HC Deb 17 March 1999 vol 327 cc1035-58

[Relevant document: The Second Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 1997–98, on the Greening Government Initiative (HC 517).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

9.34 am
Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

I am delighted to introduce this debate on the Environmental Audit Committee's report on the greening government initiative. I wish to express my gratitude to my colleagues on the Liaison Committee for recommending it for consideration today. The report was published on 30 June last year and the Government's reply was received in November. This is, of course, the first report from the Environmental Audit Committee to be debated in the House of Commons, because the Committee was set up as a result of a manifesto commitment by the incoming Labour Government—one pledge that I am glad that they honoured. I shall not comment on any other pledges, because that would be outside the remit of this debate.

I congratulate my colleagues on the Committee on the way in which they have pursued our remit. We have worked hard and produced eight reports in 15 months, which is a considerable strike rate—one with which even Yorke and Cole of Manchester United would be pleased. Our thanks are due to our excellent Clerk and his team and I also wish to thank the Comptroller and Auditor General for seconding one of his best people to our team.

In some Committees, it is traditional to produce a majority report that Government Members support wholeheartedly and a minority report that is supported by the Opposition. All our reports have been unanimous. I am glad of that, and I hope that it will continue.

Our remit is to consider to what extent the policies and programmes of Government Departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to sustainable development and environmental protection, to audit their performance against such targets as shall be set for them by Ministers from time to time, and to report thereon to the House. Therefore, the report that we are considering today is central to our remit, because it is about the integration of the environment into Government decision making.

Our starting point is the Prime Minister's statement to the United Nations in New York in June 1997. He said: We must make the process of government green. Environmental considerations must be integrated into all our decisions, regardless of sector. They must be in at the start, not bolted on later. I have often thought that the Committee should have that statement put on an illuminated manuscript and sent to the Prime Minister to hang in the rooms occupied by the policy unit at No. 10. Perhaps we should also put it on the internet, as one does with everything these days, to ensure that no one is unaware of it. It is a bold statement and, to address it properly, the Government first need to establish proper machinery. Sensibly, they have based the machinery that they have set up on what was done by the previous Government. The Committee makes various criticisms of that machinery in our report, and I am glad to say that the Government have responded and improved it. Those improvements are elaborated in the Government's response to the report. The Government have not done as much as we would like, because there are still some holes, but our conclusion is that the machinery is adequate for the task. At the very least, it is not an impediment to doing what we all wish to be done in terms of sustainable development and environmental protection.

The Committee has also made the point consistently in all its reports, and especially in this one, that the machinery can be the best in the world but, if political leadership is absent, nothing will be achieved. That was very evident in our report on the multilateral agreement on investment—the MAI—which collapsed totally because of a lack of political agreement. Governments cannot leave civil servants to take decisions that must be taken by politicians. It is unfair, and it does not work.

We have made it clear in all our reports that, on balance, leadership is coming from the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Minister for the Environment can also take some credit. However, we have been scathing about the lack of leadership and commitment from the Treasury. Hon. Members will know that the Chancellor got the booby prize in the green awards this year. However, since the Budget, we have seen evidence of some change in the Treasury's approach. It has been pointed out that the Budget implemented or reinforced 14 of the 18 measures mentioned in the pre-Budget report, which is a good record. Also, at long last, the Government have introduced a new measure of their own and not one that they have inherited from the previous Government and elaborated. I refer of course to the climate change levy. We must hope that their conversion is deep and long-lasting.

So, leadership is evolving, and should lead to a clear strategy. However, here we have yet to see the colour of the Government's money. They have said that their sustainable development strategy will be a catch-all document, but, although it was promised last autumn, it will not now be available until 7 May, at the earliest.

The strategy has been substantially delayed, although, as the Select Committee has repeatedly pointed out, we are nearly two years into this Government, and crucial environmental decisions have already been taken. There have been a review of energy sources and a moratorium on the building of gas-fired stations. We have had the Marshall report and the comprehensive spending review, which fixed spending for three years. There have been public service agreements for every Department, the climate change consultation document, decisions on green-field and brown-field sites, and the roads review. All those decisions have been taken without the benefit of an overarching view from the Government of their role in sustainable development, and that is a great pity.

The up side is that the Government have given themselves time. It is imperative that they produce the goods when they publish their sustainable development strategy. It is particularly important, in the Committee's view, that the strategy should be capable of being audited. Responsibilities for particular areas must be clearly allocated and targets must be attached. The Government are, of course, extremely keen on targets. There are targets for hospital waiting lists, for class sizes, for teachers and for everyone else. It is time that the Government set some targets for themselves in a central area of policy.

We look forward to receiving the new document. Far be it from me to advise the Government on spin, but I would advocate that the Prime Minister should launch the strategy himself. That would provide evidence of commitment at the highest level, both to the Prime Minister's own words and to a proper policy for sustainable development.

I must continue to criticise two glaring omissions in the Government's approach to environmental protection and sustainable development. First, we asked for a day's debate each year on the annual sustainable development review. The Government rejected that idea, arguing in their response to our report that The broad scope of sustainable development means that there are likely to be a number of occasions each year when it can be debated in Parliament, for example in considering legislative proposals and the Budget. The choice of the Budget as an example was rather unfortunate; the Minister for the Environment was not in his place for any of the Budget debate, and his boss, the Secretary of State, was scuba-diving in the Maldives. That is a clear example of how environmental protection and sustainable development are simply sidelined.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

One advantage of setting aside a day each year is that it would enable minds to focus on what had been achieved over the previous year and on what difficulties had been experienced. Everyone appreciates that the agenda is difficult, and, if we do not have a day for such a debate, there may be a tendency for people to suggest that the issue is being brushed under the carpet.

Mr. Horam

My hon. Friend is quite right. We are very glad to have an hour and a half for debate today, but that does not stand comparison, particularly after four days of debate on technicalities of the Budget—important though they are—with focusing the mind of Parliament on the complex issues involved in sustainable development. It is vital that a day each year should be attached to the Government's report on progress on sustainable development so that we may examine policies and programmes in their entirety across the whole landscape of the environment, including wildlife, green fields, pollution and climate change. That debate is essential if the Government are to enter into the spirit of what the Select Committee is proposing. Failure to provide it is one black mark against them.

