Select Committee on Liaison Third Report

Appendix 1: Letter from the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee


1. In lieu of my Committee agreeing an Annual Report, I am writing to you, as in previous years, to set out the key components of the Environmental Audit Committee's work programme during 2007. Our terms of reference are to consider to what extent the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development and to audits their performance against such targets as may be set for them by Ministers. We are not a departmental select committee and therefore do not address the core tasks.

Overview of work

2. Over the course of the year the Committee and Sub-Committee took evidence from Ministers on a total of four occasions, and on one occasion from a Member of the House, Elliot Morley MP. Oral evidence was taken from officials from four different Government departments on seven separate occasions. Although much Committee activity has an inevitable focus on Defra, other departments involved in the EAC work programme have included HM Treasury, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

3. At the start of this Parliament the Committee decided that the threat presented by climate change should be its main priority. Over the past year we have conducted a number of inquiries linked to this theme. We have also continued to conduct inquiries into other areas reflecting our cross-departmental remit, notably environmental diplomacy and the role of regulatory impact assessments. The nature of our work, and in particular the choice of climate change as a theme for this Parliament, means that we often return to issues or identify issues in one inquiry that then form the basis for further inquiries. This allows us to track progress and follow-up on our recommendations effectively.

Climate change

4. The Committee played a key role in scrutinising the draft Climate Change Bill. In Beyond Stern: From the Climate Change Programme Review to the Draft Climate Change Bill the Committee made specific recommendations for strengthening the Bill. At the same time we looked in detail, following reports carried out for the Committee by the National Audit Office, at the Government's entire systems for monitoring carbon emissions and the effectiveness of carbon reduction policies. Several Members of my Committee also served on the Joint Committee on the Draft Climate Change Bill and EAC staff supported its work.

5. Emissions trading was one of the Committee's biggest concerns in 2007. We issued a major Report, The EU Emissions Trading Scheme: Lessons for the future, in March. The report assessed the effectiveness of the first phase of the scheme, and made recommendations for making future phases more robust and effective. The Committee then followed this up with a second report in October, containing the government response to the first plus an important commentary on it, recommending improvements in the transparency with which the Government reports the effects of emissions trading. This was in turn followed by a debate on the initial EAC report in Westminster Hall.[144]

6. In March the EAC also published its annual Report on the Treasury's 2006 Pre-Budget Report. This year the Committee focused on the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, published the previous October.[145] We opened our inquiry with an evidence session with Sir Nick Stern, his first appearance before a select committee since his review was published. Our Report highlighted the urgency of the messages in his report, as well as the gap that often exists between those recommendations and implementation. The Committee has since taken evidence on the 2007 Pre-Budget Report and will produce a Report before the Budget in 2008.

7. The Committee looked at the Voluntary Carbon Offset Market. We recognised that elements of the carbon offsetting market were less than robust and that this had the potential to devalue the entire concept. The attitude of the airlines was singled out for particular criticism. We found that carbon offsets have a role to play in cutting carbon emissions and raising awareness of climate change. However, encouraging offsets must not inhibit increased efforts to cut emissions and research is needed to find out if buying offsets makes people more or less determined to cut their own carbon footprint. We recommended that government should compel the most carbon-intensive businesses to offer offset services and individuals should be given a compulsory-choice option for offsetting when procuring carbon intensive goods and services. We insisted on the need for greater transparency in the offset market.

8. There are a number of inquiries that we started in 2007 but are yet to bring to a conclusion. In summer 2007 the Committee undertook an inquiry into Personal Carbon Allowances. This inquiry was a rare opportunity to look beyond existing policy and examine the merits of a radical and still developing policy idea. We also finished taking evidence on an inquiry looking at how the Government is encouraging businesses to reduce their emissions and the role that the Climate Change Levy and the associated Climate Change Agreements play. We will produce Reports on both of these topics early in 2008.

