Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 35)



  Q20  Colin Challen: Do you have any signals that these bodies themselves would like to see a merger, or are they a little bit defensive of their roles?

  Dr Russel: I could not answer that question. I would not know.

  Q21  Colin Challen: Is there a case really that, rather than the Government creating the Office of Climate Change, they should have done more to strengthen the SDU?

  Dr Russel: Yes. That is what I would argue. When you compare the SDU to something like the Better Regulation Executive, the SDU is massively under-resourced. It has to do so many things. It deals not only with estate issues, government estates and green estates, it also deals with green policy issues and yet it has a very small core staff. When we were doing our research on environmental policy appraisal and I was speaking to the head of that, she had three people, and not only were they dealing with environmental policy appraisal, giving best practice, supposed to be collecting a database but they were also dealing with the Green Cabinet Committee and other issues to do with integrating environmental concerns into policymaking. If you compare that with the Better Regulation Executive, they have team members who shadow the departments, so there is a centre of expertise. They comment on regulatory impact assessments or impact assessments, as they are now called, and they have a whole host of people working on the guidance and that aspect, so it is far better resourced and centrally located. I think the SDU could be better resourced, centrally located and climate change should, by its nature, be a major part of its work anyway.

  Q22  Colin Challen: Do these bodies try to coordinate their own activities, so that if they, say, move into similar areas of research, they try to avoid duplicating each other?

  Dr Russel: I would not be able to say. My fear is that there would be some duplication and that there would also be some areas, possibly, where if they are not communicating properly, one thinks the other is picking up an issue and the other thinks the other is picking it up and it is not being picked up at all. I do not have any evidence for that but that is what has happened before in other areas that other researchers have picked up on.

  Q23  Mark Pritchard: The Green Cabinet Committee, I wonder who sits on that.

  Dr Russel: You have the main Green Cabinet Committee, which is a Cabinet Committee for Environment and Energy. The Prime Minister has just been confirmed about a year ago as the Chairman of that Committee. Off the top of my head, I cannot remember who else is on that. Then you have the Sub-Committee Energy, which is comprised of sustainable development ministers, who are mainly junior ministers within their departments who, in addition to their junior ministerial profile, also have a sustainable development profile and are supposed to help promote sustainable development.

  Q24  Mark Pritchard: Mr Challen was talking about the different agencies in different government departments dealing with climate change and environmental issues. I was thinking back to the amount of intelligence agencies we have, the intelligence gathering organisations across government, the MOD intelligence agencies and one or two others. Of course the way they deal with that is not to set up yet another body but to draw senior people from each of those organisations into a single body that would discuss strategic issues to try to have joined-up thinking wherever possible. Seeing as the Office of Climate Change is a new body, rather than drawing down expertise that already exists, do you see the former model as something that might be more helpful?

  Dr Russel: I can see that can help with coordination. The one thing I would say is that coordination needs to happen at the very beginning, so, if they are just coming together to discuss what they are already doing and what they have done, then you are going to get coordination far later on, when it is harder trying to resolve some of the thorny issues., It is better if you start at the beginning. It tends to be a smoother process. If you take that kind of structure, I would say that it needs to be proactive, so they need to discuss future work rather than the work they are already working on. The focus needs to be there, and that, again, needs to come from the top. You need a remit which says that.

  Q25  Mr Chaytor: Your report talks about the need for stronger leadership but for the last ten years we have had a presidential style Prime Minister with an enormous parliamentary majority who has taken an international lead on climate change issues. How do you reconcile your criticism with that reality?

  Dr Russel: Tony Blair has made something like seven major speeches on sustainable development and related issues such as climate change. In terms of raising the profile of these issues, he has been there, but I would say that what has not been picked up on is that he makes a speech and moves on. It is very interesting, when you go into departments and talk to these people. They will say, "Tony Blair makes a speech, there is a flurry of activity: `We need sustainable development reports, blah, blah, blah,' the speech finishes and then everything calms down again" and so it is not sustained enough. I think Tony Blair's leadership has been good in raising the profile but what has not been effective is ensuring, once that speech has been made, that action is sustained. Again, that comes down to bringing it down to the other parts of the higher tiers of government to ensure that the leadership is sustained, because the Prime Minister has other things to think about, other than just sustainable development.

