THURSDAY 4 JULY 2002
Mr John Horam, in the Chair
RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, a Member of the House, Minister for the Environment, MR BOB ANDREW, Procurement & Contracts, and MR BOB FORD, CITES Advisor, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, examined.
(Mr Meacher) Chairman, my experience of all these matters is a statement initially by the Minister is listened to even less than the initial answer given by Ministers when they answer questions downstairs. Let us get to the real meat, which is the supplementaries. On my left is Bob Andrew who is Procurement Advisor for DEFRA and Bob Ford who is the CITES Advisor.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Mr Francois.
(Mr Meacher) This is, as you are kind enough to recognise, an unusually complex area. It is something that with the best will in the world, and I would insist that we do have very goodwill on this issue, we want the policy as we have stated to succeed. We do require co-operation, not only across Government but in other departments. That is within our responsibility and it has not succeeded as well as it should, I would be the first to recognise that and I am determined to make that change. Secondly, of course, we need co-operation with bodies outside of Government like local authorities and with the private sector. Above all, we need co-operation from the developing countries themselves. The key issue of whether timber has been legally or illegally harvested is not a matter on which any governments in the northern hemisphere are able to make a judgment. We do require co-operation from the competent authorities in those countries. Nevertheless, having said that, I would be the first to recognise that we could and should have done more to engage other departments and to communicate the policy. I did send out a very clear statement of that policy in July 2000 but it did not communicate as efficiently as we would have expected because we now have a very devolved and fragmented structure in procurement and I think we under-estimated that. We could and should have done more to train buyers, to raise awareness and of course to supervise the implementation and to monitor progress. I would insist that there has been, and will continue to be as we get the report about the Cabinet Office incident, as we get the report of the ERM consultancy, in terms of rolling this out across Government and doing it more efficiently. I believe this year we can and will do better. I will not say how many out of ten, it was not out of ten, but we are going to get a lot closer this year.
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
(Mr Meacher) We give that absolute priority. It was stated in the Prime Minister's speech following my statement in July 2000, his speech in March 2001, and I quote his words: "We have already promised that as a Government we will only purchase timber from legal and sustainable sources". The policy is simply to require contractors to supply timber, as he said, from legal and sustainable sources and to produce independent verification to prove compliance. Of course, the Cabinet Office incident showed that was not working as it should have done. Government buyers have been issued with advice to guide them through the process and we are working to produce fresh guidance with regard to the lessons that we have learned. In short, we give high priority to it. It is a difficult area but we expect to be held to account over it and we are going to do our very best to achieve those high standards.
(Mr Meacher) I would advise Mr Francois not to believe all you read in the newspapers. I think it is a very tenuous and fragmentary guide to what is actually going on within Government. That is the first point.
(Mr Meacher) Wait and see what the Government actually says rather than rumours being spun by all sorts of people for whatever motives and on whatever fragmentary information they believe they may have. Secondly, with regard to the Spending Review 2002, I cannot comment on that. Not only am I not allowed to but I do not know the contexts of that. Thirdly, the report which I think triggered this, as I think I said at the time to the Committee, was the Town and Country Planning Report and, of course, that is not a Government body. I am not trying to play down their significance, they are an important body, but they do not make Government policy. They were telling us what they thought about it, which is not at all necessarily the same as what Government will do.
(Mr Meacher) No, I am not saying that. I am not confirming it and I am not disconfirming it. It is like one of those famous stories when one is asked to confirm something, one is asked to agree with something, and one says "No, I am not saying that", so the immediate assumption is the opposite. I am not privy to the final conclusive details of the Spending Review 2002. I do not know the details. I am not making any prognostications at all as to what it might contain but I am telling you on the specific point you raise that this is a very key and sensitive issue within Government and I would advise you to wait for the facts and not be carried along by, dare I say, spin.
(Mr Meacher) Neither we nor any of the other European or North American countries can know whether wood was legally or illegally harvested, and I suppose the most obvious example, and no doubt we will come on to this later, is mahogany in Brazil. We cannot know this.
