Science & Environment

David Cameron 'must act to green Whitehall', say MPs

David Cameron (Image: Reuters)
Image caption David Cameron vowed to make the coalition government "the greenest ever"

David Cameron must take the environment to the heart of Whitehall if he wants to make the coalition the greenest government ever, say MPs.

The environment department (Defra) is currently responsible for ensuring the environment is considered in the government's decision-making processes.

However, the MPs say Defra is not best placed to hold other departments to account on their policies.

The Cabinet Office should take on the role instead, the MPs recommend.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) launched its inquiry following the government's decision to withdraw funding for the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), which currently performs a watchdog and advisory role on green issues.

The committee said the loss of the SDC's experience and resources presented a risk to the government's green agenda and the sustainability of its policies.

Labour MP Joan Walley, the committee's chairwoman, said: "The sustainability agenda needs to be driven from the centre of government.

"Defra has the expertise, but it does not have the influence to get the rest of government to act more sustainably," she added.

"The prime minister's influence is clear in setting targets for departments to deliver his 10% reductions in carbon emissions. But being the 'greenest government ever' isn't just about reducing carbon emissions from Whitehall."

She called on ministers to broaden this goal to cut emissions "and get departments acting more sustainably across the board".

"That means getting the Cabinet Office to take the lead, supported much more by the Treasury, and ensuring that government specifies what resources are needed to make this happen," Ms Walley observed.

The committee referred specifically for the need for stronger action on saving water, reducing waste and stopping unnecessary buying.

Responding to the report, a Defra spokesman said: "We will examine the content of the EAC's report and will announce details of our approach to embed Sustainable Development across government in the coming weeks - to meet our commitment to becoming the greenest government ever."

'Ridiculous'

The committee's comments were supported in a recent acerbic blog from Jonathon Porritt, former head of the SDC. He said the signs of the government fulfilling its promise to embed sustainable development in Whitehall were not encouraging.

"There was an insane moment … when Defra came up with an apparently serious proposal to locate Sustainable Development within the Cabinet's committee structure under the Reducing Regulation Sub-Committee - on the grounds that it's this committee that is responsible for policy impact appraisal," Mr Porritt wrote.

"It speaks volumes that senior officials in Defra could seriously suppose that this was the best bet available to them."

Mr Porritt, who was appointed to the SDC by Labour to hold government to account, is highly dubious about coalition government plans to replace the scrutiny function of the SDC.

"Rigorously appraising the performance of Whitehall departments, government as a whole, and the rest of the public sector, is a critical part of the 'SD architecture' that the Labour government put in place - and for which the UK was widely admired in international circles.

"Current thinking is to dump this scrutiny function on the Environmental Audit Committee. This may well be the least worst option, but the idea that the EAC is an adequately independent, adequately competent, and adequately resourced body to do the job authoritatively is patently ridiculous."

Green groups have endorsed the committee's proposal for a minister for sustainable development within the Cabinet Office, but say they fear this could lead Defra's existing expertise being watered down.

Halina Ward, Director of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD), said: "It is nonsense to expect the Cabinet Office or any new sustainable development minister to review the sustainable development implications of departmental policy proposals, plans and practices when the government has no sustainable development strategy in place to provide a benchmark for transparency or accountability."

Carol Hatton from WWF said: "We were appalled at the speed and ease with which the coalition has been able to unravel the SDC and the Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution.

"We clearly need new mechanisms with real teeth that are less vulnerable to attack," she added.

"A beefed-up Cabinet Office with a new minister in no way replaces the SDC, as it will not provide independent advice and scrutiny - only new institutional measures outside of government can do this."

The green groups say they will be working on future ideas inspired by the Hungarian scrutiny model of a parliamentary commissioner for future generations.

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