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Environmental Audit Committee recommends minister for sustainable development

The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has published its report on Embedding sustainable development across Government, recommending the creation of a new minister for sustainable development within the Cabinet Office, to take responsibility for driving improvements in sustainability across Government – with greater support from the Treasury and Prime Minister.

Defra has said that it will examine the content of the EAC’s report and announce details of its approach to embed Sustainable Development across government in the coming weeks – to meet the commitment to becoming the greenest government ever.

Driving sustainabiliy from the centre of Government

The Environmental Audit Committee proposes that the new minister for sustainable development should ‘sustainability proof’ decision-making across Government and be in a position to hold departments to account when they fail to deliver on soon to be updated green targets. With the assistance of the Treasury, financial sanctions should be considered for poor sustainability performance by departments.

Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, 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.”

“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.”

“The Government now needs to broaden this ambition and get departments acting more sustainably across the board. And 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”

The committee suggests that embedding sustainable development in all departmental policy-making would help tackle long-term environmental, social and economic issues. In addition, saving energy and water, and reducing waste and unnecessary buying, can save the Government millions and help protect the environment. The committee warns that the Government is currently not set up to make the most of these potential benefits.

The Environmental Audit Committee inquiry

The report follows the committee’s inquiry into embedding sustainable development across Government, prompted by the Government’s announcement in July 2010 that it would cease its funding for the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), which currently performs a watchdog and advisory role for Government.

While the Government is committed to enhancing Defra’s capability and presence to improve the sustainability of Government, the committee expresses concern that the loss of the SDC’s experience and resources presents a risk to the Government’s green agenda and the sustainability of its policies.

Recognising the hard work and achievements of the SDC, the committee suggests that sustainable development has not been fully embedded into Government because the necessary political will has not been maintained.

Seeing an opportunity to reassess and revitalise the architecture for delivering sustainable development, the report looks forward, assessing how sustainable development might now be further embedded in Government policy decisionmaking and operations. It calls for some of the SDC’s work-streams to be maintained and for Government to take a more effective lead.

Evidence to the inquiry

The inquiry received written and oral evidence from over 35 witnesses, including representatives of Defra, the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group, the Department of Health and the Sustainable Development Commission. A wide range of other public bodies, NGOs, local authorities, academic institutions and individuals also contributed evidence.

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