Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)

TUESDAY 18 APRIL 2000

MS KATHRYN HOLLINGSWORTH AND MS ANDREA ROSS-ROBERTSON

  60. I hope that you can help me with a question which has bothered me since I have been on this Committee, which is a very short period of time, and bothered me before then as a former green minister; which body, if not this body or something like this body, has the responsibility to look at what counts? We can get easily buried in a plethora of information about trying to measure small steps upon this distant desirable goal, and whilst we are looking at all that we may be missing the key policy decisions which really deliver larger environmental goals. In fact you can achieve a whole range of small environmental steps forward whilst taking some huge environmental steps back and pat yourself on the back for all these wonderful small achievements whilst you have missed the big picture. Who looks for the big picture?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) In my mind there should be two bodies, the Cabinet Committee should be looking at the bigpicture and this Committee, in terms of Parliament, should be looking at the big picture. If there is no leadership and commitment in Parliament for this Committee and commitment in Government for the Cabinet Committee, then the whole thing is sunk. In terms of dealing with the unbelievable amount of information, to give you an idea I think there were 28 strategic reports submitted in Canada. The Sustainable Development Commissioner looked at six in detail. Similarly they looked at two departments in detail for its last report. So getting all this detail does not necessarily improve the review process. You are very limited by your time and all these other things.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) In Canada the Commissioner did the kind of general overview of all the strategies as a kind of checklist and then focused on six based on looking at which of the departments have the greatest impact on the environment and looking at what they do. He is limited because he can only report annually, so that is going to impact; whereas an auditor generally should not have any limits on when they can report, because that obviously affects the topicality of the reports and can impact indirectly on independence. So if you had an Environmental Commissioner who can report as and when, then that would feed in more information to you rather than being so limited.

  61. Does anyone look academically or otherwise at what the impact of having various structures like environmental audit committees and Commissioners and so on is upon the individual impact upon the environment within that country? Is that not the objective?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) I tried to make a judgment in my paper on the influence of this Committee and you cannot measure influence given the number of other factors influencing Government. I can give some indications of your influence in terms of statements from the Government itself. Recommendations that have been accepted or placed under review, exposure in the House, these things are indications, but there is no way of actually measuring it.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think where you are going to get the greatest impact is where what is going on in Government and what Government wants to happen coincides with what Parliament wants to happen or you want to happen. So your democratic accountability is coinciding with the managerial goals and that is why you need a strong leadership within Government as well. This is very difficult, it is not the sort of thing that this Committee can do, but I think that that is essential for the system to be successful, you have to all pull in the same direction and that leadership has to come from within Government as well.

  62. Is it this Committee's responsibility to show if it is not?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Yes.

Chairman

  63. I want to confirm what you are saying. The two of you are saying that in effect there should be an environmental auditor, we also know there is a Sustainable Development Commission. Both of these could usefully report to this Committee. Both of these things will be operating in this area but doing slightly different things, the Commission on strategic things across Government, and the Environmental Auditor doing more limited specific things, but both would report to this Committee?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes. I think the only difference between the two of us is that I am not entirely convinced that you need a specialist environmental auditor.

  64. As opposed to the C&AG doing it and having an enlarged 4th E, that is the difference between you?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) That is the difference.

  Chairman: That is absolutely clear.

Ms Russell

  65. Can I move us back to the United Kingdom? I think Andrea mentioned Wiring Up, the Cabinet Office Report, which addresses all of the promises of effective work on cross-cutting issues, and there is of course the chapter on the role of public audits. Can I just quote a little bit of that? I think the public auditors are quite sympathetic to the special demands of auditing or the cross-cutting issues, provided "there is a clear framework of government and appropriate accountability and reporting arrangements." The question that I would like to ask you is, do you actually think that these have been put in place for progress towards sustainable development?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) No. The reporting requirements are lacking. I think everyone is in agreement in that respect. The question is, how do we fix the reporting requirements? In terms of the accountability, again, with this Committee, we should have that accountability in terms of a Parliamentary accountability if the auditor, or whoever did the environmental audits, came and reported to this Committee as well as reporting to the PAC, because we are dealing with wiring it up. It is going to affect a number of different cross-cutting issues; social inclusion, exclusion etc. I am conscious that as we say we want more environmental appraisals for different things by departments, that is one of however many other appraisals they have to do. We have somehow to make it more integrated, and more integrated reporting and appraisals may be two ways of doing that.

