Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  Q40  Chairman: Looking at your evidence, there is the suggestion there that the environment is taking a lesser priority in the FCO—so it is not being maintained at a certain level but it has actually gone down—at a time, as you have said this afternoon, when they should be increasing the priority given to the environment. What do you think has effected that change? What has made them perhaps not give it the attention that it deserves?

  Mr Yeo: It is certainly the case that there are fewer staff working directly on environmental issues within the FCO at the moment. There are fewer staff than there were just two years ago. This is following the establishment of a Sustainable Development and Business Group in place of the previous Environmental Policy Department. We do have close contacts still with some parts of the FCO, in particular the Overseas Territories Department where we have very good working relationships with officials; but, in general, the frequency of our contacts has dropped off considerably. I think that to some extent the lack of expertise within FCO can be offset by having expertise, for example, within Defra or within JNCC. We can offer that specialist advice. I also believe that there are considerable advantages in mainstreaming the environment within other policy areas. However, I have to say that, at the end of all that, I still believe that you need some central core within FCO that has responsibility for overseeing that integration and mainstreaming, and making sure it is effective.

  Q41  Chairman: Would they not argue that the appointment of John Ashton as the special representative on climate change perhaps provides some of that focus? Do you not welcome his appointment and the creation of that position?

  Mr Yeo: Absolutely. I think that is a very important appointment. It sends out a very strong signal of just how seriously FCO takes climate change; but that is just one environmental issue, after all, is it not? It is not dealing with core losses of biodiversity through other causes.

  Q42  Chairman: You could argue that it is the key issue to deal with. One could see some people saying that the loss of biodiversity is a consequence of climate change, so perhaps that is where our priorities should lie. Is that what the argument is, do you think, from the Foreign Office?

  Mr Yeo: I think there is some sense in that. It is abundantly clear from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that climate change will be the big driver of biodiversity loss over the coming few decades. It is only right and proper that FCO, and government more widely, puts appropriate resources into that. However, I would say that government still needs to put resources into other aspects of environmental protection and biodiversity conservation. I think also that the FCO needs to take seriously the interdependencies that exist between environmental, social and economic issues when addressing climate change. For example, taking some measures that will mitigate the effects of climate change or help the environment adapt to the effects of climate change can have benefits for biodiversity. To give a couple of examples, protecting ecosystems that are significant sinks for carbon dioxide, such as tropical rainforests and peat bogs, will help to mitigate the release of greenhouse gases but will also deliver biodiversity benefits. The protection of coral reefs, mangrove swamps and other coastal ecosystems will help to lessen the impacts of climate change through sea level rising and increased storminess, but, again, will deliver benefits for biodiversity. Measures such as this will also deliver social and economic benefits; for example, protecting the livelihood of local communities.

  Q43  Chairman: Does it really matter if the FCO does this work or not? Perhaps the argument could be made that their role is to open doors for other departments with much more specialist knowledge—Defra perhaps and DfID, perhaps even agencies like the Environment Agency—and that FCO should be there as the sort of diplomatic lubricant to make sure that those other departments have good access overseas.

  Mr Yeo: What is clear is that all these departments need to work together very closely. We have already talked about the relationship between FCO, DfID and Defra, and that really has to be a very close, almost seamless, working relationship, I believe, on international issues. One way of achieving that, which I have already mentioned, is this Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Biodiversity, which does have the potential to be highly effective in providing the co-ordination of policies on international biodiversity. What we recommend is that it needs to have a very clear focus, concentrating for example on the WSSD target to reduce the rate of global biodiversity loss by 2010, and also possibly to include a wider range of government departments; for example, perhaps DTI or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. What is essential here, however, is that the FCO shows strong leadership; that it works across the range of government departments to make sure that we have coherent policies; not just on the environment of course, but on other issues as well. It is very important that FCO plays that leadership role, because, if they do not, there is a danger of having incoherent policies. To give an example that is quite topical at the moment, there is the issue about biofuels. At the moment, there is a big rush to increase the amount of biofuels that is used in the UK because it is a low-carbon energy source, but the impetus to do this can lead to the destruction of tropical forests through South East Asia and in South America. That can be tremendously damaging for biodiversity, threatening species such as the orang-utan for example, and also loses the forests' capacity to store carbon, so that actually the advantages for climate change may be rather slight. It is an example of where we need policy coherence across different departments. It is also a good example of the impacts that the UK has globally through activities within the UK, which we think is something that the FCO should take very seriously.

