Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fourth Report


FOURTH REPORT


The Environmental Audit Committee has agreed to the following Report:

MEASURING THE QUALITY OF LIFE: THE 2001 SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT HEADLINE INDICATORS

LIST OF CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The 2001 Barometer

1.  DEFRA has published an updated (June 2002) Quality of Life Barometer leaflet since we took evidence from Mr Meacher. This summarises the current position for the headline indicators. We are pleased to note that this version of the barometer incorporates a number of presentational changes which the Committee proposed in its oral evidence session with Mr Meacher. We commend the Government for this action and these changes are considered in the body of our report (para 6).

Data Analysis

2.  Statistics are open to a variety of interpretations. The traffic light markings have an even greater element of subjectivity. The judgement linking the data presented and the "traffic light" assessment awarded is not explicit. We recommend that in future each headline indicator assessment be accompanied by a short justification of that marking and that future reports state clearly what constitutes "significant change" in awarding the assessments (para 19).

3.  Third party validation of the Government's "traffic light" indicator assessments is necessary to neutralise unfounded claims of partiality which could themselves undermine the credibility of the indicators. Such validation could be achieved by the use of independent consultants. Alternatively, the Government's annual report on the headline indicators could include a statement from the Sustainable Development Commission outlining how far it agreed with the Government's assessments (para 25).

Media Coverage

4.  The launch of the 2001 barometer and related DEFRA press release led to some unfortunate media coverage which did little to advance the Government's cause in entrenching the headline indicators in the public psyche as clear and trusted signals of the UK's progress towards the Government's sustainable development goals (para 26).

5.  We recommend that DEFRA's Communications Strategy for the 2003 report on the headline indicators reviews media coverage of the previous annual reports and considers how future presentation can minimise past pitfalls (para 29).







Specific Indicators

Waste (H15)

6.   At present there is insufficient comparable data for the waste headline indicator. Thus no traffic light assessment for the "since the Strategy" period is provided in the 2001 report (para 34).

7.   Mr Meacher was keen to reassure us that the lack of data provision was not an attempt by the Government to mask the poor trends in waste arisings and management. He told us "Let me make this absolutely clear, waste is a problem area, it is a red area...". We agree (para 35).

8.  We note that the updated, June 2002 barometer includes a newly split indicator which awards a "traffic light" assessment for household waste (red) and all waste streams (no comparable data). We welcome Mr Meacher's action in response to our concerns. This will make recent trends in waste arisings clearer to the public. However, in future, the public may actually find the split confusing when municipal waste rather than household waste is reported as an indicator at EU level. The Government should consider how it will guard against this situation (para 40).

Transport (H11)

9. If the traffic indicator were awarded a "green light" this would not indicate an

absolute reduction in vehicle miles but a slower rate of growth. The report does not conceal this vital distinction but nor is it explicit in the presentation of this indicator. It should be. This potential for confusion underlines the need to clearly set out objectives against indicators (para 44).

10.  The rate of traffic growth is an appropriate indicator for the overall progress of Government transport policy. The Government expects the package of measures in the 10 year transport plan to reduce traffic growth, although this is not an explicit aim, therefore performance can be judged against this indicator. However, the lack of specific Government targets relating to traffic growth or traffic levels does not give us confidence that the transport headline indicator forms the intended feedback necessary to inform policy decisions. The Government should explain why it is content to use the rate of traffic growth as a headline indicator but is unwilling to have any specific targets relating to traffic levels or traffic growth (para 46).

Climate change (H9)

11.  DEFRA's latest data shows that the decrease in greenhouse gases has levelled off, while carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) emissions actually increased in both 2000 and 2001 (para 48).

12.  The simple green light for this indicator, in the absence of an explanation in the headline indicator summary, has the potential to lead to confusion over meaning and scepticism over objectivity. We accept that short term fluctuations in trends are to be expected and should not be allowed to skew the "traffic light" assessments of long-term indicators. They should, however, be acknowledged and explained in the report (para 50).


Geographical Coverage

13.  We recommend that the Government clarify how it is seeking to achieve a uniform geographic basis across all the headline indicators (para 51).

14.  We encourage the UK Government to continue to work collaboratively with the devolved administrations in developing comparable indicator reporting systems. We believe that in the absence of a standardised UK view, any summary assessments of the indicators from the devolved administrations should be included as annexes in future UK annual review reports (para 53).

Conclusion

15.  The Government's overall "ten out of fifteen" (66.6 per cent) score is somewhat selective. One could just as easily present the 2001 assessments as showing that only two of the seven environmental indicators (28.6 per cent) are showing clear progress, the rest (71.4 per cent) being to some degree unsatisfactory (para 54).

16.   Where data is unavailable for a headline indicator in a particular year we agree that this should be marked as "incomparable data". However we recommend that, in such cases, the Government should consider providing an additional "proxy" traffic light assessment which indicates the Government's "best guess" at whether the indicator is on a sustainable track (para 55).

17.  The Government must ensure that appropriate data is collected. Given that the 15 headline indicators were established in 1999, we are surprised and disappointed that there is still insufficient data in some areas to provide a complete picture (para 56).

18.  The barometer clearly shows the environmental element of sustainable development to be the "Cinderella" of the three with little indication of how this situation is being tackled. The Government needs to demonstrate strongly its commitment to take action if trends are heading in the wrong direction so that we all can see evidence that the Government is managing and not just measuring (para 58).


 
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