Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)

WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002

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

  340. Excepting DTLR?
  (Margaret Beckett) No. I am happy to think they are buying in.

  341. Looking at another stakeholder business, the involvement at Rio was low and we are beginning to hear things about what is going to be happening at Johannesburg but what has changed, do you expect, from the lack of commitment basically by business at Rio? What changes do you expect to see in Johannesburg in terms of business input? You have mentioned about a day for business. Could you expand on that?
  (Margaret Beckett) I will ask Sheila to say what she knows about where we are up to date on that, but we have had a strong degree of business involvement in the UK for quite some time now. We have our range of committees, many of which are involved with people in the business community who are very much engaged in contributing to this agenda. I referred to our own partnerships that the Prime Minister stimulated about a year ago. People in the business community are very much and very heavily involved in that. If I can give you one example, the finance initiative, the development of the London principle that the City of London are working on is very much (and for all the obvious reasons) business derived and business led, but, should it be successful, has really quite a major impact in mainstream sustainable development considerations in the investment decisions business makes. We are quite hopeful of the involvement of the British business community and, as we go a little nearer to Johannesburg there has been quite a lot of involvement of business.

  342. We have got the feeling that it is slightly sporadic. There are some things like the water initiatives which are very good news.
  (Margaret Beckett) Let me be completely blunt. I think there has been a little bit of people in the business community not wanting everybody to expect them to pick up all the organisation and all the tab, so I think you will see their engagement but with what they think they ought to be engaged with.
  (Ms McCabe) I might add to that. One of the problems has been that it has been rather a long drawn out and still continuing development of the agenda and refinement. It has been quite difficult for business to know where to engage. Having the five business initiatives that we have talked about and which you have had advice on has given them a peg on which they can understand what the role of business is. Until the agenda is refined a bit more, and it will be refined at this upcoming PrepCom, it is hard for business to devote time and resources to such a wide agenda. It is certainly on their radar screens. We are working, as the Secretary of State has said, with the City of London, which is a very powerful and important body in sustainable development. As we get nearer in time then it gets into their time horizon and they begin to see what practical things they can do and they are anxious to take part. It is quite early on in the negotiations for them to be engaged day to day.

  343. One of the reasons we had a concern was because the RSPB came before us. This is a concern they have given to us, that in fact business had shown, as they said, precious little leadership in relation to developing sustainability. This is what worries us. We have got one or two shining lights in the areas you are talking about and the work that the BASD is doing. We have got these various groups involved but we still feel it is not very well integrated. I do take your point about leadership and we may be part way along the path. We are looking for this confidence to know that people like the RSPB will be able to relax a little bit and say, "Yes, we do feel that business is now being engaged" because this is a thing that is worrying them, looking over their shoulder all the time.
  (Margaret Beckett) Do not forget it is not so very long ago that we have had a lot of extremely worthwhile stuff coming out of the PrepComs but there is a massive potential agenda for Johannesburg and obviously part of the process has been undertaken to try to bring that down to a manageable core. That is the stage at which you may see more people in the business community becoming engaged, when they can see what there is to engage with. Sheila referred earlier on to some Chatham House work. One document has already been published and the other one will be published quite soon. The whole purpose of that work which we stimulated and supported is precisely to try to put more flesh on the bones of what makes multi-stakeholder partnerships work and what is required from the different potential players and what the chemistry of them is. We anticipate that will be published in the relatively near future and again that may give people a better handle on what it is that they can bring to the party.

  344. What aspects of the UK preparations, moving on to that, because I think that whole area of communication is going to be very important, and I understand that again this is something where we are not very far along that road, what UK preparations are you seeking their views on? Is it general or do you have very specific areas that you are asking them questions about?

  (Margaret Beckett) We have got many preparations and in so far as we have got specific agenda areas that we are pursuing we will again be involved in those.
  (Ms McCabe) We had a consultation only yesterday together with DTI with business interests in advance of PrepCom III and also we are speaking to them on our different projects.

  345. Are you interested not only in business but also in individuals and organisations as part of this outreach?
  (Margaret Beckett) It is a massive range of people. I do not think we put it in the memorandum but there is a huge range of people involved in this operation and maybe we ought to send you something on it.

  346. This is going to be a big piece of co-ordination for you, sending all this stuff out.
  (Margaret Beckett) They are very good at it.
  (Ms McCabe) We have a web site. Modern technology helps in these issues.
  (Margaret Beckett) It might be helpful, Chairman, to have a note on these issues.

Chairman

  347. It probably will be better if you could deal with it that way.
  (Margaret Beckett) We can perhaps send you a note on the range of involvement. We have got civil society and youth in local government and so on, quite a range of people involved.

Joan Walley

  348. If I can just add to that, what we are really interested in is what they are doing, not just that they are at the receiving end of some communication but what they are doing and how they are responding to this.
  (Margaret Beckett) A lot of them are on our various consultative groups.

Sue Doughty

  349. You do not think this is the point? I appreciate the fact that you have a web site but all of us who have web sites know that if you open the door for responses, you certainly do get responses and you will be co-ordinating that so it will be very interesting to see how you manage with that.
  (Ms McCabe) It is probably better if we write to you with a comprehensive list.

