guide to what is actually going on within Government. That is the first point.195. Right.
  (Mr Meacher) Wait and see what the Government actually says rather than rumours being spun by all sorts of people for whatever motives and on whatever fragmentary information they believe they may have. Secondly, with regard to the Spending Review 2002, I cannot comment on that. Not only am I not allowed to but I do not know the contexts of that. Thirdly, the report which I think triggered this, as I think I said at the time to the Committee, was the Town and Country Planning Report and, of course, that is not a Government body. I am not trying to play down their significance, they are an important body, but they do not make Government policy. They were telling us what they thought about it, which is not at all necessarily the same as what Government will do.196. I appreciate the distinction. Are you telling us that when we get the announcement in a couple of weeks' time, whenever, it is not going to include a relaxation of the Green Belt?
  (Mr Meacher) No, I am not saying that. I am not confirming it and I am not disconfirming it. It is like one of those famous stories when one is asked to confirm something, one is asked to agree with something, and one says No, I am not saying that", so the immediate assumption is the opposite. I am not privy to the final conclusive details of the Spending Review 2002. I do not know the details. I am not making any prognostications at all as to what it might contain but I am telling you on the specific point you raise that this is a very key and sensitive issue within Government and I would advise you to wait for the facts and not be carried along by, dare I say, spin.


  197. Going back to what Mr Francois correctly announced as your opening remarks, did you really say that for this to work you needed the co-operation of the developing countries and, therefore, if you had, for example, some wood or timber wrongly certified by a company or a government in a developing country there is nothing you can do about it, it is as simple as that?
  (Mr Meacher) Neither we nor any of the other European or North American countries can know whether wood was legally or illegally harvested, and I suppose the most obvious example, and no doubt we will come on to this later, is mahogany in Brazil. We cannot know this.198. So there is nothing you can do if it is wrongly labelled?
  (Mr Meacher) I think I would agree with that. Obviously we would want to work with the competent authority of those countries—Ibama is the management authority in Brazil—to help them to build the capacity, if they have not got it, to ensure that they can give accurate answers to these questions. In some countries it may be the relevant government authority does not itself actually know. We would want to build that chain of custody, that information network, to ensure that information was known to the country concerned and we would then wish to liaise with them to get accurate information from them, but we cannot get behind that export certificate without their co-operation.

Joan Walley

  199. Can I just follow that up. I understand the practicalities and the difficulties of doing that but is it the case that that would need to be done through some kind of negotiated international environmental agreement? Is that, therefore, something which already is or should be being actively pursued through negotiation at the World Summit in Johannesburg?
  (Mr Meacher) I doubt if it requires a multilateral environment agreement although those are always very helpful, although once again it raises the whole issue of enforcement and coverage.


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