Select Committee on Environmental Audit First Report


The Environmental Audit Committee has agreed to the following Report:—


"Talking about sustainable development is not enough. We have to know what it is, to see how our policies are working on the ground. We must hold ourselves to account—as a government, but also as a country."

The Prime Minister
UK sustainable development strategy

"To consider to what extent the policies and programmes of government departments and non­departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development; to audit their performance against such targets as may be set for them by Her Majesty's Ministers; and to report thereon to the House."

EAC remit
HoC Standing Orders


1. The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) was set up by the House of Commons in 1997 reflecting a Manifesto commitment by the incoming Labour Government. As the end of our first parliament approaches, we have taken stock to see how effective the environmental audit of government has been. We draw conclusions on the performance of both government and of ourselves.

2. We conclude that the Government has a long way to go to satisfy the expectations it has raised on the environment and sustainable development. Two things in particular stand out. First, the Government needs to sharpen its approach to setting targets. If performance is to be audited then each target needs to be clearly identified with a baseline, milestones and responsibilities for reporting set out. Secondly, the Government needs to get a grip on its various constituent parts (departments, agencies and associated public bodies)—injecting some rigour into reporting requirements set from the centre.

3. To be effective overall, the parliamentary environmental audit initiative now needs to be completed as originally envisaged. The establishment of an environmental auditor of government—with rights of access, resources for analysis and reporting to this Committee—would cure a blind spot enabling the House to hold Ministers properly to account for the environmental impact of their policies and operations.

4. Our key conclusions and recommendations are summarised below.

The Committee's performance

The global scene

    -   It seems clear that environmental audit and sustainable development performance measures are receiving more and more attention around the world. This is inevitable as attention moves from getting the ball rolling to a desire to check on progress in a systematic way. (Paragraph 124)

    -   We recommend that the UK Government urge the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) to make 'measuring national performance' a theme of reporting progress on Agenda 21 at Rio+10 in 2002. We also recommend that the Government pushes for national information and best practice on audit, monitoring and progress-chasing to be collected, analysed and disseminated by the UNCSD. (Paragraph 125)

    -  The International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) should be invited by the UNCSD to contribute to the examination of how best to measure progress on sustainable development. (Paragraph 126)

The way forward

    -  We recommend that the Government should now set in motion the completion of the environmental audit initiative as originally envisaged. An environmental auditor general should be established within the National Audit Office (NAO) mirroring arrangements for performance audit of public spending. (Paragraph 146)

    -  The House of Commons will benefit from an increased ability to hold the Government to account for its performance against environmental and sustainable development targets by the operation of an auditor channelling reports through this Committee. (Paragraph 148)

    -   We recommend this Report for consideration by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Lord Sharman, Chairman of the Steering Group for the current review of the audit and accountability of central government. (Paragraph 153)


5. The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) was set up in 1997. As the end of our first Parliament approaches we thought it useful to take stock of our work to see how far the aims envisaged in our establishment have been realised.[1] In undertaking this we have looked at information available on the environmental audit of government worldwide to see whether there are any lessons which might be relevant to our own work and circumstances.

6. This report is in part based on all our previous work with the Government's reply to the Committee's 6th Report of 1998-99 and 5th Report of 1999-2000 being particularly relevant.[2] We also took specific evidence from Ms Andrea Ross-Robertson, LL.B, LL.M, University of Dundee, and Ms Kathryn Hollingsworth, Lecturer in Law, Cardiff Law School, comparing financial audit and environmental audit in the UK and abroad. We discussed the quality of governmental environmental reporting with representatives of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) (organisers of the annual awards for corporate environmental reporting), and two environmental consultants—Environmental Resources Management (ERM) and Enviros Aspinwall. This material and the written evidence we received, which includes a memorandum from Sir John Bourn KCB, Comptroller and Auditor General, is set out in HC 67, Volume II.

7. In addition to taking oral and written evidence we visited Canada to meet Mr Rick Smith, then Acting Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) (within the federal Office of the Auditor General); Mr Charles Caccia MP, Chairman, and other members of the Environment and Sustainable Development Committee of the Canadian House of Commons, Mr Donald Anderson MP, Canadian Environment Minister, Mr Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, and a range of other interlocutors including senior officials within the governments of Canada and of Ontario. We are extremely grateful to our hosts in Canada for their time and hospitality. A record of our visit and a summary of the Canadian approach to environmental audit is set out in Annex B.