(Mr Meacher) I think I would agree with that. Obviously we would want to work with the competent authority of those countries - Ibama is the management authority in Brazil - to help them to build the capacity, if they have not got it, to ensure that they can give accurate answers to these questions. In some countries it may be the relevant government authority does not itself actually know. We would want to build that chain of custody, that information network, to ensure that information was known to the country concerned and we would then wish to liaise with them to get accurate information from them, but we cannot get behind that export certificate without their co-operation.
(Mr Meacher) I doubt if it requires a multilateral environment agreement although those are always very helpful, although once again it raises the whole issue of enforcement and coverage.
(Mr Meacher) It is bilaterals. We signed a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding with Indonesia very recently. We are certainly very hopeful that that will lead to further bilaterals. We have already had discussions with a number of other countries. I think it has to be done on that basis. It would not normally be within the purview of a multilateral environmental agreement to require a developing country to obtain certain information and give it to another country so that its commercial buyers had more information. It is a bilateral consideration.
(Mr Meacher) I can do that very easily. It is one and that is Indonesia. What I am saying is in the light of what we believe is a good precedent which has been set in the case of Indonesia we now have opened up negotiations with, I think, half a dozen other countries but we have only signed one.
(Mr Meacher) I think I am right in saying that the Indonesian one is the first that any northern country has signed, I think it is a first. There has been considerable interest in it from Germany, France, Japan, etc., and they themselves in the light of it have been opening up discussions with some of the southern supplying countries. I think no other signed it before we did.
(Mr Meacher) On the question of the wording, this is a minefield. I am not sure if that is the correct analogy to use. The timber supply system as it exists, which we are trying to bring some order and discipline to, is very inchoate, fragmented and variable across the world. Therefore, you can lay down your standards and the words "actively seek to" mean that you expect buyers to make every possible effort - to use another metaphor - in this jungle to try and achieve the required policy. Given the present state of timber supply across the world you do have to - I would not use a word like compromise - accept that the standards which you would like to apply will not necessarily automatically apply. All that you can do is actively seek to implement those higher standards, to get independent verification. It is not very often possible to get it. Maybe we have not always tried sufficiently to get it but even if we did, given the present state of transfer down the chain of custody, that information is not available.
(Mr Meacher) I find even approximate quantification impossible to give. I would say in the case of most suppliers of tropical hardwoods, and it is there where the problem really lies, and with many of the African countries, Cameroon is obviously one that comes to mind over Sapele wood, these kinds of assurances cannot be obtained with the precision that we would like. I think a great deal of capacity building is needed. We are contributing to this. DFID gives, I think it is, £20 million a year to developing countries to assist them in greater capacity building to deal with these issues over sustainable timber. I think we have done our bit, I hope other countries do too, but we have still got quite a long way to go and it does apply to most countries, if not nearly all, in that region.
(Mr Meacher) There was the OGC, Office of Government Commerce, guidance to all heads of procurement about timber purchasing. That was actually January 2001, so that followed. I withdraw that because you were asking about what was the situation before. The advice which I gave, or the guidance which I gave, was reiterated in January 2001 and it was meant to influence the timber buyers, and I think it has had some considerable influence. The answer is clearly we have not done enough. It was perfectly clear afterwards that we did not realise the devolvement and fragmentation of timber procurement by Central Government in different departments, NDPBs, quite apart from local authorities. It has turned out to be a far wider and more diverse mosaic than I think we realised. I think we did need to have done more preparatory work before we issued the policy.
(Mr Meacher) No, no. I do not want to give the impression of that. Governments do very rigorously prepare policy where there is a policy change. I am saying we did not do it as fully as we should. I certainly do not want to give the impression that we just had a written answer from a Minister and we threw it into the air and just waited for it to happen, it certainly was not like that.
(Mr Meacher) What I am saying is that we were having to communicate with other Government departments. We believed that the guidance sent out would accurately achieve that, that it would get the effect we wanted. One of the things I have to say which shocks me is with regard to the Cabinet Office episode the Cabinet Office Head of Procurement has stated that he did not receive the notification sent by me on 29 September 2000 of the model policy becoming a binding commitment. The contract was awarded in December 2000 before the OGC advice note reminded heads of procurement of the policy. Again, one assumes within Government that when you communicate to other Government departments that information, that relevant instruction, goes down the line to the appropriate person and that it is immediately adhered to.
