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Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution

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ABOUT THE ROYAL COMMISSION ON ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION

What is the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution?
What does the Commission do?
How does the Commission work?

Commission Members
The Secretariat
Commission meetings
Commission studies
Selection of topics for study
How studies are conducted
Publication of reports
Guidelines for the conduct of Commission studies
Transparency and openness
Framework agreement with Defra
Links with other advisory bodies


What is the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution?

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is an independent standing body established in 1970 to advise the Queen, government, Parliament and the public on environmental issues. The Commission's terms of reference as set out in its Royal Warrant are:

To advise on matters, both national and international, concerning the pollution of the environment; on the adequacy of research in this field; and the future possibilities of danger to the environment. Within this remit the Commission has freedom to consider and advise on any matter it chooses; the government may also request consideration of particular topics. The Commission has interpreted ‘pollution' broadly as covering any introduction by man into the environment of substances or energy liable to cause hazards to human health, harm to living resources and ecological systems, damage to structures or amenity, or interference with legitimate uses of the environment. It now approaches issues within the framework of sustainable development.

The primary role of the Commission is to contribute to policy development in the longer term by providing an authoritative factual basis for policy-making and debate, and setting new policy agendas and priorities. This requires consideration of the economic, ethical and social aspects of an issue as well as the scientific and technological aspects. In reaching its conclusions, the Commission seeks to make a balanced assessment, taking account of the wider implications for society of any measures proposed.

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What does the Commission do?

The Commission sees its role as reviewing and anticipating trends and developments in environmental policies, identifying fields where insufficient attention is being given to problems, and recommending action that should be taken.

The Commission's advice is mainly in the form of reports, which are the outcome of major studies. It also makes short statements, generally as news releases, on matters it considers of special importance or which arise out of studies.

The First Report of the Commission made it clear that: ‘We do not have the competence or the resources to act as environmental ombudsman, dealing with appeals against local or central government decisions about specific cases of alleged damage to the environment where there are already channels through which such appeals may be made; what we are able to do is to give advice on the general principles which should guide Parliament and public opinion.'

Although funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Royal Commission is independent of government Departments. The Commission maintains links with government Departments, Parliamentary committees, pollution control agencies, research organisations, industry and environmental groups. It has an annual budget of around £900,000.

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How does the Commission work?

Commission Members

The Members of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution are drawn from a variety of backgrounds in academia, industry and public life. Contributing a wide range of expertise and experience in science, medicine, engineering, law, economics and business, Members serve part-time and as individuals, not as representatives of organisations or professions. The term of appointment is three years but Members may be reappointed. They are required to declare in a Register of Members' Interests any interests which may conflict with their role as Commission Members.

The Secretariat

A full-time Secretariat - the Secretary to the Commission, two Assistant Secretaries (one a scientist) and eight support staff (two of them scientists) - supports the Chairman and Members by arranging, preparing papers for, and recording meetings; by handling the Commission's finances, administration and correspondence; and by drafting and producing the Commission's reports.

Commission meetings

The Commission normally meets for 1½-2 days a month. Additionally, smaller groups of members may meet to take forward particular aspects of studies. From January 1998 onwards, the minutes of Commission meetings have been made publicly available.

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Commission studies

Selection of topics for study

In choosing subjects for study, the Commission is guided by the following criteria (although any one study will not necessarily satisfy all of them):

  1. the topics chosen should be what the Commission's First Report called ‘priorities for enquiry' - issues which require detailed and rigorous analysis before satisfactory policies can be adopted;
  2. they should raise wide issues, both intellectually (in the sense of spanning several disciplines) and organisationally (in the sense of not falling within the terms of reference of any other single body);
  3. they are likely to involve general issues of principle;
  4. they should not normally duplicate other studies already in progress or planned in the near future;
  5. there should be a reasonable prospect that worthwhile conclusions can be produced within two years with the resources likely to be available to the Commission.

