UK's greener government plan scrutinised

MPs call for more ministerial leadership, stronger sustainable development reporting

Efforts by the UK to green its process of government have received a mixed review in a parliamentary committee report published on Thursday. The environmental audit committee of the House of Commons (the lower house of parliament) welcomes strong statements of intent by the Labour government, but claims that practical action has been insufficient.

The environmental audit committee was created in November last year to monitor the greening government initiative. In its first report, published in March, it slammed what it saw as a large gap between words and deeds (ENDS Daily 10 March).

In its second report, the committee has adopted a less critical tone. In particular, it welcomes the creation of a new cabinet minister environment committee, the publication of new guidance on environmental appraisal of new policies, good progress by government departments in adopting environmental procurement policies, and the government's intention to adopt a revised national sustainable development strategy by the end of 1998.

As in its first report, however, the committee concludes that actions on the ground still do not match the administration's stated intention of putting the environment at the heart of government.

It notes that the review of the national sustainable development strategy is being carried out alongside other major policy reviews on energy, transport and general government spending priorities. The approach "has been unsatisfactory," it concludes, "with many other policy reviews being completed first and no formal link to the 'comprehensive spending review'".

Reporting on progress towards sustainable development should be improved, the committee concludes. It backs a proposal by environmental group Friends of the Earth for a new "index of sustainable economic welfare" to be introduced alongside the traditional measure of gross domestic product, calling on the government to "examine the concept" with a view to introducing it by 2002.

The committee recommends the introduction of three reporting mechanisms: a comprehensive assessment of the state of sustainable development to be published once per parliament (which can last a maximum of five years); an annual report of government performance against its sustainable development strategy and targets; and an annual report on sustainable development indicator statistics.

Efforts to create an institutional mechanism for greening government are welcomed, but its two main pillars are both criticised. Billed as the "principal decision-making body" for government policy on sustainable development and environmental issues, the cabinet committee on the environment met only twice in its first year, the committee notes. The network of "green ministers" from all government departments is urged to "exercise leadership" in several areas of its mandate.

Follow Up:
House of Commons environmental audit committee, tel: +44 171 219 0248. References: "The Greening Government Initiative."

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