Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)



220. How do you prove it then?
  (Mr Meacher) It does not necessarily prove it.

221. How do you then prove it? What will you have in place to do that?
  (Mr Meacher) Let me move towards that and I will answer it. It is also the case that the procurement rules do not allow public sector buyers to demand eco-labelled products without giving suppliers an opportunity to find an equivalent means of proving that their products meet the technical and quality criteria specified. But, having said that, I entirely accept that certification may well be the most practical and cost-effective means of meeting requirements. We have to take a view with regard to other standards that are out there in the field. In the case of smaller forests in the UK there is the UK Woodland Assurance Standard. It was recognised by FSC in 1999 which meant that UK woodland owners could provide FSC certified products. There are other foreign standards, the pan-European Forest Certification, there is a Canadian Standards Association, the American Sustainable Forestry Initiative. The answer to the question is we intend to evaluate all of those against the highest standards as reflected in FSC but it is our view that at this stage we should not be restricted to FSC absolutely. Not that we wish to water down or diminish those very high standards but to give an opportunity for other certification systems to meet those high standards.

222. You mentioned France and Germany that were going down the FSC route.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

223. Then later on you said that EU procurement policy does not really allow this eco-labelling to happen without the alternative being there as well. What work are you going to be able to do at EU level to see how France and Germany get around that particular obstacle? Also, will the possibility of a new EU Directive on public procurement be discussed?
  (Mr Meacher) That is perfectly correct. How far France and Germany, by limiting their procurement to FSC, infringe EU procurement rules is a matter for the Commission. As I say, FSC is the internationally comprehensively recognised standard. Our view is, and I think we would stick with this, not to try and underplay FSC but it is reasonable that other standards can meet all the requirements of the policy and that we should not dismiss those. In the discussions which will take place in Brussels in the preparation of a new EU Directive I think it will be an interesting discussion between us and France and Germany.

