Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
TUESDAY 18 APRIL 2000
80. That is also its disadvantage, and particularly
if you are trying to audit it. People can easily sayparticularly
where it becomes politically difficult to do something environmental"That
conflicts with this other social policy that we have, or this
other equal opportunities policy that we have, or this other-other
policy that we have, and, therefore, we cannot do it." We
know the real reason they cannot do it is because there is some
economic reason, or whatever, they do not want to mention, but
they can bring in all sorts of other things which are in this
ever-widening tent of sustainability in order to avoid achieving
any realistic environmental goal that you may be wanting to pursue.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) I am not saying that sustainable
development is the answer for the hard-line environmentalist,
but, hopefully, in at least a debate on sustainable development
the environment would be discussed. At least it is brought into
the forum, as opposed to being some bolt-onif it is luckyor
compared to, say, social or economic concerns. At least with sustainable
development it is one of the corners. It may be that the other
reasons will, and in some instances, legitimately override environmental
concerns, but in a number of places they may just have been overlooked
or they may realise "Hold on. That is a significant environmental
consequence, and important as this policy is we cannot do it because
the environmental consequence is substantial". We have to
make those judgments and, again, different ideologies will draw
the line at different points. All we are doing is putting in procedures
and processes. Again, people with different value systems are
going to come up with different answers.
81. I want to return to some points talked about
a bit earlier, about having an independent auditor, having a different
structure, which implies some differences in the way that this
Committee would operate. I think you have talked, Ms Hollingsworth,
about the Environmental Audit Committee being both auditor and
audience and that did not work, you need to separate those two
functions. In your paper you have talked about audits and you
are comparing them with PAC, saying that PAC was successful because
it met the needs of Government as well as Parliament, but you
also talked about proposals that there should be a senior environmental
civil servant in each department and they would be the people
who ended up before this Committee as main witnesses, rather than
ministers. Can you expand on that?
(Ms Hollingsworth) It is just about combining democratic
accountability with managerial accountability. In a department
obviously it is a permanent secretary who is also accountable
and who is responsible for the management of the department generally
and the financial accountability. If you also make that witness
responsible for the environmental accountability and ensure that
all of those things are integrated, by bringing that person as
the person, rather than the minister, it becomes less partisan
and it is more about the structure within the Government, rather
than about party politics and so on. It is about what is happening
managerially and so on. I think you should have somebody who is
very senior and the permanent secretary who is responsible for
those things, and make sure that when financial accountability
is being considered they are also considering the environment
82. I can understand that as a mechanism for
saying that we want to get into examining in detail what a department
is doing, but how do we maintain the strategic view with contacts
at that level? Civil servants will inevitably tend to hide behind
ministers when it comes to any question that they consider is
(Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know if that is the case
with the NAO or the PAC.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) It is not policy issue.
(Ms Hollingsworth) The PAC operates that, but it does
not question policy. So I guess if you had this model, which I
suggest is based on an audit model, then the EAC would have to
operate the same practice.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) That is my concern. I think that
is why, for these greening operations you have this permanent
secretary come in and discuss it and discuss the specifics, together
with the auditor, but then that is only one bit of your remit,
and it seems to me that for these more strategic policy discussions
you want the minister.
83. We end up actually still having some elements
of audit and audiences in a sense?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) Yes, because the way I read your
remit auditing their performance against such targets as may be
set by Her Majesty's ministers is number three. Number two is
considering the extent to which policy and programmes of government
departments and non-departmental public bodies go to environmental
protection and sustainable development. That is not a traditional
audit function. That is actually looking at policy. It is not
looking at just expenditure.
84. You mentioned in your paper that you question
whether the Committee's current structure would be able to cope
with the very detailed audit function. It is not quite clear what
you mean by the "Committee's current structure."
(Ms Hollingsworth) Because you do not have someone
to filter the information for you. We have dealt with that in
terms of the Sustainable Development Commission and an increased
link with the National Audit Office.
85. One other point I want to ask, which is
slightly different is that we tend to see, at the moment, mainly
papers that come from government departments, for obvious reasons.
The NAO, if you look at the PAC model, can go directly to source
data and to materials and raw data and use that in developing
their reports. How far do you think that access to the raw data
(Ms Ross-Robertson) My general view is that more information
is better, but at the same time there has to be some way of filtering
it and some way of making it manageable.
86. I am not necessarily suggesting that that
is something we should be concerning ourselves with.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) I think you should have access
(Ms Hollingsworth) An auditor should be able to follow
all data, whether it is financial or VFM.