  Q44  Chairman: You say that the FCO staff have been less frequently involved in international negotiations on those national environmental agreements.

  Mr Yeo: Yes.

  Q45  Chairman: Why is their involvement at that level so important?

  Dr Fleming: I can perhaps offer some experience from my participation in UK delegations to some of these MEAs, for example CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. I think that, in some earlier evidence you took from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, they talked about the basking shark proposal from the UK, which went to two conferences of the CITES parties. I was a member of the UK delegation to those conferences, in our role as a CITES scientific authority. I think that what we saw there, from the input from the FCO staff member who was part of that delegation, was that they played a fairly key role in lobbying, helping to bring other parties together, and perhaps acting as an honest broker, if you like, which I think is a role where the UK is held in high regard in a number of areas. As well as having an FCO member on the delegation, FCO, before that, had been able to lobby through its posts throughout the world, to find out what the views of other parties would be on voting, and so on, but also to gather intelligence on their views on the proposal beforehand; so that when we went to the conference we were then able to know which countries we may wish to target, to persuade, or where other countries would be more difficult to persuade. I think that sort of network, having the FCO support at the conference, was quite important. Also, having the back-up of the FCO network of posts was equally vital. Coming to the future, I am sure that FCO will continue in some supportive role, but I understand that it is unlikely to be as intensive in future.

  Q46  Chairman: Is that to be made up somewhere else, by some input from somewhere else in government? Is it simply a swapping of responsibilities within the departments, or is it a net reduction in our involvement?

  Dr Fleming: It is not necessarily a net reduction in the UK's involvement but, looking at FCO participation in those sorts of negotiations, it seems to be somewhat diminished. Of course, those UK delegations are multi-departmental. There will be people from Defra there, ourselves, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, perhaps Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue, and so on. So there are other members of the delegation who can try and fill the gap. However, in terms of the FCO role there, we would reiterate that in our experience—or in my experience, at least—they played a fairly helpful and important role.

  Q47  Chairman: I was going to ask if there had been any noticeable difference in our success or otherwise in international negotiations. You can have a large delegation but it is totally ineffective; you can have a very small one that is very effective. Has that impacted on our effectiveness in these negotiations?

  Dr Fleming: As you say, the effectiveness of delegations can vary and it does not necessarily depend on the size of the delegation. Of course, it is a question of how you measure effectiveness. You may work very hard as a team, and so on, and still not be able to persuade sufficient other countries to your way of thinking. I think that it is a little hard for us to say what impact there has been, because some of these changes are fairly recent, and conferences of the parties are at two- to three-yearly intervals. So, in the CITES example I gave you, our next conference of the parties will be in June this year in The Netherlands. There will be some FCO support, but I do not think that it is likely to be of the nature that we have had hitherto.

  Q48  Chairman: Given that this involvement from the FCO, as you say , is so important, has there been any stated reason given for this reduction?

  Mr Yeo: I do not believe so. I have not heard an explicit reason; just that reorganisation within the FCO has been in line with their White Paper and their strategy.

  Q49  David Howarth: Other witnesses have said to us that the problem has been with the internal restructuring of the FCO; that the Environmental Policy Department was subsumed into something called the Sustainable Development Business Group and that contributed to a loss of focus and perhaps a loss of expertise in FCO. Is that your view too?

  Mr Yeo: Yes, to a large extent. I would reiterate the points I made: that to some degree FCO can rely on Defra, JNCC and other bodies for specialist expertise; but I would re-emphasise that I still believe there is a role for some central co-ordinating function within FCO that has oversight of its environmental responsibilities.

  Q50  David Howarth: You mention those other departments, Defra—and DfID as well, presumably, although we have had an interesting time investigating DfID's involvement in environmental issues—but I suppose the crucial question is this. If FCO is relying on those other departments, how effectively does it work together, especially that threesome? And, if it is not working particularly effectively, how can that be improved?

  Mr Yeo: It is working very effectively in some areas. A very good example would be the Overseas Territories Environment Programme, which is jointly administered by DfID and FCO, and which I believe has been very effective in helping to implement Environment Charters within the territories. Overall, however, there are areas where those three departments and others could work more closely together. Having mechanisms such as this Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Biodiversity can therefore help and also, I believe, having shared targets—in particular, shared targets in Public Service Agreements, which would really ensure that departments have a clear goal that they were all aiming for.

  Q51  David Howarth: Might it be a good idea, for example, for all those departments to have a climate change objective?

  Mr Yeo: I would be very much in favour of that or, for example, commitments entered into at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. I think you can make a strong case there that you could have a shared target, at least between Defra and FCO.

