Examination of Witnesses (Questions 99-119)|
MP AND DR
THURSDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2001
99. Welcome, Minister and Secretary of State,
we are delighted to have you here this afternoon. Thank you for
coming, I know you have had a busy time in the last couple of
weeks. Thank you also for your memorandum which we received yesterday,
which was rather late in the day.
(Mr Byers) I am sorry about that.
100. I think it covers one or two points we
had intended to ask you but, nonetheless, we have obviously got
quite a lot of questions outstanding. We will be focusing on the
effect on sustainable development and environmental protection
of the new departmental arrangements but will also be asking you
of other matters in transport and local government, etc., which
are your responsibility. Is there anything you would like to add
to the memorandum which you sent us before we begin our questioning
of you both?
(Mr Byers) Just to say, as you know, Chairman, this
is not the first time that I have appeared in front of your Committee
to discuss these issues, although the first time as Secretary
of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. As you
will certainly be aware, when I was Secretary of State for Trade
and Industry I tried to move forward very much on the agenda which
is at the heart of this Committee's work, and I certainly want
to do the same in this new Department. I think there are some
interesting machinery of government changes which I would be very
interested in due course to hear from the Committee on in its
recommendations on the alterations which have been introduced.
I am still very much of the view, as I was when I was Secretary
of State for Trade and Industry, that really for all Government
Departments the sustainable development agenda has got to be a
key focus because it cuts across so many different areas. You
touched on transport, local government, the regions, planning,
housing, in all of those areas for which I now have responsibility
the sustainable agenda is really a very key part of what we do.
I and Alan Whitehead, as Minister with specific responsibility
for this area, are looking forward to not just giving evidence
before you today, and I do apologise for the memorandum coming
to you so late in the day, but then to receiving your recommendations
in due course.
Chairman: Thank you for saying that, Secretary
of State, we are always glad to have the importance of sustainable
development emphasised and, as you say, it is very much a-cross-cutting
issue which is why the relations between your Department and other
Departments is so very important. I know Mr Wright wants to lead
off on this.
101. Secretary of State, your Department has
lost the "E", has it not, in terms of its former responsibilities,
you have no longer got "Environment" in the title? Obviously
much was made when DETR was created about this cross-cutting agenda
with environment and you mentioned in your memorandum a number
of elements of work that do cross over into environment. What
do you think are the main problems, why have you lost the "E"?
(Mr Byers) The decision to restructure Government
after the June election was made, I think, for very clear reasons.
Part of the General Election campaign was very much about delivery
of public services, at least it was for the Government. Perhaps
for the Conservatives it was more about Europe and where we should
go in terms of the single currency, but
102. We try to be non-party political.
(Mr Byers) I was not making a party political point,
Chairman, as you will realise. The more serious about it is this
question of delivery. If you look at the changes that were introduced,
the Home Office had a number of its responsibilities that were
taken out. We now are responsible for fire and for electoral law
matters because the Home Office is now very focused on delivery
in relation to tackling crime, asylum and immigration, that is
their key focus. In my Department the key focus is obviously transport
and the view was taken by the Prime Minister that environment
is so important, is so crucial, that it needed to be in its own
Department, as it were, to make sure there could be a proper concentration
on the various initiatives, not just here in the United Kingdom
but worldwide, that we are engaged in as a Government. What that
does mean in practice is how we can make sure with the areas that
I have got responsibility for, whether it is transport, planning,
local government, housing, regeneration and so on, that we do
not ignore the environmental concerns. When you look at the areas
we have got responsibility for, particularly transport and planning,
then environment has to be key to what we do. The fact that, if
you like, almost the sponsor Department for environment is elsewhere,
does not give any excuse for me as Secretary of State to ignore
the environmental consequences of any decisions that we take.
It is very important that as a Department we have in place proper
processes and proper procedures to make sure, firstly, we have
a very good and constructive working relationship with the Department
for Environment and, secondly, within our own Department we take
into account environmental concerns in the decisions that we take,
and I think we have managed to do that, and, thirdly, the idea
of developing ourselves, our own policy, as far as sustainable
development is concerned. This was something I did when I was
Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and it was very important
in that Department, which traditionally was regarded as one which
did not think very much about the environment, to have a policy
on sustainable development and I intend to do the same within
this Department as well.
