WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002
Mr John Horam, in the Chair
RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, a Member of the House, Minister of State (Environment), MR JOHN ADAMS, Head of the Sustainable Development Unit, and MR STEVE HALL, Statistician, Environment Protection Statistics and Information Management (EPSIM), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), examined.
(Mr Meacher) I think it is, yes; with me, anyway.
(Mr Meacher) No. I do not know whether you want me to introduce my colleagues.
(Mr Meacher) John Adams, who is Head of the Sustainable Development Unit, and Steve Hall, who is Environmental Protection Statistics.
Chairman: Good; thank you very much indeed. And we want to start off by just looking at some of the individual headline indicators, concentrating particularly on the environmental ones, although, obviously, as we both know, wider than that, but we would like to concentrate on the environmental ones at this particular meeting, since we do not have a huge amount of time. I know Mrs Clark wants to start off, on road traffic.
(Mr Meacher) There has, that is perfectly true, but the rate of increase has very substantially reduced; how exactly that is represented, in terms of red, amber, green, is a matter of judgement. I think what we have done is right. The increase in road traffic since 1970 has been 134 per cent, the report makes this clear; since 1990, 14 per cent; and since Strategy in 1999, 4 per cent; and within that period the increase in road traffic has actually slowed below the rate of economic growth. In 2000/2001, it was 1.2 per cent. It is still an increase but it is hugely less an increase than we have seen in the last two decades, and I think it is fair to describe it in the way we have; after all, the aim is to reduce the rate of growth, and that is very sharply reducing.
(Mr Meacher) Of course, it depends what the figures actually show. I am not saying how we might characterise in future; and, given the degree to which the rate of increase is slowing, I suppose it is not so impossible that we will see in future years that it actually does marginally decrease, that would certainly be agreed.
(Mr Meacher) It depends what the objective is, and we were quite honest and clear about this, it was to reduce the rate of growth, when we compiled these statistics. We did not say, "We are going to characterise the change on the basis of whether there was an increase, or the same, or a decrease," we said that "It will be based on reducing the rate of growth." Now maybe you think that is not understood by the public, that may be true; all that I can say is that we have not tried to conceal that. Given the problems, namely, given society's love of the motorcar, and the increased use of the motorcar by increasing sections of the population, that is a realistic objective, whereas a decrease, in an absolute sense, is not one that is readily going to be achieved. Given the slowing of the rate of increase, it is possible that we will get there, but we did make clear, as I say, that the first objective must be to reduce the rate of growth, and that has happened.
(Mr Meacher) All I can say is, we have made no attempt to conceal the fact that it is increasing, that is unquestionably true, that is what the facts do show. And we are not suggesting that this scores green, we are not making a positive thing out of this, we are simply saying it is an amber; and I think it is fair to describe it as an amber, given the figures that I have quoted, there is a dramatic change. I am not sure I can take it further. You have made your point and I do understand it, and it is a perfectly fair point. I hope you will accept the points that I am making are perfectly fair. Like so many of these headline indicators, it is the way in which one looks at them, and, I absolutely agree, one needs great care in looking at indicators and statistics, because what you are saying is true and what I am saying is true.
(Mr Meacher) Absolutely, and there has been quite a lot of work done on quality of life, and for the first time the 2001 Survey of Public Attitudes towards the Environment included questions on the quality of life. I am not sure how you are going to follow it up. I can certainly give the details.
(Mr Meacher) You say the public perceives that; the question is, if that is true, you are just asserting it, I am not sure where the evidence for that is, and the real facts are, even if the public perceives that, is that the case. And if you look at the figures, again, we are back to the point that there is an increase, but it is a very small increase, and the rate of increase has been decreasing. Now I doubt if the public perceives that as a red.
(Mr Meacher) You are making assumptions - - -
(Mr Meacher) By 1.2 per cent in the last year.
(Mr Meacher) I think many people who are pedestrians and who live near roads believe that traffic volumes are high, and almost certainly, in most cases, higher than they would like, even though many of them will also be car users and actually be contributing to that.
(Mr Meacher) I have said that that is so.
(Mr Meacher) I think we are having the same kind of arguments I had with Mrs Doughty. I am not denying that there has been an increase, it is a small increase, I doubt if it is one which is subjectively perceived by the public; the real problem for the public is that they do believe, I am sure, many of them, most of us, probably, believe that traffic volumes are higher, and higher than we would like. And it is certainly true that it is marginally continuing to creep up, and that is not satisfactory, I entirely agree, but it is also true that the trend, a long-term trend, and, more recently, the very recent trend, is going absolutely in the right direction, in the way that the public would like. And if you take both of those factors together, I do not think it is unfair to regard this as an amber rather than a red. But what you are really illustrating is, it is very difficult, with all of these things, to decide, in a logical and utterly rational way, whether it should be green, amber or red, there is a degree of subjectivity; those who are perhaps hostile to the Government would incline towards a rather harsher view.
(Mr Meacher) I agree, amber is not satisfactory, amber is not satisfactory, absolutely; we want there to be 15 greens, in the sense that there has been a change in the situation which justifies scoring green in every case. Now, at the moment, it is ten, which is, I think, pretty good. We did not choose these indicators, they have not been chosen by Government to get the result we want, they were chosen as a result of intense sampling of the population, use of focus groups, etc., so it is their indices, not ours. Now, if we get ten out of 15, I think that is pretty good, but we still do need the remainder; and, in fact, I think it is 12, is it not, 12 out of 15, three are reds.
