Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)

RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER MP, MR JOHN ADAMS AND MR STEPHEN HALL

WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002

Chairman

  1. Good afternoon, Minister. Thank you for coming along. I gather we may be interrupted by a vote, which would be extremely inconvenient if it occurred, but I will recess the meeting for a quarter of an hour if that does occur, and we do not know whether it will occur or not. I think this is the first time we have actually had a discussion about the headline indicators, am I right?
  (Mr Meacher) I think it is, yes; with me, anyway.

  2. Yes, with you. I think we have had discussions about their origin and how they are set out, but we have not had a discussion, and this is the second annual report we are discussing.[1] And, for convenience, we are working off this rather nice little popular version, which you use, which should be easily understood, but we think it is misleading, in some respects, but, there we are. Can we start, unless you have anything you would like to add?

 


  (Mr Meacher) No. I do not know whether you want me to introduce my colleagues.

  3. Yes, that would be nice.
  (Mr Meacher) John Adams, who is Head of the Sustainable Development Unit, and Stephen Hall, who is Environmental Protection Statistics.

  Chairman: Good; thank you very much indeed. And we want to start off by just looking at some of the individual headline indicators, concentrating particularly on the environmental ones, although, obviously, as we both know, the indicators are wider than that. But we would like to concentrate on the environmental ones at this particular meeting, since we do not have a huge amount of time. I know Mrs Clark wants to start off, on road traffic.

Mrs Clark

  4. I certainly want to talk about road traffic, I had not quite realised I was starting off on it, but I am delighted to do so. And I would like to take the Minister straight away to this neat little guide to progress, etc., etc., and to the section on road traffic, and to the squiggle that says "no significant change." On page 70-71 of the report, you say that road traffic vehicle miles are still on the increase, although the overall rate of increase in traffic is, in fact, lower than in previous periods. Well, Minister, why not just say so, why not say, "There has been a slow increase," etc., rather than no significant increase, because, in fact, there has been an increase, however slow, has there not?
  (Mr Meacher) There has, that is perfectly true, but the rate of increase has very substantially reduced; how exactly that is represented, in terms of red, amber, green, is a matter of judgement. I think what we have done is right. The increase in road traffic since 1970 has been 134 per cent, the report makes this clear; since 1990, 14 per cent; and since Strategy in 1999, 4 per cent; and within that period the increase in road traffic has actually slowed below the rate of economic growth. In 2000-01, it was 1.2 per cent. It is still an increase but it is hugely less an increase than we have seen in the last two decades, and I think it is fair to describe it in the way we have; after all, the aim is to reduce the rate of growth, and that is very sharply reducing.

  5. So, really, you are telling us today that, as long as the rate of increase in vehicle miles is actually reducing, this will stay the same, there will be no significant change, you will use the same indicator?
  (Mr Meacher) Of course, it depends what the figures actually show. I am not saying how we might characterise in future; and, given the degree to which the rate of increase is slowing, I suppose it is not so impossible that we will see in future years that it actually does marginally decrease, that would certainly be agreed.

Sue Doughty

  6. But, Minister, surely, this goes out to the public, they can see the graph going up, and, yes, we are very pleased it is going up less fast, but increase is not the same as rate of increase, and if we are talking about increase we should be saying it has increased, albeit less slowly. People have these things for information at a glance, they do not go into the finer points and say, "They are adjusted for economic factors, and, yes, it is rising less fast;" the fact is it is still rising. Because one of the things, I think, that the public have found very difficult with this Government is that, having in 1997 come in and said, "We are going to reduce road traffic then we are going to reduce the rate of increase and then . . ." there is a certain amount of cynicism. And I quite accept that you are making efforts in this direction, but I think the public are right to be cynical when figures are presented in that way and being told, "Ah, well, the rate of increase is less;" okay, it is, but, I think, present them in this way, comment that the rate of increase is there, and that they are rising, and that is what you have not said in your piece?
  (Mr Meacher) It depends what the objective is, and we were quite honest and clear about this, it was to reduce the rate of growth, when we compiled these statistics. We did not say, "We are going to characterise the change on the basis of whether there was an increase, or the same, or a decrease," we said that "It will be based on reducing the rate of growth." Now maybe you think that is not understood by the public, that may be true; all that I can say is that we have not tried to conceal that. Given the problems, namely, given society's love of the motorcar, and the increased use of the motorcar by increasing sections of the population, that is a realistic objective, whereas a decrease, in an absolute sense, is not one that is readily going to be achieved. Given the slowing of the rate of increase, it is possible that we will get there, but we did make clear, as I say, that the first objective must be to reduce the rate of growth, and that has happened.

