Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Q1  Chairman: Welcome to the Committee. Thank you for coming in. This is the first of our public sessions on this new subject we have just decided to address. I think you believe that the proliferation of mechanisms to deal with climate change in the various bits of government should be resisted if possible and it would be better to focus on sustainable development as a whole in terms of trying to improve the policymaking process. What do you think the consequences of too much proliferation are going to be in terms of our ability to tackle climate change and, indeed, sustainable development?

  Dr Russel: Could I start by thanking you for inviting me and could I send apologies from my colleague Dr Andrew Jordan who would have liked to have come but could not make it. I find the proceedings of this Committee very useful for my own research, so your work is to be commended.

  Q2  Chairman: Thank you for that.

  Dr Russel: A bit of flattery always helps! In terms of answering your question, it is acknowledged by international bodies such as the OECD that, commonly, when you have a new policy problem, the initial instinct is to establish new institutions of government to deal with that. The OECD suggest that you get such a bureaucratic overload by adding additional cross-cutting issues to be looked at, adding additional mechanisms, that departments and policymakers do not necessarily have the capacity or ability to cope. With having too many cross-cutting issues to deal with at one time, you tend to get administrative burden or administrative overload. We find that in our own research. We have been looking at these issues or related issues since about 2001. Even in our early research, when we went into departments for some ESRC-funded research, we were talking to policymakers about how to deal with issues and they were saying, "We have to consider race impact, health impact, environmental impact. We do not have the time. We have ministerial demand. We have to deal with these other things related to policymaking, and so we pick those things that are core to government priorities, usually of economic concern, and those things which are core to our department." So if you are in the Department of Health you would look essentially at health impacts and nothing else. Unless there is a common interest for departments to head forward in the same direction on a cross-cutting issue—and I would argue in sustainable development and climate change there is not yet a common interest in departments—then there are just too many things for them to consider and they will pick and choose which ones to do. Our research findings suggest this.

  Q3  Chairman: We have had the Climate Change Programme alongside the Sustainable Development Strategy. Does that make it better or worse? Is there a way to find of bringing them together?

  Dr Russel: We have an existing Sustainable Development Strategy and a whole host of interrelated environmental coordination, mechanisms such as the Green or Environment and Energy Cabinet Committees, and our research shows—and I think this Committee has shown many times—that these are not working properly. I think it would be better to focus on getting the Sustainable Development Strategy working properly and coordination around that, because then climate change can be considered alongside those other issues with which it interacts, such as biodiversity. Climate change will likely have major impacts on biodiversity management in the UK. Also, you have to consider that action to mitigate against climate change or to decarbonise the UK economy could have negative as well as positive environmental impacts; for example, a lot of environmentalists would argue against the nuclear option because it has separate environmental impacts. By considering all these things alongside each other, you can give them proper balance, proper weight and proper consideration. By siphoning off climate change, not only does it give policymakers another thing to think about—"Sustainable development and climate change—are they not the same? Which one do I have to do?"—but it also means that climate change is almost treated as a separate issue and you lose that holistic nature and that interrelated nature of all these issues to do with sustainable development.

  Q4  Dr Turner: Some of us find it difficult to disassociate climate change from energy policy. If government structures do anything to promote joined-up thinking across the whole field of energy, then I have yet to see it. We are all familiar with the turf war between DTI and Defra on energy and there is also not an inconsiderable involvement in the Department of Transport. Do you think there is mileage in having a single government department estate responsible for all facets of energy policy, in order to get some proper joined-up thinking and joined-up action in this field?

  Dr Russel: Some of our research has looked at energy policy. I would agree, it is a very fragmented policy sector and the coordination of it has been a bit of a mess, to say the least. As for putting it under one department, I think there are things to be said for that, in that it would bring all these activities under one roof and provide strong leadership and a unified approach. On the other hand, my concern would be, firstly, that it can take up to five years for a department to bed down and operate properly following major restructuring or reorganisation—and climate change is an issue which has to be dealt with now according to climate scientists—so would that five-year delay have a detrimental effect. The second aspect is that, when you consider the nature of energy use, you have transport, local government, building regulations and that aspect of it; you have energy production and consumption patterns which all affect climate change; and then you have the whole private sector in terms of even the energy production companies. By putting it under one roof, would that department become too unwieldy to operate effectively? I think it could work. In principle, it would be a good idea, but I am a little worried that it could take too long to settle down and it could be an unwieldy department.