(Mr Meacher) Well, what John Prescott was hoping for has not happened, that is a matter of fact. But, I repeat, there has been a change, and there has been a change for the better, in the sense that the rate of increase has markedly slowed, and I just do not think you can deny that. We are not saying it is perfect, we are not saying a success, we are not making claims that this is an area in which the Government has dramatically succeeded, we have not, it is a very, very difficult area. You have started on probably the single most difficult area, I totally understand that, it is totally proper; it is a very difficult area for any Government to influence the attitudes of people, given the immense flexibility, manoeuverability and convenience of the car, it is very difficult. But there has been a significant change, and I think that that can only fairly be represented not as a success, not as a failure, but as an amber.
(Mr Meacher) I did not mean any particular Member, let me make that very clear.
(Mr Meacher) Okay, you make your point, and I am sure John Prescott would accept that. He, like probably all of us, underestimated how difficult it is to make this change. There has been a change. I repeat again, it has not been yet as far and as fast as he anticipated.
(Mr Meacher) It is certainly not down to the fuel protesters. There are changes which have been made in policy, which have begun to affect this. First of all, I think there is much greater awareness, in terms of a contribution to climate change, and the single biggest impact of transport towards the climate change figures; now how far that actually translates into behaviour of individual drivers, I think it does, for a minority, but it is probably not yet very widespread. There has been much emphasis in every Budget on greenhouse gas emissions, VED measures, according to size of engine and generation of greenhouse gases, there has been a great deal of discussion on the very contentious topic of congestion charging; all of these, I think, have begun to influence what happens on the ground. I would like to think that ministerial exhortations to shorter journeys, fewer journeys and use public transport or walk had some effect, I suspect they have probably had rather little effect. I was referring, of course, to evenings and weekends.
(Mr Meacher) And, before you ask the question, Mr Chairman, I do try to abide by that myself, in a small way. I do think that congestion charging, which is an option, and certainly likely to be exercised in London, and maybe elsewhere, will certainly begin to have an impact. But I think there is a much greater readiness to understand that this is a problem, and I would think there are 20, 30 per cent perhaps of the population who are very sensitive to these matters and do try to reflect it in their own behaviour.
(Mr Meacher) Perhaps I could take you back to your earlier premise. We are all agreed that it has proved more difficult than, I think, any of us anticipated. I do not think the Government has failed, I think we have only partially succeeded; that is a rather different way of putting it. I do think, I insist, that there has been a change, and that is some partial success; and, I think, in the light of that experience, it would be very unwise for any Minister, or any Government, to make prognostications of where we are going to be in five years. We intend to intensify these pressures, as I have just indicated to Mr Challen, and I do anticipate that those will increasingly bite; but whether it bites sufficiently to get a reduction, an overall reduction, in five years, I am not making that prediction, but I do not think that that is impossible.
(Mr Meacher) That is a matter for the public, is it not, it is not a matter for Government to lay down; and we are very concerned, what does the electorate feel about this, what are their views about what they would like the traffic situation to be. As I say, most people, if not virtually everyone, would like traffic to be less; the question is, are they willing to make their contribution to it, in order to ensure that everyone makes a contribution to it. Now I am not sure what the public's attitude is, I think it is very mixed, I think it is very ambiguous. So it is not for the Government to set a target and then say, "Well, we're being held to it," it is for the electorate, I think, to take a view, to which we will be very sensitive, I can assure you.
(Mr Meacher) Yes. I have mentioned these, so I will not repeat them, but the other one which I think is quite important is air quality. We have a commitment to statutory application of air quality targets in 2005, now only three years away, and let me make clear what that means. There are eight main air pollutants, and each local authority in the country is required to ensure that it, within its own territory, remains below the ceiling level for each of those pollutants. Now, of course, some of them, particularly NOx and PM10s, which are associated with transport, are often very difficult, in very heavily-used roads, near intersections, centres of cities, and local authorities have now been required to examine such hot spots, as they are called, in order to determine whether it is necessary to have an air quality management area designated, and action taken by the local authority, and which it will determine what that is, in order to bring the level of pollution of each of those pollutants below the threshold level. Now that is also going to lead to change, it may lead to change in traffic configuration, possibly road architecture, it is for the local authority to decide, but I think this will influence the pattern of traffic, both its speed and its volume.
(Mr Meacher) That will certainly have an impact on traffic pollution, and indeed I think there will be a major change in the next five, ten years in that respect, as we move towards hybrid vehicles; which, of course, can be produced now, it is all a question of recharging, and the redesigning of vehicles in order to take the necessary tanks, and, of course, questions of cost. But the big change, of course, is as we move towards the hydrogen fuel-cell car, and I know no more than anyone else about when that is going to happen, but I would certainly anticipate that it will be in commercial use within ten, 15 years.
(Mr Meacher) Ten, 15 years, if that is a long way off, yes.
(Mr Meacher) Well, as we are all trained to say, that is a matter for the Chancellor, and it is one on which, of course, we give him advice; but it is his decision.
Chairman: We want to move on to some other indicators, I think, after discussing that, which has had a rather lengthy exposure. I know Mr Gerrard wants to come in here.
(Mr Meacher) I think we are pretty clear as to some of the reasons, and, probably, the main reasons, whether we yet understand all the main reasons I would be less sure. Certainly, intensification of agriculture is unquestionably the main one, and that is reflected in, for example, the reduction in field margins, the destruction of hedgerows, the switch from spring to autumn sowing and, of course, extensive use of pesticides, as well as fertilisers. Now all of those, directly or indirectly, impact on bird survival.
