Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)



200. If not multilateral, bilateral.
  (Mr Meacher) It is bilaterals. We signed a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding with Indonesia very recently. We are certainly very hopeful that that will lead to further bilaterals. We have already had discussions with a number of other countries. I think it has to be done on that basis. It would not normally be within the purview of a multilateral environmental agreement to require a developing country to obtain certain information and give it to another country so that its commercial buyers had more information. It is a bilateral consideration.

201. It would be very helpful to have a list of all the bilateral agreements that the UK has signed and a list of those countries with which we might be seeking to agree a bilateral agreement.
  (Mr Meacher) I can do that very easily. It is one and that is Indonesia. What I am saying is in the light of what we believe is a good precedent which has been set in the case of Indonesia we now have opened up negotiations with, I think, half a dozen other countries but we have only signed one.

Ian Lucas

  202. Have you any idea, Minister, of how many bilateral agreements, let us say, other countries in Europe have signed with suppliers?
  (Mr Meacher) I think I am right in saying that the Indonesian one is the first that any northern country has signed, I think it is a first. There has been considerable interest in it from Germany, France, Japan, etc., and they themselves in the light of it have been opening up discussions with some of the southern supplying countries. I think no other signed it before we did.

Mr Savidge

  203. Is the uncertainty you have just been referring to the reason why in your statement of July 2000 you used the term actively seek to buy timber and timber products from sustainable and legal sources" rather than making it a specific obligation? Do you feel there is a danger in that despite the fact the guidance was supposed to be moving from being mandatory to voluntary some people may have read into that and that really there was no change and that might be one of the explanations for what happened at the Cabinet Office, for example?
  (Mr Meacher) On the question of the wording, this is a minefield. I am not sure if that is the correct analogy to use. The timber supply system as it exists, which we are trying to bring some order and discipline to, is very inchoate, fragmented and variable across the world. Therefore, you can lay down your standards and the words actively seek to" mean that you expect buyers to make every possible effort—to use another metaphor—in this jungle to try and achieve the required policy. Given the present state of timber supply across the world you do have to—I would not use a word like compromise—accept that the standards which you would like to apply will not necessarily automatically apply. All that you can do is actively seek to implement those higher standards, to get independent verification. It is not very often possible to get it. Maybe we have not always tried sufficiently to get it but even if we did, given the present state of transfer down the chain of custody, that information is not available.204. In what proportion of cases would you expect it to be impossible for Government to obtain from legal and sustainable sources, recognising again that obviously we are talking in an area where precise quantification can be difficult?
  (Mr Meacher) I find even approximate quantification impossible to give. I would say in the case of most suppliers of tropical hardwoods, and it is there where the problem really lies, and with many of the African countries, Cameroon is obviously one that comes to mind over Sapele wood, these kinds of assurances cannot be obtained with the precision that we would like. I think a great deal of capacity building is needed. We are contributing to this. DFID gives, I think it is, 20 million a year to developing countries to assist them in greater capacity building to deal with these issues over sustainable timber. I think we have done our bit, I hope other countries do too, but we have still got quite a long way to go and it does apply to most countries, if not nearly all, in that region.205. Prior to your announcement in July 2000, what sort of preparatory work had been done to see how far your policy was achievable and on what timescale it might be achievable?
  (Mr Meacher) There was the OGC, Office of Government Commerce, guidance to all heads of procurement about timber purchasing. That was actually January 2001, so that followed. I withdraw that because you were asking about what was the situation before. The advice which I gave, or the guidance which I gave, was reiterated in January 2001 and it was meant to influence the timber buyers, and I think it has had some considerable influence. The answer is clearly we have not done enough. It was perfectly clear afterwards that we did not realise the devolvement and fragmentation of timber procurement by Central Government in different departments, NDPBs, quite apart from local authorities. It has turned out to be a far wider and more diverse mosaic than I think we realised. I think we did need to have done more preparatory work before we issued the policy.206. Do you think that means rather than being a major policy change it ended up more as a statement of aspiration?
  (Mr Meacher) No, no. I do not want to give the impression of that. Governments do very rigorously prepare policy where there is a policy change. I am saying we did not do it as fully as we should. I certainly do not want to give the impression that we just had a written answer from a Minister and we threw it into the air and just waited for it to happen, it certainly was not like that.


  207. But you had no knowledge of where you were starting from. As you have just agreed you do not know how much Government procurement is from sustainable sources.
  (Mr Meacher) What I am saying is that we were having to communicate with other Government departments. We believed that the guidance sent out would accurately achieve that, that it would get the effect we wanted. One of the things I have to say which shocks me is with regard to the Cabinet Office episode the Cabinet Office Head of Procurement has stated that he did not receive the notification sent by me on 29 September 2000 of the model policy becoming a binding commitment.[1] The contract was awarded in December 2000 before the OGC advice note reminded heads of procurement of the policy. Again, one assumes within Government that when you communicate to other Government departments that information, that relevant instruction, goes down the line to the appropriate person and that it is immediately adhered to.

  208. The Cabinet Office is rather close to the heart of Government after all.
  (Mr Meacher) Absolutely.209. It did not have far to go.
  (Mr Meacher) I do find myself puzzled and alarmed by some of the implications of this. I think it is only fair to say on our behalf that we would not have expected that. We had no grounds for thinking that. This is what I like to regard as a Class A Government and when instructions go down the line, as in Class A private sector organisations, you expect them to be adhered to.

