Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 186 - 199)




  186. Professor Petts, you are a Professor of Environmental Risk Management at Birmingham University for the record.
  (Professor Petts) Correct.

  187. The Government's timetable describes all this as a "programme of action". Were you surprised when that label was attached to five stages of consultation?
  (Professor Petts) I think, Chairman, I would say possibly not surprised in that there seems to be a new delight in consultation amongst official bodies that is almost potentially holding up activity because they are not quite sure how to go about.

  188. The existential consultation we have got now!
  (Professor Petts) I am very much in favour of consultation but I have a feeling that the problem is they are not quite sure how to go about it, so that may be the reason for five potential steps. Some of those steps, which really in essence in the early elements are considering the methods of consultation, one might argue could easily be decided upon fairly quickly, but certainly one gets the impression that perhaps there is almost a fear of public consultation so let's take as long as possible to do it.

  189. Which of those early steps could have been encapsulated? How would you have done that and where would you have got into what one might call the substantive consultation?
  (Professor Petts) Can I step back to what it is that they wish to consult upon because in DEFRA consultation there is this issue of "engaging" the public which is rather different to consulting, but it is not clear to me they are very clear about why they want to engage the public other than to get the "right" solution and have the people on their side. Also I am certainly not fully comprehending of the actual decision processes that have to be gone through to get from where we are now to an agreement on a site for disposal and actually operating that site. Without that clarity of what the decision process is, and who has to take particular decisions at a point in time, there is perhaps a fear or a belief that engaging in consulting might somehow help us through the process, but I think that is an inappropriate view because without some clarity about what decision has to be taken and the timescale over which those decisions have to be taken, I think it is difficult to design any appropriate engagement activities.

  190. Consultation of this sort does pre-suppose a rational response at the end of the day. All politicians have people come into their surgery. Do you really think at the end of August some community is going to say, "Fair cop, all the logic points to it here", or do we just finish up years down the road exactly as we are now?
  (Professor Petts) I am pretty sure that one of the reasons for wishing to go for broader public debate than has traditionally been the case is a clear understanding that there is a lack of public trust in decision making not only in the waste field but in a whole raft of areas in environmental policy making and that loss of trust in decision making and general growth at the same time of public willingness to engage in complex issues that concern them means that there is a different pressure for engagement than we have perhaps seen even five years ago and certainly ten years ago. That loss of public trust in decision making undoubtedly lies behind the official desire to go into a more consultative process. I think that is an appropriate way to go because I think the level of distrust in radioactive waste management policy-making over the years has got to such a point that to go forward without any form of extended public engagement would be entirely inappropriate at this point in time. Whether this needs to go through five steps and quite a few years to get that consultation going and how it all fits with all the decisions that actually have to be made is not clear.

Mr Jack

  191. In this concept of the public just tell us who you think this public are.
  (Professor Petts) For all of us it is much easier to say "the public" because it saves several sentences, I suspect, of explanation. Traditionally, of course, there has been a view of only consulting what I would refer to as stakeholders, people with very defined interests, often financial, often regulatory and, indeed, like the two groups that you have just taken evidence from, very defined environmental group interests. What I think has traditionally not taken place is broader consultation with what I might call the general lay members of the public who may not traditionally take part but may in particular circumstances certainly have an "interest". It may be because they would be a local resident, it may be that they will be affected by some transport of materials going through their area, it may be that they have an interest in the topic but would not go as far as joining particular stakeholder groups. I think that broader definition of the public is how I would interpret the phrase here as opposed to very defined interest groups and stakeholders.

  Mr Jack: Does the approach the Government is taking reach that second definition of the wider public outlined to us?


  192. The Carlsberg concept?
  (Professor Petts) I think it suggests they would like to. This phraseology about "we understand this is a very complex problem" and "we have got to learn how to simplify it for people" suggests they might want to get a broader group of people who may not traditionally have taken part in radioactivity debates of any description. What might be meant by individual members of the public being engaged, provided with information, able to take part, is possibly not so clear and is presumably why the consultation is asking for views about methods, etcetera.