Even worse is the gaping black hole in the Government's position. We have no evidence that new or substantially revised policies are being subjected to any environmental appraisal. In our report on the comprehensive spending review, we asked three Departments to come up with such appraisals, but answer came there none.

It is particularly bad that the housing division of the Minister's own Department failed to respond with an environmental appraisal of its housing spending. We all know that the United Kingdom's housing stock is not good on warmth or insulation. It compares unfavourably with housing in Denmark—as we found on our trip to Copenhagen—and in other continental countries. Lack of environmental appraisals is jamming up policy on the domestic side of fuel and energy conservation. That is a further bad mark.

Quite apart from the Minister's own Department, the failure of others to provide environmental appraisals to the Select Committee fundamentally suggests that the bread and butter job of environmentally appraising all new policies, Bills and programmes simply is not being done across the range of Departments.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

Was it not particularly disappointing that the comprehensive spending review attached no environmental requirements to a rolling spending programme? The CSR was sold to us on the basis that Departments that did not come up to scratch would not receive additional money for each of the three years. It provided an ideal opportunity to attach an environmental requirement, but was it not a lost opportunity?

Mr. Horam

My hon. Friend will recall that the public service agreements that followed the CSR did not include an adequate reference to the environment in their objectives and aims. The Minister may wish to recall his own words to the Select Committee, where we are always glad to see him. Page 109 of the report states: Mr. Meacher told the Committee that the Green Ministers are committed to doing regular collective reviews of the quality and scope of environmental appraisals in their departments. He explained that he would expect departments to draw up a list, revised every six months or so, of important new policies which have significant environmental impacts where environmental appraisals have been done. The Green Ministers Committee would then discuss them and share experience. The Committee welcomes the intention of the Green Ministers Committee to review experience of policy appraisal in the departments and to spread best practice and experience of appraisals that have not gone so well and we look forward to receiving copies of these reviews in accordance with the Minister's undertaking to this Committee. The Minister will recall that he suggested that the reviews would be made available to the Committee. There are three meetings a year of the Green Ministers Committee and the next is due next week. We look forward to receiving the review of environmental appraisals, which are a central area of environmental policy.

I can warn the Minister that our annual review of the greening of Government process will be set in train shortly. We have sent out letters calling for evidence, including a letter to the Minister that sets out the remit of this year's analysis. We shall concentrate heavily on the performance of the Green Ministers Committee and on environmental appraisal.

The Select Committee has made a successful start and has made an impact. The Government have responded, although there remain large and unsatisfactory gaps. I look forward to further robust and creative exchanges as we pursue a better environment.

9.49 am
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) on securing a debate on the Select Committee on Environmental Audit. The Committee is cross-departmental, and its scrutiny of the Government's work will be important. I pay tribute to the members of the Committee, who have turned out in force today. I remind the House of the context of this debate. At our meeting only yesterday, we discussed the living planet index—compiled by the World Wide Fund for Nature—which reminded us that, in the past 25 years, the world has lost 30 per cent. of its natural resources.

We have just heard that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was not here during the Budget debate last week, but exploring a coral reef was equally important as it gave him the opportunity to see at first hand just how fragile our planet is—if we need reminding of that fact. It is crucial that we take account of all those issues and that we do not rely on emergency crisis talks after the event to ensure that degradation is put right.

As the hon. Member for Orpington said, sustainable development cannot be a bolt-on extra. I also think that that message should be framed as the overarching theme of our Committee. We need to put that at the heart of government. As the House heard, that is what the Prime Minister said that we would do when he addressed the United Nations and it is what the Government are doing. The real question for Governments and for the House is whether we are doing that as well and as quickly as we can, and in time to prevent further degradation of our planet. That is why this morning's debate is so important. It concerns the nuts and bolts—the institutional mechanisms and systems and the appraisals of what we need. Much of our debate will be technical, but, if we do not get those mechanisms and the framework right, we simple will not be able to put the environment at the heart of our Budget, of policy making and of green government.

The nature of the issue means that we can take only one step at a time—we can only make so much progress—but what may seem impossible one day can suddenly become possible the next. In our last pre-Budget report, we thought that the Government had failed. One week after the latest Budget, we feel that they have made huge steps forward, with 22 new measures to assist the environment.

The fact that the Select Committee on Environmental Audit has been on the heels of the Government has helped us to advance the whole procedure. We have done that with the Budget and, through this debate, we need to do it for the entire machinery of government. That is why this debate is so important. We should have an annual debate on sustainable development. We need a formal parliamentary occasion when we can scrutinise what the Government are doing through the Environment Committee at Cabinet level and the Committee of Green Ministers. I expected all the members of the Environmental Audit Committee to be present for this debate, but I also expected to see the Green Minister from each Department on the Front Bench. If they were here, it would send a message to the House and to the nation that they are taking the agenda forward.

Even though the Government have temporarily rejected the idea of an annual formal debate in Parliament, I hope that we will have such debates so that we can have accountability and can measure whether the targets that have been set are the right ones and are being achieved.

Our most important task now is to set out how we can achieve sustainable development and ensure that the Committee of Green Ministers takes collective responsibility for the environmental appraisal system rather than the substance of individual policies. I am pleased that the Government agreed with that approach in their response to our report and said that new and revised policies should include an assessment of implications for the environment. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister tell us how that is being done, where the system is and how Parliament is to be made aware of the substance of it—for example, within specific Departments?

The Local Government Bill is going through Parliament. What has been done by way of an environmental appraisal of that Bill? The Energy Efficiency Bill, which would require environmental and energy efficiency advice to be provided for someone purchasing a home, has been introduced, enabling us to focus on energy efficiency. Conservative Members blocked the Energy Conservation (Housing) Bill, which would have followed up other home energy conservation legislation, and increased the energy efficiency of homes owned by housing associations. I understand that parliamentary counsel has drawn up amendments to that effect, for the Association for the Conservation of Energy, which could have been put at the heart of the Local Government Bill. Have we had an environmental appraisal of that Bill? If so, could the measures in the two energy efficiency Bills be included? That would demonstrate that the Government are ensuring at every opportunity that they take account of the need to put environmental concerns at the heart of government and not to treat them as a bolt-on extra.