(Mr Meacher) Of course, it is significant that, whilst there has been a reduction in both types of species, the reduction in farmland is dramatically more; the reduction in woodland birds since 1970 is about 15 per cent, in the case of farmland it is 43 per cent. And that, I think, simply reflects the factors that I have referred to, intensified agriculture and all that goes with it; and it is the reversal of those practices which will steadily, we believe, restore the populations towards where they were.
(Mr Meacher) Again, we are at a very early stage in a switch away from the most intense stages of the Common Agricultural Policy. Last year, as these figures show, there was a 9 per cent increase in woodland species, and about level, in other words, no further drop, in farmland species. Now what are the policies behind that; an increased shift towards the second pillar of the Agricultural Policy, away from subsidised production towards agri-environment, there has been a quite significant shift towards organic, it has happened all across Europe, it is happening even faster here, and has certainly been very much supported by Government support subsidy as well. Modulation, which was introduced by the previous Minister for Agriculture, from 2 to 41/2 per cent; a modest but significant change compared with past trends, and one of which, of course, the Curry Commission, which is probably the single most important instrument, has recommended should increase substantially further. And, indeed, the Curry report on sustainable agriculture, 'Commission on Food and Farming', as it is called, really seeks to reverse a lot of these trends; and, I can assure you, the Government takes very careful note of the Curry report, we have yet to set out our proposals, but we are certainly impressed by that report and are keen to see much of it implemented.
(Mr Meacher) For those who were engaged in the statistics before my time, I think it is because we did not appreciate the differentiation between these types of species at the outset, and it became clear that there was a clear and major dividing line, and almost certainly related to causation; so I think that was why the change was made.
(Mr Adams) Having put both lines on the same graph, we are then faced, if they are going in different directions, with the requirement either to compromise as to what the story is or to say that the story is different as between the two, and that was what we decided to do this year.
(Mr Meacher) I think it is because, of course, we have got it now, but we did not have it, I think, in 1990; is that correct?
(Mr Adams) I think what has happened here is that we deliberately chose an indicator for all waste streams, but we do not have equally good data for all waste streams; we have reasonably good data for household waste and we can track that year by year, but we will not have, for another year, or so, another comprehensive set of data to set alongside that.
(Mr Adams) Household waste is only a minority of them.
(Mr Meacher) They are more handeable; it is important to look at the quantification of this. I think it is about 120 million, 130 million tonnes a year, of which - - -
(Mr Meacher) What you are saying is, why have we not looked extensively at household waste.
(Mr Meacher) We could have done, I quite agree, but it would be an odd thing to do. I think the level is about 28 million tonnes, currently, and if you look at it with commercial and industrial waste it is around 130; it would be odd to concentrate on one-fifth of the total.
(Mr Meacher) The question is, have they, and do they, and are they.
(Mr Adams) There are data for household waste, which are published separately, and we are not trying to hide or disguise those. This is the indicator for waste we chose three years ago. Now there is an interesting discussion to be had as to whether that was an appropriate choice to have made.
(Mr Adams) We have not changed the indicator, we merely split the analysis in terms of the tick and the cross, but we are quite reluctant to change the indicators, because one of the benefits of a time series is that people can see what is going on.
Chairman: But this is not telling us anything, because you say you have no data, so there is no information.
(Mr Adams) In 2003/2004, we will have new data on a basis on which we can update what is in the Strategy.
(Mr Meacher) From the statutory, 1999.
(Mr Hall) I think it will be just a snapshot of a year or so ago.
(Mr Meacher) Let me make it absolutely clear, waste is a problem area, it is a red area, and this is not a device to evade that fact; it is simply saying that, on the statistical comparisons which we believe are right and proper, we do not have the necessary data going back to the period since the Strategy.
Mr Francois: On this point about municipal waste, Minister, it is the Government's own Environment Agency that have told this Committee, very clearly, - - -
Chairman: We will have to suspend for a quarter of an hour, until 5.15, we will come back at 5.15.
The Committee suspended from 4.57 pm to 5.12 pm for a division in the House.
Chairman: Minister, we have got a forum, so if you would not mind starting three minutes earlier than I indicated, because we have got your questioner here as well. So perhaps Mr Francois could carry on with the question he was so rudely interrupted on.
(Mr Meacher) There is an argument to that effect; we could do that. However, with great respect to the Environment Agency, and I have a lot of respect for them, that is not the definitive judgement, it is really what the public feels, and I do think that overall levels of waste are, actually, in my mind, in the end, what matters most. I am very concerned about household waste, it is going still too much in the wrong direction; if it were separately identified here it would be a red. And it needs to be changed, and is being changed, and I can spell out the policies by which we intend to do that. But we have, I think, rightly, taken account of industrial and commercial waste streams as being five or six times more, because I think that is the key factor; and, the truth is, the data on which to base a comparison of change since 1999 is not available on that basis. So I am totally open about waste, it is an area within my direct responsibility which is not going the right way; we need new policies, which are now being implemented, and we may have to have further policies still. But, in terms of recycling, statutory targets, in terms of money which is being put into this area, in terms of the creation of markets for recyclates, through wrap, the right policies are there and these policies will change.
(Mr Meacher) Yes; it is not an annual - - -
(Mr Meacher) Not, it is not; that is why it will be 2003, 2004.
(Mr Meacher) In the financial year 2003/2004.
(Mr Meacher) But that is a comparator, is it not?
(Mr Hall) It will be a comparator with the figures that we had at the time of the Strategy, but then there will be, again, - - -
(Mr Meacher) I thought that was not the case. In 1999, which is when the final column derives from, we did not then have data for the whole waste stream, including industrial and commercial waste. We have, for, which year, 1997/98, but we have not got a comparator with 1997/98.