87. I am partly going to be covering an area
which I think we have already talked about. First of all, if I
can speak about the impact of the Environmental Audit Committee,
I accept what you have already said about the difficulties of
measuring our impact and also isolating it from those other influences
on Government. Can you say a little bit about what impact you
think the Environmental Audit Committee has had and whether you
feel that there are improvements to our remit that we could make
before perhaps thinking about links to an Audit Committee?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) I think you actually have been
very influential, because if you read the two papers, they are
quite amusing because one was written when you were first set
up. I thought, "How on earth is this Committee going to do
this? The information is just not available. How can they possibly
review the policies and programmes of departments?" The response
was that you did not look at individual departments, you looked
at the Budget, and no one else is questioning a huge policy like
the Budget with a huge environmental impact. The fact that you
are now accepted as part of the Budgetary process I think is fabulous.
That is the biggest piece of progress or influence you have had,
in my mind. Similarly, greening government; you are trying to
get those mechanisms in place so that you can fulfil your role
as a more specific monitor of departmental policy and programmes,
and the Green Ministers Annual Report is progress towards that.
So there are key indications that you are influencing. Similarly,
there have been two debates in Parliament that there is evidence
that the Government is taking what this Committee says seriously.
In terms of improving your influence and changing the remit, I
do not know whether that is necessary now because of the interpretation
that has been made. It is now expected that you are going to look
at big policies that are not specific to one department or another.
At the same time the remit is flexible enough that you can start
looking at individual departments and you can start specifically
auditing targets with greening operations. In terms of improving
your influence, it would involve improving your exposure both
in the House and in the specialist and general press. I do not
know how you do that, I am not an expert on spin, as it were,
but that would be the only way. There is the Internet; your reports
are very readable, so there is no reason why people cannot get
hold of them.
88. From what you have already said, do I take
it that you feel that the primary thrust at present has been towards
changing attitudes for sustainable development, however that is
defined, and focusing on process at present more than on the monitoring
and auditing of factual data? Can you say whether there are any
similarities with the Canadian experience?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) To a large extent you have actually
got more environment rather than sustainable development per
se, but there has not been a lot of auditing detail. I am
going to hand over to Kathryn because she is more familiar with
what is happening in Canada.
(Ms Hollingsworth) In Canada they are much more concerned
with the environmental side. I think the social side has been
lacking from the work that the Commissioner has done there.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) They have looked more at specific
policies. They look at detail.
(Ms Hollingsworth) They look at policy and wherever
that leads them, rather than looking at the VFM study that has
been carried out in that department and whether the environment
has been considered in that. I think that that is what some people
would like to see eventually happening across the Auditor General's
89. You referred to how this Committee has not
been in existence long enough to really develop a follow-up role
to check how far Government is actually implementing our recommendations.
Can you indicate what sort of timescale you feel is necessary
for such a follow-up role and give us any comparisons from the
(Ms Hollingsworth) When I talked about follow-up,
that was in terms of looking at an audit model. At the time I
wrote the paperit was a year and a half ago, so you had
not been established for very longI am not sure what the
Canadian Commissioner does in terms of follow-up, whether they
go back and look at the recommendations or what have you. I am
afraid I cannot comment.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) In the most recent annual report
they were disappointed about the progress towards goals set out
in the strategic reports. Similarly, this Committee is clearly
already taking a follow-up role. You have looked at the Budget
however many times, greening government several times, the Comprehensive
Spending Review twice and whatever the multi-lateral agreement
on investment is now, world trade talks several times and climate
change. You are following up.
(Ms Hollingsworth) My point was more about the specifics
in the same way that an audit body would look at specifics, rather
than going back to the big strategic issues. Given that you do
not do any of the audit, then it is difficult to go back and follow
up particular recommendations.
90. I think this Committee would be sympathetic
to your suggestion that we need more resources to develop our
audit role. However, are there any dangers that one could end
up over-auditing and, therefore, overloading departments with
(Ms Hollingsworth) Andrea has already demonstrated
that generally there is the problem of audit fatigue, or what
have you, in terms of value for money and financial audit, but
also the number of different auditorsthe European Court
of Auditors and the NAO and so on. It is about streamlining and
if you have the environment as a fourth part of value for money
it does not necessarily mean there are going to be more audits
actually taking place, it is just that their focus might be different
or they are taking into account whether they are carrying out
those audits on environmental issues, as well as perhaps some
specific environmental audit topics. There are obviously hurdles
to overcome, but I do not think it should be a bar to developing
environmental audit. I just think they are bridges which have
to be crossed when you get to them, and working out how to streamline
what is going on in Government and increase the profile of the
91. How far do you think the Committee could
have an impact on non-departmental bodies rather than just government
(Ms Ross-Robertson) It is part of your
remit. I do not see the difference. I think you should be able
to call chief executives and question them about their strategies.
You should be extracting environmental strategies from them, and
the ministers should be able to account for any non-departmental
public bodies they have.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
You have got us off to a flying start in our investigation and
we are extremely grateful to you both. Thank you very much.