Measuring well-being and sustainable development: Sustainable Development Indicators - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. The development of measures of sustainable development for the UK is currently progressing on two fronts: a 'Measuring National Well-being' initiative being run by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and a Defra-managed revision to the Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs).

Measuring National Well-being

2. In November 2010, the Prime Minister tasked the ONS to develop measures of "national well-being and progress" to supplement existing measures of economic development such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[1] The Prime Minister referred to the 2009 Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress ('Sarkozy Commission'), which focused on maintaining 'stocks' of 'capitals' over time.[2] Subsequently, OECD produced a 'Better Life Index' in 2011,[3] and the UN Rio+20 Earth Summit in June 2012 tasked the UN Statistical Commission to develop "broader measures of progress to complement GDP in order to better inform policy decisions".[4]

3. In our January 2011 report on embedding sustainable development, we welcomed the Prime Minister's initiative.[5] Since then, the ONS's 'Measuring National Well-being' programme has involved consultations on the measures to be used. This has included measures of both subjective well-being, to be gleaned through surveying people to "find out how people think and feel about their own lives",[6] and objective well-being. The ONS explained in July 2012 that:

One of the main benefits to National Statistics Offices of collecting information on subjective well-being is that it is based on people's views of their own individual well-being. In the past, assumptions were made about how objective conditions, such as people's health and income, might influence their individual well-being. Subjective well-being measures, on the other hand, are grounded in individuals' preferences and take account of what matters to people by allowing them to decide what is important.

The four overall monitoring questions that were included in the Integrated Household Survey and Opinions and Lifestyle Survey were:

Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?

Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?

Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?[7]

4. The ONS published on 20 November 2012 an analysis of the survey results,[8] updating an initial analysis in July, [9] which compared well-being scores by sub-groups of the population such as gender, age, ethnic group, relationship status, health, disability, employment status and occupation, as well as by nation, region and local authority.

5. The ONS published for consultation in October 2011 possible 'domains' (the themes comprising well-being) and the 'measures' underlying those domains.[10] As a result of that consultation, a revised set of measures was published in July 2012.[11] Because "there was strong support for the measures which were proposed," the changes made in producing a second iteration of the measures in July 2012 were not significant.[12] Currently the measures comprise 10 domains covering 39 individual measures, as set out in Figure 4.

Sustainable Development Indicators

6. In January 2001, the then Government published statistics for the first set of SDIs. Our predecessor Committee examined these in 2002,[13] and then the 2002 results in 2003.[14] A revised set was compiled in 2005. The current indicator set (published annually between 2005 and 2010) consisted of 68 indicators (listed in Figure 1). As we reported in January 2011, those SDIs were established in the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy to measure progress across the UK, beyond the impact of departments' own operations and procurements, and covering sustainable consumption and production, climate change and energy, the protection of natural resources and the environment, and sustainable communities.[15]

7. In February 2011, the Government's Vision for Mainstreaming Sustainable Development, (which we examined in our second report on embedding sustainable development in May 2011)[16] gave a commitment to "measure and report our progress through a new set of sustainable development indicators".[17] That culminated in a draft set of new SDIs being published by Defra for consultation on 24 July 2012. Although the consultation formally closed on 15 October, Defra told us that it will take our views into account before drawing together the results of the consultation at the end of this year.

8. The "streamlined" proposed new set of indicators comprises 12 'headline indicators' and 25 'supplementary indicators' (Figure 2). The 12 provisional headline indicators would be "high-level outcome measures and capture priority issues for making economic, environmental and social progress for this and future generations".[18]

Our inquiry

9. In undertaking this brief inquiry our aim is to examine the proposed new SDIs currently under consultation. Many of those who submitted written evidence to us had also contributed to Defra's consultation, and several also copied their contributions to us. We took oral evidence on 13 November from officials from Defra (which is managing the development of the SDIs), from the ONS (managing the Measuring National Well-being programme) and from the Behavioural Insights Team in the Cabinet Office/Number 10 (which leads on well-being policy).

10. We have in this report focussed on the links between the two initiatives (Part 2) and some of the detail of the new SDIs (Part 3). Later, in a further inquiry, we intend to examine the ongoing ONS work on Measuring National Well-being, following the further developments envisaged in the ONS's progress report published on 20 November.

1   National Statistician's Reflections on the National Debate on Measuring National Well-being, ONS, July 2011 (  Back

2   Report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, 2009 (  Back

3   Better Life Index, OECD, 2011 ( This differentiates between material conditions and 'quality of life', but has so far not addressed 'capitals'. Back

4   The Future We Want, UN, June 2012, para 38 ( Back

5   Environmental Audit Committee, Embedding sustainable development across government, First Report, Session 2010-12, HC 504 (  Back

6   First ONS Annual Experimental Subjective Well-being Results, ONS, July 2012 (  Back

7   Ibid. Back

8   Measuring National Well-being: Life in the UK 2012, ONS, November 2012 ( ) Back

9   First ONS Annual Experimental Subjective Well-being Results, ONS, July 2012, op cit Back

10   Measuring National Well-being: Discussion paper on domains and measures, ONS, Oct 2011 (  Back

11   Report on consultation responses on proposed domains and measures, ONS, July 2012 ( ; Q5 Back

12   Report on consultation responses on proposed domains and measures, op cit, Table 1 Back

13   Environmental Audit Committee, Measuring the quality of life: The 2001 Sustainable Development Headline Indicators, Fourth Report, session 2001-02, HC 824 (  Back

14   Environmental Audit Committee, The Sustainable Development Headline Indicators 2002, Eleventh Report, session 2002-03, HC 1080 (  Back

15   Environmental Audit Committee, Embedding sustainable development across government, HC 504, op cit. Back

16   Environmental Audit Committee, Embedding sustainable development: The Government's response, Fourth Report, Session 2010-12, HC 877 (  Back

17   Vision for Mainstreaming Sustainable Development, Defra, February 2011 (  Back

18   Informal Consultation on Sustainable Development Indicators, Defra July 2012 (  Back

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Prepared 29 November 2012