8. The idea of a select committee to look at the environmental impacts of all government departments was put to the Select Committee on Procedure in 1990 by Friends of the Earth. The Procedure Committee at that time, however, laid great weight on maintaining the integrity of the departmentally-related committee system established in 1979. Committees were recommended that mirrored changes in government departments but cross-cutting committees, on the environment or on science and technology, for instance, did not find favour at that time.[3]

9. During the early 1990s environmental concerns were given a new profile by the UN Special Assembly on Sustainable Development, the Rio 'Earth Summit' and action thereafter to implement Agenda 21 and put the principles of sustainable development into practice. A key principle accepted by policy-makers at Rio was the importance of integrating the pursuit of economic growth, environmental protection and social equity to produce a better quality of development overall—easier said than done.[4]

10. In 1994 the UK Government produced the first UK sustainable development strategy and Labour Party environmental policy was described in In trust for tomorrow which set out a firm commitment to sustainable development principles. Amongst the proposals in the latter document was "a key institutional reform" recognising the responsibility of all government departments for their environmental impacts and contribution to sustainable development. This was the creation of an "Environmental Audit Committee" with a pan-governmental remit "responsible for monitoring the implementation of a national sustainable development strategy".[5] In 1997 such a committee was included in Labour's election Manifesto and in November of that year the House, without debate, established the EAC.


11. The Committee's full terms of reference are:

The Committee has the same powers and resources, operating under the same arrangements, as the departmentally-related select committees.[7]

12. Sustainable development is a deceptively simple phrase capturing a range of ideas from 'don't eat tomorrow's potatoes'[8] to 'meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'[9], Literally the idea is to pursue a pattern of development that can be sustained—by the economy; by society; and by the natural environment. The Government's interpretation is that sustainable development means meeting four objectives at the same time:

    —  social progress which recognises the needs of everyone;

    —  effective protection of the environment;

    —  prudent use of natural resources; and

    —  maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment.

The Government's approach is clearly very inclusive, constituting a framework for all policy-making rather than a specific initiative.[10] This is reflected in the breadth of the Government's sustainable development strategy and the emphasis laid upon economic and social as well as environmental issues.[11]

13. We have made the environment our priority, concentrating on the links made, or not made, between environmental issues and economic & social policies.[12] This is because we regard the environment to be the weakest leg of the sustainable development tripod. The economic impacts of policy may transpire within months; social impacts more likely within years; but environmental effects may well not be manifest for generations. In this light it is not difficult to see why the environment has often lost out when policy is made by a system vulnerable to public opinion polls and media attention and to major tests of public support only every 4 or 5 years.

14. Sustainable development is often said to be the pursuit of synergies or win/win approaches across the three strands of economic growth, social progress and environmental protection.[13] However, it is also sometimes about dealing with difficult trade-offs.[14] The Government claims it is committed to setting out such trade-offs absolutely clearly when they occur and to full accountability for decisions it has taken.[15] We are monitoring this process.[16]

1  This focus on our own activity and impact is in part a response to the Liaison Committee and its work to increase the effectiveness of select committees. In particular it answers the call of that Committee for all select committees to produce an annual report. See Shifting the balance: select committees and the executive, First Report from the Liaison Committee, 1999-2000, HC 300, paragraphs 51-55 Back

2  Cm 4819, July 2000 responding to the 6th Report, 1998-99, The Greening Government Initiative 1999, HC 426 and 5th, 1999-2000, The Greening Government Initiative: first annual report from the Green Ministers Committee, HC 341. See Back

3  The working of the select committee system, Second Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, 1989-90, HC 19-I, para 286 and HC19-II, p175. See also Greening the Machinery of Government, O'Riordan & Weale, Friends of the Earth, Discussion Paper No 2, 1990 Back

4  A better quality of life, para 1.2, Cm 4345 Back

5  Op cit report of the Environment Policy Commission to the 1994 Labour Party Conference, p44 Back

6  House of Commons Standing Order No. 152A, HC518, 1999-2000 Back

7  Ibid, para (4). The Committee's powers are also summarised on page ii of this Report. The Government's own guidance on evidence from officials to select committees (noted, but not agreed to, by the House) is known as the Osmotherly Rules (see HC 19-II, 1989-90, pp206ff) Back

8  Traditional Back

9  Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the 'Brundtland Report'), OUP, 1987 Back

10  The EAC concluded in 1998 that "while the [Government's] stated intentions are admirable, there appears to be some failure to grasp the overarching nature of sustainable development and apply it." HC 517, 1997-98, para 52 Back

11  A better quality of life, a strategy for sustainable development for the UK (hereafter the 'sustainable development strategy'), Cm 4345, pp4 & 13-24. In 1994 the House of Lords responded to the UK's first sustainable development strategy with an ad hoc Select Committee on Sustainable Development. In 1995 that Committee said that sustainable development "implies the need to revise the path of wealth creation and to constrain the parameters of economic decision-making by a full and open recognition of the environmental costs of development." Report, 1994-95, HL 72, para 2.10. The UK Round Table on Sustainable Development said in March 1997 that "sustainable development involves the integration of economic, environmental and social elements; and minimising the trade-offs that have to be made between those elements." Second Annual Report, 1997, Annex D, p49 Back

12  The Greening Government Initiative, Second Report from the Committee, 1997-98, HC 517, para 4 Back

13  UK Climate Change Programme: consultation paper, foreword by the Deputy Prime Minister, p1, DETR, 1998 Back

14  The UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, Second Annual Report, March 1997, Annex D, p49 Back

15  Sustainable development strategy, para 4.5 Back

16  See for example HC 159-II, 1998-99, QQ413-415 Back

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Prepared 9 January 2001