Joan Walley

  224. You mentioned in what you just told us about all this that there was a workshop that took place in Europe in April where presumably many of the preliminary debates about moving towards this new EU Procurement Directive were actually discussed. You have just told us it will be interesting as to how this issue is resolved in terms of how you include some kind of labelling that would have an independent standard or FSC standard in it. Can I just press you a bit further on this. Are you not going to be in danger of arguing against the advice that you have already issued? We have surely to get to an EU procurement policy which enables all the advice that you are giving to be embedded into all Government departments, all agencies, all local authority investment and all public and private finance investment as well. How are you going to resolve that because surely that is your responsibility as Environment Minister?
  (Mr Meacher) We tried to do it first of all in July 2000. We were the first to do that. I am criticising the inadequacies of policy implementation but taking pride in the fact that we were at least the first to try and do it and other countries are following in our footsteps. But, as I say, we have learned that it was more complex than we expected. I agree the right way, of course, would be to have a common policy across the EU. Should that be a Framework Directive, how far should it be prescriptive, what degree of flexibility or discretion should Member States have is all for discussion. The workshop that you are referring to in April 2002 was not primarily, I understand, about standards or about the application of policy in Member States, it was about what is called FLEGT, Forest Law Enforcement, Government and Trade. It was about relations with the supplying countries on the basis of the Indonesian precedent, how far that could be extended, whether it should be done on a multilateral basis between the EU and a number of the supplying countries, that was the prime focus. The second part of your question takes it further in terms of having a common policy of the imported countries, and I agree that is just as important and the Directive will clearly move in that direction.225. Have there been any votes of any kind in those discussions that have taken place?
  (Mr Meacher) The normal process in the preparation of a Directive is that some draft proposals are brought forward by the Commission and then discussed in the Working Group where there are expert members from all Member States. Where we have to go in Brussels, I do not know. We may have a little list of items to come back to the Committee.226. What I was thinking was in view of the changes which I think the Government and Parliament are wanting to see in respect of the role of the Select Committees and the way in which we are looking at more pre-legislative scrutiny and the way in which the whole issue of Europe is being brought up as well. Would you agree with me that it might be a constructive and positive way forward if the kinds of discussion that are taking place in these workshops in Europe could perhaps be shared with this Committee at a stage when we can perhaps hope to have some influence in those discussions that your officials presumably will be taking part in in Europe? Might that be a possibility that we can explore and work on together?
  (Mr Meacher) I entirely agree with you that it is not wise to wait until the policy hardens into cement but when it is still soft and malleable is the time when one needs to provide an input. I am told that we are at the stage only of preliminary discussions and there have been no votes but clearly the momentum will rise towards the latter part of this year. Of course, I would obviously expect the UK representatives fully to be reflecting the line which we are now taking and in the line of any new guidance which we may give when we get the ERM consultancy report in September.227. When we visited the Danish Government some three or four years ago we had a meeting with our parliamentarian colleagues there and discovered that they had meetings with the Environment Minister prior to these kinds of discussions taking place within the EU. I think this might be one of the absolute best examples that we could find where it would be really constructive to do that, particularly in relation to what you were saying just now about Indonesia because my understanding is that something like 70 per cent of all the timber that is used from Indonesia is illegally logged and we are facing the complete destruction of the lowland rainforest in the next four to ten years. Could we have those kind of preliminary discussions in this Committee, special sessions, prior to your officials going out to Europe to agree this procurement policy?
  (Mr Meacher) Well, I was rather under the impression that we were having it now. You are having a discussion with me prior to the policy being formed via the Working Groups leading to a draft Directive in Brussels. If the Committee wanted to have a further discussion of some form obviously, either with all the Members or certain Members, I would be very pleased to do that.228. Excellent. I think we need to know what your officers are doing in Europe in relation to this policy Directive.
  (Mr Meacher) The other point, of course, is if the Committee produces its report, as I assume it will, that will be taken along with the ERM consultancy report as one of the major inputs into the formation of UK policy, there is no question about that. If you want it to follow your report and if we had a Government response, and I will undertake to try and make that as rapid as possible, if in the light of that when we have had an initial written exchange you wanted to have a further meeting, I would be very pleased to do so.

  Chairman: Thank you, Minister. Mr Lucas.

Ian Lucas

  229. If I can return to policy implementation, Minister, following your welcome statement in July 2000 and the difficulties that arose thereafter. Only seven Government departments recorded any results on timber procurement in the 2001 Greening Government Report. Do you know why that was? Why did other departments not respond to your July 2000 statement?
  (Mr Meacher) That is a perfectly good question. There may well be different reasons in each case. Certainly one of the factors is the very variable data capture system which exists in different departments. It may be the amount of resources that departments were prepared to give to this because it is a new dimension, a new thrust of policy, or the speed at which they sought to implement it may vary. None of those are excuses. I accept when Government collectively makes a decision that it is going to change policy in a particular direction we expect all Government departments within a reasonable timescale to implement it and it did not happen. Of course, we have been following up why and making sure that in future that will not happen again.230. How are you doing that? What evidence can you produce that the systems have changed in other departments?
  (Mr Meacher)I can say several things to the Committee. First of all, Green Ministers, which I chair, have asked their departments to review their activities and the feedback we have had does indicate that there is unquestionably greater awareness and more effort to implement policy, but I want a written report which will set out in detail what the department is doing in each case. I think that is a major difference. We are developing new guidance, as I say, in the light of the ERM consultancy. We are developing realistic progressive targets for the amount of certified products supplied. Departments have been asked to improve their data collection capacity so that progress can be better measured, that will be reflected in the reports they write. We are working closely, I do insist, with the Office of Government Commerce and other departments to raise awareness of the major suppliers. We are also planning training and development initiatives to ensure that buyers are fully equipped to implement the policy. I believe that set of objectives to implement across Central Government does show that we are trying to learn the lessons of what has happened so far and the deficiencies in some respects, not in all respects but in some respects.231. How many departments are going to report this year?
  (Mr Meacher) All of them will be expected to. I have written this letter to all Government departments and they are all represented, I think all represented, there may be one or two who are not for some reason, but unquestionably all the main departments whose activities have any impact on environment or sustainable development are represented on my Green Ministers Committee. I am proud of the fact that we have made, I think, very good advances in terms of publishing annual reports which give more and more detailed information, comparative data between departments in quantified form on the degree to which sustainable development objectives have been achieved. This is going to be added to it so that that information will be provided in the most quantified form that we can achieve and certainly it will be comparative between departments. I believe this whole process needs to be transparent.

