Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)

WEDNESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2001

RT HON MARGARET BECKETT, MR JOHN ADAMS AND MR IAN PICKARD

  220. People might say the environment is so important it should stand on its own and not be pushed into some other area, particularly when, for example, this year your department has been so involved in dealing with all of the rural crises that are, perhaps, not themselves environmental in the way we normally talk about environmental issues, animal welfare, for example, is not the high sort of environmental issue that people would naturally take it to mean.
  (Margaret Beckett) If I may say so, there are two things about that, first of all, I think the thinking is increasingly that one should not try to deal with environmental issues on their own. Of course it is a legitimate argument for different structures to say you should have a department that just does environment. Sustainable development is the balance of the economic and the social and the environmental issues. Right across the world the focus is increasingly on those balances and trying to get them right and to deal with environmental issues in that context instead of trying to isolate them. It does seem to me that that is a more practical way forward and likely to be in the long term a more fruitful way forward. You mentioned specifically animal welfare, let me give you one example as to why I think there is great merit in the kind of integration we have now. One of the most useful contributions we can make in the UK is to have a sustainable policy towards the whole agricultural industry. If you look at what is happening in terms of pollution, because we are taking steps to tackle some of the things that were brought up earlier it is increasingly the case that one of the greatest remaining pollutants likely in the next few years is ammonia and nitrates and those associated substances and the biggest contributors to that probably are land management, animals, and so on. It seems to me to make a lot of sense that these things are dealt with in this particular way.

  221. Finally, I am fairly new here—
  (Margaret Beckett) That makes two of us.

  222.—in the whole building I would say, not just in this room this afternoon. I think Treasury might be considered to be a stand-alone department, it is fully integrated, as we know, into every department of government. Whereas we talk about cooperation with other departments or integration do you not think there would be some virtue in having a more focussed environmental department which is not tagged on to something else? Have we actually studied the lessons of when we did have this more integrated department in the last five years? Has there been anything published on that and any research done on how the DETR works?
  (Margaret Beckett) I am not aware of that. One thing I would say is that I could reject the notion that ours is a department that in some way has things tagged on to the environment. You make a correct and pertinent point about the way in which Treasury has a role and a remit across government. I think an indication of how successful my department is in already beginning to make its concerns and sustainable development felt is that we have convinced Treasury both to make the issue of sustainable development an unpinning theme for the entire Spending Review across government in the next review term. Also we have Treasury agreement that the Office of Government Procurement should have sustainable development as one of its key goals. Anybody, whether from outside Parliament or in it who studied the role of Treasury over the decades and generations will know that to get Treasury to take on board issues other than straightforward, sometimes lowest price or on a more enlightened day value-for-money is quite an achievement.

Chairman

  223. Can we assume from that that DETR did not work?
  (Margaret Beckett) No, I do not think you can assume that.

  224. It was changed.
  (Margaret Beckett) I think the belief is that the department in its new form will be able to work better.

  225. One concern which has been expressed, you may be aware of it, is that civil servants concerns are not so happy with the set up, because the previous set up they felt was a triumvirate a three-legged department of environment, transport and local government, fairly equal partners in quite a large department. Now they are quite a small element of a department which is inevitably dominated by the Ministry of Agriculture.
  (Margaret Beckett) I am sure you will find people who will say that, equally I believe it is the case that very large numbers of people who come to the new department very much want to make that new department work and believe in the role that it can play. That, obviously, is very much something that I welcome.

David Wright

  226. You touched, Secretary of State, on the Spending Review, I think Michael Meacher was commenting that the initial processes on the Spending Review did not really look in enough detail at sustainable development considerations. How do you feel that the round for 2002 has gone? What work has your new Department been doing in relation to the sustainable development targets and the public service agreement process?
  (Margaret Beckett) We are very much in the early stages of the new review, so there is not very much I can say about that. All I can simply say to you is that we do believe it is very much a matter for Treasury per se to set and monitor the PSAs or individual departments. The fact that they have agreed to make sustainable development a theme of the Review process, we believe, will focus the departments' minds on the implications of sustainable development for their policy approaches and goals.