  66. Can I ask you about the information and the appraisals that are already available? Would you like to comment on their adequacy or otherwise?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Again, I am just quoting yourselves saying they are not. Similarly there has to be an easier way of getting at the material. First of all, you have to know that the appraisal exists and then you have to actually get hold of it. There has to be some sort of mechanism which says, "Here are all of the appraisals that have been done. Here are the ones that had environmental appraisals done." We do not want to just have the environmental appraisals, we want to have the ones that did not have an environmental component as well, then you can actually decide which ones you actually want to see and where you think there is a problem.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) That is my concern with the appraisals. They should be published. I do not see any reason why they should not be publicly available.

  67. If you have had the opportunity to look at the departmental reports, particularly the DETR one or the first annual report from the Green Ministers Committee, what do you feel about the quality of those?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) I have seen it, yes. I thought it was definitely a step forward. I thought it was actually quite good in that respect. It was lacking in specificity. It is wonderful to say great things like, "You need to have some means of measuring progress", and, "It is measuring progress that we are all learning", and they are exactly the same comments that are made in the Canadian Sustainable Development Commissioner's Annual Report. We do not have measurable targets or measurable means of assessing progress. The Canadians are that little step beyond, saying, "Energy efficiency; how can we show that this department has saved so much money?" The department wants to do this but they do not have any mechanism for doing it. These are the sort of problems that we are also going to run into as the process evolves.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) There is also a lack of consistency across government. You get different things from different departments, which is obviously problematic. There needs to be some proper statutory requirements on what they should be reporting and what format that should take to enable proper scrutiny to go on. We do not want to be leaving it up to the individual departments to determine how they report.

  68. Would you stick your head above the parapets and pull out any one particular report, appraisal or document that you feel you could commend as good practice?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I have not got enough experience of having looked at them in detail.

  69. Or maybe a Canadian one?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) In terms of an overall policy in making some progress, I think a Better Quality of Life was definitely a move forward compared to its predecessor, because it does deal with all aspects of sustainable development. That is probably the main point, but, obviously, if there is a lot of fluff and not much meat we have got to get measurable targets. That particular white paper however does what it is supposed to do. It is the later pieces, in terms of getting indicators, etc that hopefully will add the necessary detail.

Chairman

  70. Just to defend the Government, for a moment, I am sure it would say that it produces quite a lot of material in one form or another. It produces the departmental agri-reports, it produces the Green Minister's report, it produces ad hoc papers associated with policy statements, it produces a Budget Report with its timetable, and there are the headline indicators which it will report on. So there is quite a lot.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes.

  71. How would that compare, for example, with what is produced in Canada?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Probably the primary difference, as far as I can see, is that there is a lot of cross-governmental kind of documents, perhaps, as opposed to particular departments. When you look at the individual departments they are all doing different things, so some of them will have a specific environmental annual report, or some of them have environmental sections within their general annual report. That is the main difference, I think, in Canada, in that each of the departments have produced a sustainable development strategy and annual reports which follow those things up.

  72. So, once again, we come back to the same thing, which you have emphasised throughout and which we emphasise as well, namely, the lack of environmental appraisal policy within the individual departments and, also, the lack of statutory responsibility to actually do that properly and thoroughly. That is a big gap.

  (Ms Ross-Robertson) And consistency. Again, this is the problem in Canada as well, having consistent, readable, measurable reporting.

  73. So not only do it, but do it in a standardised, accessible way and an auditable way.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes.

