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

Examination of Witness (Questions 200 - 219)



  200. You have got a suggestion as to what those methods would be, yes?
  (Professor Petts) The methods are many. First of all, I am absolutely convinced that you will have to use many, many methods to get to different publics. Those people who just simply want information about what is going on is a straight information provision exercise, and that will be a whole part of the transparency of governance here. If you want to engage local people where site choice might be appropriate you are obviously engaging people in a different debate and that might involve small group discussion meetings, for example, but that choice of method has to come back to the objectives. Without that clarity of the decision process and how the objectives fit in the decision, I do not think you can choose the methods.

Diana Organ

  201. Obviously after the process, after 12 March, you have to think about the sort of body. Government said that its stated intention is to "set up a strong, independent and authoritative body to advise us on what information there is, what further information is needed, and when enough information has been gathered . . . ." and what we do with all that, but others have made statements about what they would like to see as the body. For instance, the Radioactive Waste Management Committee suggested that the consultation process should be overseen by this independent body and others have even gone so far as to say that this should not be confined to assessing information requirements just for Government. We have to think about this because it is the next stage on, is it not? What do you think about this overseeing body? Should it be responsible for just gathering information or should it have a strategic role? Should it ultimately produce policy for Government? What would you want to see if we are going to get what we are aiming to get, which is public involvement and full consultation of communities, stakeholders, in the decision making process?
  (Professor Petts) I do not think it is absolutely essential in principle to have an independent body running a consultation exercise to ensure that that consultation exercise is effective. I suspect what might be behind this is that because of the history of the debate in the past and the fact that in the past plans have come forward without any form of consultation and have therefore met the immediate concern, there is a feeling of a perception amongst the public that no-one is truly independent in the process. However, I am not convinced that it is essential to have an independent body to do the consultation. What members of the public generally, from my experience, when they take part want to see is that they can have an effect on the people who make the decision. If that independent body is not responsible for making the decision it might be nice to have the meetings facilitate them but it is not essential that the independent body runs the consultation itself. To put into the lions' den, so to speak, the people who have to make the decision, of course has a number of benefits to it. It means that they are directly subject to public questioning. They listen to what members of the public are saying, what they express concern about, what information, knowledge they bring to the debate and can be greatly informed by that, in my experience. If you are one step removed from the body running that process and have no responsibility for taking that decision, you have still got to relay that information to the body that is making the decision and that is where you have the potential for information to be somehow lost or not transmitted appropriately and you have also lost the engagement of people who have to make the decision in that public debate.

  202. And the perception that they have a very influential role on those that make the decision?
  (Professor Petts) Absolutely.

  203. So there is a view from one end of the telescope of them being terribly independent but from the other not so.
  (Professor Petts) Yes. At the end of the day people realise that those who have to take the decisions either on the choice of option or the selection of the site—

  204. Or about the general principle because they have not even gone back to first principles about should we have nuclear energy at all.
  (Professor Petts) Yes indeed and right back to the question you were asking the representative from Friends of the Earth about the need for nuclear energy. It is absolutely certain that will come up in the public debate. To try and stop that debate would be inappropriate. It might be that how much of that debate took place would have to be looked at as a matter of pragmatic running of the consultation system if nothing else. At the end of the day we have nuclear waste, it has to be disposed of.

  205. Given that we think it might be useful to have this intermediary body, who would you want to see being on that body?
  (Professor Petts) To run the consultation exercise?

  206. Yes and maybe even to have a slightly more powerful, more influential role in not just running the consultation process but in actually giving advice to those that make the decision?
  (Professor Petts) I had not thought about this.

  Diana Organ: Or assessing the information that is being gathered.


  207. If you have a stroke of inspiration between now and the end of the week please let us know.
  (Professor Petts) I still come back to the view that the people who have to make the decision must be there taking part in that debate in some way and be open to public questioning.