Mr Thomas

  232. Minister, was your Department one of the departments that did not publish its figures last year on sustainable timber procurement?
  (Mr Andrew).....(inaudible)
  (Mr Meacher) You should say that a little more loudly.
  (Mr Andrew) DETR was unable to.233. I did not mean DEFRA.
  (Mr Meacher) In the last year I have been in DEFRA, which is not quite the same, but I am not trying to play off one department against another.234. Particularly as a Minister you are one of the longest standing Ministers we have, to be honest, you are the common thread that runs through it all.
  (Mr Meacher) I am doing my best. DETR, of course, was pre-2001 and the E, rightly or wrongly, has gone elsewhere, so it is DTLR you are actually referring to. I take the point.235. The whole point about sustainable development within Government is when the E goes elsewhere in Government departments it has to be embedded in every department, it does not matter where the E goes, because that E is responsible for making sure it is there across all the departments. You just told Mr Lucas how you intend to do that in the future but we have to reflect, do we not, about how we got ourselves into this pickle in the first place. Part of that must be that not only was the implementation of the policy not properly delivered at all levels but even at the very top it was not given the right prominence.
  (Mr Meacher) That is probably a fair comment. I like to think that a policy like this, which of course is not produced by a single Minister and a single department, and we would like other people to do it, this policy is not set down in writing and issued until it has been agreed amongst all Government departments. Let me make clear it is not the case that other Government departments ignored it, obviously not, or downplayed it or dismissed it. I utterly repudiate that. What they failed to do as fully as I think they should have done was to implement it in the detail and precision that was required. I am sure that with the pressure on resources, the speed at which a new policy like this is taken on board and implemented varies.

  Chairman: Would you add institutional resistance to that category?

Ian Lucas

  236. Lack of will?
  (Mr Meacher) I cannot comment on what the reasons were. I suspect it was far more a question of taking things more slowly and of feeling that there was adequate time, feeling that other pressures on resources in that department were greater. It is unfortunately this sort of undertow of Inertia rather than, I think, deliberate resistance. I really do not believe that any department in Government does not believe it is important that we should not over-exploit the scarce rainforests and the species which in some cases could be threatened with extinction and that we should get it from sustainable resources, I do not think anyone would disagree with that, it is a question of how much effort is actually given to implementing that against what have always traditionally been the objectives of each individual department.

Mr Thomas

  237. That is encapsulated in a quote in evidence from Blue Line Office Furniture, an FSC certified office furniture manufacturer, who approach many departments to try and sell certified office furniture to Government departments and the quote that I read was I don't care what Michael Meacher says, I buy the furniture around here". That is an undertow of inertia.
  (Mr Meacher) It is more resistant than that, there is no doubt about that.238. Slightly.
  (Mr Meacher) All new policies will encounter some resistance and I am afraid that that kind of wild and assertive statement of independence and disregard for other objectives, obviously I greatly regret that and I am sure that whoever said that is rapidly going to learn that if you are going to deal with Government departments you cannot just make your own decisions.

239. Audit and monitoring is key.
  (Mr Meacher) Absolutely. We will insist that suppliers of timber who think they know best and who are not going to independently verify that it is sustainable and legal sources will not have Government any more as a customer.

  Ian Lucas: We will be watching you.


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