103. Would you say that there is a danger within
DEFRA that it will be dominated by former Ministry of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Food issues? Certainly from some of the evidence
we took a week ago, was there was a feeling that the Department
would really step into the shoes of MAFF and that environment
would then be lost between two stools. I am really concerned that
that may happen.
(Mr Byers) I am sure this Committee will not allow
it to happen and I do think there will be pressures from Members
of this House but also from the public. What has struck me over
recent months, perhaps the last year or 18 months, is that the
quality of life agenda, livability agenda, is now of far greater
importance to people than it used to be. That is a very important
political lesson for all of us to learn as elected politicians,
that we cannot ignore the concerns that people have got about
the environment, about their quality of life, about what is going
on in their own environment. When there are structure of government
changes, machinery of government changes, they do need to reflect
the priorities of the people out there. If you talk to the Secretary
of State at DEFRA, she is acutely aware of the importance of the
environmental agenda and I am pretty sure she will not allow the
MAFF agenda, if I can put it that way, to dominate.
104. I think we probably accept that at ministerial
level there is a commitment there but what about officer commitment
and Civil Service commitment down the line? What structures have
you put in place to protect and cross work on this issue?
(Mr Byers) I think we have put in place good and meaningful
procedures and arrangements. I was very conscious, and perhaps
these are worries Members of the Committee have got, that with
environment moving out of the Department that would then mean
that those sorts of issues just would not be addressed at all.
I thought it was important to make sure that we had structures
in place, both formal and informal, to make sure that the very
good working relationships which were clearly there when it was
one Department could be continued in the new arrangements. There
is actually a concordat which has been agreed between the two
Departments at Permanent Secretary level which the Secretary of
State for DEFRA and myself have agreed to. It might be valuable
if we can share that concordat with the Committee.
105. Indeed, let us have that. It would be helpful.
(Mr Byers) If I could just check with the Secretary
of State for DEFRA that she is happy, and I am sure she will be,
then it will be useful for you to be able to see that. Also, working
relationships at ministerial level where we have a good formal
relationship where I see the Secretary of State for DEFRA every
couple of months on a formal basis and we also talk informally.
Obviously we see each other every week at Cabinet. That works
through the ministerial teams as well. There is a member of DEFRA
on our Transport Board, for example, to make sure that those concerns
which might be there on environmental aspects are considered.
There is a very good cross-working relationship between the two
106. There is one thing I want to explore a
bit further. You mentioned before that the Prime Minister decided
to extract the environment side and have a Department by itself
but it will not be by itself as it was prior to the 1997 election.
I wondered whether you were really saying that the enormous Department
that was put together after the 1997 election was, to be blunt,
a disaster and was nothing more than an ego trip for one certain
Deputy Prime Minister.
(Mr Byers) I am sure that was not the case. From where
I understand the Committee are coming from, I think the Committee
themselves could see benefits of a Department of that nature.
I think what has happened since 1997 is that, particularly on
the international stage environment, as we all know, has taken
on greater importance which has meant if we are going to be engaged
as a global player we have had to commit a lot more of our time
not just to the environment and issues to do with the environment
here in the United Kingdom but have had to be players on the international
stage. Very often that has involved Secretaries of State, Deputy
Prime Ministers being away for seven days at international conferences,
it is very time-consuming, it has taken up a lot of time of civil
servants. I think on reflection, now that we know that these are
international matters that are going to be dealt with, there was
sense in actually taking environment out. I take your point about
it being part of a wider Department but I think if you talk to
the Secretary of State at DEFRA she will say that a lot of her
time is spent on issues to do with the environment and it is not
being ignored. I think most people thought, and even this Committee
may have said so in the previous Parliament, that there was merit
in trying to make the links between environment, transport, planning
and so on.
107. I thought that one of the integral points
of combining the two Departments after the 1997 election was transport,
which obviously in the UK is a fundamental part of improving the
environment, improving public transport to get people off the
roads, etc., etc., but that has been torn apart since the 2001
General Election. How do you equalise those two statements?
