Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)

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

WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002

Mr Francois

  60. Two points here, quickly. I served on a local authority too, like Mr Challen; the data is there to take a pretty accurate annual measurement of municipal waste. And I would humbly suggest, I think, along with other colleagues on the Committee, that basing your waste indicator on a figure that comes out only once every five years and is subject to a 25 per cent margin of error, in terms of collection of the data, is perhaps, to coin a phrase, sub-optimal?
  (Mr Meacher) It depends whether you are interested in precise quantification of a small part of the problem, or whether we should try to improve the quantification of the whole problem so that we have a general understanding of the real, total problem as it really is. But I do take the point, we do not have to make a choice between the two. As in other cases, as Members have pointed out, one could have a double indicator which includes both, and, as I say, in the light of today's discussions, I think we should look at that quite seriously.

Mr Thomas

  61. I want to raise a wider question about the reliability of these headline indicators. We have looked at waste in some detail, birds, in particular at traffic, and the Committee is examining the gap between the public perception and the stated successes, or otherwise, in these barometer figures. What strikes me is that, of these 15 indicators, only nine are true UK indicators, six of them are indicators for other parts of Great Britain, two are indicators just for England, one, crime, is an indicator for England and Wales, and one, on poverty and social exclusion, is a mix of indicators from England and Great Britain. How reliable are these as UK indicators?
  (Mr Meacher) They are reliable as UK indicators to the extent to which the areas covered are a proportion of the UK; and if you are making the point, and I think you are, that we should have a standardised basis for all of these statistics, again, I am sympathetic to that. A lot depends, again, on exactly what the issue is and how it is measured; particularly since we now have devolution, some of these may be measured differently by the devolved administrations, that is what makes it difficult. We cannot, nor, I am sure you would agree, should we, force on the devolved administrations a particular way of evaluating or assessing one of these issues when they would prefer to use a different one.

  62. I totally agree with you on that matter, of course, but I would suggest, nevertheless, that the information and the figures are probably available. If we take, for example, housing, the household figure, `households in non-decent housing', which is one of these lack of information figures, it is an England-only figure. I cannot believe there is not a Welsh figure for households in non-decent housing, I cannot believe there is not a Scottish figure or a Northern Ireland figure; there must be a way of collecting these figures and working them out on a UK basis. And though I would not, for a moment, suggest that you force the devolved administrations to report on these matters, I think the statistics must be there, buried somewhere, and surely there must be found a way to bring these out, so that, yes, there should be reporting at the devolved level as well, and, as you know, for example, there is in Wales a very clear Sustainable Development Strategy and reporting to the Welsh population on that. Different indicators again have been worked out, perhaps. But, nevertheless, if these are truly UK figures, I suggest six out of 15 is falling fairly short of a true UK picture?
  (Mr Meacher) That is a very fair question, and it is a very detailed question. Can I suggest, Mr Chairman, it might be helpful if I were to supply, in respect of the other nine, an explanation as to why it is not UK figures, or what are the problems in making it a UK figure, and it will, of course, prompt us to look very carefully at just how far we can get a standardised UK view, which, I agree, will be much better.

  63. Can I invite you, either now or in that note, to look as to whether, if those extra six were UK figures, whether you would have different indicators, whether you would arrive at a different green, amber or red marker for those? Now some of the problems, what you might be suggesting here is those figures may be difficult to get to, but that might suggest that if, for example, housing or crime was a genuine UK figure, and because it is difficult to get a genuine UK, all the statistics together, many of these, rather than greens, might have turned out to be insufficient data, and that would not look so good, would it?
  (Mr Meacher) You are making a supposition there.

  64. Yes, I am inviting you to give us information to disprove that supposition?
  (Mr Meacher) I do not believe for a second that we decided to do this on a country-by-country basis in order to get the right results. I think there are other, good, solid, genuine statistical reasons why this has happened, and I would prefer to examine in each case exactly what those reasons were. We will let you have that information, and, in the light of that, you can pursue your second hypothesis, that it might have something to do with the results. I do not believe it does.

Mr Savidge

  65. Has there been any consultation with the devolved Parliaments, or the devolved Assemblies, about the possibility of trying to see if we can have some sort of co-ordination of indicators, without, obviously, in any way wanting to undermine devolution, or might that be something you would consider for the future, which has not been done so far?
  (Mr Meacher) Mr Hall is whispering an answer. I think he should probably give it direct to the Committee.
  (Mr Hall) The Scottish administration and the Welsh Assembly have very recently produced their own set of indicators, very much looking at what is being done for the UK picture, and there is some consistency in the way they develop their indicators, and we are in consultation with our colleagues in those administrations.

