Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)



  240. Precisely.
  (Margaret Beckett) So we are very very mindful of those different impacts and of what a mixed society we are. As you will know, we have set ourselves, as part of our goals, the maintenance of access to the countryside and an interest in landscape and how that landscape develops and is maintained and so on as well as having access to it.

Mr Barker

  241. Secretary of State, following on from that, given your goals, as you have just said, are about preserving the landscape and conservation and indeed in terms of fulfilling your wider environmental remit, would you not be more comfortable and confident about achieving that if you had responsibility for town and country planning?
  (Margaret Beckett) It goes back to the remarks I made to Mr Horam right at the outset of this discussion. You can make a logical case for many of these things but there is a danger of you ending up with one absolutely massive government department trying to do everything and perhaps not doing anything very well. If I can just say to the Committee, I think one of the things it is always important to bear in mind is that it is not always the case that being encompassed within one departmental title is more productive of co-operative working than not being encompassed with it. What matters is the quality of the relationships, the links which are built up and the attention people give to them.

  242. But in terms of having a single vision and having sustainable development at the very centre of that vision?
  (Margaret Beckett) It is the intention of the Government to make sure sustainable development is a vision for the whole Government.

Joan Walley

  243. Secretary of State, I cannot tell you how pleased I was when you said in terms of the recent negotiations you were talking about you could not tell who came from which department and no one seemed to care. It seems to me if we have that situation, that really is a real way to put sustainable development at the heart of Government. In relation to the preparations which are taking place now for the UK submission to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Rio + 10, which will be taking place next year in Johannesburg, what sort of initiatives have you got planned? How are you making sure that all the different departments which need to be contributing to that are actually able to do that work? How are you making sure they have the vision that you have and are able to put that into practice? What are those initiatives going to be?
  (Margaret Beckett) There are a range of initiatives being taken within and outside Government. You will know that all but one of the regional preparatory conferences has now taken place, I think the last one is this week. Following on from that, people are then assessing what has come out of those regional conferences, which have been somewhat disparate, and seeing whether there are key themes which can be identified. Then in the early part of next year, there will be a further round of preparatory international gatherings feeding through to Johannesburg. I think there is a general view certainly within the United Kingdom, in Government and outside it, that instead of trying to do everything, we should try to narrow down the agenda and focus on a smaller number of key things. You will know that some little time ago the Prime Minister issued a challenge to people in the business community to come forward with specific projects and proposals in the area of finance, of access to water and sanitation, of sustainable energy and indeed sustainable tourism too, and people have been working on these things. There has been an interim report back to the Prime Minister as to how that work is going and an encouragement to people to continue with those initiatives. So there is a cross-UK really, not just cross-Government, set of interests working. There is also an intergovernmental committee which is steering the overall pattern of preparations. We also are going to try to make sure we draw in a sufficiently wide range of other organisations. For example, it was said to me recently that there is a tendency for people to think of the World Summit as an environmental summit—and this goes back to the conversation we were having earlier about whether the environment is separate from sustainable development, so it is the environmental NGOs who people expect to be engaged—but it was put to me by people from the development NGOs that they too should be involved, and I whole-heartedly agree with that. One of the things I would very much like to see as the outcome of Johannesburg is practical initiatives to really improve and deliver on policies, as I say, for sustainable energy, clean water and sanitation and so on, so that people can see real outcomes from the conference rather than very worthwhile and interesting statements or philosophies and so on.

  244. I think it is really interesting that you and the Government are now talking about things outside of Government as well as inside Government. I certainly feel very heartened by the prospect of what has been suggested in respect of Johannesburg, as it could really create a whole culture where we start talking about not just these things in the abstract but what we are going to do about them. Can I ask, is it your Department which is now taking the lead on bringing together what Downing Street set up and these outside intergovernmental agencies as well? Is it still DEFRA which is leading on these preparations?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes, I am the lead negotiator on these issues. Obviously others are involved, and the Deputy Prime Minister is playing an important co-ordinating role, but it is our Department which is in the lead.

  245. If we were to have the NGOs sat in front of this Select Committee now and we were to ask them, do you think they would say there was sufficient opportunity for them to be directly involved in this whole process of change? What more do you think could be done to make sure people outside Government and business as well for that matter could really be brought into the mainstream?
  (Margaret Beckett) A number of the NGOs are involved in the process I identified earlier, although I said the Prime Minister had challenged the business community—and he has because of the obvious resources—there is a partnership there between some of the NGOs and people in the business community. In fact, from memory, the water initiative, for example, is being worked on jointly by WaterAid and various of the water companies. I am sure they would not sit here and tell you we are doing enough—

  246. There is never enough.
  (Margaret Beckett) Absolutely. Perish the thought I should allow it to remain on the record that they would think that, but there is a recognition that we are seeking to involve them and a willingness and enthusiasm to be involved.
  (Mr Adams) And providing funding for them to get involved as well.

