The environmental audit committee is to examine the role that sustainability plays in policymaking, governance, procurement and operations at the ministry.
Committee chair Mary Creagh said it is ‘crucial for the whole country’ that the environmental impacts of policy making are understood.
‘Departments such as the Ministry of Justice lead from the front when it comes to sustainability,’ she added.
According to the recently-published NAO report, the Whitehall department is responsible for 1,650 sites with a collective floor area of more than five million square metres.
The ministry’s estate also accounts for around 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions, waste and water use from the central government estate.
It adds the department is implementing ‘major reforms’ of its estate, with plans to close some old Victorian prisons, build five new prisons by 2020 and close some courts and tribunals.
The report states that ‘building sustainability considerations’ into these changes could have a significant impact on the long-term carbon emissions, waste and water use of its estate.
And the NAO document adds improving sustainability can also play a part in reducing costs. The 2015 Spending Review requires the Ministry to reduce expenditure by £600m between 2015-16 and 2019-20, from £6.2bn to £5.6bn. Energy, waste disposal and water supply for its buildings cost the ministry £128m in 2015-16.
It notes the department has ‘good arrangements’ in place to promote and monitor some aspects of environmental sustainability, but previous work indicates that a key risk for environmental sustainability is that it is sidelined in favour of more immediate priorities.
To mitigate this, the ministry has established a sustainable operations team responsible for collating data on environmental performance and for initiating environmental projects, and a board-level sustainability champion.
However, the NAO report states there are also ‘important gaps and weaknesses’ in the ministry’s governance arrangements that could ‘undermine progress’.
‘It is not clear that the ministry’s senior leadership “own” all its ambitions for environmental sustainability,’ the report adds. ‘Governance arrangements focus on carbon: the internal single departmental plan only covers the ministry’s carbon target, as do progress reports to its sustainability champion.
‘The latter has not signed off the ministry’s biodiversity strategy or sustainable operations policy. The ministry told us that this is because carbon is its priority. But it is important to explain to stakeholders the rationale for chosen priorities, and to review priorities in light of emerging risks or opportunities.
‘The ministry’s sustainability policy does not explain whether or why carbon is its priority, and deterioration of a nationally important site for wildlife did not prompt a review of priorities by its sustainability champion.’
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: ‘We take our commitment to environmental sustainability extremely seriously – evidenced by the fact we have already cut our carbon emissions by 30% since 2009-10, exceeding our target. We are also delivering a number of projects across the department to reduce our environmental impact and operating costs.
‘We welcome the report by the National Audit Office, and will set out our full response in due course.’
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