  74. Of course, as we have agreed, the absence of this is what has made the work of this Committee more difficult, if not impossible, in this area.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) I would argue that, actually, the absence of this information has meant you have moved on to different things and that this has been quite advantageous.

  Chairman: So would I. I thoroughly agree with you.

Mr Loughton

  75. I think it was Ms Hollingsworth who commented that it was unlikely that any government would place environmental accounting on a par with financial accounting for the foreseeable future. What do you think is realistic to do?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think having the accountability mechanisms put in place—for example, having an auditor who reports to his department—will start to increase the profile of sustainable development, which might then start to filter through. If you can get people on board at the DETR—which has possibly not got the power that the Treasury has in government—you need to start somewhere, basically, and if the mechanisms are in place that will help filter down and change attitudes. I think, though, the financial side is always going to be, I would imagine, the prime concern.

  76. Do you think that there are any lessons being learned from the private sector in terms of the increased environmental reporting and the degree of auditing starting to creep in, perhaps?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) I think in the private sector environmental auditing tends to refer to environmental management systems, as I said, which I think is just one aspect. I was looking at the DETR guidance in terms of environmental reporting, which is published for companies, and I think that looks very useful. I would say if they are going to recommend standards for the private sector then why not, equally, apply it to the public sector. Usually, in the public sector, you have much higher standards of reporting. That is why we have VFM requirements in the public sector as a statutory requirement but not in the private sector, so it seems strange to have environmental reporting in the private sector but not, also, in the public sector. I think that guidance looks useful.

  77. So you would agree with our criticism, and that unless the private sector gets its act together on environmental reporting then various mandatory requirements may be passed in terms of putting them in their annual report and performing some auditing role on them. Yet we do not have that willingness in practice. We have lots of warm words and lots of reports and consultations about it, but in practice it is not happening in the public sector to nearly the degree we want. It should be seamless between the public and private sectors.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) Exactly. Generally, in terms of the way that functions are carried out these days, there is so much more relation between the private sector and the public sector. That would fit in with the way the Government has done that.

Chairman

  78. Going back to the question of auditing, there is a school of thought that says that one of the problems with government is auditing. It makes civil servants desperately risk-averse because they have always known there is this ghastly National Audit Office looking over their shoulder, and if there is the slightest mistake they are up in front of the television cameras and embarrassed by what happens. Not only that, but if you have a cross-government audit you get more paperwork and more burdensome tasks to do. The whole thing can actually be counter-productive.
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) That is my real worry. I went to a conference on equal opportunities the other day where they were talking about mainstreaming, and all I could think was "This sounds very familiar. This is yet another appraisal people are going through, another hoop, and all this paper is being generated". There has to be a way out, and the way out is sustainable development, because sustainable development encompasses all these things. It encompasses equal opportunities, open government and economic issues. If we do this properly there has to be some mechanism we can create that will encompass all these things. Yes, it means that we have to start trading off some of them, but that is what appraisals are about, it is about trade-offs, it is about looking at all the impacts, all the influences that a particular policy is going to have on a variety of issues, and then picking the best option overall. So, if you do ten appraisals you should come up with the same solution, but surely we can come up with one appraisal that does all that. But that is a dream world, maybe.

Mr Jones

  79. You provoke me by mentioning this twice now. I listened to you earlier and now, again. This concept that sustainability incorporates equal opportunities, and that government incorporates social sustainability, economic sustainability, etc. Is there not a danger that the definition becomes so broad as to be meaningless?
  (Ms Ross-Robertson) The definition is probably meaningless. I think if we start getting into definitional problems of sustainable development you get bogged down. What we ought to be moving towards is more sustainable development. What is more sustainable? Right now what we are at is unsustainable. How do we become more sustainable? If we look at these precise definitions, I think we run into difficulty. It is very difficult to pin sustainable development down, and that is the beauty of it—that a lot of different ideologies can grab hold of it, and move towards a kind of goal.

  Chairman: You would not say it was a third way.


 
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