Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

TUESDAY 18 APRIL 2000

MS KATHRYN HOLLINGSWORTH AND MS ANDREA ROSS-ROBERTSON

  40. That is the real stumbling block.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Yes, but there are advantages in that. For one week in the year environment and sustainable development is high on the agenda and gets a lot of media coverage, the press will pick up on it; whereas perhaps if they reported more regularly the press might not have as much interest. I think if the reporting restrictions on the Commissioner were to be lifted so that he could report whenever, then they would have to look again at the work of the Committee and whether there should be a separate Environmental Audit Committee there as well. At the moment, because there are such restrictions on reporting, I do not think it is really a problem.

  41. Has there been discussion about having an Environmental Audit Committee?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Not as far as I know.

  42. Just to turn to the federal nature of administration, does that present problems for the Commissioner in carrying out his role? How does he go about the relationship with the individual provinces?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I am not sure.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) He has just reported on federal provincial agreements that were designed to streamline environmental concerns and co-ordinate. From my first quick reading of the report, he is quite critical of the analysis done prior to entering into these agreements. I think this is quite a useful avenue that the Committee may wish to explore when they are in Canada, because of devolution. The arrangements, for instance, in the Scottish Parliament are quite different than the arrangements here. There is an Equal Opportunities Committee but there is not an Environmental Audit Committee, and that does, to a certain extent, worry me, especially since they have this combined role. So exploring the relationships with your counterparts in other parts of the United Kingdom will be a useful way forward in terms of sustainable development, and learning from the Canadian experience I think will be quite interesting.

  43. Ontario has a separate Commissioner. How does that relationship work out between the one and the other?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) The Environmental Commissioner for Ontario does not audit as such. There is an Environmental Bill of Rights for Ontario which is not entrenched, it is just a normal statute, but it does provide certain mechanisms for citizens to try to hold to account the Government. So it is about increased participation, increased openness and giving the citizens the tools, for example, to be able to comment, and there is a legal requirement for their comments to be considered and so on. The Commissioner oversees that system. So it is about the instruments, Acts and the regulations being passed by the Ontario Provincial Government which the Commissioner is overseeing. I am not sure what overlap there would be then with the federal government.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) A lot of this is a division of powers issue, obviously. The Canadian division of powers is different from the division of powers in this country between the devolved parliaments and Westminster. These are the sorts of things that are going to have to be developed. Even in a fairly established federal state like Canada, there are still these tensions. That is what these federal provincial agreements are about, and sorting out things and streamlining things is an ongoing thing.

Mr Jones

  44. Are there any examples of either the Provincial Commissioner or the provincial groups setting the political agenda on the environment which the Government has to follow? If I could imagine a case, if some case came before the Ontario Commissioner out of Ontario, which gained a lot of publicity, it would then put pressure upon the National Federal Commissioner to instigate a similar inquiry or whatever came out of that. It is all very well saying that in theory the devolved structures operate within a system which is set by the federation, but in practice if something is started running in one place it has an effect upon the whole of the rest of the country, does it not?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes. I do not know any specific examples. What it might do is trigger other provinces to react because, of course, if Ontario has a Bill of Rights, why do we not have a Bill of Rights in Prince Edward Island? So it may actually affect other provinces more than it would affect the Federal Government. That is one point.

  45. I was hoping you were going to give me an example of how it would work.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) I cannot give you an example. I cannot think of anything specific.

  46. I can imagine how things might happen in the next few years in the United Kingdom. There are a number of examples now.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Can you give me an example of one of your examples?

  47. This is not an environmental example, but the Scottish Parliament's decision upon clause 28 or upon hunting of foxes certainly has repercussions upon how Westminster will eventually act.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) But that is on those specific things. In Canada a similar type of issue would have to be dealt with by other provinces. The Federal Government could not get involved in education matters because education is a provincial matter. They are completely separate. The Federal Government can actually be taken to court because of stepping on the toes of the provinces. So it is different from devolved government. The Environmental Bill of Rights is a good example. Why do we not have one in Prince Edward Island or in New Brunswick?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Those are not issues which the auditor would be dealing with either. Those are issues which the Government would be looking at. Especially the Environmental Commissioner for Ontario has a very different role from the Federal Commissioner for Environment and Sustainable Development, so she is not setting the agenda in the same way that the Commissioner might be in terms of choosing which subject to look at, she is reacting or acting on behalf of the public and the issues they raise. I think they are quite different. It is also the Government who are going to be setting those sorts of things and issues, and in Canada it is very different, as Andrea was saying.

Mr Grieve

  48. I think that in your article you mentioned the Commissioner and you expressed concern about the way in which the Commissioner was appointed. Was that something which was your concern, or was that a concern which had been expressed more widely at the time the appointment took place?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) There are two things I would say there. My concern as a constitutional lawyer is that an auditor should be independent, and the Commissioner is appointed by the Auditor General, but when Brian Emmett was appointed, the Minister for the Environment was consulted, so obviously that raised issues about independence. That is not provided for in the statute, that just happened. Possibly with the next appointment that will not be the case, but when that particular Commissioner, Brian Emmett, was appointed, I think there were concerns because he came from within Government as opposed to being an external person, so they thought that perhaps he was not as independent personally as he could have been. I think those fears have been set aside, because he has established his independence and been quite critical of Government, so I do not think that is an issue really anymore.

