Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 99-119)

RT HON STEPHEN BYERS, MP AND DR ALAN WHITEHEAD, MP

THURSDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2001

Chairman

  99. Welcome, Minister and Secretary of State, we are delighted to have you here this afternoon. Thank you for coming, I know you have had a busy time in the last couple of weeks. Thank you also for your memorandum which we received yesterday, which was rather late in the day.

  (Mr Byers) I am sorry about that.

  100. I think it covers one or two points we had intended to ask you but, nonetheless, we have obviously got quite a lot of questions outstanding. We will be focusing on the effect on sustainable development and environmental protection of the new departmental arrangements but will also be asking you of other matters in transport and local government, etc., which are your responsibility. Is there anything you would like to add to the memorandum which you sent us before we begin our questioning of you both?
  (Mr Byers) Just to say, as you know, Chairman, this is not the first time that I have appeared in front of your Committee to discuss these issues, although the first time as Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. As you will certainly be aware, when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry I tried to move forward very much on the agenda which is at the heart of this Committee's work, and I certainly want to do the same in this new Department. I think there are some interesting machinery of government changes which I would be very interested in due course to hear from the Committee on in its recommendations on the alterations which have been introduced. I am still very much of the view, as I was when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, that really for all Government Departments the sustainable development agenda has got to be a key focus because it cuts across so many different areas. You touched on transport, local government, the regions, planning, housing, in all of those areas for which I now have responsibility the sustainable agenda is really a very key part of what we do. I and Alan Whitehead, as Minister with specific responsibility for this area, are looking forward to not just giving evidence before you today, and I do apologise for the memorandum coming to you so late in the day, but then to receiving your recommendations in due course.

  Chairman: Thank you for saying that, Secretary of State, we are always glad to have the importance of sustainable development emphasised and, as you say, it is very much a-cross-cutting issue which is why the relations between your Department and other Departments is so very important. I know Mr Wright wants to lead off on this.

Mr Wright

  101. Secretary of State, your Department has lost the "E", has it not, in terms of its former responsibilities, you have no longer got "Environment" in the title? Obviously much was made when DETR was created about this cross-cutting agenda with environment and you mentioned in your memorandum a number of elements of work that do cross over into environment. What do you think are the main problems, why have you lost the "E"?
  (Mr Byers) The decision to restructure Government after the June election was made, I think, for very clear reasons. Part of the General Election campaign was very much about delivery of public services, at least it was for the Government. Perhaps for the Conservatives it was more about Europe and where we should go in terms of the single currency, but—

Chairman

  102. We try to be non-party political.
  (Mr Byers) I was not making a party political point, Chairman, as you will realise. The more serious about it is this question of delivery. If you look at the changes that were introduced, the Home Office had a number of its responsibilities that were taken out. We now are responsible for fire and for electoral law matters because the Home Office is now very focused on delivery in relation to tackling crime, asylum and immigration, that is their key focus. In my Department the key focus is obviously transport and the view was taken by the Prime Minister that environment is so important, is so crucial, that it needed to be in its own Department, as it were, to make sure there could be a proper concentration on the various initiatives, not just here in the United Kingdom but worldwide, that we are engaged in as a Government. What that does mean in practice is how we can make sure with the areas that I have got responsibility for, whether it is transport, planning, local government, housing, regeneration and so on, that we do not ignore the environmental concerns. When you look at the areas we have got responsibility for, particularly transport and planning, then environment has to be key to what we do. The fact that, if you like, almost the sponsor Department for environment is elsewhere, does not give any excuse for me as Secretary of State to ignore the environmental consequences of any decisions that we take. It is very important that as a Department we have in place proper processes and proper procedures to make sure, firstly, we have a very good and constructive working relationship with the Department for Environment and, secondly, within our own Department we take into account environmental concerns in the decisions that we take, and I think we have managed to do that, and, thirdly, the idea of developing ourselves, our own policy, as far as sustainable development is concerned. This was something I did when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and it was very important in that Department, which traditionally was regarded as one which did not think very much about the environment, to have a policy on sustainable development and I intend to do the same within this Department as well.