(Mr Meacher) It surprises me, too, but the industrial and commercial waste is not measured on an annual basis, it is measured every five years, in effect.
(Mr Meacher) In effect, that is right. But, before you ask the question, I think we should consider whether that should be more frequent.
(Mr Hall) I do not know. I think basically it is very expensive and difficult information to collect, and so it cannot be done on a very frequent basis.
(Mr Meacher) I repeat that municipal waste, which is measured on an annual basis, certainly in terms of the statutory targets to which we are holding local authorities now, will certainly be monitored very carefully on an annual basis. What we are talking about here though is industrial and commercial waste, and the first time that was measured was 1997/98, that was the first time it was measured; one can argue about why that did not happen before, but it was the first time it happened, it was not happening in the 1980s. Again, one can argue that we should have access to that data more frequently than once every five years, but Government does have to take into account the cost. I have not got the costings.
(Mr Meacher) We could do that.
(Mr Meacher) I am not opposed to that, except that it is only a small part of the total picture.
Chairman: I accept that, but, nonetheless, it is better than no information.
(Mr Meacher) The question is whether it is better to have more information about a small part of the problem or less frequent information about the whole of it; you take your choice and you pays your money.
(Mr Meacher) Those are exactly the figures that are available and which are published.
(Mr Meacher) The only issue is, when you are looking for 15 headline indicators and you have got one index, only one way of publishing the data, the question is, which is the best way to do it; and you, the general Committee, are saying we should concentrate on household waste to the exclusion of the whole picture, I am saying it is better to concentrate on the whole picture, even if less frequently.
(Mr Meacher) It may well be, and I am happy to consider that. As I say, the figures are available, they are published, but, in terms of having it on this particular diagram, if it is useful, if you, the Committee, and the public would find that helpful, I certainly think we should consider that seriously.
(Mr Meacher) Can either of my colleagues help me on how that figure is collected?
(Mr Hall) It is only collected on a survey basis, so there are margins of error in the results from the survey.
(Mr Meacher) Sampling does have a margin of error, and obviously it depends on the size of the sample, and that depends on cost as well. But the magnitude, even if it is quite wide, I accept that, I think what the public are interested in, I am sure the Committee is interested in, is a quantification of the rough magnitude, compared with the household stream, which is just under 30 million tonnes a year.
(Mr Meacher) It depends whether you are interested in precise quantification of a small part of the problem, or whether we should try to improve the quantification of the whole problem so that we have a general understanding of the real, total problem as it really is. But I do take the point, we do not have to make a choice between the two. As in other cases, as Members have pointed out, one could have a double indicator which includes both, and, as I say, in the light of today's discussions, I think we should look at that quite seriously.
(Mr Meacher) They are reliable as UK indicators to the extent to which the areas covered are a proportion of the UK; and if you are making the point, and I think you are, that we should have a standardised basis for all of these statistics, again, I am sympathetic to that. A lot depends, again, on exactly what the issue is and how it is measured; particularly since we now have devolution, some of these may be measured differently by the devolved administrations, that is what makes it difficult. We cannot, nor, I am sure you would agree, should we, force on the devolved administrations a particular way of evaluating or assessing one of these issues when they would prefer to use a different one.
(Mr Meacher) That is a very fair question, and it is a very detailed question. Can I suggest, Mr Chairman, it might be helpful if I were to supply, in respect of the other nine, an explanation as to why it is not UK figures, or what are the problems in making it a UK figure, and it will, of course, prompt us to look very carefully at just how far we can get a standardised UK view, which, I agree, will be much better.
(Mr Meacher) You are making a supposition there.
(Mr Meacher) I do not believe for a second that we decided to do this on a country-by-country basis in order to get the right results. I think there are other, good, solid, genuine statistical reasons why this has happened, and I would prefer to examine in each case exactly what those reasons were. We will let you have that information, and, in the light of that, you can pursue your second hypothesis, that it might have something to do with the results. I do not believe it does.
(Mr Meacher) Mr Hall is whispering an answer. I think he should probably give it direct to the Committee.
(Mr Hall) The Scottish administration and the Welsh Assembly have very recently produced their own set of indicators, very much looking at what is being done for the UK picture, and there is some consistency in the way they develop their indicators, and we are in consultation with our colleagues in those administrations.
(Mr Meacher) I think what we were referring to was why waste is there at all. What happened was that the Government launched a consultation on the proposals for 13 indicators in November of 1998, we received more than 650 written responses, there was also a certain amount of research conducted via focus groups; as a result of that, we added an indicator about the level of crime and we also extended the social investment indicator to include investment in all assets.
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
(Mr Meacher) It is true we did not go to people and say, "We're thinking of having a dozen, 15 indicators, what do you think they should be?" We proposed what we thought was an appropriate list, but then, very open-endedly, invited the public to comment, not just in a short face-to-face but to think about it and write to us, if they wanted to, saying whether or not they agreed with these, whether they should be modified, whether they should be dropped, or others added.
(Mr Meacher) They were set on the basis of what would be a reasonably manageable set of indicators which would indicate the degree to which the country was or was not moving towards sustainable development, that was the basis of it. We wanted to check whether they were acceptable as being important to people, and, indeed, in the Survey of Public Attitudes - - -
(Mr Meacher) They were not chosen to be challenging or unchallenging, they were chosen to be indicators of whether or not we were moving towards sustainable development. Now, inasmuch as I think almost everyone agrees that we have not had a society or an economy or an environment which is sustainable, it does need change in all parts of society, and to that extent they are challenging.
(Mr Meacher) I think that is a reasonable supposition.