  227. Have all of the departments been coming to you and saying, can you help us on this and work with us jointly across government?
  (Margaret Beckett) There have been individual departments which have drawn up their strategies and within my own department there who are people very willing to help and to give advice, and so on, if that is helpful. I believe I am right in saying that DTLR is, in fact, discussing with us their own statement and department strategy and we are happy to have an input wherever it is thought to be helpful.

  228. What about specific spending projects on the environment and sustainable development, are there any that you are proposing in the Spending Round you can tell us about at present?
  (Margaret Beckett) If and when we get agreement to any proposals we, make that is when it will come into the public domain.

  229. Treasury guidance says that the department needs to submit a sustainable report along side their 2002 bids. Are you intending to make that report public in July next year, after the announcements come forward on the process of the Spending Round and Spending Review?
  (Margaret Beckett) I frankly do not remember whether we have given consideration to that or not.
  (Mr Adams) The Treasury have been asked.
  (Margaret Beckett) It is obviously an issue for discussion. It is one of the many decisions that has not yet been taken.

  230. The point I am driving at is, for a committee that is looking at auditing environmental progress it is critically important we draw out reports supporting evidence in relation to Spending Review activity. Then we can start bench marking the quality of the work each department is doing. The more information we can get into an open environment the better we can measure how government departments are progressing.
  (Margaret Beckett) Department themselves are producing their own strategies and reports that contain all of the information that you may need.

Mrs Clark

  231. Obviously with any new department you are going to have a certain amount of teething problems, whole new fiscal structures, team building, joined-up working together and working relationships. You have all of that to cope with and suddenly you are bang in the middle of an old fashioned industrial dispute. What I would like to ask is, how much of the progress policy making has been hampered and held back by the disputes arising from pay and conditions of former DETR employees and former MAFF staff? Has it been a marriage of true minds or not?
  (Margaret Beckett) Obviously it always creates problems within a department when there is an industrial dispute of any kind, it is not something that any department would wish and would certainly prefer to avoid. To that extent it has had an impact on the department's overall work, but I do not think that I could pinpoint any particular aspect of policy—making and say that that is something that has been markedly affected. There has been some concern that our service to our stakeholders might begin to be affected and we are attempting to mitigate that, if we can.

  232. Could you develop that please? In what sort of particular way? We are interested in a permanent resolution of the dispute. How much progress has there been since the interim payment in August and when do we think there is going to be a conclusion to this?
  (Margaret Beckett) Some of these are matters for the Permanent Secretary rather than myself. Obviously the interim award was made in August, discussions with the representatives of the workforce are continuing and I very much hope the differences can be reasonably amicably resolved, and it is not yet plain how long that process might take.

Chairman

  233. As you rightly say, Secretary of State, some of these are matters for the Permanent Secretary to deal with, but the word on the street, if I can put it like that, is that you may be losing too many good, young civil servants than is desirable and they may feel that a department which has a relatively low pay structure by comparison with other departments and dominated by agriculture is not one they want to serve in by comparison with the DTLR, which is the other half of the old DETR Department. Is that a problem?
  (Margaret Beckett) There are those clearly who have such feelings and will from time to time voice them. I think it would be sad and disappointing if it were a substantial problem because I personally take the view this is a very exciting new department with a great deal of potential to deal with issues well and to have good staff relations and good opportunities, improved opportunities, so it would be a great pity if people took a rather stick-in-the-mud attitude and said, "We would rather hang on to what we know", but I hope that will not be sustained over time. Certainly there are some very interesting posts opening up within the new department and very real opportunities, not only for promotion but also for really worthwhile work.

  234. What worries us here is that the old DETR was set up with this three-pronged remit and it really is only 4Ö years and it has been all torn up, and if you reckon it takes two years for a department to bed down, it will take you, on your calculations with all these problems of civil service transfers, pay, structures, another two years to settle down totally, so four years out of six years have gone in transitional problems.
  (Margaret Beckett) Of course that can be an issue but I think there is already a great deal of cross-departmental working and co-operation of exactly the kind this Committee I am sure would wish to see. We have now a very different, slightly smaller but very different, management board, we have a range of people from different backgrounds, from across government not just between the old DETR and the old MAFF, and I am encouraged to think these are not insuperable obstacles, not least because, for example, when I attended in July the climate change discussions in Bonn, and when I went recently to Marrakech, one was working with a team drawn not just from the two principal departments you are referring to but from literally right across Whitehall, from the Foreign Office, from DFID, the DTI and so on, and it was an absolutely shining example of cross-departmental working. You cannot tell who comes from which department and nobody seems to care.

