Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300
WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002
MP, MS SHEILA
300. We need some projects that are specifically
impacting on the UK, for example, or understanding how global
projects can impact on the UK environment?
(Margaret Beckett) Not so much impacting on the UK;
impacting on the environment primarily where there is the greatest
poverty, which the UK is involved in and which can be discerned.
Yes, I agree with that.
301. Secretary of State, I would like to go
on, if I may, to talk about the UK's progress since Rio. Before
we go into these particular questions, I wonder if you could perhaps
clear up some confusion that this Committee had in relation to
a press release that was put out last week by your Department
with regard to the quality of life barometer and the remarks made
by Mr Meacher in the press. I do not know if you saw an article
in the Daily Mail headlined "Life's better under Labour?
That's rubbish, says Meacher"?
(Margaret Beckett) I am afraid it is not my daily
302. Let me just refresh your memory. Perhaps
I can tell you what it says and then you if can put the record
straight for us, that would be greatly appreciated. What Mr Meacher
is quoted as saying is that "There are quite a lot of things
that are going wrong and that we need to deal with and I am not
trying to pretend that that isn't so". He actually said,
or he is quoted as saying, that he "was `surprised' to find
that a survey put out by his own Department"this one
here, put out last Thursday". . . claimed that life
in Britain was getting better", in particular because the
figures showed that traffic has increased by 4 per cent, household
waste has grown by 14 per cent, British wildlife is continuing
to suffer and the population of farmland birds is down 17 per
cent. Who is actually right? Is it the press office or Mr Meacher?
Perhaps you could clarify, Secretary of State?
(Margaret Beckett) I am obviously following your quotes
rather than having the paper in front of me, but I am tempted
to say that they are all right.
303. That is very inclusive, Secretary of State!
(Margaret Beckett) It is certainly true that there
have been great improvements; whether it be in levels of employment,
in what we have to do to tackle poverty, in some of the issues
dealing with wildlife and so on, there have been enormous improvementsair
quality, water quality. It is also perfectly true that there is
still a lot more to do. I cannot quite recall the phraseology
you were quoting, something about transport and so on.
304. Traffic figures.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes. We are still seeing problems,
although one could argue that the problems are growing more slowly
than before, but we have not overcome them. So I am aware that
various things have been said and quoted. What exactly was said
I actually do not know, but what I do know is that the report
which was published, and for which the press conference was held,
is a report which we publish every year. Am I right in saying
that it was at the suggestion of this Committee, Mr Chairman?
305. Indeed, yes.
(Margaret Beckett) It publishes information on indicators
and so on. The whole point is that people can study these things
for themselves. Those indicators are showing measured improvement,
although there is much more that needs to be done. That presumably
was the point of having the report in the first place.
306. So on balance, who do you agree with? They
are presented as two separate views.
(Margaret Beckett) As I say, it is indeed true and
valid to say that there is merit in both points of view. Is the
glass half full or half empty? Which way do you prefer to look
at it? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? I would concede, I
am a natural pessimist. I would say there are still an awful lot
of problems to overcome, but it is silly to pretend that lots
of them have not been overcome and are not on the way to being
307. I think it is rather more than that, Secretary
of State. You are right in saying that this Committee did have
an important role in suggesting these indicators were published,
and I am delighted that the Government have taken that up.
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed, and I believe we are unique
in the world in doing that, so you can congratulate yourselves
on recommending that.
308. Indeed. That is why we were disturbed by
the rather joking way in which the press took them when they were
first published two years ago, you recall, when Mr Prescott published
them. We were rather unhappy with the way they were dealt with.
Since then they have gathered a certain amount of strength, but
that makes it even more important that the Department handles
it properly. What concerns us and concerns Mr Barker is that in
the official press notice which your Department put out it said,
and Mr Meacher was quoted as saying, "The quality of life
barometer is clearly rising." He put out that press release
which he appeared to deny, and then it was reported that "His
refusal to put the Whitehall-sanctioned gloss on the figures plainly
infuriated officials at the DoE." If these figures are to
get the credibility and the widespread interest that we really
need, this is not the way to handle it, Secretary of State. I
put it to you that the Minister is saying one thing from your
(Margaret Beckett) You and I are both reliant on the
reporting of what was said.
309. Mr Meacher did not deny this.
(Margaret Beckett) When I read a report which says
that this was a problem for the DoE, then I start to wonder about
the accuracy of all the rest of the report. I accept your point
that it is extremely important, that these are serious issues
that need to be taken seriously, and that it is important that
we try to encourage people to look at the range of outcomes that
that report can show, because if we are seeing some improvement
and that is not recognised, then that is discouraging. What we
want is to encourage people to recognise where there is still
work to do, which I think would have been Michael's intention,
but from what you say does not seem to have come through from
the perception of the journalist who attended the press conference.
310. On a point of clarification, Secretary
of State, on the actual article, I think our Chairman has quite
rightly referred to the fact that the Daily Mail said:
"His refusal to put the Whitehall-sanctioned gloss on the
figures plainly infuriated officials at the DoE. It will also
anger Mr Blair's press chief Alastair Campbell . . ." What
the journalist did was to make assumptions. It does not mention
a single off-the-record comment from an official at the DoE or
anything like that.
