Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State's announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs


The decision to remove funding from the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) was made to enable government to lead on sustainable development from within central Government, strengthening accountability and ensuring government is scrutinised by both parliament and the wider public. Defra is working closely with the SDC to ensure relevant aspects of the organisations work are mainstreamed into core government business.

The Coalition Agreement states that, "that we need to protect the environment for future generations, make our economy more environmentally sustainable, and improve our quality of life and well-being." The principles of sustainable development are embedded throughout Defra's own Structural Reform Plan, with priorities on the natural environment, a sustainable food and farming sector and the green economy.

Furthermore, Defra is committed, through its Structural Reform Plan, to improve the sustainability of government as a whole, ensuring effective ministerial governance to oversee performance and putting mechanisms in place to embed sustainable development in operations, procurement and policy making.


1.  What is the rationale behind the Government's decision to remove funding from the SDC?

1.1.  The Secretary of State for Defra, along with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, is committed to mainstreaming sustainable development across the whole of Government, and to lead on this from within departments. Government believes this will strengthen accountability and lead to the embedding of sustainable development more effectively in policy development and operations. Ministers are accountable to Parliament for carrying their duties, and there are already many organisations and commentators who will continue to hold the Government to account, including the EAC.

1.2.  The Government is committed to transparency and will continue to publish the necessary data for such scrutiny. The change will also contribute to financial and efficiency savings, in line with this government's overall priority of reducing the deficit.

2.  To what extent, and how, does the government plan to relocate the four main aspects of the SDC's work?

2.1.  The extent of relocation is still to be decided in discussion with the SDC and others. However, the Secretary of State for Defra has already signalled her overall approach to the four main aspects of the SDC's work:

2.2.  Advocacy: "Promoting awareness of the concept of sustainable development": Defra will continue to champion sustainable development internally in policymaking and operations across Government. Government will continue to communicate the concept of sustainable development externally through our existing communication channels and through our work with businesses, individuals and the many external organisations already working within this field who can support us in this task.

2.3.  Capability building: "Establishing good working practices within government": Much of the capability building by the SDC has been focused on embedding members of staff within key departments such as the Department for Education and Department for Health. In line with the Secretary of State's commitment to mainstream sustainable development across Government, Defra will concentrate its efforts in two main areas. First, through stronger political leadership we will ensure that good decision making is driven from the top, and Defra is currently in discussion with the Cabinet Office and DECC to ensure that better working practices are established at ministerial, as well as official, level. Secondly, through ensuring that decision making processes, such as impact assessments and business plans take into account the value of long term environmental, social and economic impacts.

2.4.  Policy advisory: "Advising key ministers and others across Government": This function is already performed within government. Where the expertise does not exist internally, Defra and other Departments commission additional expert advice from a range of organisations, of which the SDC has been one. In the future, the nature of any sustainable development work we might commission will determine which organisations will have the capability to deliver - but we would expect these to include, amongst others, research councils, academic institutions and NGOs.

2.5.  Watchdog: "Monitoring performance against sustainable development targets and reporting on these": Ministers are already held to account through Parliament, and Defra welcomes the commitment of the Environmental Audit Committee to carry out this scrutiny role, as demonstrated by this inquiry. In addition, there are a range of other organisations and commentators with experience and expertise in sustainable development who will scrutinise and comment on government's performance. These include national level non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academic institutions and business groups, as well as international organisations such as the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

2.6.  Government will facilitate effective scrutiny through open and transparent reporting of policy commitments and delivery against them. Government has already demonstrated this through the publication of Departmental Structural Reform Plans and monthly updates on their delivery. Defra is also looking at how to use existing macro level sustainable development indicators to measure government progress against the long term objectives on safeguarding the environment, wellbeing and economic growth.

2.7.  On operations, government is already publishing real time energy data from departmental headquarters and is reviewing other sustainability commitments. We are committed to sharing Government's sustainability performance so that Parliament and the public can hold us to account.

2.8.  Ministers in the Devolved Administrations are responsible for deciding which of the SDC's functions should continue in relation to their own Governments' work.

3.  What is the proposed timetable for making these changes and when will key decision be made? At what stage is work currently?

3.1.  Defra will fund the SDC for the remainder of the 2010-11 financial year. We intend to have resolved which functions and staff will transfer and have transferred the relevant staff to Defra to meet this deadline. To achieve this the very latest date for finalising a decision of which functions and staff will transfer is the end of December, though it would be desirable to decide this before then. However this process and timescale will also require appropriate consultation with the unions. Defra is working with the Devolved Administrations, who are making their own decisions.

4.  How successful was the SDC in fulfilling its remit? Which aspects of the SDC's work have reached a natural end, or are otherwise of less importance, and which remain of particular continuing importance?

4.1.  The decision to remove funding from the SDC was not a judgement of success against its remit, but a decision on the remit itself. As outlined in question one, this government does not believe an arm's length body is best placed to give policy advice on sustainable development and we do not believe that Government should fund an additional body to scrutinise its own performance.