  Q52  David Howarth: In your memo, you particularly mention Europe and the FCO's role in our relationship with Europe. You say that there is a problem with the EU pursuing the Lisbon Agenda, because that focuses on conventional economic goals and perhaps draws attention away from the broader sustainable development picture. Are you saying that the FCO is responsible for this, because it is not emphasising the Government's environmental goals, or are you saying that it is the Government's problem and not the FCO's? That the FCO is carrying out its mandate and that is where the problem is, or is it to do with the FCO itself?

  Mr Yeo: I have no criticism of the FCO in this respect. In my experience, the main problem is within the European Commission. We occasionally get rhetoric, for example from Barroso, that sustainable development is what the European Union is all about and that is the overarching framework for all European policy. In reality, however, that does not seem to be the case. It is the Lisbon priorities of jobs, the economy and competitiveness that seem to take priority. I think that this overlooks the fact that there is now a substantial body of evidence that good environmental management and good environmental regulation can stimulate the economy; it can foster innovation; it can lead to the creation of jobs; it can create new markets. Strong environmental policies, therefore, do not hinder economic growth.

  Q53  David Howarth: We have another example of this today, do we not, with emissions standards from cars? On the one side there was heavy lobbying by car manufacturers, and perhaps the governments of countries that manufacture the cars; on the other side there was lobbying from environmental groups. The outcome is often, from the environmentalists' point of view, not particularly satisfactory. Could you criticise the British Government, the FCO in particular, for not coming strongly enough and lobbying on the environmental side?

  Mr Yeo: That is not an area I have any experience of.

  Q54  David Howarth: What about in general? Does the FCO put itself about in Brussels on behalf of the environment?

  Mr Yeo: They obviously have the Permanent Representation there in Brussels and JNCC has good, close links with them. I am really not in a position to say just how effective they are in promoting environmental issues within the Commission and other institutions.

  Q55  Mr Caton: You have been very positive about the sustainable development attache network. These posts, as I understand it, deal with sustainable development in general. How well do they address environmental sustainability specifically?

  Dr Fleming: I think that the sustainable development attache network began as an environmental attache network and it subsequently changed its title and its role a little bit. Our experience with them has always been fairly positive. It seems to us to be a very useful network for sharing information, experience, and so on, within and between posts, and is probably quite useful as a buffer or maybe as a reservoir of institutional knowledge which, when there is often fairly rapid turnover of staff, can be very useful. To get back to your question of how important the environment is in that, I have to say that, again, our links with the network have probably diminished somewhat of late. We do see their regular newsletter, and I believe they have annual conferences still. From the content of their newsletter, there does seem to be a fairly broad focus on the sustainable development agenda across all its pillars. Environment certainly does appear in that sort of perspective, therefore.

  Q56  Mr Caton: Can we turn to the work of our overseas posts, like our embassies, on the environment agenda? Other witnesses have expressed concern about, for instance, the closure of the Madagascar embassy, with the significance of that country for biodiversity. Do you believe that we need posts in other countries that have environment close to the top of their agenda?

  Dr Fleming: It is not an issue that we have looked at in great detail. Clearly, there may be advantages in having posts maybe in every country, but I assume that is not feasible technically or from a resource perspective. In some respects I do not think that we can offer any significant comment on that. I think that there is merit in focusing on priority countries from a variety of different perspectives, and the environment might be one of those. In some of the work that we have done related to our global impacts work, and indeed for work with the Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group, we try to highlight what countries might be the most important if you were interested in conserving tropical forests or if you were interested in conserving tropical marine habitats, and so on. Very often, there is quite a strong overlap with those countries which are already priorities from an FCO, DfID or other departmental perspective. I do not feel able to offer a particular comment on the Madagascar situation, but clearly we recognise that FCO have to prioritise where they place posts and retain embassies, and so on.

  Q57  Mr Caton: I guess that what some of our other witnesses felt was that, when you are prepared to close an embassy in somewhere like Madagascar, with its huge environmental importance, that tells you something about the priority order we have in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—but you do not have to comment any more on that. You have already mentioned your supporting work in the implementation of the Overseas Territories Environment Charters. How successful have these proven to be in protecting the environment in those places?

