Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)

RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, MR BOB ANDREW AND MR BOB FORD

THURSDAY 4 JULY 2002

260. Did you say 15 or 50?

(Mr Andrew) 15 from within the UK.

261. In other words, from domestic sources we are meeting less than a fifth

(Mr Andrew) Possibly, the Government may buy more than 15 per cent. I think we import into the UK 80 to 85 per cent of our timber requirements.

(Mr Meacher) That seems quite consistent.

262. Ms Walley has referred already to Dr Alan Knight who I think was former Head of Sustainability, that was his title when he was at B&Q. He pointed out in his evidence supplied to this Committee the scale of the challenge. I think he talked about a remarkable level of commitment and involvement needed to change procurement practices. Given, Minister, you acknowledge already that he is something of a specialist in the area, are revisions to the model contract for procurement, letters to senior officials and Green Ministers enough to combat the cultural resistance to implementing sustainable development through procurement" which is something that your own Department identified in its own memo to this inquiry?

(Mr Meacher) I do think in view of the attention that this has had publicly, Government departments will treat this issue very differently. I think that is the case, certainly. It is the case, also, that we in DEFRA will be demanding more detailed information and will be making it clear that we will be publishing it. That was the purpose of my letter to Green Ministers. As I indicated, when we have the ERM consultancy report in a couple of months' time, we will be looking at resources, we will be looking at targets and we will be looking at timescales. We are tightening this policy quite significantly.

263. Right. If we talk about delivery, over a year ago the Prime Minister said that as a Government we will purchase timber only from legal and sustainable sources". How long do you think it will be before as a Government you can say you have achieved that objective only from legal and sustainable sources"? We are in 2002 now, he said it last year, when do you think you will be able to say you have done it?

(Mr Meacher) Well, it is probably the case that we are importing some illegally logged timber. Precisely how much I cannot say because obviously we take very careful account of the export permit before allowing the import of the timber into the UK. We cannot get access to the question of whether it is legally or illegally harvested. That must apply to every other Member State within the EU, so we are not alone in that. I have to say that even if to some degree we did import illegally logged timber, that is not illegal under international law unless there is a CITES contravention. It is undesirable and we are trying to stop it in order to protect sustainable forests but it is not actually illegal, let us be quite clear about that.

264. I take the point, Minister, but the reason I asked the question that I did is I do not think anyone is claiming that the Government have acted deliberately illegally in a sense but when the Prime Minister made this commitment he did not say it was an issue of law, I think he was saying it was an issue of environmental performance. Let me give it to you again as a Government we will purchase timber only from legal and sustainable sources". My simple question is when will you be able to say we have achieved that? If you cannot achieve it surely the Prime Minister should not have said it.

(Mr Meacher) I think we can achieve it but the evidence on which we can be absolutely certain in every case, which includes not just the legal exporting of the timber but the legal logging of it in the first place is information data, data capture, which is not entirely in our hands. Therefore, to say to you that in six months I can be absolutely one hundred per cent would be very ill advised when the information on which that is based may not, even by then, be wholly and fully known to us. What the Prime Minister meant was in the light of the information available to us we will only buy from legal and sustainable sources. I do not see what Government can do more. Our policy is to make sure that happens. In the case of the Cabinet doors it did not because there was not independent verification, that is the key point. Over that particular episode, if one goes back to what actually happened, the contract required Balfour Beatty to provide certificates to show that the Sapele_that is West African mahogany_came from a renewable forest. Balfour Beatty were unable to provide such certificates but they claim to have done all they could to trace the timber sources.

265. Minister, I appreciate that. I will give you one more go. The Prime Minister has made what appears to be on the face of it pretty clear commitments. You have explained already to the Committee that you have chased other Government departments on this issue and when you asked them to report back on it only about a third of the departments and Government bodies bothered to reply. It would appear there is still a considerable way to go. It is one thing to argue about monitoring these things internationally if the Government cannot even bother to itself.

(Mr Meacher) This was in 2000/01, we are now a year on.