(Mr Meacher) Absolutely.
(Mr Meacher) I do find myself puzzled and alarmed by some of the implications of this. I think it is only fair to say on our behalf that we would not have expected that. We had no grounds for thinking that. This is what I like to regard as a Class A Government and when instructions go down the line, as in Class A private sector organisations, you expect them to be adhered to.
(Mr Meacher) Which year?
(Mr Meacher) Whether you put down such a question is a matter for your sovereign decision.
(Mr Meacher) I certainly do not think it is necessary. I do not think there will be any question whatsoever but that No.10 will adhere to the letter to the details of the policy. I have not actually seen that answer from the Northern Ireland Minister. Obviously I will want to look at that rather carefully but I would be very surprised indeed if in the light of events over the last few months this policy had now not permeated to all the corners of Government where it needed to, including the private contracting authority.
(Mr Meacher) No, I am not advising you.
(Mr Meacher) I am saying it is a matter for you whether you do but I am saying I do not think it will be necessary. If you want to have reassurance, please do.
(Mr Meacher) I think it was. We will come back immediately with a written response on that.
(Mr Meacher) One hundred per cent.
(Mr Meacher) I think I have said enough to say that although we entered into that policy in very good faith and with the right intentions, we under-estimated the complexities of the problem and in particular the fragmentation of the procurement network. We have put in place an ERM consultancy in order to try and learn the lessons of that incident. That report will be published in about September of this year and I can certainly tell the Committee that it is likely that the final report will conclude that independent verification is the only credible form of evidence. I do not think we doubted that but some people have raised that as an issue. Secondly, that Government contracts should define requirements of sustainable management and chain of custody management in terms of agreed international principles and management systems which, let me say, are themselves in a somewhat inchoate state but there is increasingly now much more discussion, including at EU level. There was, for example, an EU workshop on Forest Law Enforcement, Government and Trade in April of this year. Thirdly, I believe it will state that it is unreasonable to expect Government to implement its policy in full over a short timescale and that progressive targets need to be established, bearing in mind all the variegated players in this. Fourthly, that concentration on a few key suppliers would yield significant benefits fairly quickly. Lastly, that some form of guidance resource centre will be needed to help Government buyers who will never possess the expertise needed to understand all the issues. The key point here is concentration on a relative number of suppliers to make sure that the policy is totally and fully understood by them and that they can implement it and having a centralised form of guidance which is known to all the buyers so that the complexity of the issues can properly be communicated at least to them.
(Mr Meacher) We are waiting, of course, for the ERM consultancy. As I say, it is only two or three months away. I agree that in the light of that we will have to address, and should address, the whole issue of resources and targets and of timescales and that is what we intend to do.
(Mr Meacher) Clearly FSC, Forest Stewardship Council, is the standard that most people work to. Our policy, as I have already indicated, has from the outset been to require independent verification but it does not limit suppliers to the certification scheme. I would here say to the Committee that France and Germany have decided to go down that route and we will be carefully watching what happens. Our view is that the absence of a certificate does not necessarily prove that a supplier has not sourced the timber from sustainable and legal sources.
(Mr Meacher) It does not necessarily prove it.
(Mr Meacher) Let me move towards that and I will answer it. It is also the case that the procurement rules do not allow public sector buyers to demand eco-labelled products without giving suppliers an opportunity to find an equivalent means of proving that their products meet the technical and quality criteria specified. But, having said that, I entirely accept that certification may well be the most practical and cost-effective means of meeting requirements. We have to take a view with regard to other standards that are out there in the field. In the case of smaller forests in the UK there is the UK Woodland Assurance Standard. It was recognised by FSC in 1999 which meant that UK woodland owners could provide FSC certified products. There are other foreign standards, the pan-European Forest Certification, there is a Canadian Standards Association, the American Sustainable Forestry Initiative. The answer to the question is we intend to evaluate all of those against the highest standards as reflected in FSC but it is our view that at this stage we should not be restricted to FSC absolutely. Not that we wish to water down or diminish those very high standards but to give an opportunity for other certification systems to meet those high standards.