Major constitutional changes are about to take place, and they will have clear implications for environmental policy in Scotland and Wales and the policy of the new regional development agencies. Again, there has been concern that sustainable development has not been put at the heart of those agencies and that somehow or other, despite the guidance issued, economic arguments are at the heart. Those issues are important.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Before my hon. Friend moves too far from the local government argument, may I remind her that we stood for Parliament on a manifesto that talked of the need for a new duty for local authorities to promote the economic, social and—crucially—the environmental well-being of their areas to be part of local government reform? Does she agree that it would be useful if our right hon. Friend the Minister would confirm that that new duty is to be a part of the draft legislation on local government which we understand is due to be published shortly?

Ms Walley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will refer to it. I understand that there will shortly be an announcement in the House on future local government legislation. It is imperative that a duty to take account of sustainable development is set at the heart of such a Bill. Perhaps my right hon. Friend would deal also with Local Agenda 21 and what the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions feels about whether we rely on local authorities to produce voluntary arrangements to implement it or whether we should require them to put the ethos behind it at the heart of policies. Perhaps he would even say whether he intends to name and shame those authorities that have not yet adopted Local Agenda 21, which was conceived at the United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro some years ago.

There is a fear and suspicion that environmental appraisals are not carried out within and across Departments as we would wish. That was evident six weeks ago, when I initiated a debate in the House on genetically modified foods. During that debate and the public debate that followed, it became clear that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is involved in the issue because of its labelling policy and that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is involved in planting and trials and deciding whether it is safe—on environmental grounds—to plant genetically modified crops commercially or experimentally. There are also implications in terms of Government scientific advice on health matters and in terms of scrutiny of European policy. There has to be some mechanism at the heart of government to square all those issues and strike the proper balance between them in the course of decision making.

On the issue of working across Departments and getting environmental concerns at the heart of government, when we questioned the Department for Education and Employment on its comprehensive spending review plans, we were concerned to learn that there had been no proper environmental appraisal of how the money for the new-build programme for school buildings would be spent, or of whether it would give at local level all the benefits that we would want to flow from spending such sums of money.

I am conscious of the time, so I shall merely add that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. A tremendous amount of progress can and will be made, and we are determined to ensure that it is made. However, to achieve that, we have to have the institutional framework in place and be clear about the targets set. For example, if we have a 20 per cent. target on climate change, it is important that the Budget statement contains that 20 per cent. overall target, rather than the 12 per cent. target agreed by European Ministers. Those are all crucial issues, on which we have to make progress, and I am grateful for this brief opportunity to discuss them.

10.1 am

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I thank the Government for establishing the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, a move that showed foresight. The Committee has worked well, as its Chairman, the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), said. It has worked across parties and has produced some good reports; I even saw it referred to in the Treasury's Budget commentary, so we are clearly making some inroads into thinking by the Government.

The Government have said that they will put the environment at the heart of government, and that is becoming something of a cliché, over-used by all of us: there is so much at the heart of government that there can be little else in the body; nevertheless, it is encouraging to hear that statement repeated time and again. I do not underestimate the difficulties facing the Government in achieving that aim. We have a traditional structure of government that is based on individual Departments pointing in different directions and dealing with their own problems in a rather self-contained manner. The idea of joined-up government—another cliché—cuts across that traditional way of running the country, but it is not necessarily easy to get everyone facing in the same direction. A start has been made, but there is some way to go.

I shall not be over-critical of the Government's environmental record. The Minister for the Environment is present and he is aware that I wrote an article for the Daily Express some time ago, so I should say that I painted a balanced picture, but my words of praise for the Government were cut out before the article appeared in the newspaper—I shall be happy to show the Minister the original if he wants proof of that. On balance, my overall tone was clearly critical, but there were elements of praise, which disappeared.

I share the view of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) that it is a shame that the only Minister present is the Minister for the Environment: that makes this debate an exercise in preaching to the converted. After all, the right hon. Gentleman won one of the green ribbon awards at a recent ceremony, whereas those who won grey ribbon awards and were not congratulated are not present in the Chamber. I hope that he will take the message from this debate to his colleagues and encourage them to attend the next time that a report of the Environmental Audit Committee is debated on the Floor of the House. It would be good to see them. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree with almost everything said in the debate, but his departmental colleagues might not necessarily do so. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North suggested that we should name and shame local authorities that fall down on the job, but perhaps we should also name and shame Departments that fall down on the job—a task that I would happily hand to the Minister for the Environment, as part of his remit.

A Green Ministers team was established by the previous Conservative Government; it has met four times since the general election and is due to meet again this month. Although it is fortunate that it is continuing to meet, I wonder whether its remit is quite right: it appears to me to be, if not moribund, then dealing with minor issues rather than tackling major issues. There is continuing uncertainty about the role of the Green Ministers team compared with that of the ENV Cabinet Committee, to which our report refers. Clarification of those roles is required and both bodies need to take a more proactive role, rather than firefighting, which is what they have been doing hitherto.

It is a shame that the Green Ministers team is not chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister. As the Minister for the Environment will be aware, that was a recommendation of the Environmental Audit Committee. The Deputy Prime Minister does a good job on the environment and we would like to have his weight behind environmental measures to bring the rest of the Government on board.

It is also a pity that officials, rather than Ministers, are sent to many of the meetings of the Green Ministers team. There is no excuse for officials being sent; they cannot command the support from others at the meeting that a Minister would command. That downgrades the officials' views, no matter how eloquent they are, and therefore downgrades their Departments' views. With such a huge team—there are more than 100 members of the Government—I see no reason why another Minister should not attend the Committee if the designated Green Minister cannot. I would like to see that practised from now on.

There is a lack of co-ordination across government, but that is the way in which government works, so I shall not be over-critical. The Government are trying to do something new and I congratulate them on that; however, the situation is by no means perfect yet. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North referred to the subject of genetically modified organisms which, as the Minister will know, is a particular interest of mine. There has been a lack of co-ordination across government with regard to that issue, although they have tried to address it by setting up a biotechnology committee.