Mr Wright

  103. Would you say that there is a danger within DEFRA that it will be dominated by former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food issues? Certainly from some of the evidence we took a week ago, was there was a feeling that the Department would really step into the shoes of MAFF and that environment would then be lost between two stools. I am really concerned that that may happen.
  (Mr Byers) I am sure this Committee will not allow it to happen and I do think there will be pressures from Members of this House but also from the public. What has struck me over recent months, perhaps the last year or 18 months, is that the quality of life agenda, livability agenda, is now of far greater importance to people than it used to be. That is a very important political lesson for all of us to learn as elected politicians, that we cannot ignore the concerns that people have got about the environment, about their quality of life, about what is going on in their own environment. When there are structure of government changes, machinery of government changes, they do need to reflect the priorities of the people out there. If you talk to the Secretary of State at DEFRA, she is acutely aware of the importance of the environmental agenda and I am pretty sure she will not allow the MAFF agenda, if I can put it that way, to dominate.

  104. I think we probably accept that at ministerial level there is a commitment there but what about officer commitment and Civil Service commitment down the line? What structures have you put in place to protect and cross work on this issue?
  (Mr Byers) I think we have put in place good and meaningful procedures and arrangements. I was very conscious, and perhaps these are worries Members of the Committee have got, that with environment moving out of the Department that would then mean that those sorts of issues just would not be addressed at all. I thought it was important to make sure that we had structures in place, both formal and informal, to make sure that the very good working relationships which were clearly there when it was one Department could be continued in the new arrangements. There is actually a concordat which has been agreed between the two Departments at Permanent Secretary level which the Secretary of State for DEFRA and myself have agreed to. It might be valuable if we can share that concordat with the Committee.

Chairman

  105. Indeed, let us have that. It would be helpful.
  (Mr Byers) If I could just check with the Secretary of State for DEFRA that she is happy, and I am sure she will be, then it will be useful for you to be able to see that. Also, working relationships at ministerial level where we have a good formal relationship where I see the Secretary of State for DEFRA every couple of months on a formal basis and we also talk informally. Obviously we see each other every week at Cabinet. That works through the ministerial teams as well. There is a member of DEFRA on our Transport Board, for example, to make sure that those concerns which might be there on environmental aspects are considered. There is a very good cross-working relationship between the two Departments.

Mr Simmonds

  106. There is one thing I want to explore a bit further. You mentioned before that the Prime Minister decided to extract the environment side and have a Department by itself but it will not be by itself as it was prior to the 1997 election. I wondered whether you were really saying that the enormous Department that was put together after the 1997 election was, to be blunt, a disaster and was nothing more than an ego trip for one certain Deputy Prime Minister.
  (Mr Byers) I am sure that was not the case. From where I understand the Committee are coming from, I think the Committee themselves could see benefits of a Department of that nature. I think what has happened since 1997 is that, particularly on the international stage environment, as we all know, has taken on greater importance which has meant if we are going to be engaged as a global player we have had to commit a lot more of our time not just to the environment and issues to do with the environment here in the United Kingdom but have had to be players on the international stage. Very often that has involved Secretaries of State, Deputy Prime Ministers being away for seven days at international conferences, it is very time-consuming, it has taken up a lot of time of civil servants. I think on reflection, now that we know that these are international matters that are going to be dealt with, there was sense in actually taking environment out. I take your point about it being part of a wider Department but I think if you talk to the Secretary of State at DEFRA she will say that a lot of her time is spent on issues to do with the environment and it is not being ignored. I think most people thought, and even this Committee may have said so in the previous Parliament, that there was merit in trying to make the links between environment, transport, planning and so on.

  107. I thought that one of the integral points of combining the two Departments after the 1997 election was transport, which obviously in the UK is a fundamental part of improving the environment, improving public transport to get people off the roads, etc., etc., but that has been torn apart since the 2001 General Election. How do you equalise those two statements?
  (Mr Byers) I do not see it as being torn apart. What I do see it as being is a transport plan, which we have got in place, the Ten Year Plan, which will take into account those issues to do with congestion, to do with emissions and so on, which some people would say is the straight environment agenda. To me, that is part of a good transport policy. It is almost about main streaming the environment. This is the classic debate, is it not, about whether you have environment as a self-contained monitoring body which then imposes itself on transport, on planning, on housing, or whether people in those Departments, in the teams in my Department, actually see the environment as being an integral part of what they do in developing policies in those areas. The benefit from having had the environment within the Department between 1997 and 2001 is that people in the Department are now more acutely aware of environmental concerns. Certainly in the conversations that I have with civil servants they do not ignore the environment. There are areas when I do not naturally think of the environment where they are saying "actually we do need to think about the environment".