  7. But what we are talking about is increase, and we are saying it is stable, which it is not, it is increasing. I understand the point about how to present these, about whether we are actually talking about rate of increase or the actual increase, and I appreciate that you have changed the basis although continuing to describe it as increase, not rate of increase. But surely we are playing `follow the focus group', if we start doing this and then we record it in that way, instead of saying to the public, who are fairly grown up, I agree with you that it is difficult to get them out of their cars and onto other transport, particularly when other transport is not being provided, but if you say to them, "Well, we're not even going to show clearly that traffic is still increasing," that is the fact; what you do about whether it is the rate of increase or how you deal with that is a different matter, but, the fact is, traffic is still increasing. And that is the thing that we need to be continuing to present to the public, for them to make decisions about their role within that, or to make demands upon the Government to do something about it, whether it is an increase in public transport or whatever it is?
  (Mr Meacher) All I can say is, we have made no attempt to conceal the fact that it is increasing, that is unquestionably true, that is what the facts do show. And we are not suggesting that this scores green, we are not making a positive thing out of this, we are simply saying it is an amber; and I think it is fair to describe it as an amber, given the figures that I have quoted, there is a dramatic change. I am not sure I can take it further. You have made your point and I do understand it, and it is a perfectly fair point. I hope you will accept the points that I am making are perfectly fair. Like so many of these headline indicators, it is the way in which one looks at them, and, I absolutely agree, one needs great care in looking at indicators and statistics, because what you are saying is true and what I am saying is true.

Ian Lucas

  8. These are quality of life indicators, are they not, and they must therefore be related to the public's perception of quality of life; would you agree?
  (Mr Meacher) Absolutely, and there has been quite a lot of work done on quality of life, and for the first time the 2001 Survey of Public Attitudes towards the Environment included questions on the quality of life. I am not sure how you are going to follow it up. I can certainly give the details.

  9. Perhaps if I continue. In that case, if the public perceive that, for example, the traffic situation is deteriorating then should that not be a red on the indicator?
  (Mr Meacher) You say the public perceives that; the question is, if that is true, you are just asserting it, I am not sure where the evidence for that is, and the real facts are, even if the public perceives that, is that the case. And if you look at the figures, again, we are back to the point that there is an increase, but it is a very small increase, and the rate of increase has been decreasing. Now I doubt if the public perceives that as a red.

  10. The evidence, Minister, is the fact that the public generally perceive the traffic situation as not being acceptable, and the amount of traffic is increasing, therefore, the situation is deteriorating; is that not correct?
  (Mr Meacher) You are making assumptions—

  11. With respect, I am not making assumptions. I am referring to the figures that you are presenting. You are saying that the amount of traffic is increasing still; that is correct, is it not?
  (Mr Meacher) By 1.2 per cent in the last year.

  12. And would you accept that the public do not regard the present traffic situation as acceptable?
  (Mr Meacher) I think many people who are pedestrians and who live near roads believe that traffic volumes are high, and almost certainly, in most cases, higher than they would like, even though many of them will also be car users and actually be contributing to that.

  13. I accept that, but it is right, is it not, that the amount of traffic is still increasing?
  (Mr Meacher) I have said that that is so.

  14. Therefore, is it not an inevitable conclusion that the position is deteriorating rather than staying the same?
  (Mr Meacher) I think we are having the same kind of arguments I had with Mrs Doughty. I am not denying that there has been an increase, it is a small increase, I doubt if it is one which is subjectively perceived by the public; the real problem for the public is that they do believe, I am sure, many of them, most of us, probably, believe that traffic volumes are higher, and higher than we would like. And it is certainly true that it is marginally continuing to creep up, and that is not satisfactory, I entirely agree, but it is also true that the trend, a long-term trend, and, more recently, the very recent trend, is going absolutely in the right direction, in the way that the public would like. And if you take both of those factors together, I do not think it is unfair to regard this as an amber rather than a red. But what you are really illustrating is, it is very difficult, with all of these things, to decide, in a logical and utterly rational way, whether it should be green, amber or red, there is a degree of subjectivity; those who are perhaps hostile to the Government would incline towards a rather harsher view.