  247. Adequate funding?
  (Margaret Beckett) Again, almost certainly not!

  248. Can I ask about Marrakech. Is it your Department that has taken the lead? Is it you who is taking the lead? What is your Department's role in the climate change talks that we have and where does the Deputy Prime Minister fit into it and where does Downing Street fit into it? Who has got the clear leadership role in all this or is it just a joint team? Is there a captain?
  (Margaret Beckett) In Bonn I led the UK delegation, as I did in Marrakech. Obviously we worked through the European Union because the EU Co-ordination Group is a kind of negotiating forum, and the Deputy Prime Minister came to Bonn just for the day, dropped in and made contact with some of the people with whom he deals from time to time, and we engaged him in making some contacts during the discussions in Marrakech. But basically in Bonn there was an interesting and very thorough process of negotiation and organisation in which the UK was heavily involved, and that meant I was heavily involved. In the final negotiations in Bonn, which were carried out in the President's room, there were some 15, 20 or so ministers present representing the various negotiating groups, of whom I was one. That was the process whereby it was delivered, so we played a role there, as we did in Marrakech. Indeed, in Marrakech I think it is fairly openly known it was the UK negotiating strategy which the EU ultimately followed and which actually brokered agreement in the final session. I always say these things with great caution because one does not wish to offend other participants but there is no doubt what was absolutely evident and very encouraging, both in Bonn and Marrakech, was the very strong wish of the participants—and we are talking about something like 180 countries—to get agreement and to move forward on these issues. That was very encouraging. It is clearly not only we who think the EU and within it the UK played a key role, because when we arrived in Marrakech, one of the first reports made to the negotiating group by the Belgian Presidency was, since we had brokered and delivered agreement in Bonn, everybody now expected us to do the same thing in Marrakech, which was a slightly daunting expectation with which to approach a conference. But it would be wrong of me not to say again how important was the role of all the negotiating groups and how important was the drive across them. The G77, for example, was a tour de force of international diplomacy in getting something like 120 countries into a coherent agreement and to accept and deliver that agreement. I would also say, Chairman, those two conferences between them—well, each individually in fact—were the most exciting, certainly in the last hour, half hour, when you did not know whether you were going to get agreement or not—the most exciting events I have participated in in politics.

  Chairman: Really?

Joan Walley

  249. I would like to think that success will breed success in that way and we can be proud of the way in which the UK is adding value to these new environmental international negotiations. Could I ask you, in view of the Deputy Prime Minister's role, if you were me would you be a little disappointed that the Deputy Prime Minister had not yet given to this Committee a submission on his role in these negotiations, or do you think that should be something just for your own Department? We feel the Deputy Prime Minister has had a vital part to play as well.
  (Margaret Beckett) The Deputy Prime Minister was obviously the lead negotiator in Kyoto for the United Kingdom and he continues to take an interest in these issues and play a very helpful role acting on behalf of the Prime Minister. Obviously it is for him to say but I think he probably would be reluctant to give any appearance of second-guessing the Department which now holds that responsibility.

  250. On some of the detail of Marrakech, Greenpeace described the outcome as "a hard-won battle for a token outcome". It seems clear looking through some of the small print that there were some concessions which perhaps had been made, and we understand why they had to be made, but I wondered whether or not you expected those concessions, or whether you thought there would be other concessions, and how crucial they were to reaching agreement.
  (Margaret Beckett) They were utterly crucial to reaching agreement, I am afraid. It is always a problem, of course people want even more, they always do and it is perfectly understandable and reasonable they should, but all I can say to you is that those in Bonn and in Marrakech, the NGOs, played an extremely positive role and they acted as a channel for information and advice between the different delegations. I can give you an example without naming the individual country, NGOs from another key Member State in the different negotiations were helpful in illuminating who would be most effective at government level in brokering agreement with their own Member State, so NGOs were exchanging information with each other about how to try to get agreement, and both in Bonn and Marrakech it was the very clear view of the NGO representatives who were there that they wanted an agreement. Indeed there was a point in Marrakech where a point was made fairly forcefully to delegations that if the EU failed to successfully broker an agreement the NGOs who were participating and wanting agreement would be very strongly inclined to blame the EU for the break-down of the talks. There is not any doubt in my mind that people wanted more, but there also is not any doubt in my mind that what we all wanted more than anything was agreement. It is unprecedented; there are more teeth to this agreement than have ever been seen in any international environmental agreement and it was and is a real historic achievement.

  251. Do I take it that in view of the expertise of the environmental diplomacy exercised by the NGOs that Mr Adams has got funding in respect of the climate change negotiations as well as in relation to Johannesburg?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not know about that. They all seem to manage to be there anyway.

