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Environmental Audit Committee

Volume 635: debated on Thursday 8 February 2018

Select Committee statement

The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, will speak on the subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of the statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call the hon. Lady to respond to them in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Those on the Front Benches may take part in questioning.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to make this statement on behalf of the Environmental Audit Committee about our third report of this Session, “The Ministry of Justice: Environmental Sustainability”, which I am delighted to share with the House.

The Committee’s remit includes carrying out regular sustainability audits of Departments and agencies. Working closely with the National Audit Office, we look at whether Departments are doing enough to reduce their impact on the environment and meet their greening government commitments. In the previous Parliament, we published sustainability audits of the Treasury and the Department for Transport, and this is our first audit of this Session.

The Government are the largest purchaser of goods and services in the country, and I pay tribute to the civil servants working across Government to reduce their carbon footprint. The Government should be leading from the front on sustainability. They have signed up to the UN’s global goals, to the greening government commitments, which commit Departments to reducing their impacts on the environment, and to Government buying standards on procurement. All three are aimed at improving sustainable practices.

Why did the Committee choose the Ministry of Justice? With 1,600 sites, the Ministry of Justice has the second largest estate in Government. It accounts for 20% of the Government’s greenhouse gas, waste and water emissions. It is the second largest buyer of goods and services, spending £4.6 billion through external suppliers in 2015-16, which is 10% of total Government spend on procurement. The Committee recognises the financial pressures that the courts and prison services are under, but being green brings financial benefits. UK businesses, for example, could save £23 billion a year by improving how they use energy and water and by reducing waste.

The Ministry has committed to put sustainable development at the heart of everything it does, so with the assistance of the NAO, the Committee examined whether that was happening. First, we were disappointed that the sustainable development goals were not mentioned in the Ministry’s single departmental plan, despite the Government promising us that they would appear in every single departmental plan. That is a worrying trend across Government. Secondly, our audit uncovered significant weaknesses relating to how the Ministry manages its sites, buildings and refurbishment projects, carbon emissions and vehicle fleet and in its approach to policy making.

The Ministry’s estate is one of the most ecologically diverse in Government. Its prisons and immigration removal centres contain 10 sites of special scientific interest, only two of which are in a favourable condition. We also found gaps in the Ministry’s governance and oversight. Senior management are often not informed of sustainability incidents. For example, we heard about one contractor that destroyed a nationally important protected orchid meadow but was not penalised or held to account through the contract.

The Ministry wants all its new buildings to achieve an “excellent” rating under the Building Research Establishment environmental assessment method—BREEAM—and it wants refurbishment projects to achieve a “very good” rating. However, we found that the Ministry had not assessed the environmental performance of nearly two thirds of its new-build and refurbishment projects. Of the 54 that did get the certificate, 14 failed to meet the required standard. Not knowing the rating of a building could not only lead to costs from retrofitting and poor energy efficiency but risk inmates’ health through overheating. When a cost-benefit analysis is put forward, it is predicated on good or excellent standards being achieved, meaning that the building will cost more to run and manage than expected and will not meet the case set out for the project.

We also examined Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and its courts closure programme. Since 2010, 103 magistrates and 54 county courts have closed, and the Ministry is consulting on plans to close nine more courts. There were gaps in the guidance to staff on how to sell off court and tribunal buildings, and the oversight on contractors also showed gaps. For example, people tasked with selling the buildings were unaware of their statutory duty to tell Historic England if the buildings were listed or of particular local architectural significance, and they failed to minimise the risk of new owners letting the buildings fall into disrepair. In my constituency, Wakefield Crown court, sold off 20 years ago, has been left to fall into ruins, leaving my local authority and local council tax payers to foot the bill.

The Ministry of Justice did not meet its targets for domestic flights and carbon reduction in 2014-15. In fact, its use of domestic flights is increasing. We found that in one year there were 108 flights between London and Anglesey and 98 flights between London and Cardiff, as well as flights between Southampton and Manchester, even though perfectly good train services are available. The Ministry did not provide any explanation for the increase.

In the autumn Budget, the Chancellor committed that 25% of all cars in central Government Departments should be electric, yet only two of the Ministry of Justice’s 1,500 vehicles are ultra-low emission vehicles. We also found that the Ministry does not systematically undertake environmental impact assessments of new policies. For example, in February 2017 the Government tried to remove the fixed cap on court costs in environmental cases, but they failed to consider the environmental impact of that decision, despite environmental groups saying it would have a “chilling effect” on access to environmental justice.

The Ministry of Justice acknowledged many of its shortcomings during our hearing, and it has been working to improve its oversight, systems and performance. That is welcome, but we urge it to improve in three key areas. We urge it to embed sustainability in all it does; to follow its own guidance when making policy—it is ironic that the Department tasked with upholding the law is failing to meet its own legal requirements in certain areas—and providing guidance to staff and contractors; and to improve oversight and governance of sustainability, including in the governance of its contractors, such as on buying standards for prison food.

We recommend that the Ministry of Justice sets more ambitious environmental targets for 2019-20, as we found it was setting its targets too low so that it could say, “We have met the targets a year or two early.” That is no good. The targets have to be stretching, and they have to be on just the right side of impossible. The Ministry also needs to develop its sustainability policies, reflecting global goals, and it needs to set out how it will meet its existing targets. It needs to improve its estate management and systematically collect environmental rating certificates for all refurbishment and new-build projects.

The Ministry of Justice should provide better support to staff, especially prison governors and the people involved in selling courts and tribunal buildings, and it should provide guidance and oversight to contractors on how to manage the estate sustainably, including its sites of special scientific interest, which are protected by law. That is particularly important in the wake of the collapse of Carillion, which was a contractor on several of the prisons we looked at. The Ministry must improve its oversight of sustainability issues, and it must show leadership to the rest of central Government on sustainability.

If the UK is to be at the forefront of sustainability, the Government must lead by example. All Departments must do their bit, and the Ministry of Justice is failing to meet that challenge. Sustainability and the environment have been bolted on as a bit of an afterthought. In the Ministry’s response to our report, I expect to see a clear plan that addresses our concerns and incorporates the global goals into everything it does.

I look forward to the Government’s response, and I look forward to our Committee, and my many excellent Committee colleagues, continuing our quiet work in this overlooked but vital part of Government activity. I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to raise this report today.

I thank the hon. Lady for her very detailed and considered report. She has made some valuable points, and the Ministry of Justice will respond in due course in the usual way.

Except for that gracious tribute from the Minister, such has been the force, incisiveness and comprehensive scope of the statement by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) that she has left the House speechless. I trust that the appropriate extract from the Official Report will be put up on the wall of one of the rooms in her home.