Chairman

  108. You are saying that it has had a good effect; that for four years you had to take account of the environment and that the old Transport Department did not perhaps as much as it should have done? But will that effect not wear off as time goes on? Is that not a danger?
  (Mr Byers) I do not think so because of the political priority that is going to be attached to the environment. I know machinery of government is fascinating for all of us but ultimately, certainly as Secretary of State, what drives me is responding to the political needs of people out there.

  109. It is also getting your civil servants to respond to the people out there.
  (Mr Byers) They should take the lead from the Secretary of State in my view. If it is a priority for myself and the ministerial team then we make sure that we get submissions, we get advice on these issues so that we can see when we take a range of matters into account, local transport plans, planning and so on, then issues to do with the environment are reflected in those decisions that we take. We just keep reminding people of the need to address these concerns. I do not think the machinery of government changes of themselves will lead to a reduction of the impact of concern about the environment, but it is for us, as politicians, to make sure that it is regarded as a priority and it should not be a bureaucratic, administrative requirement.
  (Dr Whitehead) I wonder if I might add, Chairman. I think this is underlined by the role that I have been given in the Departmental Ministerial Team as the Department's Green Minister. That is not a role which is simply about green housekeeping within the Department, although in the past Green Ministers in various Departments have been viewed, I think erroneously, as people who simply made sure the Department was green in its actions internally. That is certainly not the case as far as DTLR is concerned. I have a board level DTLR official as Sustainable Development champion working within the Department, a sustainable development team established and, indeed, the watchword of sustainable development within the Department is central in terms of our policy development particularly, for example, in terms of the submissions that are presently being discussed for Spending Review 2002, all of which I will see as Green Departmental Minister to ensure, among other things, that central view of sustainable development as a theme within the Department's activities is maintained coherently.

Mr Barker

  110. I totally agree with the Secretary of State that the environment has definitely been kept on the political agenda very firmly over the last few years with the electorate and also on the international stage. That is why I am having some trouble understanding why in going from this overblown Ministry, it has effectively been neutered because the one thing that we know about the environment is unless you have a totally holistic approach it is useless. Piecemeal adoption of environmental policies really add up to nothing. Do you not think that the Government should reflect the importance it ought to place on the environment by having a member of the Cabinet with a specific environment portfolio as opposed to a bit of countryside along with agriculture or with you with road building? I fail to see how you can have a really strong, forward looking, powerful environmental policy if you have got planning divorced from waste, or parts of waste, if you have got road building divorced from emissions. I am quite sure you are earnest in saying you take into account environmental considerations, and quite rightly you should, as should every Government Department, but there is a huge opportunity missed here to actually put environmental issues and progress on the environmental agenda back at the heart of Government.
  (Mr Byers) I think it is still there to be honest. We are back to the classic debate about whether you have a separate, free standing Department, and in this case it is environment, or whether you try to mainstream environmental issues within particular policy areas.

  111. But the two are not mutually exclusive, are they?
  (Mr Byers) No, they are not, but I do think if one looks back at the experience of a free standing Department of the Environment, I am not absolutely convinced. It was called the Department of the Environment but had a lot more things added to it, to be honest, it had local government and so on, so it was not Mr Barker's example of—

Chairman

  112. You are talking about pre-1997?
  (Mr Byers) Yes, the pre-1997 Department that was called Department of the Environment but, in fact, included a lot more than just environment.

Mr Barker

  113. I think that was a time when the ecology and the understanding of the importance of the environment was different from the importance we would give it today.
  (Mr Byers) I go back to the point I was making earlier. I very much believe that you can mainstream environment in those important policy areas and it should not be seen as something which is isolated and not part of what you might be doing in trade and industry or now transport, local government, planning and so on.