Patrick Hall

  193. Professor Petts, this is, as you probably know, a short inquiry by this Select Committee.
  (Professor Petts) Yes.

  194. And, therefore, we will not, if I may say, I believe, get to the depths, if that is the right word in the context of deep storage, of all the science and technology, engineering, the economics and the politics and socio-economics considerations, we will not be able to do that. I think one thing we ought to try to do is certainly look at the process of consultation because we are discussing these matters in the context of the DEFRA document. You certainly do not seem to be impressed with that document although you have suggested that it is perhaps a worthy aim. Our job perhaps is to tease out some of the weaknesses and try to suggest where the process may be improved. You have expertise on these matters. What do you suggest are the three key requirements to make the process robust so that we could maybe get the outcomes of the public being engaged in a more meaningful way and better democratic accountability in the context of whatever the engineering and the science can do? You may have more than three or less than three, but can we just focus on three for now?
  (Professor Petts) Number one would certainly be some clarity about the decisions that actually have to be made, by who, presumably the choice of option, the choice of sites, fairly obvious decisions that one can identify have to be made. We can identify the parties or responsible bodies for those decisions, and possibly some view of the potential timescale over which those decisions ideally should be made. I think it is only once you identify the decisions can you actually have some clarity, number two, about the objectives. None of this documentation sets out for me the objectives of public engagement/consultation, whatever you want to call it. There are a few sentences about what they hope might be achieved, like "unless people believe the right policy has been adopted", so somehow presumably they want to convince people the right policy is being adopted, but there is no clarity of objectives here. Is it merely to find out in general terms what people think about nuclear waste? Is it more specifically to engage specific communities about the selection of sites for disposal? Is it to engage people so that they bring local knowledge to the selection of those sites? Is it to increase trust in Government decision making? What are the objectives that are appropriate to each of the decisions, to each of the stages, because the objectives for the choice of options will almost certainly need to be slightly different from the objectives for the choice of the sites. Only once you have gone through that number one and number two do I think you can then get to selecting the methods. This document goes straight to telling us which methods might be a good idea with absolutely a failure to understand the decision context, or a definitional clarity of the objectives. I have been involved in public participation activities in a whole raft of environmental fields for rather a long time, at least 18 years, in major chemical hazards, waste management and incineration siting, landfill siting, etc., the development of Local Waste Management, Municipal Waste Management Strategies, the clean-up of contaminated sites, and all of my experience tells me that unless you are clear about the decision it is very difficult to come up with appropriate forms of consultation, other than simply information provision, providing general information to people about radioactive waste management, for example, or simply conducting some form of public relations exercise which suggests you are at least more open than you used to be in the past. Really engaging people, and they use the word "engaging" which suggests discussion and dialogue and debate, really doing that can only be done effectively when you are clear about the objectives. Those objectives for the agencies or the Departments having to conduct that consultation might be slightly different from the objectives of those members of the public who wish to take part. Most good public participation programmes, engagement programmes, take into account what the people who are participating want out of it, what they want to bring to the process as well as those people who are running the processes at the same time. I do not get any feel for that from this chapter in the DEFRA Report.

  195. The way it has been done so far, which has not been successful, has been, I think, to make a decision about a site and a system or method of disposal and then to consult locally on that, so people have said "Well, you have made your mind up and this is just window dressing". Is not this DEFRA document attempting to genuinely engage in the wider sense so that there is greater understanding on what decisions or recommendations might be made in detail and then you consult again on that? Are you saying that is unlikely to work, it is too vague, that people will not get involved unless they have a decision, if you like, laid before them and then we go back full circle? How can we improve on the failure of the last few decades?
  (Professor Petts) I am certainly not saying that people want to take part after someone has come up with a suggested solution or a plan of action. People want to take part in devising that plan. They want to take part in weighing up the various options for disposal. They do not want to wait until the options selected come forward or, even worse, the site selection. It is also clear to me that what people want to do is have an impact on the decision. If you only, therefore, go out with a sort of public relations exercise you are unlikely to allow people the opportunity to influence the decision about options choice or about site choice, for example. I think that is what people increasingly want to be able to do, to influence the decision, not take the decision obviously, that is someone else's job, but to influence the decision. If they feel that the objectives are so woolly and it is impossible for them to see how what they have said or written or expressed concern about has been taken into account in decisions, that is when I think engagement/participation fails. Most of the evidence from evaluating public participation exercises with people who have taken part suggests that they get most concerned when they cannot see how they can influence the decision. Your point about is it all right to come out with the option and say "what do you think of that?" is inappropriate, you have got to let people take part in the choice of the options first, or comment upon the options that are available.

  196. Without starting by naming sites which then generates a lot of opposition but at least it generates interest.
  (Professor Petts) Absolutely.

  197. You are saying it is not necessary to do that?
  (Professor Petts) Yes.

  198. What we do instead then has not really been done before.
  (Professor Petts) No.

  199. And that is the test?
  (Professor Petts) That is the test. That is why I think the document is hinting at and suggesting can we find some different methods that will help us do that, which is perhaps why it has gone off on the methods selection process as opposed to understanding and stepping back what it wants to achieve in the process.

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