Mr Jones

  66. I want to ask some questions about the indicators relating to greenhouse gases, but before I do I just want to clarify some points which have left me a little confused, and I am sure you can clarify for us, Minister. In answer to, I think, my colleague Sue Doughty, you stated that "We didn't choose these indices," and yet Mr Adams answered, I think it was, Mr Gerrard, or Mr Francois, about waste, he explained "why we chose this way of measuring waste." So I am confused. Who chose the indicators?
  (Mr Meacher) I think what we were referring to was why waste is there at all. What happened was that the Government launched a consultation on the proposals for 13 indicators in November of 1998, we received more than 650 written responses, there was also a certain amount of research conducted via focus groups; as a result of that, we added an indicator about the level of crime and we also extended the social investment indicator to include investment in all assets.

  67. So the answer is, the Government chose the indicators in consultation?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  68. So halfway between what you have said and Mr Adams said?
  (Mr Meacher) It is true we did not go to people and say, "We're thinking of having a dozen, 15 indicators, what do you think they should be?" We proposed what we thought was an appropriate list, but then, very open-endedly, invited the public to comment, not just in a short face-to-face but to think about it and write to us, if they wanted to, saying whether or not they agreed with these, whether they should be modified, whether they should be dropped, or others added.

  69. Then, when you set these indices, or targets, did you set them with the intention of them all being met, or did you set them with the intention of them being challenging targets, indices, objectives?
  (Mr Meacher) They were set on the basis of what would be a reasonably manageable set of indicators which would indicate the degree to which the country was or was not moving towards sustainable development, that was the basis of it. We wanted to check whether they were acceptable as being important to people, and, indeed, in the Survey of Public Attitudes

  70. The question was, were they meant to be challenging?
  (Mr Meacher) They were not chosen to be challenging or unchallenging, they were chosen to be indicators of whether or not we were moving towards sustainable development. Now, inasmuch as I think almost everyone agrees that we have not had a society or an economy or an environment which is sustainable, it does need change in all parts of society, and to that extent they are challenging.

  71. Minister, I am not trying to catch you out, what I am trying to get to is, if you set indices, whoever sets them, the objectives that you are going to measure your performance by, then would you not agree that any reasonable person would conclude, on 15 indices, or whatever number, that if they are at all challenging then it must imply that it is likely that you are not going to meet all of them?
  (Mr Meacher) I think that is a reasonable supposition.

  72. I wish you had answered my colleague Mr Barker a bit more honestly and more forthrightly and said, well, of course, you are bound to set some indices which we will fail at, otherwise, if you only set indices which we can succeed at then what is the point?
  (Mr Meacher) I am grateful for your assistance in responding to some of your colleagues. That is quite a robust answer, and I think it does show that these are indices, or they are indicators, which are, in some respects, quite tough. We asked people what was important, or very important, to them, and the ones chosen meet those criteria for the overwhelming majority of those asked; and, indeed, people will choose things where they want to see change, and some of those changes will be difficult to achieve because of in-bred practices in society, the economy, or in environmental practice.

  73. Or even deficiencies in the Government's will?
  (Mr Meacher) It could be; not in this one, but it could be.

  74. I was not suggesting it was, but there is a whole range of reasons why things are not achieved, we should admit that. I think that clarifies a bit how the indices were reached. What about the process by which the indices are marked, how we judge whether this has been reached or not, and that is entirely a Government thing?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  75. Do you think there would be any merit in any outside body doing the marking?
  (Mr Meacher) If, as perhaps you are implying, Government has such an in-built incentive to mark itself generously, I suppose I see the point of your question.

  76. There will be other alternatives; it may be a little bit more credible, or saleable, if it is judged by some outside body than to present information which is judged by the body which presents it?
  (Mr Meacher) We are judged by an outside body, or a body that holds us to account, which is the EAC, and it is precisely this kind of lengthy and detailed interrogation which, I think, rightly, makes it difficult for Government to be generous to itself; it has got to be able to justify what it decides.

  77. I am glad you mentioned that, because the point I was hopeful to draw you towards was, would it not be a useful function of this Committee to do that judging, to do that marking; after all, it has got the title Environmental Audit Committee, why do you not set us the task of auditing your progress on these matters?
  (Mr Meacher) But you are, that is exactly what you are doing today.

  78. We should be marking you.
  (Mr Meacher) But you are.

  79. No, no; we are marking your marks. I may or may not speak for the Committee, but I think it would be better if we actually marked your progress, not marked your marks?
  (Mr Meacher) You are not saying mark progress, you are saying that you would be—it is subjective, whoever does it, whether Government does it, a Committee does it, whoever does it, there is a degree of subjectivity about this; and you are saying it should be a select committee rather than the Government itself who assess the evidence and then decides on the marking. Then, of course, we will be down to issues like, well, what is the composition of the committee, how politically-loaded is it, is it entirely fair, what have the Whips had to do with it.

  Chairman: Minister, if the Government had accepted the Bill that we put forward, which established an Environmental Commissioner, then you have an entirely independent body like the Comptroller and Auditor General, who deals with taxation and revenue-raising, who could provide us with the facts, which we would then debate openly, as we are today?

 


 
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