Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)

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

WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002

Mr Jones

  80. You have answered me by saying that we are not a perfect body, we are not, of course, but we have the merit of not being exactly the same body as the body that draws up the report, and there is merit in that?
  (Mr Meacher) You have made the point, and I do understand it, and I am quite prepared to take it away and look at it further. I think it would have more force if you, in your deliberations today, were able to indicate that the Government had exercised this prerogative we have in a clearly unfair way, then I think there would be grounds for change. I do not really think that is the case; but you make a point. I am all in favour of objectivity and independence and transparency, and you have made a point, and I will look at it.

  81. I am meant to be asking about greenhouse gases, so I will try to be specific now. This is another tick area, and yet in recent years there has been a considerable increase in the amount of electricity generated in this country from coal-fired power stations, and, mainly because of that, an increase in the last couple of years of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and yet we have a tick?
  (Mr Meacher) That is perfectly true, and it is because of the rise in the price of oil, in particular, and gas, there has been within the market a probably temporary switch back to some increased coal burn. I think it is doubtful if that will last. But the real point here is that, if you look at the trend over a long period of time, and not just a very short period, the trend has been a very good one. There has been a 14 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases since 1990, and our statisticians calculate that, on the basis of existing policies, we should reach around 23 per cent reduction by 2010; and if one is just concerned with CO2 alone, a reduction of around 19 per cent, when we set ourselves a domestic target of 20 per cent. So those are all dramatically good results, when you also bear in mind that there are only three countries in Europe—

  82. But they are not results, Minister; you cannot claim that what will possibly happen in 2010 is a result?
  (Mr Meacher) What has happened up to now is a fact, and that is a 14 per cent reduction. You are quite right that the continuation of that trend is a hypothesis, you are quite right.

  83. What we have had in the last couple of years is an increase in the main greenhouse gas producers, across the board, in the United Kingdom. If we did not have the benefit, and I am not going to say, you are expecting me to say, the benefit of the `dash for gas' but I am not going to say that, I am going to say, if we had not had the benefit of the effect of the greenhouse, i.e. our temperatures have got warmer, average British temperatures have gone up fairly considerably in the last decade, corrected for that, our CO2 production has not declined from 1993?
  (Mr Meacher) I would need to look at the figures for that. You are making a fair point.

  84. Your colleague, Brian Wilson, has commented on those figures, we have seen them, and he said: "For anyone who might have grown complacent, these figures demand that we must do more to address our environmental obligations." I am sure you would agree with that?
  (Mr Meacher) I do.

  85. But the point that he is also making there, about complacency, these published results would show the tick; surely that just feeds complacency?
  (Mr Meacher) I would deny that. I think there has been an improvement, certainly it is a long-term improvement, since 1990, but also since 1999, which justifies it in both columns, and it is not just closure of coal-powered stations and `dash for gas'; that has been a significant factor, that is perfectly true. There has been, we go back to a reduction in the rate of growth of traffic volumes, there has been a significant improvement in energy efficiency, which is continuing, for a variety of factors; there is now beginning to be an increase in the use of renewables and CHP. All of those are at an incipient stage, but they are quite influential, and they will become more so over the next decade. So I think that record is unquestionably a good one. I have not come here to crow or be triumphalist, and I am sure you will not let me be, but I do think the UK has a very good record on climate change; now it is not to say we have not got to go a lot further, but if we could drag every other country in Europe, let alone in Annex 1 countries, the industrialised countries, up to our level, we would be motoring, that is the wrong metaphor, in this respect, we would be walking with our head high.

  86. Yes, but it is not our remit to look at other countries' performance; although we may compare them with our countries, not all the comparisons are as glowing as you have given there. Looking at what we might practically do to reduce CO2, it has been suggested to us that the part-loading of plant, as a result of NETA, is one factor leading to increased emissions; do you agree with that?
  (Mr Meacher) The effect of NETA, the New Electricity Trading Arrangements, has certainly had side-effects, certainly unintended, and unfortunate side-effects, with regard to small generators, particularly renewables and CHP. We have begun to try to reverse those, by the Chancellor, in his most recent Budget, extending CHP for full exemption from the Climate Change Levy, including sales to licensed suppliers, which was not previously the case. We are providing Enhanced Capital Allowances, and we are about to publish a CHP Strategy, which will re-endorse our commitment to the achievement of 10,000 megawatts CHP by 2010. There is, of course, already, and I again confirm it, a Renewables Obligation of 10 per cent of all energy, for electricity generation from renewable sources by 2010.