(Mr Byers) I do not see it as being torn apart. What
I do see it as being is a transport plan, which we have got in
place, the Ten Year Plan, which will take into account those issues
to do with congestion, to do with emissions and so on, which some
people would say is the straight environment agenda. To me, that
is part of a good transport policy. It is almost about main streaming
the environment. This is the classic debate, is it not, about
whether you have environment as a self-contained monitoring body
which then imposes itself on transport, on planning, on housing,
or whether people in those Departments, in the teams in my Department,
actually see the environment as being an integral part of what
they do in developing policies in those areas. The benefit from
having had the environment within the Department between 1997
and 2001 is that people in the Department are now more acutely
aware of environmental concerns. Certainly in the conversations
that I have with civil servants they do not ignore the environment.
There are areas when I do not naturally think of the environment
where they are saying "actually we do need to think about
108. You are saying that it has had a good effect;
that for four years you had to take account of the environment
and that the old Transport Department did not perhaps as much
as it should have done? But will that effect not wear off as time
goes on? Is that not a danger?
(Mr Byers) I do not think so because of the political
priority that is going to be attached to the environment. I know
machinery of government is fascinating for all of us but ultimately,
certainly as Secretary of State, what drives me is responding
to the political needs of people out there.
109. It is also getting your civil servants
to respond to the people out there.
(Mr Byers) They should take the lead from the Secretary
of State in my view. If it is a priority for myself and the ministerial
team then we make sure that we get submissions, we get advice
on these issues so that we can see when we take a range of matters
into account, local transport plans, planning and so on, then
issues to do with the environment are reflected in those decisions
that we take. We just keep reminding people of the need to address
these concerns. I do not think the machinery of government changes
of themselves will lead to a reduction of the impact of concern
about the environment, but it is for us, as politicians, to make
sure that it is regarded as a priority and it should not be a
bureaucratic, administrative requirement.
(Dr Whitehead) I wonder if I might add, Chairman.
I think this is underlined by the role that I have been given
in the Departmental Ministerial Team as the Department's Green
Minister. That is not a role which is simply about green housekeeping
within the Department, although in the past Green Ministers in
various Departments have been viewed, I think erroneously, as
people who simply made sure the Department was green in its actions
internally. That is certainly not the case as far as DTLR is concerned.
I have a board level DTLR official as Sustainable Development
champion working within the Department, a sustainable development
team established and, indeed, the watchword of sustainable development
within the Department is central in terms of our policy development
particularly, for example, in terms of the submissions that are
presently being discussed for Spending Review 2002, all of which
I will see as Green Departmental Minister to ensure, among other
things, that central view of sustainable development as a theme
within the Department's activities is maintained coherently.
110. I totally agree with the Secretary of State
that the environment has definitely been kept on the political
agenda very firmly over the last few years with the electorate
and also on the international stage. That is why I am having some
trouble understanding why in going from this overblown Ministry,
it has effectively been neutered because the one thing that we
know about the environment is unless you have a totally holistic
approach it is useless. Piecemeal adoption of environmental policies
really add up to nothing. Do you not think that the Government
should reflect the importance it ought to place on the environment
by having a member of the Cabinet with a specific environment
portfolio as opposed to a bit of countryside along with agriculture
or with you with road building? I fail to see how you can have
a really strong, forward looking, powerful environmental policy
if you have got planning divorced from waste, or parts of waste,
if you have got road building divorced from emissions. I am quite
sure you are earnest in saying you take into account environmental
considerations, and quite rightly you should, as should every
Government Department, but there is a huge opportunity missed
here to actually put environmental issues and progress on the
environmental agenda back at the heart of Government.
(Mr Byers) I think it is still there to be honest.
We are back to the classic debate about whether you have a separate,
free standing Department, and in this case it is environment,
or whether you try to mainstream environmental issues within particular
111. But the two are not mutually exclusive,
(Mr Byers) No, they are not, but I do think if one
looks back at the experience of a free standing Department of
the Environment, I am not absolutely convinced. It was called
the Department of the Environment but had a lot more things added
to it, to be honest, it had local government and so on, so it
was not Mr Barker's example of
112. You are talking about pre-1997?
(Mr Byers) Yes, the pre-1997 Department that was called
Department of the Environment but, in fact, included a lot more
than just environment.
113. I think that was a time when the ecology
and the understanding of the importance of the environment was
different from the importance we would give it today.
(Mr Byers) I go back to the point I was making earlier.