When the public concern blew up a month or so ago, it was clear that elements of the Government were taken completely by surprise and did not know what to expect. It was also plain that they were speaking from different hymn sheets—or whatever the metaphor might be. The Prime Minister, rather unwisely, said that GMOs were the best thing since sliced bread, or some such phrase—I am not a great fan of sliced bread, but that is the line that he took. The Minister for the Cabinet Office said that GMOs were products of Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology", that we should all be grateful for them and that we have a great biotechnology industry. That went down with the public like the proverbial lead balloon; those Ministers were quickly wheeled off-stage and the Minister for the Environment and the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has responsibility for food safety, were wheeled on later in the week to reassure the public. They did so, but they said different things and adopted different approaches.

That goes to the heart of government. How serious are the Government about the precautionary principle? How serious are they about co-ordinating their views on the environment and the role that such considerations should play in government? How far is the environment to be sacrificed for the achievement of other policy objectives? Sustainable development assessments were referred to earlier, but to what extent does the environment have the first bite in terms of assessment?

Different Ministers are saying different things; the Government have not yet produced a unified voice. It is clear from what he says that the Minister for the Environment applies the precautionary principle, but some of his colleagues do not. There is a lack of co-ordination on that basic point. It is clear that the right hon. Gentleman wants a moratorium on the commercial planting of genetically modified crops, but it is also clear that others in the Government think that that is not necessary and that it would slow down the biotechnology industry.

I use that as an example, but my argument goes beyond that—for example, to our relations with the World Trade Organisation and its agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, the so-called TRIPS clauses. I have asked several parliamentary questions on that subject in the past few days, but the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions laid an emphasis in its replies that was wholly at variance with that of the Department of Trade and Industry.

The Treasury is a great player in the Government and has achieved a great deal over many decades. It was responsible for producing the form of national accounts that has become an international standard. I should like the Treasury to take a similar lead in producing a new form of national accounts that takes the environment into account. I have not yet seen evidence that such a co-ordinated approach will be produced to cover the whole of the Treasury's work, but I hope that it will be adopted, as it could mean that the Treasury again gave a lead internationally.

The Treasury seems still to regard the environment as a bolt-on; its thinking is still somewhere in the 1950s. Hooray and three cheers for the energy tax that was announced in last week's Budget. I welcome that measure and am grateful to all those—in the Treasury and elsewhere—who were instrumental in bringing it forward. However, I am not sure—I hope that the Minister can reassure me—that the energy tax is not simply a very big bolt-on to Treasury thinking that is self-contained and works quite well in itself. Is that a sign of a new thinking permeating the Department? Has the Treasury signed up to the idea that taxes should be shifted from good things, such as employment, to bad things, such as pollution? Will the Treasury approach all of its decision making in that way or does it view the energy tax simply as one environmental tax that happens to work in a self-contained box? In other words, will we see further steps in that direction, or is the measure a one-off?

The Budget figures that support the Government's environmental measures are a bit thin on the ground. The Budget is a bit finger in the air when it comes to working out and justifying the carbon dioxide emission savings. I hope that there will be greater justification in future—perhaps in the Green Book, which we were promised originally but has not appeared.

I will not speak for too long as I am aware that other hon. Members wish to participate in the debate. However, I echo the call that has long been my party's policy—it was articulated by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North—for an annual state of the environment report, which hon. Members can debate. With due respect to the Minister, I think that report should be handled by the Deputy Prime Minister or the Prime Minister. If the environment is at the heart of government, it is important for the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister to demonstrate that by being in the Chamber for debates such as this.

10.12 am
Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)

I am aware of the time pressures, so I shall try to truncate my remarks accordingly. The report of the Environmental Audit Select Committee is obviously a snapshot of past events. I hope that the greening government inquiry will reveal that considerably more progress has been made. However, the signs are not particularly good.

That is not a criticism of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. I hope that all my colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee share my view that his appearances before us are never less than impressive. As almost a resident turn, he takes some beating. However, I sometimes fear that he is cast in a role similar to that of the sheriff played by Gary Cooper in "High Noon". He is courageous, dedicated and committed, yet, like the good sheriff, the Minister is not getting the backing of his posse—which is primarily the Green Ministers Committee.

During our deliberations, it was easy to conclude that the Green Ministers Committee did not necessarily know precisely what its role was—and no one appeared to be monitoring what it was doing. We were told that the Committee would submit its first report to the Ministerial Committee on the Environment, ENV, at the end of last year. Did it do so? If the Committee has reported, has the ENV met to discuss it? Did the report include departmental aims and objectives? If the report has slipped, what are the new time scales?

We were also told that the Green Ministers Committee is to report to Parliament this summer. It will be helpful if it reports in time for the House to consider the document before the summer recess. As the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) pointed out, we are also awaiting the publication of the sustainable development strategy, which was trailed for autumn last year. However, there is still no sign of it. Can my right hon. Friend give some indication of its publication date? Will the strategy contain clear statements about direction, process, responsibility and how progress will be measured?

I also echo the comments of other Committee members who have spoken this morning about holding an annual debate on sustainable development. Will the Government reconsider their decision not to allow such a debate?

On the question of environmental policy appraisal, the posse seems not to have even put on its boots. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions guidance states that Departments should consider making their policy appraisals public. The guidance should be tightened so that there is a presumption that appraisals will be published and should place an onus on Departments to justify not doing so.

At present, any tightening of the guidance would be academic as there is little evidence that such appraisals are carried out, let alone published. One of the best examples of that came from the Department for Education and Employment. We asked the Department whether it had conducted an environmental appraisal of school and college building plans. It had not. Yet the guidance produced by DETR gives the building of schools and colleges as an example of a policy that should be appraised. Such policies have clear transport, green-field and housekeeping implications. We were also told that the Green Ministers Committee was appraising the appraisals. What progress has been made in that direction and is it at a trot, a canter or a gallop?

We often talk—it has been mentioned in the debate today—about the need to integrate environmental considerations in policy making to avoid bolting on policies. It is clear to the Committee that some policies do not even enjoy the luxury of a bolt; they are falling off departmental agendas.