(Mr Meacher) I am grateful for your assistance in responding to some of your colleagues. That is quite a robust answer, and I think it does show that these are indices, or they are indicators, which are, in some respects, quite tough. We asked people what was important, or very important, to them, and the ones chosen meet those criteria for the overwhelming majority of those asked; and, indeed, people will choose things where they want to see change, and some of those changes will be difficult to achieve because of in-bred practices in society, the economy, or in environmental practice.
(Mr Meacher) It could be; not in this one, but it could be.
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
(Mr Meacher) If, as perhaps you are implying, Government has such an in-built incentive to mark itself generously, I suppose I see the point of your question.
(Mr Meacher) We are judged by an outside body, or a body that holds us to account, which is the EAC, and it is precisely this kind of lengthy and detailed interrogation which, I think, rightly, makes it difficult for Government to be generous to itself; it has got to be able to justify what it decides.
(Mr Meacher) But you are, that is exactly what you are doing today.
(Mr Meacher) But you are.
(Mr Meacher) You are not saying mark progress, you are saying that you would be - it is subjective, whoever does it, whether Government does it, a Committee does it, whoever does it, there is a degree of subjectivity about this; and you are saying it should be a select committee rather than the Government itself who assess the evidence and then decides on the marking. Then, of course, we will be down to issues like, well, what is the composition of the committee, how politically-loaded is it, is it entirely fair, what have the Whips had to do with it.
Chairman: Minister, the Government had to accept the Bill that we put forward, which established an Environmental Commissioner, then you have an entirely independent body like the Comptroller and Auditor General, who deals with taxation and revenue-raising, who could provide us with the facts, which we would then debate openly, as we are today?
(Mr Meacher) You have made the point, and I do understand it, and I am quite prepared to take it away and look at it further. I think it would have more force if you, in your deliberations today, were able to indicate that the Government had exercised this prerogative we have in a clearly unfair way, then I think there would be grounds for change. I do not really think that is the case; but you make a point. I am all in favour of objectivity and independence and transparency, and you have made a point, and I will look at it.
(Mr Meacher) That is perfectly true, and it is because of the rise in the price of oil, in particular, and gas, there has been within the market a probably temporary switch back to some increased coal burn. I think it is doubtful if that will last. But the real point here is that, if you look at the trend over a long period of time, and not just a very short period, the trend has been a very good one. There has been a 14 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases since 1990, and our statisticians calculate that, on the basis of existing policies, we should reach around 23 per cent reduction by 2010; and if one is just concerned with CO2 alone, a reduction of around 19 per cent, when we set ourselves a domestic target of 20 per cent. So those are all dramatically good results, when you also bear in mind that there are only three countries in Europe - - -
(Mr Meacher) What has happened up to now is a fact, and that is a 14 per cent reduction. You are quite right that the continuation of that trend is a hypothesis, you are quite right.
(Mr Meacher) I would need to look at the figures for that. You are making a fair point.
(Mr Meacher) I do.
(Mr Meacher) I would deny that. I think there has been an improvement, certainly it is a long-term improvement, since 1990, but also since 1999, which justifies it in both columns, and it is not just closure of coal-powered stations and 'dash for gas'; that has been a significant factor, that is perfectly true. There has been, we go back to a reduction in the rate of growth of traffic volumes, there has been a significant improvement in energy efficiency, which is continuing, for a variety of factors; there is now beginning to be an increase in the use of renewables and CHP. All of those are at an incipient stage, but they are quite influential, and they will become more so over the next decade. So I think that record is unquestionably a good one. I have not come here to crow or be triumphalist, and I am sure you will not let me be, but I do think the UK has a very good record on climate change; now it is not to say we have not got to go a lot further, but if we could drag every other country in Europe, let alone in Annex 1 countries, the industrialised countries, up to our level, we would be motoring, that is the wrong metaphor, in this respect, we would be walking with our head high.
(Mr Meacher) The effect of NETA, the New Electricity Trading Arrangements, has certainly had side-effects, certainly unintended, and unfortunate side-effects, with regard to small generators, particularly renewables and CHP. We have begun to try to reverse those, by the Chancellor, in his most recent Budget, extending CHP for full exemption from the Climate Change Levy, including sales to licensed suppliers, which was not previously the case. We are providing Enhanced Capital Allowances, and we are about to publish a CHP Strategy, which will re-endorse our commitment to the achievement of 10,000 megawatts CHP by 2010. There is, of course, already, and I again confirm it, a Renewables Obligation of 10 per cent of all energy, for electricity generation from renewable sources by 2010.
(Mr Meacher) There is talk about whether there should be an interim target of 2005.
(Mr Meacher) Well 2003 is only one year away.
(Mr Meacher) There is not an interim target for 2003; there is a question as to whether there should be an interim target. But I can assure you that these matters are monitored month by month, let alone year by year, and it is true that, in terms of development of renewables, we are behind, and it is true, in terms of CHP, we are not on track for 10,000 megawatts; that is the need for new policies.
(Mr Meacher) Last year, for what?
(Mr Meacher) I was referring to CHP and renewables generation of electricity.
(Mr Meacher) Less than when; you said "less than", less than when, what period are you looking at, in terms of comparison?
(Mr Meacher) I did say on a monthly basis, and maybe I should withdraw that. What I meant was that we keep a very careful eye on this, I am not sure whether it is month by month, it is certainly on a year-by-year basis. But I agree that the figures, like many figures, are often not made available, because they have to be very carefully checked, until some significant time after the end of the period to which they refer. But I will check with you how often those figures are actually calculated.