Mr Francois

  114. Would you not accept that it is quite difficult in this area in that the old pre-1997 arrangements were changed, and that is the prerogative of the Government, but then a whole brand new Department, a very large Department, was created and so all the people who had to deal with that Department in local government, NGOs and all sorts of people, began to get used to how that Department worked and then just at the point after several years when perhaps people were beginning to understand how that worked and it was beginning to settle down, the whole thing was thrown up in the air and reorganised yet again. That is not really the best way to conduct public business, is it?
  (Mr Byers) Some might say that we were responding to the demands being made by the then Opposition who were very critical of—

Chairman

  115. It is all our fault, the Conservatives?
  (Mr Byers) You will remember the situation before the last election, Chairman, when there was lots of criticism of DETR, as it then was, for the reasons that Mr Simmonds has mentioned, that it was seen to be a rather large and unwieldy Department. On the serious point about NGOs and groups getting used to the issues, I would hope that those people will feel certainly within my Department that they still get a warm welcome, that they do have input into what we are doing in specific policy areas and they are not somehow being ignored. That is the responsibility of any Secretary of State in a new Department, where you develop those good working relationships you make sure they can be retained. I was acutely aware of those concerns, so very early on I had a drinks reception for NGOs representing environmental interests just to say very clearly that environment has moved to a different Department but this is still going to be very much at the heart of what I want to do in this new Department. I can understand the concerns but really what we have got to do, and the challenge for me as Secretary of State, is to make sure that we can engage with those people, that it is a changed set-up but, nevertheless, they feel they have got a genuine part to play in developing our policies, in forming our thinking in these very important areas.

Mr Francois

  116. Can I just follow that up. This is a cross-party point because my colleague mentioned from some of the evidence that we took from NGOs last week a number of them were saying that they had experienced real difficulties because of the changes and just as they had found things had begun to settle down it was all moved around again. So it is all very well to say what you say but I just want to come back to you and say from our point of view on a cross-party basis we think this is a real problem.
  (Mr Byers) I look forward to seeing the recommendations from the Committee and if that is the case I will certainly reinforce my efforts to engage with NGOs. That should not be the case. If that is happening, and I will look at the evidence you took last week, that is not good and we need to do more to make sure that there are processes in place where NGOs feel that they are playing a valuable role, because they do.

Mr Savidge

  117. I do not want to over-press the point but if environment is not to be a free standing Department, although obviously this Committee would accept that environment is relevant to all other Departments, one would have thought the two most natural Departments because of their impact on the environment would either be transport or energy. In fact, that is what we seem to have found in most of the other countries that we have visited, that that is the pairing. I have to say that with rural affairs, unless someone is going to come up for a miraculous cure for the problem that bovine flatulence causes to the atmosphere, I cannot see there is a direct relevance.
  (Mr Byers) Perhaps the Secretary of State has a plan in that direction. I do not know whether she has given evidence yet but if she does you might want to put the question to her.

  118. If I can follow up a general point on rather more specific lines. To what extent do you feel the separation of the responsibilities for environmental protection and transport will make it more difficult to drive forward a sustainable, integrated transport policy?
  (Mr Byers) I do not think it needs to but it could do. That means I think we have to be very mindful of the potential to get ourselves into a position where we do not pay enough regard to sustainable development issues when we develop our transport plans. What we need to do, I think, especially as we develop the Ten Year Transport Plan, which always has to be adapted to changing circumstances, is to make sure those issues which are of concern, whether it be congestion, the effect on local environment, emissions, all of those effects have to be factored into our decisions. Certainly when we look at things like road building, for example, they are very much at the heart of our consideration, particularly with a major project where environmental protection is going to be very close certainly to my heart when it comes to the decision making process.

  119. You have mentioned already the concordat you have with DEFRA, I wonder if you would say a little bit more about how that will work in practice and what other communications protocols you have with DEFRA?
  (Mr Byers) Some of it is procedural. Very pleasantly and occasionally the Secretary of State and myself will get together and have a drink and informally—


 
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