  Q5  Dr Turner: I take your point that to throw everything into one department could create a negative chaos of its own. If we have to work with the structures that we have now, can you see any way of streamlining them and making them more effective in the immediate future?

  Dr Russel: There is an existing array of mechanisms available that are suitable for coordinating these things and I think a lot of it boils down to having a sustained period of political leadership. Someone at the very top—that is, the Prime Minister—needs to grapple with this issue. I can imagine that DTI would not be too happy with such an involvement but someone from the top needs to grapple this issue and push it through the Whitehall agenda. Also, you cannot just impose this top-down leadership. Our research has found that officials do not necessarily have the skills and the capacity to work day-to-day on these things, to coordinate and know where to go to and the know-how to generate information so they can feed it into the different committees of government, which is a core aspect of coordination as it can help identify where the impacts of a policy are likely to spill over. I would say that you need sustained political leadership but you also need to have appropriate training and help for those people who have to make the policy. That is either through providing training or providing them with a pool of expertise on which they can draw to help them come together and help them join up.

  Q6  Dr Turner: That is quite a long-term perspective.

  Dr Russel: Yes.

  Q7  Dr Turner: But I understand what you are saying. Something, I have to say, I have suspected myself for a long time is that too many of our silos are occupied by people without the right expertise. We need a quick fix for dealing with that situation. Can you propose one?

  Dr Russel: A quick fix would be for the Prime Minister or someone of very high standing in government to take the lead on this, to take a sustained lead and follow it through. That would be my suggestion from my research. If you look, for example, at the Treasury spending review, it is a very centralised process but what the Treasury wants from that they often get and the departments pull together because there is funding related to it. A good centralised process would be a quick fix.

  Q8  Dr Turner: We are also proposing to set up an Office of Climate Change. That will be yet another institution but, on the other hand, an overarching institution, able to comment and offer advice on all aspects, and with the Climate Change Committee would be an arm's length body to advise, hopefully with the right expertise. How do you see this operating with all the other myriad branches of Whitehall?

  Dr Russel: The first thing I would say is that placing it in Defra is probably not the best place. I think this Climate Change Office should be placed at the heart of Government; that is, the Cabinet Office, which has a traditional coordinating role in Whitehall. Defra, as has been found with the Sustainable Development Unit—and I think this Committee has criticised its stature and status by being placed in Defra—has insufficient clout to get other departments to work together towards this cross-cutting agenda. In the Cabinet Office, it is at the apex of the departmental system and, if you take the example of the Better Regulation Executive, it has more authority, is better resourced for these types of things and has better expertise to work on cross-cutting issues. I also have concerns that it overlaps with aspects of the Sustainable Development Unit and the work that it does. I think the Government really needs to clarify the roles and to make sure that there is not overlap or that one body thinks the other is picking up on an issue and it is not and therefore you do not get an issue addressed. I think those roles need to be clarified and the office needs to be put in the heart of Government.

  Q9  Dr Turner: Mark you, if we follow your line of argument to its logical conclusion: the Cabinet Office or the Office of the Prime Minister, which one might alternatively call? it is going to become so all-powerful that departments like Defra and the DTI could be very much downgraded which of course they would resist. Do you see problems there?

  Dr Russel: I can see departmental resistance. This is the centre getting in on some departments' turf, if you like. However, one of the centre's role in this, especially since the Modernising Government Agenda, has been to try to manage and tackle cross-cutting issues which cut across all departmental remits or many departmental remits. In many ways, as it is such a crucial cross-cutting issue and something that Tony Blair is signalling as a major, major concern for his Government, I would say the Cabinet Office is the logical place to put it, as that is where cross-cutting issues which have been the priority of the centre of government have naturally been situated.