9. The Committee also kept up its tradition of regular one-off evidence sessions with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Chief Scientific Adviser, in both cases concentrating largely on climate change and energy policy.

Environmental impact of trade and development

10. In 2006 the EAC created a Sub-Committee to conduct a cross-government series of inquiries assessing the environmental impacts of trade and development. The Sub-Committee concluded its work in 2007 with two inquiries into the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the FCO.

11. The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was a unique study that showed how human activity is leading to species extinction on a massive scale, climate change and worsening poverty, and investigated how these challenges might be met. We found that despite some progress the Government had more to do to ensure that the MA findings were mainstreamed in Government policy. We found that the impact of the MA had been mixed; many governments around the world had been slow to grasp its importance. We recommended that the Government do more in the UK to ensure that current measures of growth properly valued the environment and that economic indicators take human well-being into account.

12. In the last of its inquiries the Sub-Committee looked at Trade, Development and Environment: The Role of the FCO. Given increasing knowledge of the risks associated with climate change and environmental degradation, we found that the FCO has a more important role than ever to play in building international support for, and helping to deliver, UK international environmental objectives. In particular, the FCO has a pivotal role where diplomacy is critical to achieving success, such as in international negotiations on biodiversity and climate change. We acknowledged that the FCO is doing some good work on a number of international environmental issues. The appointment of a Special Representative on Climate Change and the Foreign Secretary's robust argument for the consideration of climate change at the UN Security Council is evidence of the diplomatic effort that the FCO is putting behind this issue.

13. Nevertheless, we expressed major concerns that the FCO was neglecting a number of key international challenges including biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. We felt that the structure of the FCO was not up to the task of dealing with the challenges posed by international environmental degradation.

Structure of Government

14. Committee staff have developed a good working relationship with the media office in order to maximise coverage of Committee reports. Extensive coverage of our Report on the Structure of Government and the challenge of climate change may have resulted in part from this improved cooperation. In that report our main conclusion was that a powerful new body should be created within the Cabinet Office, headed by a senior Minister, to drive forward the Government's climate change policy and to diminish inter-departmental conflict. We welcomed the draft Climate Change Bill and the creation of the Office of Climate Change but felt that the current institutional and policy frameworks for dealing with climate change were confused and did not promote effective action on reducing emissions. We concluded that a review of government action in the area of climate change was needed to provide clarity of responsibility for developing and delivering climate policies. We also recommended that long-term mitigation and adaptation policy frameworks must be developed to ensure that policy decisions taken today do not lock in long-term emissions, and to prepare the UK for climate change impacts. We argued that the UK must be equipped to meet both the challenge of a carbon constrained world and the likely climate change impacts that will occur. For example, it would be disastrous if bad planning policy meant that today's new developments become tomorrow's climate slums.

15. We also investigated whether the civil service has the skills it needs to climate-proof the UK. We found that there are skills shortages in the civil service and that failure to address these will undermine attempts to move the UK to a low carbon economy.

Regulatory Impact Assessments and Policy Appraisal

16. In November 2006 the Committee carried out an inquiry into Regulatory Impact Assessments and Policy Appraisal. The inquiry investigated the extent to which sustainable development and environmental concerns were taken into account in RIAs, a key component in policy development and decision making. Having established that RIAs were generally lacking in this area, the report concluded that this shortcoming derived from a lack of awareness and specialist training among officials compiling RIAs; a focus on monetising costs and benefits which made it difficult to convey the extent and importance of environmental impacts; and a restrictive template and layout for the summary page which further marginalised environmental impacts. The Committee urged all departments to consider the environmental impacts of their policies in more depth, and for the RIA guidance and structures to be altered to allow environmental concerns to be communicated more fully.

