Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)

TUESDAY 18 APRIL 2000

MS KATHRYN HOLLINGSWORTH AND MS ANDREA ROSS-ROBERTSON

Chairman

  1. Good morning, and welcome to our Committee. Thank you very much indeed, both of you, for the excellent papers which you put in. Before we start asking you questions, is there anything you would like to add, however briefly, to the papers which you have presented? Ms Ross-Robertson?

  (Ms Ross-Robertson) No. I am just thinking that there are some points which have arisen, but I think they will probably come out in the discussion.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I have nothing to add, thank you.

  2. Can I start off by asking you a little bit about other research, and if you are aware of any other research done by anybody else or by yourselves, into other countries? We are looking at this kind of worldwide benchmarking exercise, comparing what is being done in the United Kingdom at the moment with, say, Calvary which you have looked at extensively. Should we be looking also at New Zealand or any of the European countries, or are there any other parts of the world which we ought to look at here?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) There are Environmental Commissioners in New Zealand and Australia. I have not done any work on that.

  3. Both New Zealand and Australia?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Yes.

  4. Are there any others that you know of?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) There is also an Environmental Commissioner in Ontario, specifically for the province, because obviously there is a Federal Commissioner, but quite different from an environmental officer. I think the role of the New Zealand Commissioner includes an audit role, but he has an ombudsman's role as well.

  5. What do you mean—a relationship with the public?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Yes, investigating complaints.

  6. Complaints directly made by the public?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Yes. He has a much wider role and can question policy and so on, which the Canadian auditor cannot do. The Environmental Commissioner for Ontario is much more concerned with assisting the public. There is an Environmental Bill of Rights in Ontario which provides the tools for the public to hold Government to account through increased participation rights. The Commissioner facilitates that rather than investigating herself.

  7. So again, rather like New Zealand, she has a much stronger relationship with the public?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Yes. There is also a requirement for the ministries in Ontario to post acts, regulations and instruments which are environmentally significant onto a registry which the public is able to have access to through the Internet. The public can go ahead, look at that and comment on it, and there is a legal requirement for ministries to take account of those comments. The Commissioner oversees that process but does not conduct audits as such, which the Commissioner for the Environment for Canada as a whole does do.

  8. So the Ontario person does not conduct audits as such?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) No, it is more an overseeing role of the tools which are open to the public.

  9. Is Australia different?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know anything about Australia.

  10. You do not know either, Ms Ross-Robertson?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) No. Anything I do know is more on the greening government side. Certainly the state of Pennsylvania has a commitment to greening government and has a whole greening government programme going. That is all I know. There is also the Council on Environmental Quality—that is a federal agency in the United States—which advises the President. That has been increasingly active, I think, in recent years, but it was set up years ago.

  11. So there has been nothing novel there recently, nothing new?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) No. There was something about energy efficiency in the White House or whatever recently, but that is all.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. We also want to come on to the whole question of audit and exactly what it means.

Mrs Brinton

  12. We have had problems with this term ever since we were actually set up by John Prescott as a terrier—or whatever you call it—to bite the heels of Government. We are a very new committee, a baby committee, if you like. Taking "environmental audit", what do you understand by the term? What do you understand by the term "environmental audit", and how would you see the type of scrutiny that we are involved in as being in any way different from the departmental Select Committees? We sometimes have problems in defining it for ourselves, I think it is fair to say.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) As I understand it, "environmental audit" can mean a number of things. I think that in the sense in which it is used in the private sector it is concerned solely with environmental management systems which, as I understand it, are a management tool looking at the internal mechanisms within an organisation. I think the role that this Committee seems to have taken is a much more high-level scrutiny role, which Andrea has looked at in more detail. "Environmental audit" can also mean looking specifically at things. For example, in the Canadian case the environment is a 4th E in the value for money assessment, so as well as economy, efficiency and effectiveness the audit will also look at the impact of spending on the environment, so it can mean specifically that as well. Given that the Government set up this Committee and mirrored it on the Public Accounts Committee, I think the Public Accounts Committee is effective because it has got the National Audit Office which feeds in specific audits and information to it, whereas you are relying on witnesses and information from government departments or the Sustainable Development Unit, without the independent information which an independent auditor would provide.

