Select Committee on Public Accounts Thirty-First Report

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  Northern Ireland's delay in transposing EU Directives into local legislation exposed the UK government to the risk of infraction fines. Insufficient resourcing of the Department's legislation team led to Northern Ireland having a large backlog of EU environmental Directives awaiting transposition in 2002 and the risk of the UK incurring fines of up to £400,000 per day. Now that the backlog has been eradicated, it is essential that the Department keeps its legislation programme in line with the rest of the UK, to ensure that this woeful performance is not repeated.

2.  The Department has not yet produced a Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS) and it is now several years overdue. The UK's SDS is a cornerstone of environmental policy and each region apart from NI has, in addition, its own SDS, with local objectives and targets. The Department's legislation team also has responsibility for developing the SDS and did not begin work in earnest until the backlog was cleared in 2004. There can be no further delay in producing Northern Ireland's SDS, since extra staff are now available and there are equivalent documents for the rest of the UK to act as examples. The Department must ensure that it meets the Summer 2006 target date.

3.  There are limitations in the quality of data used to develop, monitor and report on the Waste Management Strategy and the existing targets are not sufficiently stretching. The Department must put in place effective and reliable systems for gathering and analysing data for all waste streams, so that its targets and reported statistics are credible. This should be done without delay, to facilitate the development of new targets that can be made to bite. We expect to see such targets in the new Strategy, and reported quarterly on the Department's website.

4.  Greening Government is an important element of the Strategy, but the Department's progress in improving its own waste management performance has been slow. The importance of the leadership role within Government is self-evident, yet the Department only produced its first waste action plan in October 2004. If the Department is to act as an example to others, it must be seen to implement good practice in all aspects of its environmental management. Putting in place targets equivalent to those of its Westminster counterpart would be a good place to start.

5.  Enforcing waste legislation and tackling illegal dumping are resource-intensive and require ongoing commitment. Under-resourcing of its regulatory teams and hasty introduction of new legislation to clear the transposition backlog meant that the Department did not always have proper guidance and enforcement procedures in place, or the staff to implement them. The Department estimates average profits to illegal site operators to be in the region of £1 million, with £24 million in total going to the black economy annually. Despite recent successes against illegal dumpers, dealing with offenders and damage to the environment after the event is costly. This work must be balanced with a strong preventative effort. The Department should issue clear guidelines for waste producers affected by legislation, as it is introduced, and undertake regular monitoring to ensure that the guidelines are being followed, in order to reduce the occurrence of illegal dumping in the first place.

6.  Councils have an important role in implementing key Waste Management Strategy targets. Responsibility for delivering EU targets for recycling or composting household waste and reducing the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill rests primarily with Councils. Failure to meet the landfill target risks incurring fines which will, ultimately, be payable by ratepayers. Councils' waste plans should align fully with the requirements of the Waste Management Strategy, set out clearly how they will meet its targets and how new infrastructure that is expected to cost in the region of £270 million to £300 million, and other measures, will be funded.

7.  In 2002, the Department exercised poor financial control when it paid £1.3 million to Councils in advance of need. The Department supplied grants to Councils to assist them with the cost of developing their waste management plans. In 2002, it paid grants that included £1.3 million that was not spent by the end of the financial year, despite Councils' assurances to the contrary. The Department must prevent any recurrence of such advance payments and put in place robust financial controls to ensure that payments to the bodies it funds are based on actual funding requirements for the period in question.

8.  The Department has made slow progress in achieving the Waste Management Strategy targets and implementing the recommendations of its Advisory Board. In 2004, the Waste Management Advisory Board, composed of stakeholders appointed by the Department, reported only limited progress against the 2000 Strategy, and made a number of recommendations for improvement. Despite resource shortages, the Department allocated skilled staff to producing a formal response, challenging some of the Board's findings. If expert Boards are appointed to provide guidance, that guidance should generally be accepted and implemented, if the exercise is to have real value and lead to improvements.

9.  Two of the Board's key recommendations have still not been implemented. These were: a cross-Departmental delivery group should be established, at Permanent Secretary level; and the huge infrastructural deficit should be addressed. The results of the Review of Public Administration, announced by the Secretary of State in November 2005,[1] should not be used as a justification for any further delay in introducing long-overdue improvements, for example, in deciding whether or not there should be a single waste management authority for Northern Ireland.

10.  The Minister has announced a review of environmental governance in Northern Ireland. The Public Accounts Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster and Waste Management Advisory Board all saw a case for establishing an independent environmental regulator, of the sort that exists in every other part of the British Isles. Given Northern Ireland's poor record on environmental governance in general, and waste management in particular, the case for doing so is now self-evident and it should be done without delay following the review.

1   HC Debates, 22 November 2005, col 106WS Back

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