  Q26  Mr Chaytor: I am consideration that there is a contradiction in your argument. On the one hand you are calling for greater centralisation, but then you are accepting that if decisions and policy leadership are centralised it cannot be sustained because of the sheer volume of work for which the Prime Minister or the Cabinet Office have to take responsibility. Where is the balance between the leadership the Prime Minister needs to show and the leadership in delivery to follow it through?

  Dr Russel: I would say the balance is that the Prime Minister needs to do more than just make a speech. He needs to go the Cabinet Office, he needs to put the Sustainable Development Unit in there and say, "I expect action on this." I get the feeling that that is not happening, that kind of setting of targets. You have this whole coordination machinery, in the centre of government and it is just not being utilised properly so that when the Prime Minister moves on to other things that machinery is working effectively and smoothly. I see that Tony Blair makes a speech, but then I do not see any end result of that—other than a speech is made and you get this flurry of activity. It does not appear that he is saying to senior civil servants or it is not coming down to senior civil servants, "This is a core part of our government strategy. It is one of the key things we think needs tackling and therefore your departments have to tackle it."

  Q27  Mr Chaytor: The weakness in the current arrangements is at the level of permanent secretary in not picking up the Prime Minister's lead.

  Dr Russel: Permanent secretary and maybe even ministers. It has to be sustained beyond the Prime Minister's focus on that issue, and that comes from ministerial lead, and leadership from key bodies like the Treasury and the Cabinet Office and senior permanent secretaries.

  Q28  Mr Chaytor: Do you think it is fair to say that because we have had a presidential style Prime Minister and between 1979 and 1990 we had a presidential style Prime Minister, that weakens the capacity of other cabinet ministers to lead and follow through and ensure that policies are developed into action? Does it become more difficult for cabinet ministers to establish their own authority in a presidential style system?

  Dr Russel: I would say if we have a very strong prime minister and they say, "We want action on climate change," then it would make it easier for ministers to say it.

  Q29  Mr Chaytor: But your research suggests that is not happening.

  Dr Russel: There is a lot of commentary on whether Tony Blair is in fact a presidential style Prime Minister or just a different style of Prime Minister. Some people say in fact he is less presidential that is often thought and others say he is very presidential. I would say that the evidence appears to be to the contrary, that Tony Blair makes these statements of intent and that ministers still go about things in their own way, beyond maybe a few mutterings of, "Yes, you have to do an environmental appraisal on that" but never really following it through once the demand for appraisal has been made. I do not know the answer to that. I cannot say Blair is presidential or not presidential but the implications are that ministers are not picking this up, despite Blair having it as one of the key parts of his Government.

  Q30  Mr Chaytor: On balance, are you calling for more of a command type government, an absolutely top-down government where the line is established and at ministerial and permanent secretary level it is followed through? If so, how does that leave the question of entrepreneurialism and individual flair within departments? Doest it not stifle innovation in individual departments?

  Dr Russel: I do not propose that we would have a command and control style. I think it needs to be a two-way process. I think there needs to be demand at the very top, so ministers must be saying, "I want to see regulatory impact assessments" or permanent secretaries or senior policy advisors: "I want to see the regulatory impact assessment and I want to make sure they have environmental appraisals or that they cover environmental impact and climate change matters, societal impacts and that kind of thing." They need to create the demand for that but I do not think they should be telling civil servants they should do it, in this way, this way or this way. I think they should set targets, they should set goals, and they should be interested in finding the results of the work that has been done in these types of things, but it should be left to ground-level expertise to work out the best way to deal with these challenges and issues. No one at the bottom is going to do anything unless there is a common interest, unless there is some kind of reason to in terms of your boss making demands. However, you do not want to stifle creativity, because then you get a rather awkward and clunky response to the issue. These people have local-level expertise and they are probably best placed to decide the best way to respond to these challenges once they are prompted to.

  Q31  David Howarth: I am going to ask about regulatory impact assessments but, before I do that, could I just follow up on what you said earlier about the Treasury and what you have just said now about the Prime Minister. The formal, top-down, cascade down the priorities to decide between different priorities, is the system of a Comprehensive Spending Review and of public service agreements. We have the formal system run from the Treasury and then we have an informal system run from Number 10 where the basic unit of decision-making is not anything of a formal system at all, it is the speech; it does not have any great constitutional status. Is that the problem, that there seems to be no linkage between the formal and informal systems of policy?

  Dr Russel: I think that is probably a very truthful observation. There is research to show that coordination at the very centre of Government is as poor as it can be elsewhere. Yes, I suspect it is the Treasury and Number 10 not communicating with people and the Cabinet Office as well, and these formal mechanisms not really picking up on these informal aspects of where the leadership says we should be going.