Mr Borrow

  208. Amongst the submissions we have received is one from the Nuclear Free Local Authorities and one of the things they recommend is that this consultation exercise should include an element of front end consultation and I think Nirex and the MoD participated in something called front end consultation. Could you explain what you see by the concept of "front end consultation"? Do you see it having any merit in this particular process?
  (Professor Petts) The experience I have is the MoD's recent public discussion on the decommissioning of nuclear powered submarines, where I chaired the steering groups which was part of the front end consultation, which the University of Lancaster were responsible for organising. That consultation was simply designed for people to express opinions about the issues that were important to them in the disposal of nuclear powered submarines, and it was very much an open set of discussions to see just what people thought about this issue, whether they even comprehended it needed to take place, that it was actually a problem, and then to work through discussion of what might be the best methods to do this. Is it to leave them lying in the docks at Devonport and wait until they are stored up or is it to break them up and take out the nuclear reactors, etcetera? It was for people to go through the options and it was very much a gathering of public issues and concerns and bringing to the MoD some understanding of what those concerns were. So whilst this front end process was actually run by an independent body, the MoD were very definitely there at all meetings listening to what was being said. The independent people were very keen on having an independent body to run the discussion, simply manage the meeting, something like that, but I still think you have to have the MoD there to listen to the debate. The MoD has now to go to the next stage which is to tender for the receipt of the contracts for how the nuclear reactor components of the submarines will be managed and for contractors to come forward. The second stage once those tenders come forward is to come back to public debate to look at the options. Front end consultation is useful and does bring out into the open all the issues and pump prime people, if you like, for the questions that will come in the future and ensures that the type of information that is being put out matches the type of questions people are asking and are likely to ask. So front end is quite useful. It is quite clear that people will want to see what happens in front end carried forward to the next stage and to see that the ideas are carried out in the selection of the contractor and the chosen option for managing the submarines. That is the next crucial stage. But that is the only front end example that I have been involved in. I think arguably some of the survey work that has already been done by Nirex discussed in the DEFRA report, has already brought out into the open the types of questions that people worry about, and people might say that is front end consultation although it does not have a formal role in a sense. It is, if you like, framing the problem. In terrible social science speak we talk about what is called framing the problem, just what are the questions I want to talk about and the issues I am interested in that we think are important. If you have made that step yourself and gone straight to deciding issues that are important and come up with a report, you have lost that opportunity to ask what is the question that people have in their minds. Traditionally framing the problem has been something that we have not done very well in public debate.

  209. In this particular consultation exercise do you believe that that particular problem has been dealt with adequately?
  (Professor Petts) I suspect it needs to be gone through again because I suspect the types of surveys that have been done by BNFL and Nirex are regarded as just that—as an interesting research exercise—and possibly it would need to go through it again to find out exactly how people are framing the problem and what questions they believe need to be answered and addressed. I am talking about a stepped or staged process. Step Number one, framing the problem, what is the nature of the issue; number two, what questions do we need to answer to deal with those issues; number three, what data and information do we need to deal with those questions; number four, who do we believe should collect that data; number five, what level of uncertainty are we prepared to accept around that data; number six, a degree of overview of the actual assessment processes that is required either the choice of option or the risk assessment process or environmental assessment process, etcetera; and then the final stage where we have traditionally had public engagement, the output of assessment, asking do you think it is acceptable? Usually we start at the last step, rarely at the first step, and very rarely in this country have we engaged anybody in the assessments of environmental risk or whatever.

Mr Breed

  210. I know a little bit about the front end consultation side of that and I thought it was all just leading up to what might be defined as "informed consent" at the end of the day but I do not think we have got to that stage yet. What do you think the role of Parliament is in that? What role have we got to play in this whole process about developing Radioactive Waste Management Policy? Where do you think Parliament's role is in this, apart from seeing lots of people like you telling us about the consultation and getting lots of letters from our constituents about it?
  (Professor Petts) Parliament's role in the development of policy is very important. I have been asked this question before in terms of do you think that public consultation replaces the role of Parliament, and I certainly do not think that is the case because at the end of the day Parliament is a representative body of members of the public and Parliament has an oversight role if nothing else, even if it does not have to put its hand up and vote at a particular stage.

  211. It has been suggested that there may be a parliamentary select committee with new powers and everything else to oversee the Commission as such. Would that commend itself to you?
  (Professor Petts) I think that the further you go into formalising new commissions and bodies, the further away from the public you actually get. Certainly at the siting stage you cannot do that. At the siting stage I think you have to be down at the local level with local bodies. At the policy stage and choosing the options, I would still prefer to see the existing decision bodies brought together in some form of consultation process not necessarily coming up with something brand new. Although people fail often to understand the roles of official bodies, people like Nirex, or people like the Environment Agency, often members of the public have not got a clue what they are meant to do, nevertheless they can usually come to realise those roles fairly quickly and see them as established bodies with established powers and responsibilities. When you start setting up new bodies with powers and responsibilities you have got to go through that public awareness stage, they have got to start to think "What are this lot about? What is their role?" and I think that would probably just slow down the process.

  212. So they have got to build public credibility?
  (Professor Petts) Absolutely, yes.

Mr Borrow

  213. Finally, while you were sat at the back this afternoon there were one or two mentions of the Finnish experience where in Finland Parliament decided the method of storage of radioactive waste and then simply consulted on where it would take place.
  (Professor Petts) Yes.

  Mr Borrow: Do you see—

  Chairman: A sort of middle end consultation, if you can have middle end.