  Q10  Dr Turner: Of course this would not be the first cross-cutting issue to be addressed through a cross-departmental Cabinet Committee, even if it is the most important one so far. How do you view the precedence in terms of the history of these committees and their effectiveness as giving hope for the future of climate change?

  Dr Russel: I would go back to looking at the most successful initiatives that have been centrally driven, like issues to do with social exclusion. The National Audit Office has done some work on this and they have been quite complementary—okay, nothing is ever perfect—about the way they tried to join the departments up on this, and that was initially managed from the Cabinet Office. That worked quite well. However, if things are not managed more centrally, unless it is in a department's common interest ... Let us take the European Union, for example. It is in every department's interest to speak with a common voice and to coordinate, so that they do not end up having to implement policy of which they were not fully aware of and which they did not have a full input into. You have the departments coming together there. There is also a centralised process that is managed by the Foreign Office rather than the Cabinet Office, but, because there is that common interest, not being placed in the Cabinet Office I do not think is an issue. But where there is not a common interest, such as areas of climate change, I think that central location is the key thing. There are examples, such as with environmental coordination, where some bits have been in the Cabinet Office, such as the Cabinet Committee on the Environment, but other bits have been managed by Defra, and that has lowered the status and made it more difficult to operate.

  Q11  Dr Turner: So no easy answers.

  Dr Russel: No easy answers, no.

  Q12  Mark Pritchard: You mentioned common interest. Of course, there is increasing common interest across government departments in the area of fiscal control and taxation, et cetera. I understand why you say the Cabinet Office, and I agree with your point on that, but, in the ideal world, if there were more believers in the Treasury—given that common interest and given that the Treasury really is the heart of Government, we believe, rather than the Cabinet Office—do you think there should be a dedicated unit or that this unit should perhaps be placed in the Treasury?

  Dr Russel: When I was doing earlier work on environmental policy coordination, the one question I asked of people within the departments and within Defra was: Do you think it should be placed in Defra, the Cabinet Office or the Treasury? The common perception was Cabinet Office perhaps, Treasury perhaps not, and the Treasury was quite reluctant to take on board this issue. The Treasury has tried with the Comprehensive Spending Review (which, as you know, is where the funding is allocated, so it ties funding to core priorities which the Treasury sets) to integrate sustainable development into the spending review. In the 2002 review they introduced this compulsory Sustainable Development Report but our research shows that these reports are really done after they have put together their spending bids. The people we interviewed said, "No one took it seriously. We just wrote it in a few days at the end of the bids" and yet the Treasury still approved funding and did not appear to put any conditions on or to change the departments' spending plans, because their Sustainable Development Report was not up to scratch. I would say that the Treasury is very hesitant to take any leadership on this.

  Q13  Mark Pritchard: It is very unusual for the Treasury to have a light touch on important strategic issues in government unless it has other reasons for which it wants to have a lighter touch. Do you think the leadership you alluded to at the beginning of your comments today needs to come as much from the Treasury as it does top-down, from the Prime Minister?

  Dr Russel: I think the Treasury is a very useful focus for coordinating such issues because it is the department which controls public spending and it has a very sophisticated coordination machinery of its own which is related to that public spending. In theory, it is a very good place to put an Office for Climate Change, for example, but I am not sure at the moment whether the Treasury will be willing to take leadership.

  Q14  Colin Challen: In your evidence you have referred to a number of centralised and diffuse mechanisms to deal with cross-cutting issues like climate change. Could you give us one or two examples of best practice of either type, whether it is the vertical, top-down approach or the diffuse, horizontal approach? Are there good examples that you can cite?