  Q32  David Howarth: On the regulatory impact assessments, you gave evidence to our previous report on this and we came to the conclusion that they were having no important impact on policy outcomes. Your view, I think, was that has a lot to do with lack of expertise. I suppose what we have been trying to get at in other areas but now coming on to this specifically, is that it could be lack of expertise but it is also a lack of strong leadership or lack of engagement with the environmental issues in general and climate change in particular. Is there any evidence for those other two explanations?

  Dr Russel: Yes. The evidence we gave in your last hearing was based on some recent work we did on regulatory impact assessments. Before that, I was looking at specifically environmental policy appraisals, which was a separate appraisal process before it was grouped together with regulatory impact assessments. I wanted to find out why these things were not being done and the factors that were restricting people. When you went and spoke to people they said, "It has nothing to do with our work. We're the Department of Health, why would we do an environmental impact assessment?" Also, there was gross ignorance and a lack of awareness as to even the existence of an environmental policy appraisal: what to do, how to do it and what was sustainable development. It is understandable. Sustainable development is a very difficult concept to get your head around. Part of it is a subconscious resistance: "What has this to do with us?" and the other is a lack of awareness—not necessarily, "I should consider this but I do not have the expertise to do it" but a lack of awareness that they even should consider such things.

  Q33  David Howarth: If that is the reason for their lack of effectiveness, is any of that going to change with the new system and a greater emphasis on trying to be more like a cost-benefit analysis?

  Dr Russel: I should add that that was another finding from the research we did on environmental policy appraisal and regulatory impact assessments, that the cost-benefit analysis type model of policy appraisal was very unsuited to what policymakers did, and the fact that they would have a minister saying, "I need a decision on this tomorrow" and they would have a manifesto commitment, EU requirements, et cetera, so therefore having this rational linear model, where you would have lots of options and you would do a cost-benefit analysis was difficult to follow. That was one aspect and there is another aspect to do with quantifying environmental impacts. Environmental economists will tell you that you can do this but there is still a lot of scepticism amongst the public and officials that you can do this accurately. Also, I was talking to an economist in Defra who said that there is a lot of data missing, and you could work it out but you would have to commission so much research to get this missing data. The new impact assessment regime has gone further down this technical, rational cost-benefit analysis, so you are not giving policymakers, I would say, a tool with which they feel comfortable to join up with. The whole point of doing this appraisal is that they do the appraisal, they generate some information, qualitative and quantitative, on the spill-overs of the policy, so that other groups can look at it and say, "Hang on, that is technically my turf. Can we talk about this and bring it together?" I would say at the very beginning, by doing that, you are more likely to stifle innovation because policymakers do not feel comfortable, especially on these wider issues to do with environmental sustainable development. Secondly, sustainable development seems to have been dropped. I was looking at the guidance the other day. I was trying to look for references to sustainable development and the environment as something they should consider and the only thing that is highlighted is carbon. On the one hand, I do not think it is an appropriate tool and on the other hand I do not think it deals with this issue of departments picking up on what they want to pick up on. I think it was a good idea for the Government to look initially at regulatory impact assessment and where it is heading but, based on our research, I think they have come out with the wrong model. Others may argue differently.

  Q34  David Howarth: I suppose there is the example of Defra's work on ecosystem services as a way of trying to get a valuation of a wider range of environmental benefits. Is that a way forward? You could argue it is a way forward on both the problems you have just raised: on the one side, on the problem of consultation and trying to get the two branches reconciled, and, on the other—which is a point you made earlier, and it is a very important point, and we found in our investigation of the FCO as well—that if you put all the emphasis on to climate change and you have a carbon line in the impact assessment, you then tend to ignore everything else.

  Dr Russel: Yes, it detracts from the other aspects.

  Q35  David Howarth: There is an argument that Defra is trying to attempt to meet both those problems.

  Dr Russel: It is attempting to increase the evidence base and to come up with some good costings to put into a regulatory impact assessment, but there is still this issue of the fact that this type of appraisal system does not necessarily fit neatly with the way policy is made. I think that guidance writers and people in the Better Regulation Executive need to sit down with the people who have to write the regulatory impact assessments and say, "What do you need?" You may not get the perfect instrument but you may get something which is used and used more effectively than the impact assessment or regulatory impact assessment. But I think Defra is going down the right line and this should improve the generating of data.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. That has been very helpful

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 29 October 2007