  87. But that target, the 2010 renewable target, do you think we are going to meet any of the interim targets on that before the next general election?
  (Mr Meacher) There is talk about whether there should be an interim target of 2005.

  88. There is a 2003 target?
  (Mr Meacher) Well 2003 is only one year away.

  89. We have already been told we are not going to get there, by the Energy Minister?
  (Mr Meacher) There is not an interim target for 2003; there is a question as to whether there should be an interim target. But I can assure you that these matters are monitored month by month, let alone year by year, and it is true that, in terms of development of renewables, we are behind, and it is true, in terms of CHP, we are not on track for 10,000 megawatts; that is the need for new policies.

  90. If they are monitored month by month, why is it that we cannot get any figures for last year?
  (Mr Meacher) Last year, for what?

  91. For the CO2 production; we cannot get 2001 figures, we have not even got 2000 renewable?
  (Mr Meacher) I was referring to CHP and renewables generation of electricity.

Mr Francois

  92. Just following on from my colleague's point, that is a curious assertion, Minister, because when we had the Energy Minister in front of us we asked him whether or not we were generating more electricity from renewables or less, and he told us that that data will not be available until this summer, to look back over the past year; and you are just now telling us that these figures are monitored on a monthly basis. So which one of the two Ministers is correct?
  (Mr Meacher) Less than when; you said "less than", less than when, what period are you looking at, in terms of comparison?

  93. Let me explain. There is the 10 per cent target for 2010; we were told that, 18 months ago, we were at 2.8 per cent of renewable energy, the bulk of which was from hydro, if I remember correctly. And we said "What is the figure in the year just gone?" and we were then told, "Ah, we won't have that data available for the summer," because we wanted to know if last year we had gone backwards or forwards, because we had been told it had been a dry year and hydro had not produced as much. So a logical assumption might be that we might even have gone backwards. So we said, "What do last year's figures show, as opposed to the year before?" and we were told "We won't have that data until this summer." Now you have just told us that these figures are monitored on a monthly basis?
  (Mr Meacher) I did say on a monthly basis, and maybe I should withdraw that. What I meant was that we keep a very careful eye on this, I am not sure whether it is month by month, it is certainly on a year-by-year basis. But I agree that the figures, like many figures, are often not made available, because they have to be very carefully checked, until some significant time after the end of the period to which they refer. But I will check with you how often those figures are actually calculated.

  94. Just one other quick point, Chairman. The more we get into debates about figures and statistics and numbers, and the basis of calculations and base years, and all the rest of it, the stronger the argument becomes for these headline indicators to be independently audited. Because we keep coming back to arguing over what are the bases for different figures and indicators, and yet you audit whether you have succeeded or not. The longer this session goes on, I think, the stronger the case becomes; we have had several examples in the last two hours why actually someone else needs to audit these rather than yourselves, frankly?
  (Mr Meacher) I do not agree with that conclusion, and I would say that the EAC is, indeed, carrying out, as indeed its title is meant to do, an environmental audit; that is exactly what is now being carried through. So it is not as though the Government proclaims figures on an unjustified basis. I do not accept that there has been any evidence produced by the Committee that any of these figures are unfair; they are, I agree, not even, they are not standardised, there is a question of whether we could have determined the indicators on a different basis, I agree, that is what the Committee is there to examine and state to Government, and I assure you that, in the light of this session, we will look at all of these issues again. But I do not accept, at all, that we have done this unfairly, unreasonably, or in a sense which is genuinely misleading. But I do agree with you that when you get into the field of statistics and figures and baselines there are always questions about how the matter is done. Now you are suggesting that that should be independently audited in the production of the statistics, in other words, we should put that into the hands of some independent body, as opposed to us doing the best we can and then being openly interrogated in a committee like this. I do take that point. But I do say to you that the Government Information and Statistical Service, in my experience, is a fiercely independent body, and, perhaps in the light of what has happened in times in the past, and I am not talking about recently, when Ministers have been willing to make allegations about trends, the Statistical Service now insists on doing it without reference to Ministers, it produces its own figures, as soon as they are available, and it does so, in my view, with the utmost integrity. I think that is good for everyone, it is good for Government and it is good for all of those who will hold it to account. The idea that the statistics are somehow perhaps carefully examined and perhaps massaged by Ministers before they are produced, let me absolutely disabuse you of that, that is totally untrue.