  Dr Russel: In my own research, I have come across few very good examples. There has been very little research on this, apart from at the delivery, the policy implementation end, where it tends to be more bottom-up, where they use local expertise and that kind of thing; for example, when dealing with unemployment issues, creating the one-stop shop and that kind of thing, so it has been very localised implementation, so very much a bottom-up approach. In our recent research, we looked at the Strategic Defence Review, specifically an environmental appraisal of the Strategic Defence Review. That had a combination of top-down and bottom-up processes, where the Minister said, "Okay, we want an environmental appraisal on this" and then a team from the Defence estates came together—it was almost like an organic process—and said, "Okay, we are going to do the environmental appraisal. We are going to bring in the experts and we are going to do it in this way." They produced quite a good assessment of the environmental impact in the Defence Review and the information they generated was used to coordinate. They said to other stakeholders, "This could be the impact here, what do you think? Which option would you prefer us to take?" and then they could choose an option based on the possible or respective impacts. The initial call came from the top down but then it tended to be a very bottom-up process, where they did not initially have the expertise, they brought it in, they learned as they went along. My only criticism of it was that it occurred too late in the process, so the policy direction had already been set, but it still had an impact on the final outcomes and they tweaked it here and there to reduce the environmental impact based on the assessment.

  Q15  Colin Challen: Could the environmental impact that you have mentioned been further reduced if they had started earlier? Was it a bit of an add-on?

  Dr Russel: It was not strictly an add-on, but it was not done at the very beginning. It started mid way through the process. I think it would have been more robust had they started it earlier.

  Q16  Colin Challen: In a general sense, does that indicate that departments should really have, internally, their own experts, rather than having to feel that they are told to go and get somebody from outside?

  Dr Russel: I personally think departments should have their own experts. I suspect that they probably do have their own experts in many cases but the people do not really know where find them. It is the case with some of the people I have interviewed, where they have been told to do something like a regulatory impact assessment or a strategic environmental assessment or some other evidence-gathering process, that they have asked their boss: "Where do I go?" and they have said, "I don't know. Try here" and they have been bounced around from place to place and eventually found someone who can help them but it is probably too late by then.

  Q17  Colin Challen: They cannot really help when they do have this multiplicity of different organisations, the SDU, the SDC, the OCC—and I am sure there are many other acronyms that you could come up with as well. It does not seem to me to be just a case of in which department one of these bodies may be located, although we seem to have heard already that being located within Defra is not always the best, most powerful place to be in this sense. Do you get a sense that perhaps some of these bodies are just a product of "initiative-itis" or the need for a political statement to create an office, to have a few civil servants running around for a while doing it, saying, "Box ticked, job done," and then, after a while, it loses its impetus?

  Dr Russel: This goes back to the point I made at the beginning, I think. We already have a strategy, for example, for sustainable development which is not working very well and then it is, "Oh, climate change is an issue, so we'll set this up," the box is ticked but the government is not following it through and not providing that sustained leadership and dedication to the task.

  Q18  Colin Challen: Who should provide that leadership? We can always say it is the Prime Minister but that is a bit of—

  Dr Russel: The Prime Minister has lots of issues they have to deal with. I think the initial spark probably has to come from the Prime Minister but then you need other senior colleagues, such as the Chancellor, and you also need other core parts of government, such as the Treasury and the Cabinet Office on board, just to keep the sustained momentum behind it. In my interviews, departmental officials also said there is a lack of support within their own departments from the senior Civil Service. So it has to go beyond senior ministers and down to the next level of the senior Civil Service for them to provide the leadership within their departments.

  Q19  Colin Challen: We have had the creation of the Office of Climate Change, we have the SDU. Is there a case that some of these bodies ought to be merged? We have already touched on departmental mergers, and perhaps with some of these bodies it would be easier and more commonsensical to merge them, so that, when people do go looking for experts, they can go straight to the obvious choice and perhaps get things done a bit quicker and more efficiently.

  Dr Russel: I think there probably is a case for rationalising the amount of these bodies. Probably what department officials need is a centralised body or a few centralised bodies they can go to, then that body feeds them back to their own departmental experts, and then there is communication between all three of them—so you have departmental experts, policymakers and a centralised body.

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