On Thursday 22nd July, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced she was “reforming” the organisations linked to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This includes stopping the government funds to the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), and abolishing the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP).
You may feel indifferent to the loss of a few acronymed organisations from the alphabet soup of government offices and quangos. But this is not just a matter of neatening up operations, making DEFRA – what was it? – a “leaner, stronger department”, according to the press release rattled off by their propaganda officer. This is a big mistake.
Jonathan Porritt, who used to head up the SDC, has eloquently described how Spelman’s schemes lack sanity. Her arguments for stopping funding the SDC don’t even hold up according to her own objectives – for example, a recent SDC report shows that work on sustainable development by the previous administration have saved £60-70m a year. That towers over the piddling £4m a year it costs to run the SDC.
The RCEP is a less well-known body, but its disappearance is a blow to the UK. Since 1970, its reports have consistently provided carefully thought-out, wise guidance to government on a diverse range of environmental issues. The 1983 report on lead caused an immediate u-turn in government policy by pointing out the dangers of having lead in petrol. The report on nuclear energy way back in 1976 created the “Flowers Criterion” – that it is unwise to build new nuclear power stations until safe and reliable methods have been devised to deal with nuclear waste – and this is still hugely relevant today. The 2000 report on energy suggested a target of 60% emissions reductions by 2050 and was an important driver towards the Climate Change Act of 2008.
For 40 years a source of well-respected and independent advice, the longest-lived body of its kind in the world – until, with a few words and a wave of her wand, Spelman abolished it. Apparently she can take care of making sure the coalition government is “the greenest government ever”.
No – really – listen to her own words: “Together with Chris Huhne I am determined to play the lead role in driving the sustainability agenda across the whole of government and I am not willing to delegate this responsibility to an external body.”
They’ve learnt how to be green now – got it down pat. Good luck with that, Caroline. I find it hard to believe you are the intellectual equivalent of the sum of all the brains who used to sit on the RCEP – Cambridge professors and the like – and its institutional memory. Your actions so far suggest to me words such as “idiotic” rather than “intelligent”.
While ever-greater chunks are cut out of our public services and independent voices like the SDC and RCEP are silenced (except corporate lobbyists – I think they’re still fine), the banks the tax-payers bailed out pay dividends to the bloated balances of their chief executives.
Here’s an idea – and it isn’t mine. The Robin Hood Tax campaign is suggesting a “tiny tax on bankers that would give billions to tackle poverty and climate change, here and abroad”. It’s a bit like steal from the rich, give to the poor – except it’s not really stealing if you’re just claiming back what was taken from you in the first place. The tax could be as little as 0.005% – but because of the masses of financial transactions that take place, it could raise hundreds of billions of pounds every year. Think what we could do with that money – protect public services in the UK, invest in poverty reduction in the Global South, and provide finance for poorer countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
But Robin Hood didn’t do all that legendary redistribution of wealth by himself. He had a band of merry men. Right now, civil society needs to band together too and fight back against the future-blind policies of the Sheriff of Nottingham – I mean the coalition government.