  95. Minister, just the point was, even in terms of who audits whom, the colours that are being applied here; you have not given us the data and then asked the EAC, I think, to colour them, unless I am mistaken, Chairman. Who has applied the colours?
  (Mr Meacher) The Government Statistical Service; it was not Ministers.

  96. But, again, it was Government that applied the colours and not an independent body. Do you see the point I am making?
  (Mr Meacher) Of course I see the point you are making. But if it was a body within Government which was leant on, could be influenced by Ministers, you would have a stronger point. What I am trying to say is that I can assure you that, if I tried to change the statistics in a way which was favourable to the Government's reputation, I would get, first of all, a straight refusal, and I would also, I think, probably receive a considerable disapprobation even for trying. And I think it is right, this is an independent branch of Government; the fact that it does belong to Government, I accept it does, but it is not an area where Ministers interfere, and if they tried to interfere they would not succeed.

Mr Gerrard

  97. Is not the issue not so much the statistics; in many ways, the discussions that we have been going through this afternoon have not been querying your statistics on climate change right or wrong, we may have queried whether certain statistics should or should not have been collected, but the interpretation placed on those statistics, and whether, really, interpreting what are often quite complicated sets of statistics by little ticks in a green box, or a cross in a red box, is actually a very informative way of doing it, and who makes that decision as to whether it is a little tick or a little cross?
  (Mr Meacher) I agree with that. It is a trade-off, it is a trade-off between simplicity and understanding for the general member of the public, who is not going to wade through a great deal of intellectually-rigorous analysis of the meaning of statistics, and accuracy. Now it is important that they are accurate, in the sense that, in making it simpler, we have not lost an essential component of the truth, that is very, very important; if we did that, we would be at fault. But there is a case for a relatively simple table, so long as the data which informs it is also, at the same time, supplied. And, of course, these are headline indicators; what we have not talked about is the fact that the Government, and this happened before 1997 and we have continued it, there is set of statistics, 150 statistics, which are collected across the whole panjandrum of what is going on in the society, the economy and the environment, we continue to provide that. But in order for people to understand the essence of what is going on, you do have to simplify it to a manageable core. This is always a problem about news production; someone has to make a judgement about what are the essential issues that are happening now that people ought to know about. Now those are open to challenge, I agree, and that is what you are doing today. But I would defend the basis on which this is done, so long as we have not sacrificed in any serious way the absolute requirement of accuracy.

  98. I understand the point you are making, but when Mr Owen Jones started to raise these issues about climate change, there is a point there that the long-term trends, which you pointed to, if we look back over ten years, clearly could be said to be favourable, but there is maybe a short-term turn in that trend, when we look at the last two years' CO2 emissions. Now how do we show that? One does not want to distort what is actually the long-term picture, but nor should we be ignoring what may be a turn in the wrong direction, surely?
  (Mr Meacher) I suppose the answer to that is by using as much honesty and integrity as we can, in interpreting the figures. As I say, if we have not done that right, I expect you to say so. I believe that we have. It is, of course, true that the facts themselves, the evidence does not all point in the same direction, even within a short period of time there may be contrary movements, and you have to make one single judgement, you have to try to make that as fairly as you can. But the important thing is, you do not conceal the variation on which that judgement is based, so that people can get behind it and can make their own judgements as well.

Joan Walley

  99. Just on that point. Would you share with me some concern about the way in which the Government's latest report was received; is there not a danger, in all that you have just been saying, that some of these headline indicators could be trivialised in the press, and what we are really trying to do is get across some kind of basic measurement, which presumably is then going to be a cornerstone for policy? How do you feel about the press coverage that there was of your latest report; could you tell the Committee, please?
  (Mr Meacher) Not very pleased. I entirely agree that it is very tempting for the press, unfortunately, to use this kind of material, which, very helpfully, it has come out, some of it, as Mr Owen Jones says, is going to be challenging, difficult and which almost certainly the Government will not achieve. So it is regrettable, it seems to me, that there is an overconcentration in the press on where the Government is not succeeding. It is quite right that that should be drawn attention to, absolutely right, what matters to all of us is to try to do better on things which are not going as well as they should; but the concentration on that and the desire simply to score points at the Government's expense does trivialise it. We are talking here about how our society is going, it really is quite a profound thing that we are trying to do, and it would be much better if the headline indicated "This is where Britain, UK plc, is going, we could do better in this way, but we are succeeding to a large degree, but there needs to be a general change of direction, and these are the policies," rather than some of the headlines that we saw the last time round.

 


 
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