(Margaret Beckett) I am very pleased to hear it.
Mrs Clark: So I think we can say that those
comments are assumptions made by the journalist, and the journalist
would assume without checking the facts.
311. Could I move it on, because I very much
take your point, Secretary of State, that what we want is information
which is "unspun" (if you will excuse my grammar) and
on which people can make their own judgements. Therefore, given
that particularly as there is a lot of pressure from this Government,
and in many ways quite rightly, on the private sector to be more
transparent, for firms to be more open, for greater corporate
governance, do you not think it is extraordinary that individual
government departments are still not producing annual sustainable
development reports? I find it extraordinary that the NHS, which
is the largest employer in Europe, coming out of the Department
of Health, is totally unaccountable in terms of actually coming
up with an annual report on how it is doing. When will that shocking
state of affairs change?
(Margaret Beckett) I think that many departments are
in fact working on it. It is not an easy thing to develop a department
or an agency's sustainable development strategy, and I think many
departments are in fact working on that. We ourselves, as a new
department, are working on our own sustainable development strategy,
and many organisations are. I think it will take time for the
understanding, the methodology, the approach, to be understood.
312. But business is expected to produce, and
does have to produce, this sort of corporate accountability. Can
you give this Committee a date?
(Margaret Beckett) With respect, some does, but not
as much as we would like. I think we will find that actually the
picture in the business community is not dissimilar to the picture
you are describing in Government where some people have managed
to do this and have made progress, but others have not. I cannot
remember what the figures are, off the top of my head.
(Mr Adams) About 45 out of 100, at the last count.
313. Do you not feel that the Government should
be setting an example?
(Margaret Beckett) We are trying to encourage, not
least through the Greener Government Committee, that kind of observance,
but, as I said, it does take time.
314. Therefore, if it takes time, could you
give us a specific indication or commitment as to when that time
(Margaret Beckett) I cannot do that, because I have
not asked anybody to give me that picture and those figures, and
I am not even sure how we see it. What I can certainly give you
is an undertaking that my Department and I will continue to work
with other departments and to press them to develop the kind of
approach that you are suggesting. I can also remind you, if I
may, that we have already succeeded with the Treasury in getting
a sustainable development underpinning to the whole of the spending
review process. Treasury officials are engaged in looking through
the proposals which departments have made for their future development,
not least to assess how they measure against sustainable development
315. But is that public information?
(Margaret Beckett) No, and it may not be. I accept
that you are asking for public information, but being able to
do it at all is the first step, publishing it is the second.
316. All right, then perhaps we could move on
and perhaps I could finish on that. Would it be reasonable to
expect that information to be made public on an annual basis within,
say, two years?
(Margaret Beckett) I think that might be optimistic.
I am not quite sure how long it took. As I say, we are unique
in the world in doing what we do already. Certainly we would be
the last people to argue that we do not want to develop and build
on that, but as to whether I can give you an undertaking that
we can do it in two years, I do not think I can undertake to do
(Mr Adams) Can I underline the Secretary of State's
point too by the extent of the departmental material which we
now make available as part of Greener Government. We now have
not just the summary report but the background information which
includes identifiable data from every Whitehall department on
the environmental impact. Of course, that is not the same as a
report from each department, but it contains a lot of information
segregated by department, which the Committee can make use of.
317. Perhaps I could move on. How successful
do you think the UK has been in institutionalising sustainable
development? That is really a similar question.
(Margaret Beckett) As I said, I think our greatest
success probablyand maybe the most astonishing in some
ways, although perhaps I should not say thatis to get the
Treasury on board and to get the Treasury not only seeing sustainable
development as part of the approach to the next spending round
review, but also to agree that this should be very much a criterion
for the Office of Government Commerce to take into account. When
you think of all those years, under successive governments, where
the Treasury appeared not to have any interest in anything but
what was the cheapest cost and not what was even the most cost-effective,
never mind anything else, I think it has been quite a triumph
to get that as part of the approach. Of course, that inevitably
has an effect, and will continue to have a growing effect, I believe,
318. Can you actually point to any government
policies which have been rethought because the sustainable development
indicators are not pointing the right way?
(Margaret Beckett) In a sense, it ought not to be
like that. If you are integrating the concept of sustainable development
from the beginning, it is a little bit like the things that people
say about the use of design. It ought to be integral from the
beginning of the process and not something that, when you get
to the end, you say, "Hang on a minute, what about design?"
We do not want people to say, "Here we've got this nice little
policy, now hang on a minute, what about sustainable development?"
We want sustainable development to be in there from the beginning,
so there ought not to be a point when it changes.
319. On that point, could I ask you a question
in respect of building houses? I think there is a commitment from
the Government to put up several million over the next ten years.
Have you considered the submission from the WWF that one million
of those should be sustainable houses?
(Margaret Beckett) That is not a specific recommendation
for me; that is a recommendation for the Minister for Housing
at the DTLR. Certainly it is a very interesting proposal and it
is one that, in our contacts with that department, obviously we
will be pressing with them.