I am sorry that my right hon. Friend has been cast in the role of whipping boy for those criticisms. I am sure that his response will be characteristically eloquent, robust and persuasive. No Minister deserves more than he to ride off in triumph with his best gal by his side. However, unlike Gary Cooper, I doubt that he will do so without much better, more energetic backing from his green posse. Unfortunately, many members of that posse appear not to have saddled their horses.

10.16 am
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

It is a pleasure to participate briefly in this debate. I shall keep my comments short, as I am aware that other hon. Members wish to contribute.

It has been said that the Environmental Audit Committee was appointed as a terrier to bite at the heels of Government. I hope that we have succeeded in doing that. I am mindful of the fact that some of my remarks about the report may have been superseded by events. For example, the establishment of the Green Ministers Committee excited considerable concern on our part. We discovered that the initial meeting of the Committee, which had been set up with a fanfare of publicity, was attended by 15 out of a possible 17 Ministers so that they could all be part of the photo opportunity. However, when the Committee next met—it was only its second meeting in the first 12 months of this Government—the number of Ministers had reduced considerably. They had been replaced by officials.

After we noted that trend, it appeared that numbers increased again for the last meeting. However, that example is symptomatic of the difficulties that the Green Ministers Committee and the Ministerial Committee on the Environment face when grappling with policy issues. There is always a tendency for Governments to have pious aspirations. Although they say that they are trying to do their best, inertia sets in. I think inertia started to set in fairly badly in the first 12 months of this Government. As has been said during the debate, we will achieve the goals of sustainable development and green government through structures. Committee members often kick themselves in an effort to remember that and to keep themselves from discussing tangential issues. Without the structure, we will not get the results.

It is all very well to establish a Green Ministers Committee, but I am not clear whether it is a formulating or an executive and reporting Committee. It is the nature of Government that most decisions are taken at Cabinet Committee level. If that is so, the role of the Green Ministers Committee is probably more limited than was trumpeted at the time of its establishment. All the evidence suggests that that is what has happened.

I confess that, when I read the Government's response to our report, I was anxious about the structures, because, although it was acknowledged that ENV had to be upgraded and that its remit had to change to put sustainable development at the top of the agenda, the relationship between ENV and the Green Ministers Committee remains far from clear. I accept that one reason is that the Green Ministers meet only three times a year, so it may be difficult, until the next meeting, to start to take a snapshot of how matters are progressing. I should be particularly interested to hear from the Minister how that aspect is developing.

Unless there is input from Cabinet Committee level—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) said, with the Prime Minister ultimately providing a lead—the inertia that inevitably exists in Government will get the better of progress, and progress is what we want. Tentative steps have been taken. The Budget was undoubtedly a massive improvement in that respect on last year's Budget, but its proposals are tentative. There is, above all, a lack of willingness to engage in open discussion about the issues.

That brings me to my second and last point, which I made in my intervention, about an annual debate. Sustainable development is not about buzz words or easy options and may sometimes require an acceptance that measures that people find superficially attractive and necessary cannot, for good reasons, be taken. That requires open debate.

The Minister knows that there is complete cross-party consensus on that matter, certainly on the Select Committee. We have never fallen out among ourselves in examining the Government's problems and role. We are also fairly sympathetic to those problems. We accept, as do Labour Members, that the first initiatives and tentative steps were taken by the previous Government—and all credit to them—and are being built on by this Government, but we need discussion.

Having one day a year set aside for that and turning it into a Commons event with the opportunity for Ministers to answer for their Departments is central to that discussion; otherwise, in three years, we will still be having these occasional days attended by interested Members and the Minister, who I know is dedicated to these issues, but nobody else will be getting the message. People who do not have as much information about what is going on will not be informed. I urge the Minister to recognise that there should be greater opportunities for an exchange of views, and this is a good place for that to happen, at least on a yearly basis.

10.22 am
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

The Environmental Audit Committee was unanimous in its support for the Government's basic sustainable development and environmental strategies. We felt, therefore, that our duty was to consider whether their future planning, administrative structures and policies would deliver those strategies.

Four basic principles need to be observed when we consider environmental matters. First, long-term vision is necessary. Secondly, environmental strategies have to be integral, pervasive and co-ordinated throughout government. Thirdly, they must be applied at every level from global down to local. Finally, they need the maximum cross-party consensus.

It has presumably been true throughout the millennia that mankind has been able to affect future environments, but it is undoubtedly true that scientific and technical progress accelerates and that we have a greater ability to affect, more extensively and enduringly, our environment, for good or ill. We must be wary of the possibility that we can now have a greater effect on our tiny, fragile planet, and even more so on the tiny, fragile species, including our own, that inhabit it.

It is therefore vital that we have long-term vision; if we are honest, we must acknowledge that that is difficult for all politicians. If a week is a long time in politics, and looking beyond annual Budgets to three-year comprehensive spending reviews seems long term, how much more true is that for environmental strategies? Most of us find it difficult to focus beyond the next election. How much more difficult is it for us to focus on the next generation or the next centuries?

With environmental matters, we are often discussing intangibles. There is a difficulty in persuading people to appreciate the importance of long-term intangible effects as against short-term tangible ones—for example, the benefits of climate change compared to the convenience of a car—or immediate effects. We want newspapers to recognise that more people may die in their area from the effects of the invisible traffic accidents of air pollution than die in car accidents. It is important that we get the support of journalists so that they stop concentrating on ill-founded fears and realistically consider, rather than deride, the serious scientific bases for our concern about our environment.

We need to think like statesmen, not merely politicians. To do so, and to overcome the inevitable temptations, it is important that we built robust administrative structures that provide added incentives to give the environment its correct place in our concerns.

My second point, therefore, is that the environment must be absolutely integral and co-ordinated throughout government. There is a correct comparison to be drawn with the position that finance has traditionally had. It is encouraging that our Committee has been viewed almost as an equivalent to the Public Accounts Committee. It is important to mirror that in the ministerial structure, which is why we applaud the idea that the environment should be a prime ministerial or deputy prime ministerial responsibility. Traditionally, the Prime Minister has been the First Lord of the Treasury, and it is encouraging that we have a Deputy Prime Minister as first lord of the environment. Those issues must have clout within government if they are to have sufficient influence.

