Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)

WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002

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

Chairman

  320. To come back to this question of sustainable development indicators, it was actually the Government's view, stated to us and to other people publicly, that if any indicator was moving in the wrong direction then the Government would rethink policy. I see Mr Adams nodding, so I am correct. So it is not just a question of getting the thinking right from the word go. Clearly indicators will go in the other direction, in the wrong direction, from time to time, and indeed they are going in the wrong direction, as Mr Meacher admitted.
  (Margaret Beckett) It does make people rethink, and I did not mean to convey that it did not. All I meant was that it would be a pity, as I said, to work out a policy and then say, "What about sustainable development?" I accept that if the indicators go in the wrong direction we have to think again about why.

  321. Mr Barker's point was, what is being done about it now, if we have four or five indicators going in the wrong direction, like crime, waste, etcetera?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think it is a bit sweeping to say that crime is going in the wrong direction. Certainly with violent crime we are seeing a deterioration, but we have seen a very substantial improvement in crime overall. You will know that the Home Office and others are discussing precisely what we do and how we can turn round the issue on violent crime. On wildlife, I thought wild birds had improved. I thought it was farmland birds that had not improved.

  322. I think you slightly changed the indicator. If I am right, you added another bird, which makes it look rather better. This is the problem, Secretary of State.
  (Margaret Beckett) With regard to waste, you will know that we have a PIU review under way at the present time following on the Rio summit. There is presently a PIU review on this, because we have recognised that we have to assess that.

  323. So you are taking action on that?
  (Margaret Beckett) We are taking action, yes, or we propose to do so.

Mr Thomas

  324. I have two follow-up questions to what you have been saying so far, Secretary of State. One is very local and one is very global. Perhaps I can start with the very local one, because we have been talking about the UK's response to sustainable development in the last few minutes. Looking at the summit in Johannesburg and comparing it with what happened in Rio, of course Rio had a very strong local and regional focus in terms of Local Agenda 21. Since then we have had devolution for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. What role will the devolved administrations be playing in the preparations for Johannesburg? Will they be represented at Johannesburg? I know the National Assembly has stated in a vote that it wants Rhodri Morgan to attend to represent Wales, and I know that the National Assembly are sponsoring a conference on 17 April to discuss what Wales's contribution should be to the summit in Johannesburg. Obviously those actions would be worthless if there is not a way for Wales and the devolved administrations to have their say as well at Johannesburg. How are you going to ensure that that is achieved?
  (Margaret Beckett) You are right in saying that this is something that has changed since Rio, although I think also you were saying that Rio had a strong local and regional focus, but if I understand correctly, Rio did not have the sort of bottom-up regional PrepCom and so on preparation that Johannesburg would have.

  325. No, the agenda came out of Rio.
  (Margaret Beckett) I suppose it is rather top-down, whereas Johannesburg, I think—and I hope this will be successful in itself—has been much more a bottom-up process. Certainly we do anticipate—and I think arrangements are being discussed—greater involvement from the devolved administrations.
  (Ms McCabe) Yes, the devolved administrations are invited to meetings of the Cabinet committee that is preparing it; they are invited to meetings of the steering group that Dinah Nicholls chairs and they are on the interdepartmental committee. They are always welcome to send members on delegations. They have not so far taken up that offer, but it has certainly been extended to them.

  326. That is certainly good news, and other people can pursue them to see whether or not they are taking up invitations. Will they also be represented as part of the UK delegation?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not think any decision has been made, but I would not be at all surprised if that were the case.