  Chairman: Good.

Mr Francois

  235. Secretary of State, just taking you back briefly to something you touched on in your opening remarks, the symbolism of the alignment of rural and agricultural matters with sustainable development creates in the minds of many people the question that sustainable development is solely a rural issue. How are you going to guard against that potentially dangerous perception?
  (Margaret Beckett) By continuing to address issues which are self-evidently not just rural and by making sure we pursue issues of sustainable development across government. If I can give you an example, we had about a week ago, a waste summit which obviously dealt with the issue of waste creation and handling waste across the economy but where I think many people actually believe that it is quite heavily often an urban problem. Similarly, it was a cross-department initiative with the DTLR, the recent announcement on the handling of abandoned vehicles. We have a range of issues—I have a list somewhere if the Committee is interested—on which we work with other government departments, and obviously DTLR is one of them. Certainly it is very clearly the case that many of these issues are urban as well as sometimes, rather than, rural.

Chairman

  236. Could we have a copy of that list? It would be very useful.
  (Margaret Beckett) You can. May I offer to leave it with you?[1].

  Chairman: Yes.

Mr Francois

  237. The memorandum that your Department delivered to us stated that the location of a sustainable development unit "makes no difference", but we then had the recent PIU report which suggests placing it in the Cabinet Office. That being the case, are you prepared to reconsider on the issue of the location?
  (Margaret Beckett) I am always prepared to discuss these issues. I think we remain of the view that it makes a very useful contribution where it presently sits, but obviously we are always willing to keep these issues under review and consider whether there is merit in different proposals.
  (Mr Adams) As somebody who has worked in the Sustainable Development Unit since it was set up, I have no sense that we are in any way hampered in doing the things we need to do as a result of being in a new department after the election, and I challenge anybody to come up with evidence that we are hampered. The PIU Report I think said that in due course it might be sensible to look at putting the Sustainable Development Unit into the Cabinet Office but specifically did not have that as a recommendation. As the Secretary of State has said, it is always good to review these things from time to time, but I think there is no hard reason to believe we could do our jobs better in a different place than where we are at the moment.

Chairman

  238. I think there is a hard reason, which is the reason which lay behind the PIU not recommendation but suggestion, which is, if you have something like the Social Exclusion Unit, which is across government looking in that way, the same logic applies to your unit, so it should be in the Cabinet Office.
  (Mr Adams) Not all central units are in the Cabinet Office. It is necessary to take them case by case. The Neighbourhood Renewal Unit which was one of the most recent is now in DTLR albeit it has a cross-government remit and looks at the worst neighbourhoods from all points of view.

Mr Best

  239. I want to raise issues which cross your Department and others. The constituency I represent has a very mixed base, we have beautiful open Wharfedale at one end and at the other end all those problems associated with inner cities. That little bit of beautiful open Wharfedale with the small market town of Otley falls within the metropolitan district council boundaries, and we had the cattle market closed because of the problems with foot and mouth, and it has remained closed almost all of this year, and we have also seen the damage done to the businesses which are associated with environmental enjoyment—walking in the area and so on—and I am wondering whether or not there is consideration that there might be cross-departmental responsibilities for the enjoyment of the environment, the pleasures which come from it and how important that is commercially and industrially for those people who work in that curious relationship of being inside a metropolitan district council and also inside a small market town.
  (Margaret Beckett) I think there is very widespread recognition now of exactly the kind of impact and mixture of interests and so on you identify. In fact it was the Chairman of the EFRA Select Committee who made the point to me very early on in my period in this Department that in his locality, for example, the bulk of the tourism was not international, it was from the industrial cities and towns in the vicinity.


1   See Appendix 1 Back


 
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