(Mr Meacher) I do not agree with that conclusion, and I would say that the EAC is, indeed, carrying out, as indeed its title is meant to do, an environmental audit; that is exactly what is now being carried through. So it is not as though the Government proclaims figures on an unjustified basis. I do not accept that there has been any evidence produced by the Committee that any of these figures are unfair; they are, I agree, not even, they are not standardised, there is a question of whether we could have determined the indicators on a different basis, I agree, that is what the Committee is there to examine and state to Government, and I assure you that, in the light of this session, we will look at all of these issues again. But I do not accept, at all, that we have done this unfairly, unreasonably, or in a sense which is genuinely misleading. But I do agree with you that when you get into the field of statistics and figures and baselines there are always questions about how the matter is done. Now you are suggesting that that should be independently audited in the production of the statistics, in other words, we should put that into the hands of some independent body, as opposed to us doing the best we can and then being openly interrogated in a committee like this. I do take that point. But I do say to you that the Government Information and Statistical Service, in my experience, is a fiercely independent body, and, perhaps in the light of what has happened in times in the past, and I am not talking about recently, when Ministers have been willing to make allegations about trends, the Statistical Service now insists on doing it without reference to Ministers, it produces its own figures, as soon as they are available, and it does so, in my view, with the utmost integrity. I think that is good for everyone, it is good for Government and it is good for all of those who will hold it to account. The idea that the statistics are somehow perhaps carefully examined and perhaps massaged by Ministers before they are produced, let me absolutely disabuse you of that, that is totally untrue.
(Mr Meacher) The Government Statistical Service; it was not Ministers.
(Mr Meacher) Of course I see the point you are making. But if it was a body within Government which was leant on, could be influenced by Ministers, you would have a stronger point. What I am trying to say is that I can assure you that, if I tried to change the statistics in a way which was favourable to the Government's reputation, I would get, first of all, a straight refusal, and I would also, I think, probably receive a considerable disapprobation even for trying. And I think it is right, this is an independent branch of Government; the fact that it does belong to Government, I accept it does, but it is not an area where Ministers interfere, and if they tried to interfere they would not succeed.
(Mr Meacher) I agree with that. It is a trade-off, it is a trade-off between simplicity and understanding for the general member of the public, who is not going to wade through a great deal of intellectually-rigorous analysis of the meaning of statistics, and accuracy. Now it is important that they are accurate, in the sense that, in making it simpler, we have not lost an essential component of the truth, that is very, very important; if we did that, we would be at fault. But there is a case for a relatively simple table, so long as the data which informs it is also, at the same time, supplied. And, of course, these are headline indicators; what we have not talked about is the fact that the Government, and this happened before 1997 and we have continued it, there is set of statistics, 150 statistics, which are collected across the whole panjandrum of what is going on in the society, the economy and the environment, we continue to provide that. But in order for people to understand the essence of what is going on, you do have to simplify it to a manageable core. This is always a problem about news production; someone has to make a judgement about what are the essential issues that are happening now that people ought to know about. Now those are open to challenge, I agree, and that is what you are doing today. But I would defend the basis on which this is done, so long as we have not sacrificed in any serious way the absolute requirement of accuracy.
(Mr Meacher) I suppose the answer to that is by using as much honesty and integrity as we can, in interpreting the figures. As I say, if we have not done that right, I expect you to say so. I believe that we have. It is, of course, true that the facts themselves, the evidence does not all point in the same direction, even within a short period of time there may be contrary movements, and you have to make one single judgement, you have to try to make that as fairly as you can. But the important thing is, you do not conceal the variation on which that judgement is based, so that people can get behind it and can make their own judgements as well.
(Mr Meacher) Not very pleased. I entirely agree that it is very tempting for the press, unfortunately, to use this kind of material, which, very helpfully, it has come out, some of it, as Mr Owen Jones says, is going to be challenging, difficult and which almost certainly the Government will not achieve. So it is regrettable, it seems to me, that there is an overconcentration in the press on where the Government is not succeeding. It is quite right that that should be drawn attention to, absolutely right, what matters to all of us is to try to do better on things which are not going as well as they should; but the concentration on that and the desire simply to score points at the Government's expense does trivialise it. We are talking here about how our society is going, it really is quite a profound thing that we are trying to do, and it would be much better if the headline indicated "This is where Britain, UK plc, is going, we could do better in this way, but we are succeeding to a large degree, but there needs to be a general change of direction, and these are the policies," rather than some of the headlines that we saw the last time round.
(Mr Meacher) The answer to your question about responsibility for the indicators is that they are owned by the Government as a whole.
(Mr Meacher) No, I am saying the set of indicators are the responsibility of the Government as a whole, they are the judgement, the overall judgement, as to whether or not we are moving in the direction of a more sustainable country; but the data behind the indicators, of course, is the responsibility of the individual department and agency.
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
(Mr Meacher) There is certainly at least one department which is responsible for each indicator, there may be, I am rapidly trying to think of the 15, a joint contribution, but a department, or an agency, is responsible for - - -
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
(Mr Meacher) Yes. I think I have actually got it with me; yes, "Responsibility for indicators." Maybe I could pass this over to you at the end.
(Mr Meacher) I am just looking at air quality. The lead department there is DEFRA, together with NETCEN, which is the Technology Centre...
(Mr Hall) The National Environmental Technology Centre.
(Mr Meacher) Yes. First of all, air quality is not getting worse, it is actually significantly getting better, quite significantly getting better. But can I go back to the earlier, very important point; these are not just an archive of where we are going, they are a trigger for action, because, if we are not going in the right way, we have always said, we are not going to change the indicator in order to be convenient to Government or to existing policy, we are going to change the policies.
