Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)

WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002

RT HON MARGARET BECKETT MP, MS SHEILA MCCABE AND MR JOHN ADAMS

  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.

Mr Barker

  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 reading!

  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.

Chairman

  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 improvements—air 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.

Mr Barker

  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?

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.

Mr Barker

  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 overcome.

Chairman

  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 departmental officials.
  (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.

Mrs Clark

  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.

Mr Barker

  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 will come?
  (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 criteria.

  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 that.
  (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 probably—and maybe the most astonishing in some ways, although perhaps I should not say that—is 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, across Government.

  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.


 
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