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
(Mr Meacher) That is perfectly correct. How far France and Germany, by limiting their procurement to FSC, infringe EU procurement rules is a matter for the Commission. As I say, FSC is the internationally comprehensively recognised standard. Our view is, and I think we would stick with this, not to try and underplay FSC but it is reasonable that other standards can meet all the requirements of the policy and that we should not dismiss those. In the discussions which will take place in Brussels in the preparation of a new EU Directive I think it will be an interesting discussion between us and France and Germany.
(Mr Meacher) We tried to do it first of all in July 2000. We were the first to do that. I am criticising the inadequacies of policy implementation but taking pride in the fact that we were at least the first to try and do it and other countries are following in our footsteps. But, as I say, we have learned that it was more complex than we expected. I agree the right way, of course, would be to have a common policy across the EU. Should that be a Framework Directive, how far should it be prescriptive, what degree of flexibility or discretion should Member States have is all for discussion. The workshop that you are referring to in April 2002 was not primarily, I understand, about standards or about the application of policy in Member States, it was about what is called FLEGT, Forest Law Enforcement, Government and Trade. It was about relations with the supplying countries on the basis of the Indonesian precedent, how far that could be extended, whether it should be done on a multilateral basis between the EU and a number of the supplying countries, that was the prime focus. The second part of your question takes it further in terms of having a common policy of the imported countries, and I agree that is just as important and the Directive will clearly move in that direction.
(Mr Meacher) The normal process in the preparation of a Directive is that some draft proposals are brought forward by the Commission and then discussed in the Working Group where there are expert members from all Member States. Where we have to go in Brussels, I do not know. We may have a little list of items to come back to the Committee.
(Mr Meacher) I entirely agree with you that it is not wise to wait until the policy hardens into cement but when it is still soft and malleable is the time when one needs to provide an input. I am told that we are at the stage only of preliminary discussions and there have been no votes but clearly the momentum will rise towards the latter part of this year. Of course, I would obviously expect the UK representatives fully to be reflecting the line which we are now taking and in the line of any new guidance which we may give when we get the ERM consultancy report in September.
(Mr Meacher) Well, I was rather under the impression that we were having it now. You are having a discussion with me prior to the policy being formed via the Working Groups leading to a draft Directive in Brussels. If the Committee wanted to have a further discussion of some form obviously, either with all the Members or certain Members, I would be very pleased to do that.
(Mr Meacher) The other point, of course, is if the Committee produces its report, as I assume it will, that will be taken along with the ERM consultancy report as one of the major inputs into the formation of UK policy, there is no question about that. If you want it to follow your report and if we had a Government response, and I will undertake to try and make that as rapid as possible, if in the light of that when we have had an initial written exchange you wanted to have a further meeting, I would be very pleased to do so.
Chairman: Thank you, Minister. Mr Lucas.
(Mr Meacher) That is a perfectly good question. There may well be different reasons in each case. Certainly one of the factors is the very variable data capture system which exists in different departments. It may be the amount of resources that departments were prepared to give to this because it is a new dimension, a new thrust of policy, or the speed at which they sought to implement it may vary. None of those are excuses. I accept when Government collectively makes a decision that it is going to change policy in a particular direction we expect all Government departments within a reasonable timescale to implement it and it did not happen. Of course, we have been following up why and making sure that in future that will not happen again.
(Mr Meacher) I can say several things to the Committee. First of all, Green Ministers, which I chair, have asked their departments to review their activities and the feedback we have had does indicate that there is unquestionably greater awareness and more effort to implement policy, but I want a written report which will set out in detail what the department is doing in each case. I think that is a major difference. We are developing new guidance, as I say, in the light of the ERM consultancy. We are developing realistic progressive targets for the amount of certified products supplied. Departments have been asked to improve their data collection capacity so that progress can be better measured, that will be reflected in the reports they write. We are working closely, I do insist, with the Office of Government Commerce and other departments to raise awareness of the major suppliers. We are also planning training and development initiatives to ensure that buyers are fully equipped to implement the policy. I believe that set of objectives to implement across Central Government does show that we are trying to learn the lessons of what has happened so far and the deficiencies in some respects, not in all respects but in some respects.
