Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 91)



Mr Jones

  80. That is also its disadvantage, and particularly if you are trying to audit it. People can easily say—particularly 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-on—if it is lucky—or 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.

Mr Gerrard

  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 as well.

  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 policy.
  (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 is essential?
  (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 to it.
  (Ms Hollingsworth) An auditor should be able to follow all data, whether it is financial or VFM.

Mr Savidge

  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 office.

  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 Canadian experience?
  (Ms Hollingsworth) When I talked about follow-up, that was in terms of looking at an audit model. At the time I wrote the paper—it was a year and a half ago, so you had not been established for very long—I 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 bureaucratic problems?
  (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 auditors—the 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 environment.

Mr Gerrard

  91. How far do you think the Committee could have an impact on non-departmental bodies rather than just government departments?

  (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.

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