In global and local affairs, it is now almost commonplace to say that the environment must be an international matter because pollution and climate change do not recognise national boundaries. It is therefore important that someone with clout—the Deputy Prime Minister—conducted the international negotiations in Kyoto. We all praise him and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment for their statesmanlike position at Kyoto.

At Rio, local government matters were recognised by Agenda 21, and environmental matters are therefore appropriate for devolution. It is good that they are being devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Assembly. It is important that this country has the structures to co-ordinate strategies between those Parliaments after devolution. Our Select Committee would hope to co-ordinate with their Select Committees.

Environmental concern must transcend party divides. In times of war, we have been able to find common cause against human enemies who were threatening us. In the future, we must increasingly be able to make common cause against the abstract forces that can threaten humanity. It is encouraging that our Select Committee has had no divisions, as our Chairman, the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), has said. I pay tribute to him for his part in that consensus. We should try to avoid short-term political advantage and look to the long term.

I said that, to overcome the difficulties inherent in environmental matters, it is important to have strong administrative structures. We are pleased that the Government have responded so positively to some of our suggestions. We are pleased that ENV will play a strong co-ordinating role on sustainable development; that, in future, departmental reports to Cabinet Committees will contain an environmental cost-benefit analysis; that the number of meetings of the Green Ministers Committee and ENV is rising from two to three a year; and that the GMC will report annually to ENV.

I stress the point, however, which was made so cogently by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and other hon. Members, that an annual report to Parliament should include a Budget-style debate. It would obviously not take up as many days, but the report needs such a debate so that the environment can receive the necessary focus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) said, rather than some Back Benchers being present, the Front Benches would be full for such a debate.

I shall move rapidly to a conclusion on a positive note. I am aware of the pressure of time. We have said that we need administrative structures, and the idea is that they should produce practical results. It is commonly said, even by those who have previously been critical of the Treasury, that it is encouraging that the Budget will provide for the taking of positive steps towards a stronger environmental emphasis in government. We look forward enthusiastically to the statement on sustainable development strategy.

10.30 am
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) and to the other members of the Environmental Audit Committee for producing an extremely interesting and important report which will move the debate forward significantly in enhancing the green agenda both inside government, and by its example, beyond government.

By the comments of hon. Members during the debate and by the very nature of the debate, it is clear that the environment is, fortunately, not a partisan, party political issue. Certainly there may be differences of opinion on how to achieve objectives, but it is a subject too important to be despoiled by narrow party political point scoring. We have been fortunate both today and in the work of the Committee, during its short existence, that the issue has not been marred by such point scoring.

I agreed very much with the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) when he said that he would like the Committee to evolve into something similar to the Public Accounts Committee—a respected Committee to which people listen because of its impartiality and its work towards the common aim and the common good, a Committee that attracts a significantly greater audience in the Chamber than at present when it is the subject of debates.

I add my voice to those of the many hon. Members who have rightly said this morning that they believe that there should be an annual debate on the Floor of the House to highlight environmental issues, including the progress that is being made and the problems that have been encountered. I hope that the Minister for the Environment, who, above all Ministers, has a strong commitment to the environment, will take that message, loud and clear, back to the Government Whips Office and to the Government, to try to establish such a precedent.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington rightly said, the Labour party had a manifesto commitment to put the environment at the heart of policy making. I make no bones about it: I welcome that commitment. However, it would be churlish of me not to mention the work that, first, Chris Patten and then my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) undertook while in office to put environmental considerations at the heart of government. They set the example that the Labour Government have rightly chosen to follow and emulate.

By their very nature, environmental considerations do not respect national boundaries. That being so, there must be a global approach to green issues and problems. At a national level, environmental issues cannot be isolated and dealt with on an ad hoc basis by individual Departments. There must be an holistic approach across the broad range of Departments. Even if there is a lead Department such as the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, it will have simply a co-ordinating role to ensure that other Departments pull their full weight in advancing solutions to the problems that face us.

In its report, the Select Committee has rightly drawn attention to that approach. It comments on the progress being made by the setting up of the Cabinet Committee on the Environment and the role that Green Ministers can have in a Government's pursuit of sustainable development. I believe, however, that the Government should pay special attention to the Committee's recommendations in paragraph (f). First, it recommends: the authority and status of the Green Ministers Committee should be further underpinned by a clearer statement of its relationship to the Cabinet Committee". Secondly, it adds: the Green Ministers Committee should report to the Cabinet Committee on progress on an annual basis and that this report should be published". As I said earlier, and as the debate has clearly shown, these matters should be debated annually on the Floor of the House. Thirdly, and possibly most important, the Committee recommends: the Green Ministers Committee's forthcoming programme of action should contain concrete objectives and targets for advancing of the take-up of best practise with regard to greening operations, environmental appraisal and policy integration". It adds: the Committee should make full reports … on its meetings and its progress to Parliament.

I welcome the Government's response to those recommendations in paragraph 11 of their document. I hope that, in the spirit of the Select Committee's recommendations, their reporting of progress will be a genuine way of advancing the debate and the Government's actions, rather than a glossing over if the going gets tough. It is in no one's interest or advantage simply to produce an air-brushed report. It must be positive, coherent and accurate. The Government, whether the current Administration, a future Conservative Government or whatever, must have the maturity to accept the difficulties facing government and the problems that they have in achieving their aims and aspirations.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in a very good brief that it provided to hon. Members before the debate, made a valid point on this subject, when it said: The Comprehensive Spending Review was a test of the departmental commitment of their"— the Government's— policies. The RSPB was therefore disappointed that the review showed little evidence that an environmental appraisal had been carried out. I suspect that few would disagree with that analysis.

I urge the Government to give serious thought to a suggestion made by the RSPB, which I believe is worthy of further consideration and involves the use of strategic environmental assessment policies. As the RSPB said, carrying out such an assessment during the preparation of policies ensures that environmental objectives are included at the stage when all the policy options are being considered, rather than when the final option has already been chosen. In many ways, that dovetails with the point made in June 1997 by the Prime Minister, when he was saying that the environment must not be a bolt-on, added extra. I hope that Ministers will see the merits of such a proposal and give serious consideration to moving towards that aim.