Mr Borrow

  214. Do you see merits in that approach?
  (Professor Petts) Not in this country, no. I think we are too far down the bad press route, if you like, of radioactive waste disposal in the UK to be able to go down that route now. There is too much history now for us to leap in and choose a site saying "we have chosen the option and I hope you like it". I think we have got to go back to public debate on the options themselves. Then we come to involving the public in actually choosing the criteria for selecting the site. Traditionally site selection exercises have been fairly technocratic processes of site selection criteria against geology, hydro-geology, etc. I think if we could take the public through that site selection criteria, so people would actually understand criteria for a good site— I remember with some laughter in the Front End project for the MoD, for example, there was nice public debate in the groups that went on between "perhaps if we had a site near the Houses of Parliament people would remember it" and then they were going into discussion about "perhaps you should specify criteria of a remote site so it is safe". People were literally going through a site selection exercise and throwing criteria into the ring and just weighing up their pros and cons. My experience is the public are more than capable of doing that. I think that would help in the site selection process. If someone else chooses the site selection criteria and defines them technocratically behind closed doors I think we have a problem.

  215. I think in the Finnish experience there the Government made the decision on how the nuclear waste was to be disposed of and then consulted on the criteria on the possible sites rather than coming up with "these are our three preferred sites". Do you think it is of importance in the UK, and I think that was demonstrated by the differences of opinion of the witnesses who appeared earlier this afternoon, that we need to consult on whether or not deep disposal is the appropriate method rather than assuming that is the appropriate method and making a Government decision?
  (Professor Petts) Absolutely essential. That is why I would like to have seen in the DEFRA Report those stages of decision making set out and then saying "do we want to involve the public in this stage or that stage and then consulting in the DEFRA consultation on that proposal". I do think we will have to engage people in the option selection first and then define the criteria for choosing a site and then actually choosing the site and when you get to the site you have to consult the public on the final selection.

  216. Presumably should the Government decide after consultation not to go for deep storage but to go for surface storage or shallow bunkers there will need to be consultation on the criteria for the appropriate site, whichever one of those three options has been decided?
  (Professor Petts) Absolutely, and they will vary, as I think you are implying in your question.


  217. Can I just ask you apropos something slightly wider here, we are told that we are about to have a Government statement soon on changes to the planning procedure in order to accelerate the planning process on something that might be deemed a national interest question, like Terminal 5 at Heathrow, and that Parliament would then make a strategic decision about what happens. With all of your experience, as far as you are concerned would this be a total step backwards?
  (Professor Petts) Yes. I am fundamentally opposed to the view that you have to speed up the decision process because somehow we are looking at a failure of process if there is public questionning. Arguably, if a more appropriate engagement with the public had taken place around Heathrow Terminal 5, as you raised it, in the early days of "Do we need another airport? Do we need more airport capacity?" If that had been truly open to public consultation we would not have ended up with an inquiry that took so long at the end once you decided you did need more capacity and, therefore, we were going to have it at Heathrow. I think in our debate about long decision times, and I see this in municipal waste management a great deal, a great deal of hype about how long it takes to get an incinerator built is largely to do with the failure of public consultation and the solution is not necessarily to try to speed it up by cutting out that process.

  Chairman: That was very interesting, thank you. I resist the temptation to be diverted further along that line.

Mr Jack

  218. I am very interested in the process of how you involve the public. The picture I am getting from you is this is very difficult, take a long time, take a long run at it, make every effort you possibly can, most of whom may not think they are currently part of this thing, to give a view. (Professor Petts) Yes.

  219. Let us get down to practicalities. If you want this great big large number to participate should, for example, the Government begin to take out advertisements in newspapers flagging up the fact that this discussion is taking place, putting some questions down that they would like the public to give a view, supply information on websites and every other place so that people can be informed? How are we going to get this grand family to take part because my experience is that members of the public by and large come at the eleventh hour and the fifty-ninth minute to most problems reacting only to it when it threatens them.
  (Professor Petts) Let us go back to the options issue and the question which we will take as the first stage. Purely to be transparent about what you are doing, I am absolutely certain you would probably have to put some notices in the press and put a website up so it is transparent what you are doing and asking. To engage members of the public in a debate about options, what we are presumably interested in is to understand what might be the views of a group of people who would be deemed to be representative of the type of interests that exist in the general public. Those interests might be environmental, they might be business, they might be educational, or whatever. They would not turn up to be representing Friends of the Earth or nuclear free local authorities or whatever, but they would be deemed to be interested if they had a general view about the options. And we could set up, quite readily, small group discussions with small numbers of people, 10, 12, 15 people, taking part in a discussion of options whereby we would gain intelligence about how people discuss options and those would be deemed to be the type of view you might expect to see voiced more broadly that we cannot engage at the present time—

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