266. Okay. You can go further years on if you want. I am just asking you, shall we say, when will it be beyond reasonable doubt that the Government is complying with what the Prime Minister said? That is the last chance I am going to give you.

(Mr Meacher) I am grateful because I think the dialogue has somewhat ceased between us because I have answered your point.

267. You have not given me a date.

(Mr Meacher) With great respect, I think I have and I will try briefly to do so again. I am transmitting a message which you do not want to take on board. What I am saying is that we will only buy from sources which are legal and sustainable. We will make every effort, including independent verification which is a crucial gap over the Cabinet episode. We will not let that happen again.

268. Understood.

(Mr Meacher) We will take every step we can to ensure the accuracy of the claim that we are buying from legal and sustainable sources but if in six months or 12 months' time you were to find that we had imported an item into this country where the exporting country had not or could not confirm that it had been legally logged, you would say that we had broken our pledge. Now I am saying we cannot at any point be completely protected against that. All that we can be protected against is that we have made all the inquiries that we reasonably can. We have got firm, clear and positive answers on that. They are not just what somebody said but they are independently verified. They need internationally accepted standards. We will do all of that and I would insist that we are doing those from now on.

Mr Thomas

  269. Can I suggest one way you might help protect yourself. I was a little concerned in the reply to Mr Francois's earlier question about how much timber we use in the UK.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.270. It was about 15 per cent because that is how much is in the market, about 15 per cent. I would have thought first of all you could point to how much public procurement is from UK sources. I would hope that figure is available. Secondly, I would hope that you would recognise that increasing that figure will be positive both for the UK forestry, and I make a constituency plea there, but also positive in terms of achieving your environmental standards because, as you know, about 35 per cent of woodland can meet the FSC standards, the equivalent of it, and the Woodland Trust say that is going to go up to 50 per cent quite easily with the sort of processes which exist already.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.271. There is a way here of perhaps not just being very detailed about where the wood is coming from, the illegal mahogany or whatever, but actually just take a bit of a rethink about where wood comes from, the type of wood we are using, do we need mahogany doors, can we use more of our native hardwoods and our native softwoods—or not softwoods because that would be pine—but good old Welsh oak or whatever it might be. Is there a way of achieving more by slightly shifting the way that side of things is happening as well? We focused an awful lot on the international side in this Committee because it was a case that brought that about but it seems to me that we are in danger of missing a trick here, an ability for you to improve the environmental performance on other aspects of sustainability, including social and economic sustainability in the United Kingdom.
  (Mr Meacher) This is the Ceredigion standard. I have a lot of sympathy with that. I would clearly like to see the 15 per cent figure grow, and certainly Government is doing nothing to impede that and if we can promote it certainly we will. There has, of course, over a long period of time, like the last century, been a denuding of forests in the UK, I think we are down to seven per cent forest cover and we have a commitment to double that by 2050. The real problem is we have, also, an abundance of relatively small forests and woods, usually defined as less than 100 hectares, and very few of those are certified so far.272. It is onerous for them to be certified.
  (Mr Meacher) That is exactly the point I was going to make. Certification is a costly process. You have to get the initial assessment done independently. You need annual surveillance. The certificate has to be renewed every five years. Although one way round that is to have group certification schemes which would combine a number of small growers or if the contract certified a management company to manage the wood, that is another way round it. I am told, also, that FSC has a technical drafting committee for increasing access to FSC certification for small and low intensity managed forest which is specifically designed to reconcile the FSC standard with promoting timber from these relatively small forests. I have a lot of sympathy with that and I do think we should try and see whether in Ceredigion or elsewhere we can promote more UK forestry.

  Mr Thomas: Can I suggest on that that you might look at the new National Assembly for Wales building when it does get built. The Assembly Government has said that it will use Welsh hardwoods in that construction.

  Chairman: Ms Walley wants to ask a few quick questions about CITES.