Similarly, I hope that Ministers will pay particular attention to recommendation (mm), which suggests that the Government should require all departments to have begun introducing an environmental management system by the end of the Parliament with a view to all having extended them across their estate by the earliest practical date. That is an important recommendation. I know that the Government have responded by saying that they accept the recommendation in general, but with the crucial proviso that they would limit this to cases where that would be efficient and cost-effective. That suggests that the Government might be seeking to avoid their responsibilities if the going gets tough. I would appreciate it if the Minister would elaborate on what exactly the Government mean and what they really intend to do. There is a danger that that response could become a cop-out for any Government if they wished so to exercise the proviso.

Similarly, the Committee recommends that the Government should adopt for itself the challenge it has thrown down for the top 100 FTSE companies, namely that at least 75 per cent of government departments should have at least one site registered to IS014001 by 2001. That seems to have been sidestepped by the Government in their response. Logically, whatever the Government expect of industry should be followed by the Government. They should lead by example. I hope that they will think further about these matters. The impression given in their response—it may be only an impression—is that they are brushing the idea aside.

The Government, to their credit, have carried forward the environmental agenda left to them by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, as I have said, but there is a view abroad that the Government are sometimes not living up to their rhetoric in their actions. There are two areas where the Government have moved on from the agenda that they inherited. First, as hon. Members have said, the recent Budget was certainly a step forward in this context, and I recognise that. I do not criticise the Budget in that respect. A second step forward was the Government's response to the Marshall report.

On the Budget and the introduction of green taxes on industry, I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that green taxes to deal with environmental problems must be met by a corresponding tax cut elsewhere, to ensure that the overall impact of the taxation is neutral. That view was outlined by my right hon. Friend in a speech on the environment that he gave in Oxford a few months ago.

To be fair, the Chancellor accepted that in principle by making the point in his Budget. However, I draw to the Minister's attention one concern arising out of the Chancellor's Budget statement. He has counter-balanced his green taxes on industry by introducing cuts in national insurance contributions, but he has created a potential problem that underlies the good intentions that he announced.

The tax will have the greatest impact on companies that are high-energy users, but may have few or relatively few employees. If that is the case, as it certainly will be in a number of industries, how will the taxation be neutral for those businesses? That is an important point, and I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to the potential problem, which could cause hardship and—more worryingly—bitterness, and undermine the concept of fiscally responsible and fiscally neutral green taxes.

Mr. Loughton

Is my hon. Friend not disappointed that the energy tax is a downstream tax, and is not a carbon tax, whereby the more heavily polluting producers of electricity would be hit, rather than industrial users?

Mr. Burns

My hon. Friend goes to the heart of the matter and raises another important issue relating to green taxes. I hope that the Minister will use his influence in Government to redress any imbalances and problems. I understand that he was at the forefront in advising and influencing the Chancellor on the measures announced in the Budget statement.

I expect that all hon. Members present could speak far longer on such an important report. Although this short debate is welcome, it would have been better if we could have had a longer debate, reinforcing—I say this for a third time—the importance of an annual environment debate.

I reiterate the point that the report is a major step towards establishing a green environmental mentality at the heart of government. I look forward to further reports from the Committee.

10.43 am
Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I congratulate the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee on securing it.

The debate and the existence of the Committee, of which I am a member, testify to how far we have come. Twenty years ago, the consideration of the environment at the heart of government would have been inconceivable. That we now debate how to address environmental concerns, not whether they should be addressed, is no small achievement.

I take this opportunity to welcome the Government's commitment to high-level political leadership on sustainable development. The process of greening government stretches from putting the Government's house in order to integrating environmental consideration into every area of policy. That is so small task, and it will not be possible unless it is led from the very top, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is doing. I look forward to seeing my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister attaching the same importance to the issue.

The Cabinet Committee—the Ministerial Committee on the Environment—should be central to such high-level lead taking; yet, as we noted in our report, we were disappointed to find that it has no proactive role. The Government's action to rectify that, by expanding the remit of the Committee to consider environmental policies and co-ordinate those on sustainable development", fails to address the problem. The Committee still has no explicit commitment to examine the impact of non-environmental policies. The shortcomings of that approach were underlined when the Committee did not even meet to consider the multilateral agreement on investment, an issue which, as we are all aware, had far-reaching environmental consequences.

The Committee still meets only to resolve disputes between Departments that disagree on the need for or method of greening government measures. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment told us that the fact that the Committee had met so rarely should be seen as evidence of the consensus in Whitehall on the need for environmental considerations to be at the heart of policy formation. Perhaps I am a cynic, but I am of the opinion that a lack of disagreement between Departments means that little is being changed. Complete agreement in Whitehall means business as usual.

With those points in mind, I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to consider again the need for the Committee to be more proactive in championing the greening government initiative.

The continuation of the Green Ministers by the present Administration, and the formation of the Green Ministers Committee was a welcome example of the Government's commitment to strong leadership on the issue. The Government's response to our recommendations was encouraging, and clarified and enhanced the role of that Committee.

However, I was disappointed to note that meetings of the GMC were often attended by officials, not Ministers. Although we all understand the pressure of time on Ministers, Green Ministers must prioritise that important role. Equally, it was a great disappointment that the Government rejected our recommendation that the GMC be chaired sometimes by the Deputy Prime Minister. That seemed to be an excellent opportunity for the Government to reinforce their pledge of strong leadership, and at the same time, dare I say, to boost attendance.

By making Green Ministers report twice a year to the Ministerial Committee on the Environment, the Government have exceeded our recommendation of an annual report, but that will be significant only if the reports are considered by the Cabinet Committee. The first report from the Green Ministers was due at the end of last year. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the report was submitted and whether the Cabinet Committee met to consider it?

I shall draw my remarks to a close, as I know that we are all eager to hear my right hon. Friend's response to the debate. Our report was intended to be an in-depth and positive look at progress in the greening government initiative, and to serve as a catalyst to further action where that was needed. It is encouraging that the Government response accepted many of our points, and many of our recommendations had already been actioned. However, there is still a long way to go.

When the Environmental Audit Committee was set up, the Deputy Prime Minister said, as we have heard again today, that he intended it to be a terrier to snap at the heels of Government or bite". My colleagues and I on the Committee have made admirable terriers, and the House can be assured that we will continue to snap and bite. We know that the Deputy Prime Minister and the House have no interest in poodles.