I very much believe that you can mainstream environment in those
important policy areas and it should not be seen as something
which is isolated and not part of what you might be doing in trade
and industry or now transport, local government, planning and
114. Would you not accept that it is quite difficult
in this area in that the old pre-1997 arrangements were changed,
and that is the prerogative of the Government, but then a whole
brand new Department, a very large Department, was created and
so all the people who had to deal with that Department in local
government, NGOs and all sorts of people, began to get used to
how that Department worked and then just at the point after several
years when perhaps people were beginning to understand how that
worked and it was beginning to settle down, the whole thing was
thrown up in the air and reorganised yet again. That is not really
the best way to conduct public business, is it?
(Mr Byers) Some might say that we were responding
to the demands being made by the then Opposition who were very
115. It is all our fault, the Conservatives?
(Mr Byers) You will remember the situation before
the last election, Chairman, when there was lots of criticism
of DETR, as it then was, for the reasons that Mr Simmonds has
mentioned, that it was seen to be a rather large and unwieldy
Department. On the serious point about NGOs and groups getting
used to the issues, I would hope that those people will feel certainly
within my Department that they still get a warm welcome, that
they do have input into what we are doing in specific policy areas
and they are not somehow being ignored. That is the responsibility
of any Secretary of State in a new Department, where you develop
those good working relationships you make sure they can be retained.
I was acutely aware of those concerns, so very early on I had
a drinks reception for NGOs representing environmental interests
just to say very clearly that environment has moved to a different
Department but this is still going to be very much at the heart
of what I want to do in this new Department. I can understand
the concerns but really what we have got to do, and the challenge
for me as Secretary of State, is to make sure that we can engage
with those people, that it is a changed set-up but, nevertheless,
they feel they have got a genuine part to play in developing our
policies, in forming our thinking in these very important areas.
116. Can I just follow that up. This is a cross-party
point because my colleague mentioned from some of the evidence
that we took from NGOs last week a number of them were saying
that they had experienced real difficulties because of the changes
and just as they had found things had begun to settle down it
was all moved around again. So it is all very well to say what
you say but I just want to come back to you and say from our point
of view on a cross-party basis we think this is a real problem.
(Mr Byers) I look forward to seeing the recommendations
from the Committee and if that is the case I will certainly reinforce
my efforts to engage with NGOs. That should not be the case. If
that is happening, and I will look at the evidence you took last
week, that is not good and we need to do more to make sure that
there are processes in place where NGOs feel that they are playing
a valuable role, because they do.
117. I do not want to over-press the point but
if environment is not to be a free standing Department, although
obviously this Committee would accept that environment is relevant
to all other Departments, one would have thought the two most
natural Departments because of their impact on the environment
would either be transport or energy. In fact, that is what we
seem to have found in most of the other countries that we have
visited, that that is the pairing. I have to say that with rural
affairs, unless someone is going to come up for a miraculous cure
for the problem that bovine flatulence causes to the atmosphere,
I cannot see there is a direct relevance.
(Mr Byers) Perhaps the Secretary of State has a plan
in that direction. I do not know whether she has given evidence
yet but if she does you might want to put the question to her.
118. If I can follow up a general point on rather
more specific lines. To what extent do you feel the separation
of the responsibilities for environmental protection and transport
will make it more difficult to drive forward a sustainable, integrated
(Mr Byers) I do not think it needs to but it could
do. That means I think we have to be very mindful of the potential
to get ourselves into a position where we do not pay enough regard
to sustainable development issues when we develop our transport
plans. What we need to do, I think, especially as we develop the
Ten Year Transport Plan, which always has to be adapted to changing
circumstances, is to make sure those issues which are of concern,
whether it be congestion, the effect on local environment, emissions,
all of those effects have to be factored into our decisions. Certainly
when we look at things like road building, for example, they are
very much at the heart of our consideration, particularly with
a major project where environmental protection is going to be
very close certainly to my heart when it comes to the decision
119. You have mentioned already the concordat
you have with DEFRA, I wonder if you would say a little bit more
about how that will work in practice and what other communications
protocols you have with DEFRA?
(Mr Byers) Some of it is procedural. Very pleasantly
and occasionally the Secretary of State and myself will get together
and have a drink and informally