  327. Thank you for that. Turning to the more global situation, then, I have been reflecting on Mr Wright's question and the possibility of a programme of action coming out of Johannesburg, and also where we started this session, with some of the discussions about aid development and sustainable development, how you can put them together. How can we ensure that the aid that will flow out of Johannesburg will be targeted and will be the sort of aid that those developing communities are happy about and involved in? To give you an example, there is a DFID project at the moment in Andhra Pradesh which potentially could move 20 million poor farmers out of an area and certainly is looking at the introduction of GM technology into that area. That is a project which some of the local farmers through development agencies have certainly said they are not keen to see. I do not expect you to say very much about a DFID project in this session. What I would like to know is how you see any programme of action in Johannesburg ensuring that the voice of local people is heard and is a voice in those deliberations? If we are talking about sustainable agriculture here—and your Department is certainly talking about that—and if we are talking about CAP reform for trade reasons as well, then we have to ensure that that is applied in the development context as well. Again, Local Agenda 21, if you like, was a safeguard in the Rio process about local involvement. It was not perfect, but it was there. What will be the safeguard in the Johannesburg programme about local involvement and participation, and what are you pressing for in Johannesburg?
  (Margaret Beckett) I am quite hopeful that we will get that kind of local involvement and participation, perhaps even more than in the past, not least through the Type II partnerships. One of the issues we have not touched on so far, I do not think, is that among the players who are engaged in the processes we are working on here are, for example, the local authorities. That is also true in South Africa and elsewhere. If I can give you a particular example which I find particularly interesting and hopefully will be successful, that is the example of the water partnerships which we are working on, which involve water charities, water companies. We are looking at maybe some peri-urban projects, because there is a tendency that projects get carried out in the big cities where there is the greatest urban deprivation, and that is fine, that is perfectly right and so on. However, the smaller towns or the edges, perhaps quite substantial communities, of our big cities do not always get included. This is the sort of thing that our water partnership people are looking at but of course they are looking in conjunction with local authorities and local people in those areas where such projects might possibly be undertaken. It is absolutely something where there is involvement and I am sure the Committee is aware of the tremendous rise, enormously impressive, especially considering the scale of their problems, that South Africa has made in the provision of fresh water. Something like half of the people in South Africa who lacked fresh water have now been provided with it. They have not made nearly as much progress on sanitation and that has now come right to the top of the agenda from the point of view of priority. Nevertheless there is still a lot to do.

  328. That might well be a good example to counterbalance what is happening in Andhra Pradesh at the moment but also do you think that the actual Johannesburg Summit will have some form of declaration or protocol that takes that local Agenda 21 type of participatory work and enshrines it or strengthens it further? Do you expect that to happen? Would you be pressing for that?
  (Margaret Beckett) The thinking at the moment is that there will be a political declaration about the direction in which people want to take them, but that there will be a sort of Johannesburg plan of action. Also we hope that there will be the specific and new Type II partnerships which, if they are successful, could be a model for other moves in the future.

  329. What you would expect therefore is the Type II partnerships, which I understand are related to specific projects almost or themes of working?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes.

  330. Do you expect those to come out rather than an overarching—
  (Margaret Beckett) No, no. I expect there to be some sort of overarching plan of action. I suppose what I am really saying is what I find in some ways most interesting is the whole issue of Type II partnerships because they are new.

  331. Will there be one on sustainable agriculture?
  (Margaret Beckett) Not one that we are specifically pursuing. We are pursuing water and energy. Sheila, do you want to say anything more about the overall plan of action into which water fits? That is what you have been discussing in New York
  (Ms McCabe) To go back to your point about local authorities, one of the issues of policy that comes up in sustainable development (and this meeting reflects it) that a lot of it is about what happens at national level and below, so there is quite a lot of discussion going on about, to use the UN jargon, good governance and what happens at national level and below national level. For some countries that is a sensitive issue. It is not a sensitive issue for us and we have always included the local government representatives on our delegations so far. There will certainly be pressure from the EU countries to have references, possibly in the declaration. We have not even started to discuss that so I cannot say we have taken the action, but obviously that is the sort of issue that the EU would press for, to have references to local government as a major action for delivering sustainable development in the declaration. Certainly as the EU we should be pressing for a reference to it in the Johannesburg plan of action. I think we might get a more sympathetic hearing from Africa because local government has quite a strong role and we saw in our visit last week the important role that sub-national government plays in some of these countries. These issues have to be agreed by the whole of the UN and one has to be aware that for some countries in the UN very overt references are difficult for them.

Joan Walley

  332. I would like to follow up Mr Thomas's point. I chaired a meeting on Monday in this room on Africa where we had people come over from Andhra Pradesh who had actually taken part in the citizens' jury. The point I really want to make is, do you agree that projects like that have a contribution to make in the sustainable development agenda and therefore will you be looking towards outcomes from the Johannesburg Summit to see how, if you like, the voices of people can have a say and be listened to when huge decisions have been made by Government in terms of where development should go? Would that be something you would be looking to see as an outcome?
  (Margaret Beckett) We all in our different ways and at our different levels are exploring how we can make people more aware and more able to participate in the choices that are available. One of the themes that is part of the new African partnership and is certainly part of our approach is about capacity building, partly in the terra context and partly in a wider context, and the availability of education and training and so on. We are all exploring, are we not, what different mechanisms there are for making sure people's voices are heard? One of the small projects that my department is involved with—and I cannot remember whether this is referred to in the memorandum or not—which one never knows, may have a larger outcome, is that we have funded a teacher's guide to the work of sustainable development which I launched in South Africa last week specifically for all schools in South Africa, to try to get children in South Africa involved and aware and so on. We were at a school in Soweto where they gave us a demonstration of a pilot project that the school were working on with the RSPB on bird life in South Africa, where they gave us a demonstration of a teaching game that is in the guide called The Web of Life. It was very dramatic.

