Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)

WEDNESDAY 31 OCTOBER 2001

RT HON MS PATRICIA HEWITT MP

  Chairman: Can I welcome you once again, and we recall you coming to our Committee in the last Parliament, when you were Green Minister at the Treasury, if I remember rightly. And I do not know whether it was your doing but the green aspect of the Treasury's performance did improve towards the end of this period, and we were glad to see that. Obviously, we want to look particularly at the new structure of Departments, the effect that might have on joined-up Government in relation to the environment, and also a number of other responsibilities which you have at the DTI. I will ask Mr Gerrard to lead off.

Mr Gerrard

  1. Can I start with this question about structures. Obviously, we had a number of changes post election in departmental structures. I think we would probably agree that it is important that we get the right structures within Whitehall to make sure that policies are effectively delivered. Do you think we have got the right structures there, and do you think the changes that have been made are for the better?
  (Ms Hewitt) Yes; yes, I do, looking across the Government as a whole. In terms of our situation, our own responsibility for energy and our DTI responsibilities for the environment have not changed as a result of the reorganisation. We had a very close working relationship with DETR before the election, we had a number of joint projects, and so on, and those have moved, as far as I can see, quite seamlessly to DEFRA, with whom we have the same good working relationship.

  2. Of course, DETR, I suppose some of their responsibilities are now in DEFRA, some in DTLR. Do you think that is going to make it easier or more difficult to co-ordinate, where you have got two Departments instead of one that you might have to work with?
  (Ms Hewitt) This is early days. I have not seen any problems myself from the point of view of working with DEFRA, for instance, on energy efficiency matters or the main Environmental Directives coming out of Europe, and working with DTLR on sustainable transport issues. I do not think that is a big problem really. The fact of the matter is that wherever you put the departmental boundaries you have to be able to work right across Westminster and Whitehall in pursuit of joint objectives, and I think we learned a lot of lessons about that in the first Parliament, which we are now applying in the second. I should say, I have made one change within the DTI. It always seemed a bit odd to me, when I was the DTI's Green Minister, in my last ministerial post, that we separated the DTI's environmental responsibilities from the energy responsibilities; they are intimately connected. So Brian Wilson, who is my Energy Minister, is also the DTI's Green Minister.

  3. What sort of arrangements do you have for communication between Departments now, with DEFRA, with the DTLR?
  (Ms Hewitt) We have close working at the official level, and I can go into the details later if you like, but we do have a number of joint projects, like Envirowise, or our joint responsibility with DEFRA for WRAP, the waste initiative, and so on, where we already had in place joint official teams. We had another one, for instance, on the Foresight, vehicle of the future, clean transport technology, where again officials have been working very closely for the last couple of years, and those arrangements have remained in place; the fact that in some cases it is a different Department that is housing those officials does not really seem to have disturbed the official-level relationship. And then, obviously, we have ministerial co-operation on issues as they arise, and an overarching view of the Government's green strategy.

  4. How often would Ministers be in communication?
  (Ms Hewitt) I have not counted that, but since the election there have been several rounds of correspondence on environmental matters. Environmental issues come up as a constant part of our work, so I have not been counting, but this is pretty frequent, because we are dealing with, for instance, European Directives in which many Departments will have an interest.

Chairman

  5. You said you had learned some lessons from the last Parliament which you are applying in this Parliament; what were those?
  (Ms Hewitt) I think the main issue, Chairman, is the need to ensure that instead of departmental silos working to departmental objectives we have stronger relationships across those Departments working towards common objectives. And one very important step forward in the last Parliament was the creation of joint PSA targets; so, for instance, we have a joint PSA target, was with DETR, now with DEFRA, on sustainable energy and reducing emissions. I think an outcome of the new spending review will be an increase in the number of cross-departmental PSA targets. We also found in the first Parliament we needed, this is not an environmental example, but, for instance, in the case of Sure Start, we experimented with having a situation where there was a budget that was actually funded from one Department but where the lead on the spending for that budget came from a different Department and there was a cross-departmental team responsible for it. And, that sort of cross-departmental working, to a common objective, with several different Departments mobilised behind it, we will see, I think, much more of that in this Parliament.

  6. How many cross-departmental targets have you got involved in, in your Department?
  (Ms Hewitt) We have got the one on the environment, which I have just referred to, with DEFRA, we have a joint target with the Treasury on productivity.

  7. And the Foresight?
  (Ms Hewitt) I think so. I have not got all my PSA targets in my head.

  8. We are talking about two?
  (Ms Hewitt) We are talking about two joint targets. I have no doubt we will have more coming out of the next spending round.

Joan Walley

  9. Just continuing from where Mr Gerrard left off, really, in respect of the DTI's responsibilities for planning, could you give the Committee some indication of what responsibilities you have for planning, or how the work of the RDAs fit in with the planning responsibilities that there are, and how this actually pans out through the Government Offices? What is the relationship between, on the one hand, the DTI, on the other hand the Regional Development Agencies, and Government Offices at the regional level?
  (Ms Hewitt) I will do my best on this. Obviously, we are not the planning Department, that responsibility lies with DTLR. We took over responsibility as the sponsoring Department for the RDAs in the reorganisation after the election, which is something I very much welcome, and we are building, I think, a very effective relationship with the RDAs. They have raised with us, as indeed business often raises with us, the whole issue of the planning regime; and, from the perspective of the Regional Development Agencies, we have the RDAs who are the strategic leaders really within their region for developing and getting agreement to an economic strategy for the region, and, clearly, that then has implications for land use, and therefore for planning decisions. Now different RDAs have approached that issue somewhat differently. In regional terms, my own RDA, EMDA, concluded a concordat on planning with all the planning authorities in the region, and that was designed very much to speed up planning decisions in response to business concerns about delays in planning. In the North West, the RDA has taken a very active role in actually buying and assembling parcels of land, in order to get derelict land cleaned up and freed up for development as part of their pursuit of sustainable development in the region. Stephen Byers and DTLR are now, of course, working on a Green Paper on the planning regime. I think it would be very desirable if the relationship between the planning authorities and the RDAs were to be clarified as part of that Green Paper consultation process; and I also think that there is a case, where you have a major planning issue that is going to a planning inquiry, for the RDA to be a statutory consultee in that matter. But this whole issue, of how land use plans and planning decisions fit within the regional economic strategy on which the RDA has been in the lead, is not, I think, yet fully worked out, and people are learning from experience, they are building the relationships they need at a regional and a local level, and different RDAs are taking a different approach to it.