Ian Lucas

  350. You have already referred to education when you were talking about your trip to South Africa. I am interested in education in the UK. You may take it from my earlier question that I have a certain amount of scepticism about public understanding in the UK on the whole concept of sustainable development. Within schools in the UK DEFRA is the lead department. What specific measures are you taking to heighten awareness in the lead-up to the Summit?
  (Margaret Beckett) We are co-sponsoring a WWF project in our schools, following the advice of the Sustainable Development Education Panel, and of course DFES is trying to spread awareness of sustainable development through the national curriculum, through lifelong learning. We have this specific project where schools are being encouraged to take part in a competition, a project that is focused particularly in the Leeds area, and where we hope those who are successful will perhaps be able to attend part of the Summit. We are now seeing a greater awareness and interest coming through gradually from the education world. The timing of these things is always difficult to get right. I am sure you are right at the moment that large numbers of the British public are not really engaged in or aware of some of these issues, and although I sometimes think that there is a greater understanding, the fact that we have got a problem with climate change and it is already beginning to have an impact on our lives, that some of the technicalities and complexities of dealing with all that rather turns people off who might initially be interested. One of the things that I am hopeful of at the Summit is that if we are able to get greater focus on some practical things that people can understand and relate to, then you get a greater acceptance that we are doing something about the problems of the environment and that we are dealing with an imbalance in the economy and in society in these different situations and that that is what sustainable development means. It is a gradual process. As I say, we have got masses of people involved in discussing our communication strategy. We took a decision, perhaps a gamble, perhaps a mistake, that if we started too early, particularly when we had this long agenda, and it was not getting focused down as it gradually now is, and where nobody knew what the outcome of Monterrey would be, which we will know soon, you actually bore people stiff to the point where you did not have anything very concrete to tell them. The intention is to step up the communications campaign as we get near to the Summit.

  351. Is sustainable development as a concept something that you see becoming integral to the curriculum within schools? Is that what you would like to see?
  (Margaret Beckett) Certainly we would very much like to see that communicated to schools and schools communicating it through the work that they do. We are starting to see some moves in that direction.

  352. Obviously we have got the Summit this year but implicit in your earlier answer is the idea that the Department of Education has been trying to bring these ideas through over a period, which is entirely new, bringing through the concept of sustainable development. Would it not therefore be more sensible to have this particular aspect of preparations for the Summit, as you have one or two other things on your plate, in the hands of the department for Education and Skills?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think they might say they have got one or two other things on their plate as well. We work with a one or two other government departments. Somebody has to have the overall policy lead and we try very much to make it a co-operative framework within which we work with others.

  353. Because they are not on the MISC 18 Committee, the education ones, are they?
  (Margaret Beckett) No. As I mentioned earlier on, they deal with the domestic side of education. When we are talking about the Summit and how we can for example pursue the Millennium Development Goal for Primary Education, then we are talking much more about the work much more of DFID or of ourselves or of NGOs and it involves other players.

  354. More generally, going on from schools and looking at the general population, have you any specific ideas about how we can get people to understand what sustainable development is?
  (Margaret Beckett) I am not a professional in communication.

  355. Yes, you are.
  (Margaret Beckett) This is something our whole communication strategy is attempting to resolve and finance. We have a large number of players engaged. This is in every walk of life one of the most difficult issues. How do you communicate something that seems complex, that is not at first sight frightfully exciting, and focussing on concrete outcomes may be how you do it.

  356. A lot of my constituents are very interested in the environment as an issue.
  (Margaret Beckett) Exactly.

  357. And would be responsive to publicity about the environment but what I think some of them have more difficulty with is the idea that sustainable development and the environment are two sides of the same coin. Would you agree that this summit this year is an opportunity to try and get that across to them?
  (Margaret Beckett) Absolutely. We are going back in a sense to what we said right at the beginning which is this is not a summit about the environment; it is a summit about sustainable development. The environment is very much a key element but it is not the only one. If we get one of those elements out of balance, things go wrong.

Sue Doughty

  358. There are two aspects to schools. One is that, as a major consumer ourselves, what we do with our children has a bearing on everything we are trying to achieve and we are deeply conscious of the fact that, with a lot of schools, the summer term is more or less written off through exams. Would it be possible or have you anything in mind about afterwards so that, even if we missed the boat about communicating extensively with schools beforehand, because they have such a crowded agenda, especially at this time of year, but going back afterwards in September time and saying, "This is now what we are doing as a result of that"? Would we be able to do anything in that direction?
  (Margaret Beckett) I hope so. In a sense that is in part the answer that I am trying to give to the question. If we can get some concrete outcomes, that gives us a way in to say to people, "This is what it is all about. These are the things that are beginning to happen, which we can report on."
  (Ms McCabe) We have quite enough on our plate trying to get to the summit but the Sustainable Development Educational Panel is active and is here now, doing good stuff in the United Kingdom and it will be here after the summit. I am sure that ensuring that the United Kingdom delivers what it has committed to at Johannesburg will engage a lot of the population. As the Secretary of State says, if you have specific commitments, it is much easier to give that message to people than, "We might be discussing this or that."

  359. I appreciate you are under pressure now which is why I was thinking about beyond.
  (Ms McCabe) The Sustainable Development Educational Panel will still be there. One thing that is very important about this summit which sometimes gets overlooked because poverty in developing countries is so crucial is that a lot of this summit is about what Northern countries can do themselves on resource productivity, energy efficiency, and those are the sorts of messages that we want to get across. It is not only helping the very poorest in the world.


 
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