Committee gets mixed response to "greening Government" report

Recommendations by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee to beef up the "greening Government" initiative have received a mixed response from the Government. 1 Green Ministers are to publish an annual report and work to a clearer agenda, and all Departments are to begin introducing environmental management systems by the end of the Parliament. But the Government has rejected recommendations that it should establish a clear policy on when Departments must carry out and publish environmental appraisals of their policies, and has also failed to set out arrangements for environmental reporting.

The Committee published its report on the "greening Government" initiative in July (ENDS Report 282, pp 37-39 ). It expressed disappointment at what it perceived as a lack of "active leadership" from the Prime Minister and senior colleagues. The report also urged a more active role for the group of Green Ministers. And it recommended measures to improve environmental appraisal of policies, environmental reporting, and green housekeeping and environmental management systems in Whitehall.

The Government's response makes plenty of positive noises. But it has accepted only a few of the recommendations in full. The Committee intends to keep up the pressure with a short inquiry early in 1999.

  • Cabinet Committee: The report recommended that the remit of the Cabinet Committee on the environment should expressly cover sustainable development, as well as the environmental impacts of policies which may not have specific environmental objectives.

    The Government has gone part-way to accepting this recommendation, announcing that the Committee's remit has been revised to read: "To consider environmental policies and coordinate those on sustainable development." However, on the second part of the Audit Committee's recommendation, it merely notes that other Cabinet Committees are "of course expected" to take account of sustainable development.

    The Government has accepted the recommendation that the Cabinet Committee should receive regular reports from Green Ministers (see below).

    The Audit Committee also recommended that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) should, in conjunction with the Cabinet Office, monitor the effectiveness of the environmental statements which are supposed to accompany relevant Cabinet papers. The Govern-ment has rejected this recommendation, but has promised to introduce a formal requirement on Departments to seek the DETR's views when preparing Cabinet papers with "significant environmental implications."

  • Green Ministers: The Committee was not overly impressed by the progress made by Green Ministers. It recommended a clarification of the group's relationship with the Cabinet Committee, as well as regular reporting both to that Committee and to the public. The report also urged that Green Ministers should set themselves concrete targets on green housekeeping, policy appraisal and integration of environmental considerations into Departmental policies.

    In its response, the Government promises that all three of these issues will be considered at each of the Green Ministers' three meetings per year. A "cross-cutting issue of current interest" will also be considered. Objectives and targets for their work programme will be set "wherever possible".

    The Government has also promised that Green Ministers will report to the Cabinet Committee twice a year, beginning at the end of 1998. Annual reports will also be published - though these will not be the reports submitted to the Cabinet Committee, as advocated by the Audit Committee.

  • Reporting: The Committee recommended that reporting of progress against the Government's environmental objectives should take place at several other levels.

    Firstly, it advocated an annual report to Parliament on the Government's performance against its sustainable development strategy and targets, backed by an annual volume of sustainable development indicators as well as a comprehensive assessment of the state of sustainable development in the UK once in a Parliament. The Government has declined to respond, saying that reporting arrangements will be announced when the strategy is published early next year.

    Secondly, the Committee recommended that there should be an annual parliamentary debate on each progress report on the strategy. But the Government is "not convinced" of the case for using its own time in the Commons for such debates.

    Thirdly, the report suggested that all Departments should set out their environmental performance in their annual reports - an area in which they have a particularly poor record. The Government has given a non-committal response, noting that Departments' annual reports are "one vehicle" for environmental reporting, while separate environmental reports are another.

  • Environmental appraisal: As with reporting, Departments' performance in following official guidance on environmental appraisal of their policies has been patchy at best - and as with reporting the Government appears content to leave matters to individual Departments. The Committee was unable to discover either the extent to which appraisals are being conducted or a clear Government policy on publication of appraisals. It recommended clarification on both points, and also urged that Green Ministers should sponsor independent audits of appraisal practices.

    The Government has declined to act. It has been left to individual Departments to justify their approaches to environmental appraisal, formulate their own publication policies, and decide whether to commission external audits.

  • Green housekeeping: There is little to show from the previous Government's green housekeeping initiative, introduced in 1991. The Committee urged the Green Ministers to inject some momentum by setting Government-wide targets and benchmarking Departments' performance.

    In response, the Government says that all Departments will be expected to have targets for energy, water, waste and transport by 1999/2000. Benchmarking is to start with energy efficiency.

  • Environmental management systems: The Committee was particularly critical of the slow progress in introducing EMSs. The Government has accepted "in general" that all Departments should have begun introducing them by the end of the Parliament - but only where "efficient and cost-effective."

    The Committee also challenged the Government to set itself the same target as it has thrown down to top companies - that at least 75% of Departments should have at least one site certified to the environmental management standard ISO14001 by 2001. The Government says it is "sympathetic" to the idea and promises to "approach future work with that objective in mind."

  • Government guidance on environmental appraisal is of little help in appraisal of policies, according to a review carried out by economist Professor David Pearce. "Virtually all" the guidance relates to projects rather than policies - and that which does exist focuses on how to assess risks and costs.

    At present, says Professor Pearce, Departments have little option but to "opt for a mix of professional judgement, 'back of the envelope' calculation, and whatever modelling is available." Guidance is also lacking on multi-criteria analysis, even though this technique is becoming more widely accepted. The report calls for a manual on the use of valuation techniques in support of cost-benefit analyses because "there is evidence that contingent valuation studies are not always carried out in an acceptable manner."

    Environment Minister Michael Meacher welcomed the report and announced that the DETR is commissioning further work to fill the gaps it identified: "The Government will initiate projects...to provide guidance material on undertaking multi-criteria analysis and on undertaking contingent valuation."

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