(Mr Meacher) All of them will be expected to. I have written this letter to all Government departments and they are all represented, I think all represented, there may be one or two who are not for some reason, but unquestionably all the main departments whose activities have any impact on environment or sustainable development are represented on my Green Ministers Committee. I am proud of the fact that we have made, I think, very good advances in terms of publishing annual reports which give more and more detailed information, comparative data between departments in quantified form on the degree to which sustainable development objectives have been achieved. This is going to be added to it so that that information will be provided in the most quantified form that we can achieve and certainly it will be comparative between departments. I believe this whole process needs to be transparent.
(Mr Meacher) You should say that a little more loudly.
(Mr Andrew) DETR was unable to.
(Mr Meacher) In the last year I have been in DEFRA, which is not quite the same, but I am not trying to play off one department against another.
(Mr Meacher) I am doing my best. DETR, of course, was pre-2001 and the E, rightly or wrongly, has gone elsewhere, so it is DTLR you are actually referring to. I take the point.
(Mr Meacher) That is probably a fair comment. I like to think that a policy like this, which of course is not produced by a single Minister and a single department, and we would like other people to do it, this policy is not set down in writing and issued until it has been agreed amongst all Government departments. Let me make clear it is not the case that other Government departments ignored it, obviously not, or downplayed it or dismissed it. I utterly repudiate that. What they failed to do as fully as I think they should have done was to implement it in the detail and precision that was required. I am sure that with the pressure on resources, the speed at which a new policy like this is taken on board and implemented varies.
Chairman: Would you add institutional resistance to that category?
(Mr Meacher) I cannot comment on what the reasons were. I suspect it was far more a question of taking things more slowly and of feeling that there was adequate time, feeling that other pressures on resources in that department were greater. It is unfortunately this sort of undertow of Inertia rather than, I think, deliberate resistance. I really do not believe that any department in Government does not believe it is important that we should not over-exploit the scarce rainforests and the species which in some cases could be threatened with extinction and that we should get it from sustainable resources, I do not think anyone would disagree with that, it is a question of how much effort is actually given to implementing that against what have always traditionally been the objectives of each individual department.
(Mr Meacher) It is more resistant than that, there is no doubt about that.
(Mr Meacher) All new policies will encounter some resistance and I am afraid that that kind of wild and assertive statement of independence and disregard for other objectives, obviously I greatly regret that and I am sure that whoever said that is rapidly going to learn that if you are going to deal with Government departments you cannot just make your own decisions.
(Mr Meacher) Absolutely. We will insist that suppliers of timber who think they know best and who are not going to independently verify that it is sustainable and legal sources will not have Government any more as a customer.
Ian Lucas: We will be watching you.
(Mr Meacher) I think it is fair to say that the media coverage which was given to this incident and the very fact that it was located right within the heart of Government has undoubtedly given a big impetus to this policy. I wish it had not required that but it has certainly produced a change of tempo, there is no doubt about that.
(Mr Meacher) I wondered if I was now going to get through a Committee without the word "fridges" being mentioned but that is obviously not the case. These are all totally different issues. For reasons I will not go into, because it is outside the brief today, there is waste, electronic and electrical equipment and end of life vehicles, both are very, very different from the fridges issue. I am absolutely clear about what went wrong on the fridges issue and it was not Government policy, but I do not want to dwell on that. We are talking today about illegal logging. What you are asserting is perfectly reasonable, that I need support in terms of ensuring that the policy is integrated across Government. I look to the Environmental Audit Committee as an ally, maybe you are going to savage me as well but I look to you as an ally in achieving the integration of that policy. There is no reason why the EAC could not organise some audit of other Government departments' timber procurement. I hope you will do that. Rather than me defending other Government departments to you, I hope that you might consider asking them directly, partly because no doubt you will get fuller and more accurate answers. I feel that I have the same objective as you. In any large and vast and ramified organisation where you introduce a new dimension of policy, the great problem is getting it accepted by everyone in the manner that was intended. It is never 100 per cent at the start. The more pressure that can be brought to bear by the EAC, the better as a result of the report that you are going to produce. I am sure all of that will be helpful.