  10. But do you have confidence that the whole issue of environmental sustainability is factored into that mechanism that you talk about, in respect of where individual RDAs and Government Offices are trying to get some kind of balance to sort out the direction where they go forward?
  (Ms Hewitt) Yes, I believe it is; partly, of course, because the RDA has very clear statutory objectives, which include sustainable development.

  11. I just wanted to come on to that, because I remember very clearly when the statutory objectives of the RDAs were being discussed in their draft form, and at the stage when the legislation came before us in Parliament there were some of us who wanted us to have a duty for sustainable development within the work of the RDAs, and what, in fact, we ended up with was a duty to take account of sustainable development, which is not quite the same thing. And I just wonder what mechanisms you have to make sure that when the RDAs mainstream environmental objectives in their work, what do you do to monitor to make sure that the environmental sustainability one is as important perhaps as economic objectives or social objectives, what mechanism do you have to make sure that environment is not trodden rough-shod over, in that respect?
  (Ms Hewitt) My understanding of the RDAs' statutory objectives is that they include, a fifth one, to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development in the United Kingdom, where it is relevant in its area to do so. So it is a statutory purpose.

  12. But there is a caveat at the end, is there not?
  (Ms Hewitt) Yes, but it is a statutory purpose, not a `take account of'. Now, in my experience, the RDAs are not saying, "Well, we have an economic objective there and we might have to qualify it with a social or an environmental objective." They also have a very clear objective to further economic development and regeneration, and, for the RDAs, as for the Government, these things go together. It is quite clearly desirable, from, if you like, a narrow economic perspective, to bring contaminated land back into use and to decontaminate it, to regenerate those areas and to make what has been a polluted eyesore into something that is going to be a desirable business park, have wonderful housing on it, have some leisure facilities, whatever. And that is what the RDAs are seeking to do, because the more attractive, the cleaner they can make their region the more attractive they will be to people to live and work in those regions.

  13. Do you have someone actually monitoring to what extent the RDAs are achieving this?
  (Ms Hewitt) The process we are in is that, having agreed in the last Parliament the economic strategies for each region, we are now firming up the delivery plans, the business plans, with each RDA. And in those plans each RDA will commit itself to high-level objectives and then to more precise objectives under that, and we will be monitoring, through the Government Offices,—

  14. So it is the Government Offices that will be doing this: which people particularly?
  (Ms Hewitt) The Government Offices are obviously staffed by officials from most Government Departments, but in particular here—

  15. Will there be people particularly taken on with environmental qualifications to do this monitoring, additional in the Government Offices?
  (Ms Hewitt) I am not sure that that is necessary, but I will have a look at that. We have senior DTI officials within the Government Office, but there are other departmental officials there as well, and I certainly have confidence in my officials' ability to monitor the full range of objectives to which the RDAs have committed themselves. I will look at whether we need to strengthen specifically the environmental expertise.

  16. Excellent. And just one last thing, on this general subject area. I understand, from the Green Alliance, that, the DTI departmental review that is currently taking place, there is no mention of sustainable development, environmental objectives or resource productivity, in the terms of reference of the review, or even in the mission statements. Is that right, or have they got it wrong, or have I got it wrong?
  (Ms Hewitt) This is not a formal process, where the Government is reviewing policy. What I put in place when I became Secretary of State was a review of what the Department is doing and how we do it, because I believe we can have a much clearer focus and a much more effective way of working. I am very clear that the central purpose and focus of the DTI is productivity and closing the productivity gap that exists between ourselves and our competitors. I am also very clear—

  17. But do we not have to include resource productivity in that though?
  (Ms Hewitt) Of course; and what I was just about to say was, I am very clear that productivity is not just about labour productivity and capital productivity, it is equally about resource productivity. And although I do not want to pre-empt the reorganisation, the changes that we will be making within the Department, I would like to assure you that you will see a much greater emphasis in the Department on innovation and technology, including, in particular, the development and application of environmental technologies.

  18. Is there any possibility at this late stage of the terms of reference being perhaps slightly reconsidered to include environmental sustainability and resource productivity in that?
  (Ms Hewitt) The Department is committed, I am committed, to sustainable development. We have an excellent sustainable development strategy in place, which is work in progress, which we are continuing to develop. This is not a review that has terms of reference in a constraining sense.

  19. It is where the balance is, is it not?
  (Ms Hewitt) We had an opening statement of the sorts of things we were looking at. We are not, in any sense, leaving out issues to do with resource productivity, they are very, very clear, in my agenda and in the review team's agenda, and you will see that reflected in the outcome of the review.

  Joan Walley: I would have preferred it to have been in there, but I hear what you say on that. Thank you.


 
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