Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food


1.  Much of the Ministry's public participation and consultation over the last three years has been by the traditional method of publication followed by written replies. However, in the wake of the Modernising Government White Paper, the need to develop strategies, to involve stakeholders in the policy making process and to ensure that services are responsive to the needs of the customer, has been recognised and action taken. Below are examples of how the Ministry is exploring and implementing new methods of participation and consultation.


Consumer-led Reviews

2.  A key example of an innovative approach is what has come to be called the Red Tape Review. Essentially in September 1999 the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food asked the agriculture industry to let him know of areas where bureaucracy and regulation were seen or felt to be overburdensome. With the customers having identified the areas which concerned them most, the Minister then appointed chairmen and working groups to investigate the problems. All the individuals were from the industry and selected for their expertise and experience. The groups were supported by a secretariat of officials and were asked to root out unnecessary burdens and find a way of doing things better. They had a completely free hand to consult who and on what they wanted. Three reports were published, as were the Government responses (copies of the three reports and accompanying responses can be accessed through the "Forms and Regulations" section on the MAFFWEB. Hard copies are also available in the House libraries).

  3.  These new "consumer-led reviews" involved identification of the issues by the customer and exploration of the issues by individuals from the industry. They were given the necessary secretariat support and both the recommendations to the Minister and his responses were made public.

People's Panel

  4.  The booklet Food Sense on GM food was first published in the mid 1990s and it was decided to redraft it to take account of the large increase in public interest and concern related to this issue. Following internal redrafting and updating, use was made of the People's Panel and of Focus Groups (via MORI) to improve the "user friendliness" of the booklet and to ensure it addressed the full range of consumer concerns.

Greater Openness

  5.  Over the last two to three years, the working practices of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes have become more open, in that minutes of the meetings and most of the committee papers are now published on the Internet (previously only very brief reports of the decisions reached were made public). In December 1999, new procedures were introduced that will mean that any applications to the UK to consider approval of a novel food or process will be placed in the public domain. The full dossier submitted will be placed on the Internet (minus any sections that are agreed to contain commercially sensitive information) and there will be an opportunity for the public to make comments, which will then be available to the Committee when it considers the application. The draft Committee opinion will also be placed on the Internet before finalisation and public comment again will be invited.

  6.  This will allow much wider public access to the safety data submitted in support of an application for approval of a novel food and will allow the public to participate in the decision-making process. However, because of the time deadlines set in the EC legislation governing approval of novel foods, such information can only realistically be proved electronically via the Internet.

Stakeholder/Consensus approach

  7.  Following recommendations by the House of Commons Agriculture Committee, targets were developed for the flood defence operating authorities (ie Environmental Agency, Internal Drainage Boards and Local Authorities) to help provide a more certain delivery of the Government's policy aims and objectives. The targets were drawn up in very close consultation with the operating authorities and other interested parties, including bodies such as English Nature and environmental NGOs. It was considered essential that targets should have the support of all relevant stakeholders.

Informed debate

  8.  A further example of the use of innovative approaches to consultation relates to the negotiations for, and implementation of Agenda 2000, which is the framework for the development of the European Union and its policies beyond the turn of the century. As well as using the traditional written consultation process a number of less widely used techniques were used to inform the debate on the proposals on agriculture and rural development which formed an important part of Agenda 2000, and on plans for implementing these plans in the UK.

  9.  At the launch of the whole process in January 1999 the Ministry convened a conference of about 2,000 delegates from interested parties to explain the issues and invite views. As a follow up to this a series of regional public consultation meetings were held and were attended by Ministers and/or HQ policy officials etc. The consultation documents were accompanied by relevant economic information which was provided to help inform the debate. In addition to this a tickbox questionnaire on the key issues was sent to every farmer during the Agenda negotiations.

Joined up Government

  10.  The need for a "joined up Government" approach is also recognised and has been used to good effect as part of the consultation process on the Rural Development Plan. For example before the various Chapters were placed on the Government Office website to gather views and comments, focus groups were set up to consider the issues. The groups were made up of officials from various Government Departments and enabled a broad based document to be produced covering all rural issues not just agriculture.

Use of Fora

  11.  The use of specific fora is also a recent development. For example the Ministry has set up a TB (tuberculosis) Forum comprising representatives from the main farming, veterinary and conservation organisations. It has been established to consider new measures which might be taken to control TB in cattle.


  12.  There has also been a rapid increase in use of e-technology. For example the Ministry has built up a comprehensive TB website which has a response facility which allows people visiting the site to make comment. At present there is little to indicate an extensive use of on-line debates or other more sophisticated electronic forums but consultation documents are now widely available on the Internet as well as in hard copy format.


  13.  All the above innovate approaches to consultation have, in varying degrees, influenced our decision making processes. With better informed debate, more involvement from stakeholders, more openness and greater feedback the decisions taken are more likely to be outcome-focused, evidence-based and forward-looking. More particularly since mid 1998 it has become the practice that all consultations are accompanied by a draft Regulatory Impact Assessment which helps draw out the benefits and burdens as well as risks associated with any new policy or lack of it.


Time constraints

14.  There are a number of lessons to be learned. In practice the time allowed for consultation is often shorter than those being consulted would wish. For example the Ministry has allowed four months for the industry to comment in relation to the review of the Agricultural Wages Board but some views indicate that this period is not enough. The period should not be an arbitrary one but should wherever possible reflect the level and range of consultation necessary to involve all interested parties.

Use of e-technology

  15.  Although the use of e-technology can be of great benefit in terms of reaching people quickly etc, there are some negative aspects. For example we must take steps not to alienate those without access to the Internet, and to ensure that responses are truly representative—individuals need to be targeted to ensure good and appropriate levels of response.


  16.  Following the White Paper it is our intention to develop the "consumer focus" arrangements which will involve establishing systems to effectively measure customer satisfaction; looking at ways of consulting customers and targeting action following feedback; and ensuring the process is transparent enough for customers to judge how service delivery is improving.

  17.  In addition the Ministry also has a "consumer champion" who will have responsibility for ensuring that customers' views are translated into practical improvements to services; and that changes made to services have real meaning and impact and that they are part of a long term strategy of improvement.

  18.  Best practice in consultation/participation will be promulgated from the centre and will build on work already done on the promotion of good policy making techniques. This earlier initiative followed the Cabinet Office study "Policy Making for the 21st Century" published in September 1999.

Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

March 2000

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