Mr Gerrard

  49. You have talked quite a bit about comparisons with Canada. I am sure there are lessons we can learn, but it is never easy to take a system from one country and just transplant it into another, so I would like to ask you this in terms of the United Kingdom. You have argued for an independent auditor. What do you think that auditor should be doing as opposed to the Committee? What should the priorities of that auditor be?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think that sustainable development strategies for departments are important, so that in similar ways as happened in Canada the auditor would have a role in monitoring those and not necessarily criticising departments or making judgements on them, but monitoring and saying, "You have complied" or "You have not complied with the targets that you set yourselves". Then it would be for this Committee to say, "Why haven't you complied with your targets?" or whatever. In addition to that, as we have said, if the environment is made the 4th E for value for money, then when value for money studies are being carried out that would be another consideration within those, as well as looking at economy, efficiency and effectiveness. That would be one way of having specific environmental audits, or looking at the specific topics and where that takes you, which departments that takes you to look at. I think that there is a lot of variation. Sustainable development strategy is very important, making it the 4th E is very important, but within that how it is carried out operationally would be a thing which develops in time too with the United Kingdom, and seeing how things develop really.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) I have quite a different vision. Again, I think that what the National Audit Office does is very valuable, in the fact that it does actually look only at expenditure. So I agree that we should add the 4th E to their remit, and that they should conduct more value for money audits on environmental or environmentally-sensitive reviews or whatever. I also see the role of the new Sustainable Development Commission as a key part of this. I think they could provide advice and expertise, and they could deal with the volume of paper and material that I really do not think this Committee is particularly well suited to deal with. So if we had this statutory requirement for environmental strategies, plus an annual report, a forward-looking and a backward-looking combination, then let them receive it, table it, do the initial monitoring process, then have it come to this Committee for, again, a parliamentary audit. For instance, they could also advise departments, they could also monitor progress. They could also table lists of environmental appraisals, table lists of policy appraisals generally, in which case one can question whether or not an environmental appraisal was actually conducted. This way it is much more of a filter, if you like, for yourselves. Again, they can look at policy, whereas I do not think you want the National Audit Office looking at policy.

  50. So you would see the Audit Office as looking at the conduct of policy appraisal?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes, targets.

  51. Looking at whether it had been targeted, at performance measures?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes, all the indicators that are in Sustainability Counts which is the government paper.

  52. Would you expect the auditor, as opposed to the Sustainable Development Unit or the Committee, to get into areas such as whether different policy objectives are coherent, whether across government departments there are policies that are conflicting?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) I think again, examining these matters, these cross-cutting issues, is the key role for this particular Committee and looking at those big cross-cutting issues, greening government, the budget and these things, because they involve so many departments. Again, the Sustainable Development Commission could provide you with the information on the various departments, but then it would be your role to audit or not audit, or monitor progress in those respects.

  53. Would you expect the auditors to look at individual government departments in terms of housekeeping?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes I would—things like fuel, mileage, rates et cetera. There is a role for the auditor to do that. I do not know whether you need a special environmental auditor to do that, just because of the resource implications. I do not think a new Sustainable Development Commissioner is necessarily the most cost effective means. I do not know, but initially, certainly, the Comptroller and Auditor General's Office—given that they have already done value for money audits in this way—I think could possibly do more in terms of monitoring targets and monitoring the 4th E.

  54. What you are suggesting is really quite a different structure, is it not?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) It is. Again, I think it is important that we offer a choice and difference, because I see the role of this Committee as not simply auditing targets. I see it as monitoring the integration of sustainable development into government decision making.

  55. So you do not want a direct relationship between us and the auditor?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) I want them to be a key source of information for you, one source, not your only source and not a source that dominates you, yes.

  56. Could I ask Miss Hollingsworth to comment on that?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) My perspective comes from looking at public sector audit generally and looking at what works there and why it works. I think there are a number of reasons why an environmental auditor would be very helpful for this Committee. I think although an auditor would have to avoid questions of policy, they can still look at how policy has been implemented and if objectives conflict I think it would be within the auditor's remit to point that out, as long as you are not actually questioning the policy itself. It is very difficult. VFM presents problems in that way as well, in keeping out of policy and trying not to make value judgments and so on. So it is not something that is completely new to them and it would be a learning curve, but I still think an environmental auditor is necessary. I can appreciate what Andrea says in terms of getting other information as well, where policies can be questioned where it is higher level and so on.

  57. Is it possible to avoid value judgments? I think you mentioned in your paper that the more you move away from the straight financial audit, the more difficult that becomes and the more difficult it becomes for the auditor to stay neutral and more likely that value judgments start to appear.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) That is true, but there are value judgments in financial audits as well.

Mr Jones

  58. I want to explore the way in which you were attempting to define the different roles that the Sustainable Development Commission would perform and this Committee can perform. Do you not think that the Sustainable Development Commission is the best place in which an independent audit of the Government's progress in reaching this nirvana can be judged?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) The first question is, are they going to be independent? At the moment the round table and the panel are advisory in terms of capacity. I think the role that they provide is really important. The way I have divided it up in my head is that the Sustainable Development Commission would look at the more strategic and forward looking policy, and it would be up to the Comptroller and Auditor General to check to see if they have actually met their objectives in terms of targets and in terms of policy objectives in a very narrow sense. Again, the policy objective thing, that would have to be decided.

  59. A moment ago you were talking about the Commission looking at a forward agenda, and in response to my colleague's question you were talking about the Commission dealing with a mass of detail?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) The strategic reports, the strategic papers that departments will be asked to provide, are going to create a volume of information. I think collating all the environmental appraisals, for example, is another way of making sure that they actually do them and provide advice on how they do them and conduct research on best practice. I think the Sustainable Development Commission would be very useful for all of these things. If you need information, instead of going to the departments directly, you could go to them and say, "We want a list of all environmental appraisals that have been done across government." So it is a much faster system, and other Committees could do this.


 
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