10.48 am
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

We have had an excellent debate in the best House of Commons style—pretty critical, but in a positive and cross-party manner, which I welcome. I, like others, warmly thank the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) as the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee and other members of that Committee, and all those who have spoken, for a lively debate on greening government.

I recognise that the Committee has already produced eight reports—which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is a pretty good hit rate—and a valuable report on the greening government initiative. I look forward to the Committee's next report on the subject, which is due later in the year. If it is anything like the first, it will be full of genuinely constructive proposals, many of which the Government have acted on.

The hon. Gentleman had the good grace to recognise that the Budget was a turning point. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there has been a significant change, with the Budget underpinning the Red Book. There are 22 measures on the environment and they certainly are not bolted on, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) opined. The Budget is clearly about taxing bads and benefiting goods, and it is revenue neutral because of the offset on employers' national insurance contributions, which is as green taxes should be.

In answer to the point made from the Opposition Front Bench by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), high-energy users are in a special category and, inevitably, are likely to be penalised by that tax. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said specifically that they could be given a lower rate to take account of their special requirement—the inevitable use of carbon for many of their processes—provided they could produce an adequate energy-efficiency package, to the satisfaction of my Department.

The Budget is not just about the climate change levy, which will raise nearly £2 billion and save 1.5 million tonnes of carbon a year—about 5 per cent. of our target under the Kyoto protocol. It concerns the landfill tax escalator, quarrying taxes, pesticides tax and transport measures, which will lead to major environmental sensitivity in that important area.

The second point made by the hon. Member for Orpington concerned the sustainable development strategy, and I can assure him that we intend to publish it shortly, perhaps in May. He said that the strategy should be capable of being audited. We absolutely agree, which is precisely why we have introduced 13 headline indicators. If my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister can talk about the Environmental Audit Committee being a terrier to bite the Government's ankles, I can regard the indicators as a rod to beat our own back. We will have to keep the trend line moving in the right direction or we will be heavily criticised. I welcome the fact that the strategy will be very capable of being audited.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific points, which were endorsed by almost every speaker, and said that there should be a sustainable development debate. The Government have given a response, but the loud and clear message from this debate, on both sides—

Mr. Baker

Three sides.

Mr. Meacher

The message from all three sides is that the Government should reconsider their response, and I certainly undertake to raise that issue with the business managers.

The hon. Member for Orpington said that there had been a failure to provide sufficient environmental appraisals, and that point was repeated a number of times, but, as my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) correctly said, all Cabinet papers now have to set out whether new policies would have any significant costs or benefits to the environment. That applies to the Local Government Bill, which was mentioned, and to the question of a duty to meet social and environmental objectives in a local area, which we looked at extremely closely during preparation of the report.

The hon. Gentleman's last point was about the comprehensive spending review. I take his point; as he said, public service agreements—including, among other things, an element of environmental appraisal—are associated with the CSR. I accept that that element is not as strong as it should be, but I want to make it considerably stronger and we have a foot in the door.

The hon. Member for Lewes encouraged me to name and shame other Departments. That is not the normal practice in British Government—not publicly, at least; the practice is to persuade, to cajole and to press other Departments. As I have made clear, I welcome the work of the Environmental Audit Committee in assisting me with that process as I work with my colleagues.

The hon. Gentleman also made the perfectly fair point that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, given his weight and importance within the Government, could, very helpfully, be more closely associated with Green Ministers. My right hon. Friend will be attending the debate next week, as will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, so it is perfectly clear that he is keeping a careful eye not only on Green Ministers, but on other Departments and their commitment to our overriding objective.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) that the Green Ministers' report will go to the Cabinet Committee on the Environment and Green Ministers will have a full debate next week on the sustainable development strategy. I thank him for what he said about the posse and my putative role and I hope, as I am sure he does, that my colleagues will read his strictures.

I have tried to deal with what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said about structures and machinery. He also mentioned an annual debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North made the point, with which we all agree, that policies on the environment should be integral to and co-ordinated throughout government. He also said that the involvement of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in the sustainable development strategy was important in sending that message. All I can say at this moment is that I note the strong views that have been expressed in the Chamber, particularly by my hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for West Chelmsford raised a couple of points, and I shall deal with them briefly. First, he mentioned a strategic environmental appraisal, but, of course, we already carry one out. We discussed such an appraisal and whether to regard it as one of the main issues on which to make progress in our presidency of the European Union, but we decided against that on the ground of priorities. However, we accept that an appraisal has an important role to play, so long as it does not further bureaucratise and elongate a planning process that is sometimes too lengthy.

Secondly, there is no question of there being a cop-out on environmental management systems for all Departments—quite the reverse. The sustainable development unit in my Department has provided a help desk and a call-off consultancy contract for Departments and their agencies and for non-departmental public bodies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) said that the Government did not get their cross-departmental act together adequately on the multilateral agreement on investment. That is a charge to which I would plead guilty. The whole process was undertaken rather secretively, internationally and in other ways, but that is a lesson that we have learned. I would never accuse her of being a cynic—perish the thought—but she underestimates the effectiveness of Green Ministers. We meet only three times a year, but there are other ways of getting that message across.

The Government have tried to listen to the Environmental Audit Committee, which we believe to be extremely worth while, and we have taken action in a number of areas specifically as a result of its recommendations. The remit of the Cabinet Committee on the Environment has been extended to include the co-ordination of policies on sustainable development. Green Ministers meet three times a year, but I emphasise that they report directly to the Cabinet Committe on the Environment twice a year—a point queried by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford.

The Committee's first published report is due this summer, and it will not be air-brushed. I would never be involved in the air-brushing of that or of any report. It will concentrate not only on some of the good things that we have done—I am not complacent and would be the first to say that they are not enough—but on the weaknesses. I shall be looking for support, around the Chamber and around the Government, to deal with those issues.

Thirdly, Departments are reviewing the scope for including sustainable development in their objectives and those of the public bodies that they sponsor. That is exactly what we will be discussing next week.

The Environmental Audit Committee is unquestionably an important part of that framework.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I am afraid that we must move on to the debate on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

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