(Mr Meacher) One of the indicators is the land use indicator, H14, which is about the percentage of new-build which is on previously-developed land, and it has been around 57 per cent over a long period of time, as the graph indicates. Sixty per cent was a target that we have set; obviously it is a matter for DETR, rather than DEFRA, but the policy does remain that 60 per cent.
(Mr Meacher) I do. The answer to your direct question is no.
(Mr Meacher) It could be. My understanding is that we remain committed to 60 per cent, and these are hard targets to achieve. If there is to be a change of policy, obviously, that will be discussed interdepartmentally, and it certainly could come to Green Ministers; it certainly has not, at the present time.
(Mr Meacher) DETR.
(Mr Meacher) I am sorry, yes, it is very nostalgic. DTLR, yes.
(Mr Meacher) Of awareness or of satisfaction with the results, which?
(Mr Meacher) I would have said that there is greater awareness, but nowhere near enough to satisfy me. I think there is, of course, a difference between awareness which flashes past one's consciousness and an awareness which says "This is significant and I've got to do something about it," and it is an issue which we are all involved with. I think the latter is much less than the former, of course.
(Mr Meacher) I am extremely keen on that, of course, extremely keen. My ambition has always been that these 15 indicators could be as resonant in the public's consciousness about the state of the nation as is the level of unemployment, or interest rates, or exports, on the six o'clock news. I would like to see it have that degree of resonance. We are not there at the moment. Now how do you do that; we have tried. "Are you doing your bit?" I do not know how many people may have seen this, as a television advertisement; it is using famous people, drawn from sports and the glamorous film world, or news presentation, people who might be role models to people, in order to make a point, often humorously, about simple ways in which they could change their life, in order to assist in sustainable development and better environmental practice. I think, again, that has had some impact. I think the latest survey I saw showed 90 per cent, which makes me rather suspicious, of people were aware of this, and 70 per cent of people said they had done something unspecified about it. Now that is, if true, very good, but, I must say, I am sceptical.
(Mr Meacher) I have to tell you, Mr Challen, that my experience on Sunday is that even more people seem to go out for leisurely roaming about in their car even than on a weekday, they may do it in a more leisurely and less aggressive manner, but there are thousands of cars on the road, all visiting their grannies for lunch on Sunday, as far as I can see.
(Mr Meacher) You could, of course, and maybe you will be suggesting in a moment that we should have not only road traffic volumes, which we believe, I think rightly, is probably the best single indicator, but you could supplement that by other material, availability of trains, affordable trains which are punctual, you could have availability of buses, in rural then in urban areas. The problem is again the trade-off between keeping it relatively simple so that it impacts on the minds of people who are not anoraks, they do not spend their whole time looking at the statistics, they are not that involved, but 80 per cent of the public are not into this in a big way; we somehow have to impact on them, in a simple, straightforward but accurate manner. Now I am in favour of going to be as detailed and accurate as is possible to achieve that objective, and I suspect that means not too detailed but still accurate.
(Mr Meacher) Before this goes to an interdepartmental committee, there would be extensive discussion, interdepartmentally, at official level, and quite possibly bilaterally between Ministers.
(Mr Meacher) No. I have not.
(Mr Meacher) No.
(Mr Meacher) If there were an intention to change the target, in order to meet the long-term trend, I think that would be a significant issue; but this issue has not been raised with me.
(Mr Meacher) I think they will. The European Commission produced a synthesis report to the spring Ministerial Council, which integrated seven environmental indicators into the suite of social and economic indicators, which were already there, and they covered greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, share of renewables, volumes of transport and modal split of transport, air quality and municipal waste.
(Mr Meacher) Yes; municipal waste.
(Mr Meacher) Touché. All of which are indeed covered by the UK headline indicators, although no doubt you will say that municipal waste is only partially covered by - - -
(Mr Meacher) No.
(Mr Meacher) No.
(Mr Meacher) No.
(Mr Meacher) Ours goes wider, yes; but those that they have chosen are more or less the same as we have in our set of headline indicators, and maybe they will decide to extend them further, we would encourage them to do so, of course.
(Mr Hall) Yes, it is going to be the annual synthesis report from now on. This is the first one, this spring.
(Mr Hall) It has been published, in the spring. There is going to be a wider pool of indicators from which they are going to choose a small set to put into the synthesis report each year, and there are indicators in that wider pool covering biodiversity and water quality and water resources. But the synthesis report is going to focus on particular topics and it will select the indicators to put into the report for that particular year.
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
(Mr Meacher) It is not the same thing.
(Mr Meacher) It covers a range of countries, and a large range of countries.
(Mr Meacher) You will not be surprised to hear me say, Mr Chairman, that I actually believe this; this is a very good example of lies, damn lies and statistics. If you have a different choice of components and you apply different weightings one year to another, you get completely different results.
(Mr Meacher) As far as I know, that is true.
(Mr Hall) They themselves say that the Index that was published for 2002 is not comparable with the Index they published in the previous year.
(Mr Meacher) If you change the components, there are a very large number of components, and if you change those components and you change the weightings that are given then you cannot get a valid basis for comparison, whatever.
(Mr Meacher) That is just one component. It did contain 67 indicators, 22 environmental sustainability sub-indices, so it had a very large number of components and factors; and we have had the discussion this afternoon about how you underpin, in a precise, accurate and rational way, any one particular component. The more you multiply that, the more uncertain the results, and if you get a single aggregate measure which purports to bring all of them together into one single measurement, whether we are at 16, which is good, or 91, which is bad, I think the whole exercise is profoundly flawed, not just because we slipped, if we had gone in the other direction I would have said exactly the same; this is not a good exercise.