  13. So would you say that we are a sort of hybrid between the Public Accounts Committee on the one hand, having that type of authority but not having the external mechanisms to have it? We have been told that we are somehow different from the departmental Select Committees and really fall between two stools, having got the worst of both worlds.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) If I can interrupt here, in my reading of what you are supposed to be doing, looking at the remit, "audit" is one word, it is one component. You are also to consider the extent to which policies and programmes of Government impact. So far that is what you have been doing and doing very well. This monitoring role is really what the whole integration process is about, it is a much more high level role than nitty-gritty auditing in the narrow sense of the word. A parallel would be an auditor for equal opportunities or an auditor for open government, for example. To me you have a very important role because in my mind sustainable development encompasses things like equal opportunities and open government. So that is another way of looking at it.

  14. That is interesting. So really, rather than us—as we continually do when people ask us what we are and who we are—saying, "We are a bit like the Public Accounts Committee", perhaps we should drop that out of our language and, perhaps, in another definition mention equal opportunities, which I think is very interesting. Can I go on to what I think Kathryn mentioned, which was the greening government. Do you think greening of government actually fits in with the whole idea of audit?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) I think it does. A greening government, if you like, leading by example, is essential if we want sustainable development to work. The Government expenditure is after all, a large component of gross domestic product. In order for "greening government" to work there has to be some sort of monitoring device. In the past monitoring has been left to reporting in a very loose way quite often, and reporting is one of the things that I think should be tightened up and would improve your scrutiny role, if you do not want to use the word "audit", for example. So I think monitoring is quite an important component of greening government and monitoring is essential.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Can I add that I think you also need independent monitoring of those targets, and that is why I keep pushing for an environmental auditor, but I think that is where that will come in as opposed to having a Commission or a body which is perhaps members appointed by government or which does not have the report or the resources, such as the NAO provides. So having targets is very important, but also the independent monitoring of those targets is essential.

  15. I think that is interesting. We are already using two different terms. We are using terms such as "monitor" and "scrutiny", perhaps we ought to look at a redefinition of actually what this Committee is from that point of view. If we stick with the original term of "audit", how good or bad is "audit" in terms of encouraging improvement by government in various policy departments in terms of actually keeping a hand on the pulse of what is going on? What are the limitations? We all talk about the great things that we are supposed to be able to achieve, but what can we not do, given that role?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think that one of the problems with "audit", which has been documented in accountancy literature, is the fact that by having an external auditor the environment that you then create is moulded so that it can deal with these external auditors. So they make the environment auditable rather than being concerned with sustainable development and rather than being concerned with forward thinking programmes and so on. It can be more of a checklist of what they are and are not doing. That is one problem.

  16. So, rather barren, this on the one hand and that on the other, but no creativeness as to where we go next?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Yes. It is very much of a checklist. We recycle our paper and, yes, we turn off our lights, but we do not think about how we are going to integrate environment considerations into our policies and what have you.

  17. A bit sterile really then?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) It can be, yes.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Audit is a very important part of your remit as well. We cannot just ignore it. What Kathryn was saying about some of these things, counting how many times you turn off the light and whether you recycle paper and whether you are energy efficient, is very important in instilling cultural change. Ticking boxes is the beginning, as it were. The beauty of this Committee and the reading of your remit is that you can actually go beyond that.

  18. Do you think we are doing?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) I think you are. I think you are going beyond it now, but you are not doing the nitty-gritty auditor function, and so the hole is that. My concern is by concentrating on the hole at the moment, you do not give up what you are already doing, which is reviewing the Budget, reviewing things like the Comprehensive Spending Review, all of which is very important work in my mind.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think that also the audit does go a lot wider, so it does include that, and then an environmental auditor can provide evidence and information on those high level strategic issues as well. I think it is very important that any kind of external audit works very closely with the internal mechanisms as well. I think that is why the PAC works effectively, and it has the same aims that the Treasury has, so they are both pulling in the same directions, so that you have the managerial accountability being reflected in the democratic accountability. It is going to be very difficult because internally this Government is not really concerned with sustainable development, but if it were, you would need some kind of strong mechanisms within Government and within managerial structure that are pulling for the same things that you as a Committee are.

  Mrs Brinton: Thank you very much. The PAC, the clearest link to it, as you say, is pulling in the same direction. In the Treasury our clearest parallel is DETR and I do not think it actually works as quite a neat fit, but thank you very much indeed.

Chairman

  19. We certainly need to keep plugging away at the strategic applications as well as the strict audit applications, is that what you are saying?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) That is very much what I am saying, yes. As the Committee matures and as greening government matures, this information should eventually become available, we hope.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I do not think that we should be too concerned either that there is a strict definition of what "audit" means. I think we are more concerned with the structures and what is happening rather than what is audit and what is monitoring. I think we use "audit" in a very general way to mean lots of different mechanisms.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I want to come onto the Canadians now.


 
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