18 September 2003 | Colleen Harris
Environmental campaigners have accused the government of dragging its heels on promises to ensure public-sector purchasers buy timber from sustainable sources.
Tessa Robertson, the new head of the WWF-UK's forest programme, which works alongside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on the scheme, said the government had been "extremely slow" to implement a demanding timber procurement policy first mooted three years ago.
The criticism comes after the Home Office launched an inquiry after pressure groups raised concerns about whether timber, used to build its new headquarters, had been "inadvertently" bought from unsustainable forests.
Robertson told SM: "The government first made an announcement in July 2000 that it was going to implement a tough timber procurement policy, but has yet to implement one.
"We're unhappy with its performance. Most local authorities don't have any timber policy at all, so we're pushing them to develop and implement one."
Robertson, who was appointed head of the UK forest programme for the WWF - formerly the Worldwide Fund for Nature - in March, said purchasers ought to use timber certified by a credible independent certification scheme such as the Forest Stewardship Council UK.
"The government is doing its best to specify timber that comes from legal and well managed sources. But it's very difficult when it doesn't have an agreed timber procurement policy, so mistakes get made constantly," she said.
Last year, the Buying Time for Forests report, published by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), a taskforce that monitors the environmental impact of government departments, accused government purchasers of paying "lip service" to the implementation of the policy.
The government has since promised to ensure that all future contracts comply with the policy in its response to the EAC's report.
A Defra spokesman defended the time it had taken to enforce the policy.
"We work closely with our colleagues at the WWF who have a great deal of expertise. Their views have been fed in and we agree with what they're saying.
"But we do not expect them to warmly welcome the way the government works. Government will always move too slowly for non-government organisations.
"Government departments are responsible for spending public money, therefore time has to be taken to make sure that decisions are right."
He added the government was encouraging individual departments to put clauses into contracts asking contractors to use sustainable timber, and that this was now starting to happen.