UK Government ignores its own sustainability indicators in spending review

The Environmental Audit Committee has accused the Government of ghettoising sustainable development by failing to include its own set of 15 sustainable development indicators in its second review of how government departments spend money.

The Committee points to the fanfare that attended publication of the UK’s sustainable development strategy, entitled A Better Quality of Life (see related story) last summer. The strategy sets out how progress toward sustainable development should be measured with reference to more than 100 indicators. Fifteen indicators were signalled out as ‘headline’ indicators.

But the Government has failed to include these in its own Comprehensive Spending Review 2000 (CSR 2000). “We find it astonishing that [the CSR 2000] contains no reference to this framework or indicators,” states the Committee’s Third Report. “We look to the Government to establish a clear link between the sustainable development strategy and indicators and the rationale and criteria for putting together, and deciding, departmental bids. Given the overarching nature of sustainable development and the fact that it should provide the framework in which all policy formulation is carried out, we are surprised to find that the Government is having to consider formally whether to incorporate sustainable development into the remit of all departments and non-departmental public bodies.”

The report is also highly critical of the lack of monitoring of departments’ sustainable development efforts. Many departments have yet to add sustainable development principles to their decision-making processes and of those that have done so not all of them have set specific performance targets. The Environmental Audit Committee believes that a “centralised monitoring system” would speed up the integration of sustainable development into departmental spending decisions and that the Treasury should not shy away from taking such a role.

“We feel strongly that the Treasury should accept responsibility, with support from the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, for facilitating and monitoring departments’ integration of environmental and social impacts into their CSR bids,” says the Committee. “For the Treasury specifically to take a lead on this would represent the sort of ‘mainstreaming’ that would bring sustainable development and environmental integration out of the ghetto.”

Responding to the Committee’s criticisms, Environment Minister Michael Meacher admitted that measuring the Government’s efforts to ‘green’ its own departments is not possible because of the absence of a monitoring system.

Shadow Minister of the Environment, Conservative MP Damian Green, used the publication of the report to attack Labour’s lukewarm commitment to sustainable development. “What has happened to the Sustainable Development Commission?” he asked. “The two bodies abolished to make way for it have stopped, but in answers to my Parliamentary Questions, Michael Meacher has admitted that he cannot say when the Commission will start work, who will chair it, or who will sit on it. The Government are now confessing that it won’t be until the summer until the Commission gets going.”

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