Blair 'hypocritical' on green priorities

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair has been accused of "hypocrisy" over plans to back a move in the EU to downgrade the environment as a priority - behind growth and jobs.

Tony Blair has been accused of "hypocrisy" over plans to back a move in the EU to downgrade the environment as a priority - behind growth and jobs.

Leaked documents obtained by The Independent show a cabinet split over plans to put growth and jobs ahead of the environment when the priorities for sustainable development are reviewed by the EU.

The correspondence shows that Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, has warned cabinet colleagues that downgrading the environment would "cause the UK very serious reputational damage". She says that Britain could put itself "at the extreme margins of debate", and even undermine work to combat climate change and development aid to Africa.

A leaked letter from the Treasury minister John Healey to Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, shows the extent of the row within government and confirms "Margaret [Beckett] is concerned about the reputational risk of prioritising the economic pillar".

Mr Healey wrote: "I would support the alternative approach to the one that Margaret proposes concerning the interpretation of sustainable development. In particular I would seek to make clear the prioritisation of the economics pillar over and above the environment and social pillars in the context of sustainable development..."

A paper written by Treasury officials adds: "Whitehall discussions on the prioritisation of the economics pillar have been contentious: Mrs Beckett does not agree with language that protects the focus on jobs and growth."

MPs and environmentalists said the papers undermined Tony Blair's public statements of support for the environment. "It is deeply dispiriting that powerful forces within government are arguing for a return to the dark ages," said Stephen Tindale, of Greenpeace. "All the evidence shows that high environmental standards are beneficial for the economy and jobs. "

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats' environment spokesman, said the leak showed "hypocrisy of the highest order" by Mr Blair. "Despite their fine words in public about the environment and climate change, behind the scenes, No 10 and No 11 are trying to undermine the environment and destroy the very concept of sustainable development," he said. "It shows Margaret Beckett fighting a rearguard action but the whole Government should be tackling climate change."

Today Jonathan Porritt's Sustainable Development Commission will urge the Government to do more to tackle climate change and "not neglect what's going on in its own backyard". It will publish a report calling for "radical new charges on vehicles and aviation, greater household energy efficiency and a carbon neutral public sector".

Mrs Beckett says that the Government must "avoid the implication" that "countries need to achieve a certain level of wealth before they need to address environmental and social challenges." She says: "We cannot unilaterally choose to give it [sustainable development] a different meaning." She urged ministers to "look ahead to the UK presidency".

Mr Blair personally launched Britain's sustainable development strategy in March.Last week European Union states reaffirmed the EU's commitment to sustainable development, saying it was "a key principle" and that a revised strategy should be adopted "by the end of 2005".

"The outcome is one that the UK government is very pleased with," a spokesman for the Department of the Environment said.