Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)

MR BOB ANDREW, MR ROBERT FORD AND MR TIM ROLLINSON

WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002

  80. Could we have a copy of that letter?[5]


  (Mr Andrew) Certainly, yes.

Sue Doughty

  81. So we have a situation where one of the key departments really has not put an awful lot of energy into that and we have not got the data-collection information and systems supported. We do not really know what questions we are answering on the paper. In the memorandum, you have made that point to a certain extent and you have stated that there are still officials working on the operational activities. So they are not fully conversant with the practicalities of implementing the policy and they may not be promoting the policy hard enough to supply their own contract. I can see that because it would appear that the department itself scarcely knows what those policies are, what it is counting, what it is looking at and how it is doing it. How much commitment was there in the first place to this? It sounds as if it is a regulation that is coming and there has been nodding, "Oh, here is another one", and it has gone by and nothing much seems to have changed.
  (Mr Andrew) The commitment is very high. Up until recently, the UK Government has been the only national government to have a government procurement policy in place. There is no question in my mind that the commitment is not high. It is.

  82. Is it high enough, especially since 14 February? Is it somewhat higher than it might have been up to that point?
  (Mr Andrew) Recent events have certainly highlighted the issue and made people think and work harder on it.

  83. The PQs plus the capturing of the Cabinet Office have helped to sharpen the minds, but hopefully this should never have got to this stage.
  (Mr Andrew) The Cabinet Office was in planning. A report is being produced on the Cabinet Office incident. That will be placed before Parliament very shortly, I understand. My understanding is that the planning of that particular project was taking place before the policy became binding, and there were other factors as well.

Chairman

  84. You said the policy became binding.
  (Mr Andrew) Yes, in July 2000.

  85. The policy is not binding, is it? You said, in answer to Mr Barker, that people have only got to "actively seek". It is not an obligation.
  (Mr Andrew) it is an obligation to actively seek.

  86. That is not an obligation, is it? It is not binding?
  (Mr Andrew) Sorry, before the policy became mandatory, and that is the word we use for government departments.

Joan Walley

  87. A number of questions arise from that. Could you tell us, first of all, when the contract was let by the Cabinet Office in respect of the Cabinet Office refurbishment particularly?
  (Mr Andrew) That will all be clarified in the report to Parliament.

  88. You are telling the Committee that would have been done before July 2000?
  (Mr Andrew) No, the contract would not have been let before July 2000. The planning for the project commenced before then.

  89. What I am interested in is when precisely in time the specification for that contract that was to be let would have, if you like, become a binding document in line with the guidance that had been given. You are saying that that specification would have pre-dated July 2000, otherwise it would presumably have had the binding arrangements in it requiring people to do their very best to get the sustainable timber. You are telling the Committee that was before July 2000?
  (Mr Andrew) That will be made clear in the report to Parliament. My understanding is that the contract was let in January 2001.

  90. It did actually follow on the statement by Mr Meacher?
  (Mr Andrew) The letter of the contract, yes.

  91. In respect of the Cabinet Office, have you advised the Cabinet Office whether or not that contract should now be suspended pending the outcome of the report, or do you know what the current state of play is?
  (Mr Andrew) I am not aware of the current state of play. I am waiting for the report to be published.

  92. You have not given any advice to the Cabinet Office?
  (Mr Andrew) Not with regard to whether they should suspend the contract or not, no.

  93. What I really want to try to get to the bottom of is, given Mr Meacher's statement that this was a policy which, to all intents and purposes, should wherever possible be implemented, it seems to me that there is a world of difference between the reality of that and the illusion of it. It seems to me somehow along the lines that no great attention to detail was given as to whether or not that could be delivered or in fact whether or not there was any kind of system in place. I know my colleagues will come on to evidence which was received in a personal capacity from someone connected with Kingfisher. Is the problem that there is not any way of certifying any of this, so how could you have a policy that was saying there will be a certified policy when there is no means of certifying things?
  (Mr Andrew) On the first point you made about the policy being announced before a plan of action of implementation, that is true. This is an opinion I am expressing here. That policy actually did kick-start the whole process. It is true that it is taking us longer than expected and it has been more complicated than we anticipated to implement it but, without that driver, I think we would probably still be discussing whether to implement it or not.