  252. I think it is important they have the resources to play that part. Can I briefly ask about the carbon emissions trading scheme. The UK is pushing ahead with a voluntary agreement yet it looks as though there will be EU-wide trading arrangements by 2005. Is it right for us to be going ahead? Are you hoping we will influence what the European Union does? How will the twin-track development help?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes, I think it is right. You said quite correctly that the EU has now published some proposals for a scheme which is proposed to come in but we are literally at the preliminary stage. All that has happened in the last couple of weeks is that the EU has published proposals, no more than that—just before Marrakech in fact if I recall correctly. The scheme does have some differences with the proposals that we ourselves have put forward. I discussed these issues with the Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallstro­m, and our view very strongly, to use a classic phrase, was there was great benefit in the EU learning by doing as a result of having experience of our own scheme. Our scheme was worked up in discussion with the business community and with a lot of thought and input put into it as to what would be the most practical and workable set of proposals. There are other differences with the EU scheme but, as I say, the key thing is that it is not even proposed to get off the ground, even if everybody tomorrow agrees they like the proposals in the EU scheme—and that is not going to happen because not everybody does like the proposals—until 2005. We very much hope that our scheme will be up and running from April and that will both give the UK a first mover advantage and will also give very important information and input to any proposals that may come forward ultimately in a final form from the European Union. Incidentally, I understand you may know that we did have to seek state aids approval for the incentive we would like to have to underpin our scheme, and I understand that has been granted today.

  253. Excellent.
  (Margaret Beckett) I agree.

  Joan Walley: Congratulations!

Mr Thomas

  254. I wanted to be completely clear on the responsibilities which are now emerging on the climate change talks. We did not have a statement on Marrakech to the House, which is slightly more surprising now after you have given it such importance than I felt at the time. If we had had a statement, and in the future when we have statements on these sort of talks, it is clear it would have been you in the lead giving that statement. In terms of the work of this Committee and how we follow through accountability and audit the accountability across government departments, and accepting all government departments, some more than others, are involved in things like the climate change negotiations, it would be correct from the evidence you have given today to set aside the press release from Downing Street on 10 July, which talked about the Deputy Prime Minister having a leading role in the climate change negotiations, and accept the seesaw has changed. It is your Department now and in terms of the way we should be pursuing things as a Committee it is directly through yourself and your Department. Would that be a reasonable thing to conclude?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not know whether I would put it in those terms. What I would say to you is from the time my Department was set up, the policy lead on sustainable development has been with the Department and with whoever is Secretary of State of that Department.

  255. But climate change in particular?
  (Margaret Beckett) But overall on sustainable development. Partly because of the great interest that the Deputy Prime Minister has in these issues and the role he has played, he continues to play a role. His own description of it is that from time to time he acts as a Sherpa on behalf of the Prime Minister on these issues—and obviously that is a very specific and slightly different role. He did not come to Marrakech and I would be slightly surprised if he went to the next one.

Mr Barker

  256. We are all glad that Marrakech did not end in disaster or break up but clearly concessions were made.
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes.

  257. Could you tell the Committee specifically which concessions were made and, of those, which things you were more disappointed not to be able to get into the final agreement?
  (Margaret Beckett) May I offer to send you a note about it because it is both long and complicated and I think it would probably be more illuminating for the Committee if I sent you a piece of paper rather than try to describe it. I do not know if you are aware but in Bonn there was a considerable dismay on the part of the Russian Federation that they believed that the information they had provided about their own circumstances had not been correctly assessed and they protested at that in Bonn. I mentioned the Bonn agreement was exciting, part of what was exciting about it was how we put it to the conference as a whole from the EU, which was, here is a package of proposals, we the EU have got lots of anxieties and concerns and disagreements with this package of proposals but we will take this package if that is what is on the table, if that can be agreed, and then in effect challenged everybody else to do the same. The thing that was very nail-biting was particularly in the last 20 minutes, half an hour, to see whether any one country would actually in effect veto the agreement that was potentially there. It was both noteworthy and very much to Russia's credit, although they made very, very plain their displeasure and their concerns and said they would return to the issue, Russia did not veto in Bonn. In Marrakech in the final session, the final plenary, the Russian delegate—and I have not got the words on me but I can send you a transcript of the observations of the Russian representative—said he believed the agreement in Marrakech had opened up the way for the Kyoto Protocol to be ratified by a large number of countries, and the Russian Federation would be looking positively at that. Of course the Japanese Government has now said they will be putting the proposals for ratification to the Diet, and indeed they hope to have been able to ratify by June. So the pressure is now on for people to ratify before the Johannesburg Summit which is excellent, because that will be an obstacle very much removed from the way. That was one of the key areas and that was a long-standing concern. Also Japan has had a long-standing anxiety about how we handle the issue of whether or not the controls and compliance measures in the Protocol are made legally binding. There is no question Japan is absolutely adamant about their determination as a government, should the Protocol be ratified and everything go ahead, to observe all the mechanisms to comply indeed with all of the agreement, and adamant there is no question of Japan not complying absolutely with the undertaking required, but equally has great concerns about the legal and cultural impact of proposals for making something legally binding on a sovereign state. So these were the key areas where ways were found to reach enough common ground to actually reach agreement. There were also some concerns about the conditions on reporting and things of that kind, but nothing that was so overriding as to make it not worthwhile actually having the agreement.

  258. It would be very useful if you could make the list available, because while it is very interesting for politicians to hear about the drama of the negotiations, as a Committee it is really the specific issues we are here to audit.
  (Margaret Beckett) Quite.

Mr Gerrard

  259. We have just had the Fourth Ministerial of the World Trade Organisation at Doha, and I believe a minister from your Department attended.
  (Margaret Beckett) He was the only Environment Minister who did attend, I understand.

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