Joan Walley

  210. Could I just pursue that because I have got a written reply from the Northern Ireland Office dated 2 July.
  (Mr Meacher) Which year?211. 2002. This reply is on refurbishment projects where I was asking what is in progress, what will start within the next six months and what action has been taken to ensure that these will procure certified timber. As part of the response the Minister replied Refurbishment contracts are procured for the Northern Ireland Office by the Department of Finance and Personnel Construction Service. No reference is made to the use of certified timber and no mention of sustainable timber in any contract document or specifications given to contractors". In the light of this, this leads me to ask you the question when it comes to the 800,000 refurbishment of No.10 Downing Street, which I believe has been announced in the last week, do I need to be tabling similar Parliamentary Questions to the Prime Minister to get assurances about how or whether this is going to be written into the specification of that particular contract?
  (Mr Meacher) Whether you put down such a question is a matter for your sovereign decision.212. It depends upon your answer.
  (Mr Meacher) I certainly do not think it is necessary. I do not think there will be any question whatsoever but that No.10 will adhere to the letter to the details of the policy. I have not actually seen that answer from the Northern Ireland Minister. Obviously I will want to look at that rather carefully but I would be very surprised indeed if in the light of events over the last few months this policy had now not permeated to all the corners of Government where it needed to, including the private contracting authority.213. Are you advising me to ask that question of No.10?
  (Mr Meacher) No, I am not advising you.214. It will not be necessary?
  (Mr Meacher) I am saying it is a matter for you whether you do but I am saying I do not think it will be necessary. If you want to have reassurance, please do.215. I might just take the precautionary approach. In terms of the responses that we have had to the Greening Government Report, the seven responses which we have had which we asked your officials on at the previous appearance that they made before our Committee, was the Cabinet Office one of those seven offices that responded to that? Indeed, was No.10?
  (Mr Meacher) I think it was. We will come back immediately with a written response on that.[2]

Sue Doughty

  216. Could I just add one point to that. Nobel House, as I understand it, is coming up for refurbishment. I think we ought to ask you about your confidence about the use of timber in Nobel House. I am sure it will be close to your own heart, Minister.


  217. How far are you satisfied with the progress that has been made since your July 2000 statement in timber procurement?
  (Mr Meacher) I think I have said enough to say that although we entered into that policy in very good faith and with the right intentions, we under-estimated the complexities of the problem and in particular the fragmentation of the procurement network. We have put in place an ERM consultancy in order to try and learn the lessons of that incident. That report will be published in about September of this year and I can certainly tell the Committee that it is likely that the final report will conclude that independent verification is the only credible form of evidence. I do not think we doubted that but some people have raised that as an issue. Secondly, that Government contracts should define requirements of sustainable management and chain of custody management in terms of agreed international principles and management systems which, let me say, are themselves in a somewhat inchoate state but there is increasingly now much more discussion, including at EU level. There was, for example, an EU workshop on Forest Law Enforcement, Government and Trade in April of this year. Thirdly, I believe it will state that it is unreasonable to expect Government to implement its policy in full over a short timescale and that progressive targets need to be established, bearing in mind all the various players in this. Fourthly, that concentration on a few key suppliers would yield significant benefits fairly quickly. Lastly, that some form of guidance resource centre will be needed to help Government buyers who will never possess the expertise needed to understand all the issues. The key point here is concentration on a relative number of suppliers to make sure that the policy is totally and fully understood by them and that they can implement it and having a centralised form of guidance which is known to all the buyers so that the complexity of the issues can properly be communicated at least to them.218. Can I pick up your phrase progressive targets". In the July statement you mentioned that targets would need to be set for timber procurement. How far have such targets now been set and in so far as they have not been set, why not? How far are targets necessary—again to take a phrase from that statement—if we are to ensure that the Government sets its own house in order"?
  (Mr Meacher) We are waiting, of course, for the ERM consultancy. As I say, it is only two or three months away. I agree that in the light of that we will have to address, and should address, the whole issue of resources and targets and of timescales and that is what we intend to do.

Mr Thomas

  219. Following Mr Savidge's questions, can I just ask about those policy principles you have just told the Committee about. Are you going to pick a clear frontrunner for a standard certification scheme? With the Government's procurement and the vast sums of money that are available, and working through the EU as well, if we in the north came behind a certain certification scheme surely that in itself would be a strong economic driver in developing countries, they would know their market, they would know how to get into it. Is it the FSC that you will be supporting in that? Are there other schemes that you are seeking to bring forward? What is your view on how that inchoate state, which you have talked much about before the Committee this morning, could be improved?
  (Mr Meacher) Clearly FSC, Forest Stewardship Council, is the standard that most people work to. Our policy, as I have already indicated, has from the outset been to require independent verification but it does not limit suppliers to the certification scheme. I would here say to the Committee that France and Germany have decided to go down that route and we will be carefully watching what happens. Our view is that the absence of a certificate does not necessarily prove that a supplier has not sourced the timber from sustainable and legal sources.


1   Mr Meacher stated that he himself had notified the Head of Procurement at the Cabinet Office; in fact that notification was made by an official, Mr Robert C Andrew of Procurements and Contracts, DEFRA Back

2   Please see supplementary memorandum.

(Mr Meacher) One hundred per cent.

Mr Savidge Back

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