  333. Perhaps we could have some training links in this country to get a similar awareness amongst people in the UK initially in our schools.
  (Margaret Beckett) As you know, we are involved too in trying to raise awareness in our own schools. I take the view that in South Africa, as here, it is just the kind of thing that if you get children involved in and engaged in you are much more likely to get a wider spread of knowledge among the population than you might otherwise do.

  334. Just before we move on to general matters about Johannesburg can I touch as well on this issue you were talking about on the outcomes in terms of Type I and Type II outcomes from Johannesburg? Whereas I agree with you totally that it would be wonderful to have some legacy project and to have things which will be there showing if you like exactly what has been achieved through what they do in the years to come, can I ask you how those Type II outcomes from Johannesburg can really play the part that we all want them to play if we have not got the attention to detail in terms of the Type I processes? I am thinking particularly of things like the general agreement on trade and services which, if we do not get an environmental aspect at the heart of that, that could well, through the separate trade negotiations which I referred to earlier, undermine the outcome of demonstration projects of the kind we would all want to see?

  (Margaret Beckett) That in a sense goes back to the point I made a moment ago about issues like capacity building. Again, it is an important balance to be struck. There is not any question that many developing countries are extremely sensitive about developed countries' emphasis on, say, labour standards and environmental standards and so on because they see it as disguised protectionism. Of course there could be occasions when that is how it works out or indeed that is what it is. As we see it, the important thing is to try and find mechanisms whereby you can support people and enable them to meet those standards so that it is not a matter of having to lower standards below what we think is right and proper and what we would expect for our populations, but it is a matter of making sure that nevertheless there is access to the markets because people are assisted and supported to reach those standards. I accept that this is not easy; this is a difficult issue, and it is not one that will be resolved in a short timescale, but I do think there is cause for some slight optimism that if we put in the effort we may gradually begin to cover some of these difficulties.

Sue Doughty

  335. I am particularly interested in the role of stakeholders, all the people which I know you are trying to pull together in some of the things you mentioned earlier, and I can see it is beginning to assemble that. We have concerns about DTLR. At the last PrepCom they were not there and yet when we were looking at the local Agenda 21, one would have thought the DTLR would have a key role in helping to co-ordinate that and looking for some of those outcomes. Will they be at the PrepCom meeting next week?
  (Ms McCabe) No; they are not sending anybody. They are free to if they want to.

  336. Do you think it might be a good thing if they were sending someone? We have been looking at where we are going with devolved countries and the particularly strong role of local government and particularly in the UK model where, unlike some countries where there is much more devolution to local government, we have very strong integration between local and central government and so possibly their buy-in might be important at government level.
  (Margaret Beckett) We are encouraging other government departments to become involved. We would be very happy if they wanted to send someone. We have got the LGA involved and quite heavily so and they have been from the very beginning.

  337. Of course DTLR are the sort of people who are setting targets and funding and everything else to do with local government and yet we have got this gap at the top about people who try and manage local government.
  (Margaret Beckett) Except that the targets they set are more domestically orientated. When it comes to the involvement of local government and the part they can play, it is a little bit like DFES deals with UK education, but when we talk about our involvement overseas sometimes it is DFES, sometimes it is DFID.

  338. I accept that point entirely but nevertheless local government still has a role in the United Kingdom as a result of what would happen in Johannesburg in ongoing sustainability things. It must be one of the very good things that came out of Rio, Agenda 21, and in fact in this country's commitments through global issues and various activities we have really begun to take the environment seriously. It would seem that, having got that far, and looking at sustainability indicators, many of which deliver through local government, and waste and things like that are absolutely key, we would not want to lose those links with local government through the DTLR.
  (Margaret Beckett) We do have very strong links. They are very heavily involved in, for example, the PIU Review and so on. In a sense we have evidence directly as well. It does not always occur through DTLR. I would be perfectly happy for DTLR to be involved. What I am saying is that there is an involvement of the kind you are seeking.

  339. Are you satisfied that they are buying in?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes. The government as a whole is buying in.


 
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