4.2.  As mentioned in the ministerial statement announcing the decision to remove funding, Government recognises that the SDC has made a positive contribution to sustainable development across Government and society over the past ten years, and acknowledges the hard work of both their current and previous Chairs, Will Day and Jonathon Porritt. Although all of the SDC's work remains relevant, the decision to champion sustainable development from the centre and at a ministerial level is a symptom of the success of the SDC in moving the agenda forward over this time. This will ensure that policy-making is focused within central government and not diluted across different bodies, avoiding duplication and making efficiencies, essential in the current economic climate. It will also ensure that leadership is driven from the top, whilst still enabling external bodies and parliament to challenge from outside.

5.  In which areas of the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy has most progress been made? In which areas should action for future progress be targeted?

5.1.  An internal Defra review of "Securing the Future" was conducted in 2008. This found that although the 250 commitments had largely been met, more progress was needed particularly in the area of policy making. Further evidence has indicated that work is required to mainstream sustainable development into existing governance, reporting and policy-making processes to move the agenda from an "add on" to something integral to core government business. The Government Economic Service review of the Economics of Sustainable Development found that further evidence was needed to both identify and value social and environmental impacts.

5.2.  As a result, Defra, in conjunction with other Departments, is currently developing proposals around the following areas:

  1. Ensuring leadership for sustainable development comes from the highest level through senior ministerial-level governance.
  2. Improving accountability and transparency so that sustainability is included within government's measures of progress and core departmental reporting.
  3. Building capability of decision makers to ensure that environmental, social and economic impacts are both understood and valued in decision making processes.
  4. Enhancing cross-government collaboration on key cross cutting policies.
  5. Ensuring that government's operations and procurement are the greenest ever.

6.  What role do other departments have in developing sustainable development policy? How are departments working together across government to do this?

6.1.  Sustainable development cannot be delivered by one department alone and Defra is working at a number of levels across government to set the policy framework and delivery plans to achieve this.

6.2.  At a ministerial level, the Secretaries of State for Defra and DECC are working with the Minister of Government Policy in the Cabinet Office to ensure that government can deliver on its commitment to mainstream sustainable development, including through appropriate cabinet level working.

6.3.  Defra is working in partnership with Cabinet Office, DECC and DfT, as well as other departments to review Government's existing sustainability targets, and to set milestones going forward to ensure that Government operations and procurement are the greenest ever. An action plan will published in October, with the final policy announcements made in December. Performance management of government's own sustainability and engagement with its supply chain will be key aspects of a sustainable development in government work programme. This will provide opportunities to deliver financial and resource efficiency savings, demonstrate transparency and government leadership, and drive change in other sectors.

6.4.  Defra will also be working with Cabinet Office, along with the Office for National Statistics to develop a set of indicators to measure national progress on societal wellbeing and sustainable development.

6.5.  Defra chairs an official level cross government sustainable development programme board and a supporting sustainable development policy working group. These bodies provide oversight of the development and delivery of sustainable development policy. Their role is being considered as part of the review of the governance arrangement for sustainable development.

7.  To what extent are civil servants in your department made accountable for working more "sustainably"?

7.1.  Government action on sustainable development focuses on the areas of policy making, operations and procurement.

7.2.  Permanent Secretaries are accountable for their department's overall progress against the existing Sustainable Operations of the Government Estate (SOGE) targets and for ensuring, key staff in their departments have related performance objectives. Behaviour change is central to our efforts to cut our carbon emissions by 10%. In a recent staff survey virtually everyone who responded said they did at least one environmentally friendly thing in the office and staff are being asked to sign up online to a pledge to take this further and help Defra reach its target.

7.3.  On policy making, civil servants in Defra are given training on sustainable development within the core policy cycle training and are expected to address the environmental, social and economic impacts of their policies or projects in both Impact Assessments and Business Plans. However, recent reviews showed that although awareness of sustainability is high within the department, uptake and enforcement of formal reporting is low. Improvements are needed to build capability of both policy makers and decision makers within the department, and work is being done to improve guidance and analysis.

8.  To what extent has Defra been involved in assisting other departments to address sustainable development issues in formulating their draft Structural Reform Plans?

8.1.  The Coalition Agreement states that "The government believes that we need to protect the environment for future generations, make our economy more environmentally sustainable, and improve our quality of life and well-being." A number of department's Structural Reform Plans (SRPs) include strong elements of sustainable development. The principles of sustainable development are embedded throughout Defra's SRP, including the three priorities to:

  1. Support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production.
  2. Help to enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve quality of life.
  3. Support a strong and sustainable green economy, resilient to climate change.

8.2.   Defra has a particular role in enhancing the sustainability of its remit on areas such as the natural environment, adaptation to climate change, and food and farming. In addition, there are a number of commitments in Defra's SRP that will drive improvements in sustainability of government as a whole, such as plans to establish ministerial governance arrangements to oversee government performance on sustainable development, publish an action plan on greenest government ever operations and procurement and to produce guidance on sustainability and natural value in policy appraisal. Furthermore, Defra's SRP commits us to working with other departments on key policy areas such as the Green Economy Roadmap and the Natural Environment White Paper.

8.3.  In the future, Defra, in line with the commitment to mainstream sustainable development, is looking to replace the existing Sustainable Development Action Plans with a different approach to ensure the inclusion of sustainable development within core departmental business plans. Sustainable Development Indicators will also play a key part of new cross-government work on measuring government progress.

21 October 2010

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