The Environmental Audit Committee has
agreed to the following Report:
MEASURING THE QUALITY OF LIFE: THE 2001
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT HEADLINE INDICATORS
LIST OF CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The 2001 Barometer
1. DEFRA has published an updated (June 2002)
Quality of Life Barometer leaflet since we took evidence from
Mr Meacher. This summarises the current position for the headline
indicators. We are pleased to note that this version of the barometer
incorporates a number of presentational changes which the Committee
proposed in its oral evidence session with Mr Meacher. We commend
the Government for this action and these changes are considered
in the body of our report (para 6).
2. Statistics are open to a variety of interpretations.
The traffic light markings have an even greater element of subjectivity.
The judgement linking the data presented and the "traffic
light" assessment awarded is not explicit. We recommend that
in future each headline indicator assessment be accompanied by
a short justification of that marking and that future reports
state clearly what constitutes "significant change"
in awarding the assessments (para 19).
3. Third party validation of the Government's
"traffic light" indicator assessments is necessary to
neutralise unfounded claims of partiality which could themselves
undermine the credibility of the indicators. Such validation could
be achieved by the use of independent consultants. Alternatively,
the Government's annual report on the headline indicators could
include a statement from the Sustainable Development Commission
outlining how far it agreed with the Government's assessments
4. The launch of the 2001 barometer and related
DEFRA press release led to some unfortunate media coverage which
did little to advance the Government's cause in entrenching the
headline indicators in the public psyche as clear and trusted
signals of the UK's progress towards the Government's sustainable
development goals (para 26).
5. We recommend that DEFRA's Communications
Strategy for the 2003 report on the headline indicators reviews
media coverage of the previous annual reports and considers how
future presentation can minimise past pitfalls (para 29).
6. At present
there is insufficient comparable data for the waste headline indicator.
Thus no traffic light assessment for the "since the Strategy"
period is provided in the 2001 report (para 34).
7. Mr Meacher
was keen to reassure us that the lack of data provision was not
an attempt by the Government to mask the poor trends in waste
arisings and management. He told us "Let me make this absolutely
clear, waste is a problem area, it is a red area...". We
agree (para 35).
8. We note that the updated, June 2002 barometer
includes a newly split indicator which awards a "traffic
light" assessment for household waste (red) and all waste
streams (no comparable data). We welcome Mr Meacher's action in
response to our concerns. This will make recent trends in waste
arisings clearer to the public. However, in future, the public
may actually find the split confusing when municipal
waste rather than household waste is reported as
an indicator at EU level. The Government should consider how it
will guard against this situation (para 40).
9. If the traffic indicator were awarded a "green
light" this would not indicate an
absolute reduction in vehicle miles but a slower
rate of growth. The report does not conceal this vital distinction
but nor is it explicit in the presentation of this indicator.
It should be. This potential for confusion underlines the need
to clearly set out objectives against indicators (para 44).
10. The rate of traffic growth is an appropriate
indicator for the overall progress of Government transport policy.
The Government expects the package of measures in the 10 year
transport plan to reduce traffic growth, although this is not
an explicit aim, therefore performance can be judged against this
indicator. However, the lack of specific Government targets relating
to traffic growth or traffic levels does not give us confidence
that the transport headline indicator forms the intended feedback
necessary to inform policy decisions. The Government should explain
why it is content to use the rate of traffic growth as a headline
indicator but is unwilling to have any specific targets relating
to traffic levels or traffic growth (para 46).
Climate change (H9)
11. DEFRA's latest data shows that the decrease
in greenhouse gases has levelled off, while carbon dioxide (the
main greenhouse gas) emissions actually increased in both 2000
and 2001 (para 48).
12. The simple green light for this indicator,
in the absence of an explanation in the headline indicator summary,
has the potential to lead to confusion over meaning and scepticism
over objectivity. We accept that short term fluctuations in trends
are to be expected and should not be allowed to skew the "traffic
light" assessments of long-term indicators. They should,
however, be acknowledged and explained in the report (para 50).
13. We recommend
that the Government clarify how it is seeking to achieve a uniform
geographic basis across all the headline indicators (para 51).
14. We encourage
the UK Government to continue to work collaboratively with the
devolved administrations in developing comparable indicator reporting
systems. We believe that in the absence of a standardised UK view,
any summary assessments of the indicators from the devolved administrations
should be included as annexes in future UK annual review reports
15. The Government's overall "ten out
of fifteen" (66.6 per cent) score is somewhat selective.
One could just as easily present the 2001 assessments as showing
that only two of the seven environmental indicators (28.6 per
cent) are showing clear progress, the rest (71.4 per cent) being
to some degree unsatisfactory (para 54).
16. Where data is unavailable for a headline
indicator in a particular year we agree that this should be marked
as "incomparable data". However we recommend that, in
such cases, the Government should consider providing an additional
"proxy" traffic light assessment which indicates the
Government's "best guess" at whether the indicator is
on a sustainable track (para 55).
17. The Government must ensure that appropriate
data is collected. Given that the 15 headline indicators were
established in 1999, we are surprised and disappointed that there
is still insufficient data in some areas to provide a complete
picture (para 56).
18. The barometer clearly shows the environmental
element of sustainable development to be the "Cinderella"
of the three with little indication of how this situation is being
tackled. The Government needs to demonstrate strongly its commitment
to take action if trends are heading in the wrong direction so
that we all can see evidence that the Government is managing and
not just measuring (para 58).