(Mr Meacher) I was not for one moment suggesting that you would substitute for me or that you would take over my responsibility. I am not trying to slough off my responsibility, absolutely not at all. All that I am saying is that you can perfectly properly ask me, given my intentions which I have made very clear to get this policy integrated and distributed right across Whitehall. We are doing our best. It is working better. The Cabinet Office incident will undoubtedly accelerate that process. You do, I think, have some role. I think we share an objective. It is not just a question of engaging Ministers and criticising Ministers, all of which is your perfect right to do, it is playing a positive role towards the same objective, that is all that I am saying.
Chairman: There is certainly no institutional resistance to that, I can assure you.
(Mr Meacher) That is, again, one of the issues which I imagine will derive from the ERM Report which we will get in a couple of months' time. We propose to produce an action plan following that ERM Report and to seek the resources and the authority necessary to implement it. I think that is the answer to your question. The Treasury, together with DEFRA, obviously has a lead role. The OGC is responsible for Government procurement, it is the lead department in negotiations with the EU. Treasury also leads on, for example, the Achieving Excellence Initiative which features sustainable construction and on best practice within PFI and PPP and, of course, the Treasury is in the best position to ensure that resources are there to make that policy work. The OGC has also produced a document called Buying Solutions which set up contracts for other Government departments to use, including in regard to furniture, construction timber and paper contracts. So there is an attempt to put other departments in a position to be able to do these things efficiently, to meet the procurement rules which the Treasury is custodian of, but also to meet the wider environmental requirements.
(Mr Meacher) We are, of course, just about to get the results of Spending Review 2002. I hesitate to make any predictions about distribution of expenditure post that. I take the point that you make that there is constant pressure, of course, on Government departments, NDPBs and all the rest, to be more efficient and to cut out unnecessary expenditure, let alone waste. I would not expect that any such savings would cut against this policy, particularly given the salience that it now has.
(Mr Meacher) I hope that we can take credit for the fact that we set down this policy, I think as a first within the EU or within the Western nations. I think it is good that we did that. I only repeat myself when I say that it was not as rigorously and comprehensively implemented at all levels as it should have been. We under-estimated the complexity of the whole framework of timber procurement. It is true, I acknowledge, that Greenpeace did a service in making clear that the policy was not working. I do not think anyone in Government thanks them for the fact that they chose the Cabinet doors to do it but they did, quite rightly, draw attention to the deficiencies of Government policy and we are now trying positively to respond to that.
(Mr Meacher) I entirely agree that there should be consistency of policy objectives and of all key organisations such as the BREEAM, British Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methods for offices which was issued in 1998. That needs to be entirely consistent with Government policy. I do not think there was ever a contradiction. I think there were some areas where it was obviously less consistent than it should be and we are trying to correct that, a revised version will be published in September of this year. I have here the details of the document which in all formations, even in 1998, we would accept and I do not think need change. "All softwood timbers and temperate hardwoods are to be from sustainable sources. Tropical hardwoods in timber ....are generally avoided, they are only to be allowed where the Contractor has provided ...information... on (a) the species and country of origin of each hardwood timber. (b) the name of the concession/plantation within each of the countries of origin which supply these timbers/products, (c) copies of each of the forestry policies pursued by the concession/plantations that must confirm that a sustainable resource policy is followed, (d) relevant shipping documents confirming that the UK supplier has actually obtained these timbers from the given plantation/concession. None of the relevant material should be ordered before confirmation of the acceptability of this documentation etc." That is a pretty clear, precise and, I would say, comprehensive statement of the requirements. That was published in 1998. We are reviewing Government policy now, as we keep on saying. If that needs to be updated, changed, made more consistent, we will produce a revised version that does that. I do not want to give the impression that you have two parts of Government drawing in different directions, the overlap is overwhelming.
(Mr Meacher) I think your last sentence overstates the position rather but of course I entirely agree with ----
(Mr Meacher) Even over the Cabinet Office, if I can just briefly comment on that because I know it has already had considerable discussion but there are some facts about that which I do think need to be taken into account. The project began before the model timber policy became a binding commitment and the consultant project manager was not under instruction to obtain independent verification of the timber source, that is point one. Secondly, one of the buildings is a Grade 1 listed and the planning consent required new wood to "match", that was the word used, the original mahogany.