(Mr Adams) Some of them did, but some countries you might expect to have done well did quite badly. I think, Japan, for example, is 78th on that list.
(Mr Adams) Not with those, but you would expect it to be not two-thirds of the way down.
(Mr Meacher) If I thought that it was accurate, I would be concerned.
(Mr Meacher) I think it is so profoundly flawed that, I have to say, I do not take it terribly seriously.
(Mr Meacher) No, I do not.
(Mr Adams) Can I just quote from the report itself, Chairman, which says: "The Index is not without its weaknesses, however," and then it lists several, "including," which seems to me conclusive, "that it lacks time series data, preventing any serious exercise in validation and limiting its value as a tool for identifying empirically the determinance of good environmental performance."
(Mr Adams) But what we do not do is change the weighting so that the indicators (can be ? - inaudible -).
(Mr Adams) But we do not lack time series data; it is possible to validate and we are (attempting to do that ?).
Mr Jones: Time series data. Where is the time series data, we have been asking you, time series data on climate change gases, and we cannot get any...
(Mr Meacher) It is here.
(Mr Meacher) We have already been into that. There are two columns, in fact there are three columns, there is 1970, 1990 and 1999 which is the Strategy baseline; now all of the assessments relate to those three dates, we have not changed them, and we are not going to change them. Whereas, if you move about with different baselines, and can I just add to what Mr Adams has just said, which surprises me, many countries, not surprisingly, particularly developing countries, there are missing values; in 90 or 100 cases, the water and air quality indicators are just imputed, someone has plucked a figure out of the air and assumed that is about right for this country. Some indicators are themselves complex indices, ecological footprint; well, how on earth do you work that out, this is just one out of 67, and it itself is extremely uncertain.
(Mr Meacher) I was not rubbishing it, I was simply saying that it is a complex concept. It is perfectly possible to give the criteria by which you can operationalise its quantification, you can do that, we have tried to do that, but the idea that that has been applied to 180-plus countries across the world on the same basis is just simply profoundly untrue.
(Mr Meacher) I have had no option, but it is a great pleasure.
(Mr Meacher) It certainly is not. The green belt paper, which is published today, is not published by the Government, it was published by the Royal Town Planning Institute. So I think it is quite wrong to assume that any recommendations or proposals which it contains are Government policy; obviously, we take it seriously, coming from that source, but it is not Government policy.
(Mr Meacher) I believe that we made a commitment significantly to increase the amount of brownfield development and to reduce development within the countryside; we have made that, as a Government. I am not aware of any commitment on the part of the Government to go back on that. It is a difficult task, it is one which is very testing, it is one on which we may fail. I believe, personally, it is more important to keep to a good target and fail, whilst trying as hard as you can, than to relax the target and then easily meet it.
(Mr Meacher) Of course.
(Mr Meacher) In drawing up the SSAs, and indeed the Public Service Agreements, that are the basis on which the Government provides money to local authorities, we do, of course, take account of the headline indicators, these are the basic core data which are, as I say, shared by Government as a whole, and which in its policies, and those include its relationship with local authorities and the targets which we set them, they are contained within this overarching set of indicators. Then the answer is yes.
(Mr Meacher) That, of course, is a matter of judgement. The Government's belief is, whilst getting away from targeted, ring-fenced money and giving more freedom for manoeuvre for local authorities, nevertheless, they are given targets, contained in the PSAs, a whole, large set of targets, and other targets like the statutory recycling targets which I have set, they are expected to meet them. And we would insist that the overall sum of money going to local authorities is adequate for that purpose; obviously, local authorities always say to us that they want more money, but we would need a very convincing case to indicate that the targets set cannot be met on the basis of funding made available.
(Mr Meacher) The PSAs are going to be rigorously monitored; not only the SSAs but local PSAs are providing some extra funding on the basis of going beyond the targets set, they will be annually monitored and they have to be met, there is no question about that. I absolutely give you an assurance that this money is only provided on the basis of our rigorous investigation as to the capacity of the local authority to deliver, and then whether or not it does so.
(Mr Meacher) Obviously, one will look at the case that is made. But I must say that I am not aware of what you are referring to, because the main environmental requirement is unquestionably waste. In the current financial year, which is the third and final year of SR2000, the increase in the provision for what is curiously entitled EPCS, Environmental Protection and Cultural Services, an odd oxymoron linkage, it seems to me, but that figure is £1.1 billion over the baseline in 1999/2000; that is a very substantial extra sum. In addition, we have just announced a £140 million ring-fenced challenge fund for local authorities to apply for, to meet their statutory recycling targets; there is an extra, I think it is, £49 million in the New Opportunities Fund for community recycling.
(Mr Meacher) And there is £220 million PFI money for waste infrastructure. Those are substantial sums. If they are not enough, we will, of course, examine it, but I do not believe that they are insufficient.
(Mr Meacher) Well, I have been very careful to avoid that, by insisting that the criteria for the distribution of the £140 million ring-fenced fund is not just an open challenge; there are criteria for distribution, which we have published, and a large proportion of that will go to the low-performing councils. Because I know that if we are going to double recycling within three years, treble it within five years, I have got to improve the performance not just of the best, they will probably do it anyway, but of the poor performers, and they will say to me, "Well you haven't provided us with the money." So I am earmarking extra funds specifically for them, but they will be held to achieve their targets.
(Mr Meacher) Thank you very much indeed, and I agree. And if I could leave this with you; and I will write, as I have said.
Chairman: Thank you.