  15. I am not hostile to the Government, I am a Labour Member. What I am suggesting is that these figures have to retain credibility in the public mind, and, in my view, to say that an increase in traffic is, if we describe amber as, satisfactory would not correspond with the public perception of the situation?
  (Mr Meacher) I agree, amber is not satisfactory, amber is not satisfactory, absolutely; we want there to be 15 greens, in the sense that there has been a change in the situation which justifies scoring green in every case. Now, at the moment, it is ten, which is, I think, pretty good. We did not choose these indicators, they have not been chosen by Government to get the result we want, they were chosen as a result of intense sampling of the population, use of focus groups, etc., so it is their indices, not ours. Now, if we get ten out of 15, I think that is pretty good, but we still do need the remainder; and, in fact, I think it is 12, is it not, 12 out of 15, three are reds.

Mr Francois

  16. Minister, I came directly from another meeting, so I apologise if I was a few minutes late; no discourtesy meant on my part for a moment. I think it is almost five years to the day that John Prescott famously said, "If car use has not gone down within five years, we will have failed," and he also added to that "and I expect you to hold me to that." Well, here we are, five years on, and it has gone up; so that is red, is it not, that is bang-to-right, surely?
  (Mr Meacher) Well, what John Prescott was hoping for has not happened, that is a matter of fact. But, I repeat, there has been a change, and there has been a change for the better, in the sense that the rate of increase has markedly slowed, and I just do not think you can deny that. We are not saying it is perfect, we are not saying a success, we are not making claims that this is an area in which the Government has dramatically succeeded, we have not, it is a very, very difficult area. You have started on probably the single most difficult area, I totally understand that, it is totally proper; it is a very difficult area for any Government to influence the attitudes of people, given the immense flexibility, manoeuverability and convenience of the car, it is very difficult. But there has been a significant change, and I think that that can only fairly be represented not as a success, not as a failure, but as an amber.

  17. Minister, you said, a couple of minutes ago, that people are hostile to the Government.
  (Mr Meacher) I did not mean any particular Member, let me make that very clear.

  18. No, no, absolutely not, but your point was that people who were perhaps hostile to the Government might perceive this as a failure, but the Deputy Prime Minister, and you can argue whether he is hostile to the Government or not, but he is actually a member of it, and quite a senior one too, and he actually said, he set the bar that we are all judging you against, and he said it very clearly, he used quite direct language, quite deliberately, he said, "You judge me in five years, and if we haven't done it I expect to be held to it." And that, I think, is what this Committee are doing, and you have failed?
  (Mr Meacher) Okay, you make your point, and I am sure John Prescott would accept that. He, like probably all of us, underestimated how difficult it is to make this change. There has been a change. I repeat again, it has not been yet as far and as fast as he anticipated.

Mr Challen

  19. I just wanted to ask, you have answered part of my question, which was about whether it was a success or not; but, just looking behind the indicators, how would you account for the slightly decreasing upward growth in the last four years, is it anything that the Government has done, or is it down to things like fuel protesters, and whatnot?
  (Mr Meacher) It is certainly not down to the fuel protesters. There are changes which have been made in policy, which have begun to affect this. First of all, I think there is much greater awareness, in terms of a contribution to climate change, and the single biggest impact of transport towards the climate change figures; now how far that actually translates into behaviour of individual drivers, I think it does, for a minority, but it is probably not yet very widespread. There has been much emphasis in every Budget on greenhouse gas emissions, VED measures, according to size of engine and generation of greenhouse gases, there has been a great deal of discussion on the very contentious topic of congestion charging; all of these, I think, have begun to influence what happens on the ground. I would like to think that ministerial exhortations to shorter journeys, fewer journeys and use public transport or walk had some effect, I suspect they have probably had rather little effect. I was referring, of course, to evenings and weekends.

 


1   Achieving a better quality of life, Review of progress towards sustainable development, Government annual report 2001, March 2002. Back

 
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