(Mr Meacher) I am not aware of that but I will check on that.
(Mr Meacher) The third point is that the OGC guidance at the time was to minimise rainforest depletion. We would use rather different and stronger language today but that was what applied then. Fourthly, the specification was based on the RIBA standard which refers to timber from a "sustainable yield". Fifthly, at the time the timber trade, through their Forests Forever Campaign, advised against specifying independent certification until there was an international recognition as to what that meant. Sixthly, the architect decided that the term "renewable source" was the best compromise and that was the term used. I am not making excuses, I am not trying to wish away what happened, I am saying it is not quite as simple as it looks. The original specification and the range of conditions underlying this particular contract were not those that would be laid down today. It is not the case that there was a wild assumption that we would go off into the wide blue yonder and just buy what on earth we liked, there was a serious attempt to deal with the issues but the contract specification was not as clear and precise as it would be today.
(Mr Meacher) Mr Andrew, I am sure, can respond himself. Officials are cautious people, Ministers tend to be a bit more proactive.
(Mr Meacher) I certainly take the point that you are making. We have got to make real, clear and quantified progress. No doubt you may return to this in a year or two's time and we have got to have a system up and running which really works well and where holes or gaps in the policy are hard to find. That does mean that we have to be much more proactive in ensuring that other Government departments right down the line to the point at which the procurement is made in terms of the training of buyers, the implementation and supervision within each Government department of the progress being made and of any gaps, that is seriously in place. That is what I am committing, through Mr Andrews, he will be the one who does it, that this actually happens. I am never sure if I am supposed to say this about Government committees and I can never understand why they are so secretive, but we are intending to have a discussion about this in Green Ministers, it would be amazing if we were not. The matter is going to be explored and I want to make sure that all my colleagues are very well aware of what I expect of them and of what will happen if these are not delivered because the media and Parliament is now on to this.
(Mr Meacher) I agree with that. Alan Knight, who I know well, and he has chaired ACCPE and I think does very well, he was previously at B&Q. He has been extremely active and extremely proactive within private business in ensuring that these policies are put in place. I am sure he will be doing the same in Kingfisher. Obviously we want to collaborate precisely with people like him.
(Mr Meacher) I did in a previous answer refer to the triple aspect of the Treasury role. Obviously they have responsibility for Government procurement, they are involved in a number of timber or sustainable construction projects - I mentioned the Achieving Excellence one - and with the OGC they have set up contracts, buying contracts, for other Government departments to use in order to ensure that their buying units, by the right approach, innovate where necessary and balance the criteria in the proper way. They have tried proactively to do that. Obviously the procurement rules are designed to get value for money, no-one disputes the fact that that should obviously continue, it is a question of how far if you look at the life cycle analysis. Value for money does not always mean buying what in the short term may be the cheapest option. The procurement rules in this case do allow consideration of other criteria such as quality criteria, certification, FSC. They are not excluded. The point that I was making to Mr Thomas was that the procurement rules are not fixed on FSC but must allow a potential supplier an opportunity to say that his products do meet another standard which fully meets the quality criteria technical requirements of FSC. So whether it is FSC or an equivalent standard, they are compatible with the procurement rules. I do not want to give the impression that the Treasury by insisting on value for money prevents sustainability objectives being achieved, that is not the case.
(Mr Meacher) That is obviously one of the considerations, yes.
(Mr Meacher) I think having already indicated, which is probably beyond what I am supposed to do, that we will even be discussing it, I do not think I should go into details on the agenda. Obviously it is precisely that kind of issue that we would expect to discuss.
(Mr Meacher) Mr Andrew is saying about 15 per cent.
(Mr Andrew) But that is a very crude estimate.
(Mr Meacher) We had better confirm that.
(Mr Andrew) From the UK forests?
(Mr Andrew) Based on the fact that the UK forests produce about 50 per cent of the UK's timber, it is just a straight extrapolation.
(Mr Andrew) 15 from within the UK.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Meacher) This was in 2000/01, we are now a year on.
(Mr Meacher) I am grateful because I think the dialogue has somewhat ceased between us because I have answered your point.
(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.
(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 Meacher) Yes.
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 Pact 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.