Studies are therefore generally complex and challenging, covering broad cross-disciplinary issues. In choosing topics, the Commission seeks to take into account trends in environmental policy at European and global levels which seem to have significant implications for the UK. The Commission also seeks to follow developments in fields which it has recently studied.

How studies are conducted

Once the Commission has chosen a subject for study, it reviews the scientific, medical and technical literature, and invites written evidence from a large number of organisations and individuals, both lay and professional, and from the general public. Some witnesses are invited to give oral evidence. Additionally, the Commission may employ consultants and special advisers to assist it with studies. Visits to all parts of the United Kingdom give direct knowledge of environmental problems and solutions and where necessary, the Commission visits other countries to see how they are dealing with a particular problem.

Publication of reports

The findings and recommendations from a Commission study are published in a report. Aimed at a general readership, the Commission's reports are written so that no particular scientific or other expertise is needed to understand them. The reports are submitted to the Queen. By Her command, each report is then presented to Parliament, published by the Stationery Office and made available from booksellers.

Most Commission recommendations are addressed to government Departments, and a government response to a Commission report is prepared and published by one or more government Departments. Parliament is informed of the response. The response is usually a detailed paper setting out the Government's decision on each recommendation. A debate may follow at in either House, initiated by government or Opposition, depending on the degree of Parliamentary interest.

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Guidelines for the conduct of studies

Under established government procedures, the role of every non-departmental public body is reviewed at five-year intervals by the Department which has financial responsibility for it. As preparation for the next quinquennial Finance, Management and Policy Review, the Royal Commission initiated an internal review of its working methods in September 1997.

A Working Party drawn from both Members and Secretariat met between October 1997 and January 1998. Two exercises were carried out:

  1. a customer survey in the form of a questionnaire sent to over seventy people, including former Ministers, key MPs and MEPs, serving and retired senior civil servants, and senior staff of trade associations and non-governmental organisations;
  2. a comparative study of the methods of working of thirteen other advisory and deliberative bodies in the UK and other European countries.

The Working Party drew up guidelines for the conduct of Commission studies, taking account of the findings from the customer and comparative surveys. The guidelines clarify the role of the Commission, its Members and the Secretariat, and cover the main activities involved in carrying out a Commission study and producing a report. They are divided into four sections:

selection of topics for study
gathering information
- scoping and initial preparation to identify specific issues for consideration
- gathering additional information to resolve these issues and prepare the report
processing evidence, deliberating and drafting
presentation of the Commission and its work.

The Guidelines for the Conduct of Commission Studies are now available publicly. They will be interpreted flexibly in the light of the circumstances of particular studies, and reviewed again at the end of the study of Energy and the Environment in light of practical experience of their operation.

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Transparency and openness

The Commission has taken several steps to make its work more transparent and open. The guidelines provide for much more extensive consultation about its future programme of work, about issues to be considered in the course of particular studies, and about the implications and impact of reports. This web site is making much more information available about the Commission and its operations, and its content will be progressively extended. The Commission have set out a publication scheme which details how the Commission intends to meet the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

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Framework agreement with the Defra

The quinquennial Finance, Management and Policy Review of the Royal Commission commenced in 1999. The terms of reference for the review team were to evaluate the role and performance of the Commission in order to make recommendations on its future development. The report was published in spring 2000 and can be viewed via the Defra website (http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/rcep/fmpr/index.htm).

An agreement initially drawn up between the Commission and the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions sets out the framework within which the relationship between the two bodies operates. The Framework Document was published in February 2001 (available here as an Adobe Acrobat file). A web page (html) version is also available on the Defra website (http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/rcep/framework/index.htm).

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Links with other advisory bodies

The Commission maintains links with other environmental advisory bodies in order to take account of their output and avoid any risk of duplication. The Chairman participates in periodic meetings of chairmen of advisory bodies convened by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The Commission is part of a network of environmental advisory councils in Member States and candidate states of the European Union, which hold annual conferences and are developing other forms of co-operation.

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Page created: xx January, 2004
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