Greening of Whitehall fails to convince

Scepticism about the Government's claim to have achieved the "greening of Whitehall" has been fuelled by the inability of every Department to answer a parliamentary question about its purchases of ozone-depleting chemicals, and by their confusion about the Government's policy on the issue. Meanwhile, two ministerial committees on the environment and energy efficiency have been disbanded, to be replaced by arrangements which are at least as opaque to public scrutiny.

The measures taken in the aftermath of the 1990 White Paper on the environment to integrate environmental considerations into the policies and housekeeping practices of every Department have been officially proclaimed as a world first for the UK. But assessing their effectiveness is often impossible because the procedures involved and their outcomes are treated as official secrets, or for one of the many other reasons which Whitehall has invented for keeping information out of the public domain.

An insight into the effectiveness of an official guide which urged "environment-friendly" housekeeping practices on all Departments last summer (ENDS Report 199, p 6) has now been provided by the answers to a series of parliamentary questions tabled by Labour's environment spokesman, Win Griffiths. The replies may usefully be seen in the context of what Environment Ministers have been pressing on businesses over the past couple of years.

In a speech last year, the then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine urged companies to introduce an environmental management system. This, he said, should begin with a review of environmental impacts, but "must also include setting environmental objectives and strategy for the firm, underpinning it with targets for improvement, checking that the targets have been achieved, and reporting on progress." Targets, Mr Heseltine added, must be challenging and "not simply determined by external constraints". And "increasingly such environmental target setting and performance against those targets should become a public process."

The replies given to Mr Griffiths indicate that the Government's own performance on ozone-depleting chemicals fails to match this prescription on every count:

  • Not one Department was able to say what its purchases of ozone-depleting chemicals had been in 1989-91. Either "no records" are kept, or the information is "not available", or it could only be obtained at "disproportionate cost". The only number came from the Treasury, which purchased "significantly less than one tonne" of the chemicals in that period.

    The data gap is no surprise. A serious shortcoming of the action guide, as ENDS pointed out last summer, is that it made no recommendations to Departments to collect statistics on their purchases. Ministers may therefore claim that their Departments have the brightest green purchasing policies, but will lack the information to demonstrate their effectiveness to their own and others' satisfaction.

    Every Department also ducked a question about its purchases of products made with ozone-depleting substances.

  • Few figures were provided on current stocks of ozone-depleting chemicals. The Defence Ministry estimated its stocks at about 2,000 tonnes, and is currently completing a baseline survey. The Treasury again said it had "significantly less than one tonne" in stock, while the Department of Education holds less than one tonne in air conditioning units. Other Departments were unable to provide any data.

  • Departmental policies on ozone-depleting chemicals vary widely. The least progress has apparently been made by the Home Office and the Ministry of Agriculture. Neither have a policy, although both are preparing one.

    Most Departments professed to have policies to replace ozone depleters, but with the customary Whitehall caveats attached. Alternatives are purchased where they are "suitable", "where possible", or where they provide "value for money".

    But the most striking feature of the replies was the wide variation in the timetables of Departments' phase-out plans. The Defence Ministry and the Welsh Office, for example, said they will cut their purchases in line with the phase-out programme prescribed in the Montreal Protocol. Most others said they would comply with the Protocol and a 1991 EC Regulation, apparently oblivious to the fact that they set different phase-out dates for CFCs in particular.

    Only the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of the Environment (DoE) have twigged that it has been Government policy since December to secure earlier international bans on ozone depleters than those laid down by either instrument, and that an agreement to that effect was reached by EC Environment Ministers in March (ENDS Report 206, pp 37-8 ). The DoE said that it intends, "if possible", to eliminate purchases of ozone-depleting chemicals and goods manufactured by them "in advance of" the phase-out dates set by the existing international rules.

    Overall, Departments' replies call into question the impact made by two committees whose remit is to co-ordinate action on the environment across Whitehall.

    One, a committee of civil servants, meets "from time to time" to check on the implementation of Departments' green housekeeping strategies, a House of Lords inquiry was told by a DoE official, John Stephens, in June. The second is a group of Green Ministers which also has this as one of its tasks. Neither appears to have transmitted Government policy on ozone-depleting chemicals across Departments.

    The new post-election membership of the Green Ministers group was announced on 18 June. Their status has hardly changed, with only six of the 20 Departments having a Green Minister of Cabinet rank.

    Two important developments which passed almost unnoticed have been the abolition of the Ministerial Group on Energy Efficiency, which was overseeing progress towards the official target to cut energy consumption in the Government estate by 15% over five years, and of one of the two Cabinet Committees on the environment set up in 1990.

    A Government spokesman defended the disbandment of the former in the House of Lords on 22 June by pointing out that its responsibilities will be taken on by the group of Green Ministers. This, he argued, "shows that the Government's commitment to energy efficiency grows even stronger," since the group has more senior representation.

    The claim is contested by Andrew Warren, Director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy. "The Ministerial Group was run by the Energy Secretary, and its members were able to push their Departments into action," he says. "Now energy efficiency looks like just being an adjunct to the group of Green Ministers, who will have many other issues to deal with."

    Mr Warren also fears that the statistics published in the Ministerial Group's first annual report will no longer be available. The report showed that half of the Government Departments increased their energy consumption and failed to meet the standards set for energy managers last year. The Government has promised that the data will be published in its annual progress report on the environment this autumn, but this is unlikely to give as full a picture.

    Whitehall insiders suggest that the abolition of the Cabinet Committee should not be taken at its face value. Its passing, Mr Stephens told the Lords inquiry, was accompanied by a new standing instruction that the environmental costs and benefits of policy decisions considered by all other Cabinet Committees are set out "where appropriate". This could be read as a deepening of the greening process - though the chances that those cost-benefit analyses will ever enter the public domain are close to zero.

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