17. The inquiry into RIAs was a good example of the Committee's commitment to investigating the extent to which the policies and programmes of all government departments contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development. RIAs were used to inform policy decisions across Government, and therefore had the potential to operate as a crucial mechanism in ensuring greater appreciation of the environmental impacts of policies across all departments. The Committee's inquiry ran parallel to the Better Regulation Executive's consultation on overhauling impact assessments. We regret that the outcome of that consultation was in many respects a backward step, meaning that RIAs remain a tool that minimises environmental concerns, rather than giving them due importance.


18. We completed an inquiry into the question of whether biofuels are sustainable; our Report was published early in 2008.

Adequacy of Government responses

19. Most of the responses to our reports have been delivered on time and are of a satisfactory quality. While the responsibility for replying to our reports is largely borne by Defra, we have also received timely responses from other departments, including the Treasury and FCO. In most cases we have been able to publish the responses without comment. However, as I described above, we felt it important on the EU ETS to provide a commentary on the Government's response. For our Report on the draft Climate Change Bill we felt the government response was inadequate in a number of areas. However, the Committee felt that the best way to deal with this was to seek to table amendments to the Bill on report that would allow the issues to be debated on the floor of the House.


20. In December 2006, the Committee travelled to Brussels for a productive session of meetings with officials from the European Commission, as well as representatives of pan-European environmental NGOs. These meetings concentrated on emissions trading (in particular the development of policies aimed at bringing aviation into the EU ETS), transport policy, and water and pollution legislation.

21. The Committee has continued to monitor international meetings on climate change. In February 2007 three members of the Committee attended a meeting of the Legislators' Forum of the Gleneagles Dialogue in Washington. In December one member of the Committee spent a week at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties and Meeting of Parties meetings in Bali.

Relationship with the NAO

22. The relationship with the National Audit Office (NAO) is a key relationship for the Committee and one that we value. Last year the Committee continued to build on its work with the NAO. Several of the Committee's inquiries in 2007 were influenced by a paper the Committee commissioned from the NAO on options for scrutiny of policy on climate change. The NAO continues to support the work of the Committee and has delivered several useful briefs to inform inquiries and provide information on particular policy instruments.

23. The inquiry into Regulatory Impact Assessments and Policy Appraisal, in particular, demonstrated the benefits of the Committee's close working relationship with the NAO. The NAO produces an annual assessment of RIAs, and at the Committee's request the Environmental Audit and Sustainable Development team at the NAO undertook a further, more focused study into the consideration of sustainable development issues in RIAs. The NAO were able to use their resources and unique access to Government to provide a thorough and insightful assessment of this aspect of impact assessments. This briefing document proved invaluable in informing the Committee and further, informal collaboration with the NAO supported and informed the inquiry throughout its course.


24. Getting sufficient committee members to attend a meeting is increasingly difficult; our overall attendance has fallen from 58.2% in Session 2005-06 to 44.5% in the last Session. We have a core of very assiduous and hardworking Committee members but Members are busy and clashes with other business are increasingly common. We have a number of specific problems with membership that affect attendance:

  • Shahid Malik MP became a DFID Minister in the June 2007 reshuffle, and has not yet been replaced; and
  • by convention the Minister for the Environment is a member of the Committee but Ian Pearson MP was moved to a different portfolio in June 2007 and not replaced on the Committee until January 2008; this was simply a matter of replacing Ian Pearson with his successor and we cannot see why it took so long for this change to happen.

25. My Committee supports the Liaison Committee's position on the size of committees. Our active membership is much lower than the sixteen members laid down in SO No. 152A. If our Committee had twelve or fewer members we would not have the same difficulties we face now with ensuring we have a quorum and the size of the Committee would more accurately reflect its active membership.

26. The Committee fulfils a unique and valuable role looking across government, throwing a spotlight on how environmental and sustainable development issues are addressed in a wide range of different policies and examining what progress the government is making towards the targets it has set in these areas. We could still fulfil that role with a smaller membership.

Mr Tim Yeo MP

25 February 2008

144   HC Deb, 25 October 2007, col 164WH Back

145   HM Treasury, Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, October 2006 Back

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