Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 252-259)

Tuesday 1 July 2003

RT HON ALISTAIR DARLING, MR ROY GRIFFINS AND MR GRAHAM PENDLEBURY

  Q252  Chairman: Thank you for finally agreeing to see us, Secretary of State. Welcome to the Committee. As you know, we are looking at the environmental impacts of aviation issues which have not been covered before in a select committee.

  Mr Darling: Mrs Dunwoody might dispute that.

  Q253  Chairman: I had a chat with Gwyneth and she agreed it had not been thoroughly covered. Is there anything you want to say?

  Mr Darling: Perhaps I should introduce my colleagues. Roy Griffins is Head of the Aviation Department in my Department and Graham Pendlebury is Head of the Aviation and Environmental Division, Department for Transport. I wonder if I can submit one observation to you in a way of almost getting my retaliation in first. You will be aware that the consultation period in relation to the papers we published last July ended yesterday, as did the consultation period for the aviation environment document jointly produced by the Department of Transport and Treasury. I have said on many occasions, both to the Transport Select Committee and in the House that my intention is to publish a White Paper on aviation which amongst other things will cover future airport capacity as well as many of the issues you want to touch upon. That will be published at the end of this year. It follows from what I say that clearly I have not yet evaluated and am not due to evaluate what was said in the consultation process, and I intend to do that justice. I can say in all honesty I have not come to a conclusion on a whole range of things. I just say in anticipation of your questions that the answer to many of them will be, "I do not know yet, you will have to wait and see". I thought if I said that now when I actually say it on many occasions in the next hour or so you will understand why I am saying it.

  Q254  Chairman: Thank you for being so explicit. Some ministers implicitly do not say very much.

  Mr Darling: You never know your luck on that one either.

  Chairman: We did want to start off on the Royal Commission on the environmental pollution report, which you have made some comments about. Mrs Clark.

  Q255  Mrs Clark: I think it is fair to say you were not very keen on that report, quoting from your interview in the Times you say, "I thought it was a rather thin report and they had not done as much work as they might have". This was done in six months rather than the normal two years plus.

  Mr Darling: Yes.

  Q256  Mrs Clark: You then say, "This report is not the truth of many years research, in fact it is a gallop round the course". What do you think in retrospect about those comments that you made? Could they be counterproductive, perhaps reinforcing the perception that the DfT is not interested in sustainability? Do you think those comments in that article were ill-judged?

  Mr Darling: No. I do think generally whilst advice from the Royal Commission and anybody is extremely useful people should then not be afraid of entering into a debate about them. I have met the Royal Commission, not all of it, key members of it and they made the point they had originally planned on the basis that the consultation would finish much earlier. You will recall when I announced the consultation last July it was my hope it would be concluded by the end of the year and we would be publishing the White Paper about this sort of time. The High Court subsequently found that we were wrong to exclude Gatwick from consideration so we had to republish the papers with Gatwick, which gave them a lot longer. The reason the Royal Commission Report was a lot thinner than it might otherwise be is because they were under the impression that we wanted to get the thing out. It is common ground between us that they normally spend up to two or three years looking at these things.

  Q257  Mrs Clark: It is a waste of time, is it?

  Mr Darling: No, certainly not.

  Q258  Mrs Clark: It is thin and sketchy and just a gallop round the course.

  Mr Darling: I do not think it is fair for you to say that it was a waste of time. The Royal Commission members give a lot of their time to produce these things and the report is useful. It was done fairly quickly or comparatively quickly. I said that at the time and that is something that they subsequently acknowledged to me. In relation to its content there were useful findings in it, in particular they comment on the emissions that are found in the atmosphere, not down here, which are not so widely known about. It is a useful contribution. I think the last point that you made about the perception of the DfT, we made the point in the consultation document and I made the point in my statement in the House last July that of course all transport has to be sustainable. In fact in just about every speech I give I make that point. I think it is quite wrong for people to say somehow we are not bothered about the environment. I am bothered about the environment and throughout my political career outside this House and inside there are many examples where I can point to my concern that whatever we do is sustainable. The characterisation of the Department as being somehow oblivious to the environment is simply not true. You might want to have a look at my announcement before Christmas in relation to multi-modal studies, where I can point to a whole number of things where frankly that allegation does not stand up.

  Q259  Mr Barker: Minister, just on that point that all travel has to be sustainable, what is sustainable about the massive growth in the airline industry that you are projecting over the next 30 years? What is sustainable about the massive increase in carbon emissions? What is sustainable about the fact that they are not taxed? Are you not really just coming out with another soundbite attaching the word "sustainability", as so many ministers do, to the policy of the day without any thought to really what that means?

  Mr Darling: No. Firstly, in the consultation document we consult on a range of options in relation to airport growth, that is the whole point of consulting. If we have got it wrong it is important we should know that. As I say the consultation has only just finished and consultations being what they are most people seem to reply on 30th June, so we have not had a chance to look at those things. Secondly, you are right air travel has grown very dramatically over the last 30 years. Our job is two things, one is, what do we think is likely to happen over the next 20 to 30 years? Then, of course, you are right in saying indeed the consultation documents look at all sorts of scenarios and say, well if you do this, or you do that or try and constraint demand what difference does it make? The whole point of this consultation exercise is to try and get—perhaps it is too much to hope in relation to a consensus—an informed view as to what patterns of air travel are likely to look like. In relation to sustainability the point I was making there is right up there in the front of the consultation document and in the joint one that the Treasury published, where we said that air travel or the air industry ought to meet the costs of the pollution that it causes. That is what I mean about something that is sustainable. I dare say we will come on to this, there is a wider argument, which I heard your Chairman at 6.40 this morning setting out in relation to what you do about it.


 
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