Joan Walley

  273. Yes. Just moving on from the fact that unless timber is protected under CITES it will be illegally logged , we hope you will address that through bilateral negotiations that you have talked about. Just on CITES, could you tell us of those applications which were refused, how many have been refused because of incorrect paperwork and how many because DEFRA has judged that the trade is not sustainable?
  (Mr Meacher) First of all, I believe a figure of ten per cent was given to the Committee, a sort of off-the-cuff estimate, by a CITES official. We have had a further look at that, we think it is probably nearer to five per cent. I think there were 44,000 applications granted, so five per cent is about 2,200, something of that order. The reasons why they are refused is mainly because the trade would be detrimental to the species or because there is a ban in place. How far that is because there have been administrative errors or failures by DEFRA, I do not know. Can we be honest about it? Is it ever the case that we ever make an administrative error?
  (Mr Ford) Occasionally.

Chairman

  274. Of course you can be honest about it, Minister.
  (Mr Meacher) Not that often.
  (Mr Ford) It is mostly because we arrive at a conclusion that the trade would be detrimental, that is the commonest refusal. The second commonest is that there is a ban in place either by the country or imposed by CITES itself.
  (Mr Meacher) But we do not think that our administrative failures are at all significant here, no. I am not aware of that.

Joan Walley

  275. It seemed to this Committee when we looked at what has been submitted to us that you have got this very robust set of provisions relating to all of this but when it comes to the amount that you can actually prevent from coming in, despite those robust standards you are not really acting to the extent that we would like you to. Could you look at that? Could you look at the staff resources that you have got? Could you look at the proactive way you deal with that?
  (Mr Meacher) Again, to be fair to DEFRA, one thing is what we are doing about improving controls on CITES listed timber, and I can speak about that if you wish, the other problem is illegally logged non-CITES timber. There is no way of preventing that other than getting more countries to list their timber species on CITES under Appendix 3, that would be far and away the best way of doing it, so the trade in important tropical timbers is properly certified and monitored. I understand the EU is also considering a new EU framework which is modelled on CITES or on the American Lacey Act to control the import of illegally logged timber. So there is more that we can do there and we are trying to do it but it has to be listed in the first place for it to be monitored.

276. I am not sure there is time for us to ask you all the details of what you can do on that but looking at the tighter controls that are needed in respect of species that are only listed for monitoring processes, perhaps you could let us have a little bit of information on what you are covering by that?
  (Mr Meacher) I can tell you extremely quickly. I just want to make one point. The powers are available to control the import of species under Appendix 1 and Appendix 2 of CITES but we would like to extend to some Appendix 3 species the stricter measures which are currently available for Appendix 2. Just to give an example: in regard to Brazilian mahogany, and we have heard extensive discussion this morning, it would have been helpful if we had been able to require prior sight of the export permit. If we had this extension of powers that we are talking about we could then refuse an import if it was thought that the trade would be detrimental. We are taking this up, the UK is actively promoting this within the EU amongst other Member States.

277. Finally, unilateral action to broaden the scope of controls, is that on your agenda?
  (Mr Meacher) The UK, as every other Member State or every sovereign state, is required to keep within the law. If we are going to refuse an import of timber we have, of course, to give reasons which are compatible with the WTO rules or that it is a contravention of CITES, then we can act but we do need evidence. It is getting the evidence (a) with regard to the export permit and (b) with regard to whether it was legally logged or not, those are the key requirements. What you cannot do is stop, detain and remove timber imports unless you can meet those requirements. I am told that Germany, Holland, Belgium and the United States, who have detained Brazilian mahogany, are only doing so until they get clarification from Brazil and they have acted in accordance with the advice, and it is advice, not a requirement, from the CITES Secretariat. Our view was that we did not think the grounds for detention were reasonable when importers had valid export documents. We took very careful legal advice about this and I have spent a lot of time on this issue.

278. We may need to look at the WTO rules as well for the future.
  (Mr Meacher) Of course we can, and if the Committee has proposals to make there, but of course any changes in WTO rules have to be agreed by all the members and obviously they have to be reasonable, practical and workable.

  Chairman: Minister, thank you very much indeed, this has been a very interesting session.

 


 
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