  94. Do you not find it embarrassing that, despite having said that, a reply to my parliamentary question from the Cabinet Office on 14 February and subsequent reply at Parliamentary Prime Minister's Question from the Prime Minister gave the suggestion that there was a cast-iron case for the contract having been let and going forward in accordance with the guidance that had been set out?
  (Mr Andrew) I suppose it is mildly embarrassing but I am not surprised that here has been confusion because it is a very complicated policy to try to implement. The whole issue of independent verification and what we mean by the definition of "sustainable and legal" is complicated. In terms of writing that into contracts and making a contractually binding —

  95. Can I say, on this point, that people will presumably accept that but the impression was given that it was sustainable timber and that it was in accordance with the guidance.
  (Mr Andrew) My understanding, and again the Cabinet Office report will clarify this, is that at the time the original answer was given, that is what was believed because the contract did not require independent verification; it required confirmation of, I think, of "timber of renewable source" not "a sustainable source". It was believed at the time that that particular contractual requirement had been met. Subsequently, when it was looked into, it became apparent that the government policy had not actually been implemented in full, but an attempt had been made. There have been other cases as well. We discovered in DEFRA itself that there was a project under way where wood from sources that cannot be certified as sustainable and legal was being considered. We have managed to put a stop to that but we discovered in the process that wording in the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, which is a mandatory policy on government departments when they are having construction projects, also did not tie up with government policy. That is something else that has to be addressed. These issues are evolving as we are finding our way through the implementation of this policy.

Sue Doughty

  96. This worries me deeply. Here is a new policy being announced and the logical thing might have been to consider how to implement it. One would have thought these people would get together and look around the issue. Implementing a new policy should be done in a project manner, surely. I will come on to B&Q in a moment, but they should be asking: what can we learn from best practice in business because perhaps business is a long way further down this road.? Could we even second some of the implementing departments to benefit from their expertise? What consultation will we have with contractors about the implications for them to flush out these questions very early on? If they have these problems, could we find out from the people who have seen in practice how it is done? What would Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace advise in these situations? There seems to be a mass of advice everywhere but here. These guidelines were written down. I would like to know what briefing was given to people about the level of training necessary. It seems to me that somebody wrote something down and put in a memorandum. There seems to have been consultation on the finer points that were important but, in terms of actually working out a process that does not just rely on a few pieces of paper which you might not be able to trust, how are people going to overcome this problem to make sure that they can truly audit what is going on? This is what really worries me about this whole situation, this sheer lack of commitment.
  (Mr Andrew) The policy was a model policy two or three years before it was a commitment. So buyers in government and generally should have been aware of that model policy anyway, but we have, from a very early stage in the process after Michael Meacher made his statement, realised that we needed to address some of these issues, which is why we have commissioned independent consultants to investigate and do research and to make recommendations as to the sort of training, development and guidance.

  97. When did that happen?
  (Mr Andrew) That is happening now. That has involved the consultation process. We engaged with WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth right form the word go, i.e. from the time Michael Meacher made his statement. These bodies were represented at the meeting the day before the statement was made. We have been consulting with the timber trade and the environmental NGOs as to how to implement the policy.

Mr Barker

  98. If I can take you back, and I did not want to interrupt your flow, a little earlier you differentiated between renewable and sustainable timber. Could you clarify what you actually mean by those definitions?
  (Mr Andrew) The term "renewable" was used in the contract for the Cabinet Office on the advice of the architect. Again, I am not absolutely certain of my facts here. This is my understanding but it will be made apparent in the report to Parliament when the Cabinet Office presents that. My understanding is that they used the word "renewable" because they believed it was easier to measure. My understanding is that they meant that they are just looking at the forests themselves. They wanted to make sure that the trees and the wood derived from them came from forests that were managed to sustain continuing production and regeneration, et cetera. I guess that they did not look at the wider social and economic impacts of the forestry. By "renewable", I think they are just talking about the trees and "sustainable" embraces the wider issues.
  (Mr Rollinson) Around the world here are hundreds of claims about sustainability made by all sorts of people: by governments, by industry, by growers. This has been going on for a very long period of time. Some of the claims are grossly misleading and some of them are not. Terms like "renewable" and "sustainable" are bandied about. Over the last ten years or so there has been a major international process taking place of trying to agree common definitions. The process, as you know, has been very strongly led by NGOs like the Forest Stewardship Council, which is trying to achieve common standards and common definitions. That has taken place in parallel with international processes like the UN process which are also trying to get to grips with these definitions. Within the international trade of wood, there have been all sorts of claims around the place. Some of them appear quite believable but when you dig, you find that some are not worth the paper they are written on. The international process that has been going on has been to try to get agreement on certification systems which are valid and which everybody can accept and adopt. There is now quite a bewildering array of schemes around the world and still some of them are competing against one another. There is no, if you like, international, commonly agreed standard. There is a number of standards.

Mr Thomas

  99. You have established that the current policy of legal and sustainable sources really became binding day-to-day policy on government departments, to use your term, when Mr Meacher announced that to Parliament?
  (Mr Andrew) Yes.

 


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