  Dr Fleming: I think that the Environment Charters were a very important first step. The fact that they set out guiding principles and reciprocal obligations or duties on both the Government of the United Kingdom and the governments of the territories was clearly valuable, in terms of setting down goals, objectives, principles, and so on, that the territories might abide by and by which the UK Government might support them. The question of how you measure their effectiveness is a little more difficult. First, we would be a lot poorer without them; so I think that we should welcome the fact that they exist. There perhaps does need to be a mechanism to follow up and monitor their implementation and their success. As I recall, that was one of the recommendations from the review of the Overseas Territories Environment Programme. One of the principles from the charters was that territories should establish stakeholder groups and develop their own strategies to implement the charters. I am aware that some of these are underway or are happening. OTEP have supported such strategies being developed in the Turks and Caicos Islands and for the Falkland Islands. I think that work is underway in St Helena. Bermuda has developed its own biodiversity strategy, and the Cayman Islands are also developing a biodiversity strategy of their own, supported by the Darwin Initiative. These are the next steps, which enable the territories to set out clearly where they intend to go and maybe how much that might cost them. We are always very conscious that the territories are self-governing and autonomous, and I think it is important that they own the charters and seek to lead and develop action plans, and so on, from them.

  Q58  Mr Caton: How does the JNCC provide direct support for Overseas Territories?

  Dr Fleming: We have done a number of projects over the years. As you are probably aware from previous evidence, we have recently recruited a post—who started work on 1 February and so is very new, but who came to us from Ascension Island. Her role will be entirely on supporting Overseas Territories work. We are also initiating a range of different projects, some of which depend on external income, which at this stage is not yet guaranteed, that would, for example, look at helping to provide guidance on how to do economic valuation of the environment in some Overseas Territories. That is in collaboration, hopefully, with Montserrat, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. It may help to answer questions such as, how much is a mangrove swamp worth to the economy and environment in hard cash figures? That may help them—

  Q59  Chairman: Do you have an answer to that question?

  Dr Fleming: No, that is what the projects are designed to find out—but, hopefully, over the next few years. We have started work already on producing a toolkit for economic valuation for environmental services, for ecosystem services, and so on. The hope, subject to OTEP approval, is that these projects will take place over the next couple of years and will maybe conclude with a workshop, which helps to bring these examples together as case studies, which can then perhaps be promoted elsewhere within the Territories. We have done a review of all the non-native species across the Overseas Territories. Non-native invasive species are of course one of the major causes of biodiversity loss within the territories, especially in the small island environments, which characterise most of our Overseas Territories. We hope to support work on looking at mitigation of climate change. We are also hoping to establish a post based in the Falkland Islands, which would support work on the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels within the South Atlantic Overseas Territories. Again, it is subject to some OTEP funding but this would be a jointly funded post between Defra, the Overseas Territories in the Atlantic themselves, and the JNCC. So we are putting in place a number of projects like that, to try to build and enhance our support; again, stressing that we seek to do so in a collaborative way; that we are not able, nor do we wish to, to go out to the territories and say, "You should do x, y and z"; that we seek to build on areas where (a) we have the expertise within JNCC; (b) where there is a demand from the territories themselves, and (c) where we can put together a good, collaborative project to provide support. As an example of that, I was in the Cayman Islands last week where, at their request, they were looking for support in implementing their new legislation on CITES, which has been passed by their government but has not yet been brought into effect. Together with a colleague from Defra, who was from the CITES Management Authority in the UK, we spent a few days over there, looking at the fairly substantial issues they have to address on trade in endangered species, trying to help them get the processes in place which they can implement in future. Those are a few examples of where we want to be going. To summarise the sorts of areas where we want to work, ideally we want to look at projects which have a strategic overview across the territories. We have limited resources ourselves, of course, and we will probably not engage in a single-species project in this territory and then another somewhere else. We may therefore be looking at projects that take a strategic overview, which may then help to advise on the implementation of OTEP or where resources might be targeted; and also examples where we might get involved with in-territory projects but those which have a broader application elsewhere. We hope to engage with economic valuation work over the next couple of years—and I should add that we have recently appointed an environmental economist and this will be a substantial part of her work, perhaps up to 50% of her time if everything comes together. So there are projects like that, which look at issues within territories but then may be exported to other territories, or indeed also the UK, for broader application.

  Mr Yeo: Perhaps I could add a couple of points, to indicate the scale of resources that JNCC is intending to put into the Overseas Territories. From 2007-08 onwards, we are aiming to direct at least £200,000 per annum towards work on the territories; that is including direct costs as well staff costs. About half of this is dependent on funding from external sources such as OTEP; so it is approximately £100,000 per annum from core government funding. It is small beer in the grand scheme of things, but we are able to make a small amount of money go a long way.

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