Examination of Witness (Questions 220
MONDAY 3 DECEMBER 2001
220. Policy by focus group?
(Professor Petts) Focus groups of course
221. It is.
(Professor Petts) It depends how you run them. I might
have views about how the Government currently uses focus groups.
I would not necessarily call them focus groups, they have too
much of a bad name now. We might call them something like community
committees or community advisory committees or something like
that. To do that clearly you have got to go through a reasonable
process. You cannot hold one meeting, turn up for a couple of
hours and discuss the options for waste. All of us would have
trouble doing that if asked to take part. You have to run a few
groups with several meetings over a few weeks in which they will
engage in the technicalities of what we are talking about here
and what radioactive waste is in the first place and then going
through the options that might exist, weighing up the pros and
cons and coming to a consensus in the group in the end about what
they have heard and the options. You can do that in the standard
way of engaging people in municipal waste management strategies
within county councils for example. At the same time you would
require this general information for transparency and openness
purposes so that any member of the public who came upon it could
see what was going on and that a public debate was taking place.
222. Do you think we are going to get to a position
in this country where the public trust publicly available information?
I suspect all my colleagues on the select committee have had letters
from very worried people about mobile telephones masts and the
Stewart report, if you read it, says "I cannot see any real
problem", but there is a magic cop-out clause "precautionary
principle" if you have got any doubt and that seems to be
the "open sesame" to challenge everything, never mind
all the statements about safety. For those who have engaged in
the mobile telephone debate which is not of the same order as
the nuclear waste debate, some people are implacably opposed to
these things whatever information you give them of a scientific
nature which says intrinsically they are safe.
(Professor Petts) There is something different going
on there which I do not think we have got time to go into it.
If you were to engage people in radioactive waste what you are
now doing is saying "We have got to make a decision to manage
this stuff, we have got it, we cannot leave it, we have got to
do something about it." First of all, people are willing
to engage in the fact there is a problem here. It has to be solved
and a there is timetable for that solution over which the decision
ideally needs to be made. Once you engage people in the real decision
processes and they understand what that process is, they are far
more likely to come to an open decision to ask for all the information,
pro and con, counter-expert and expert, and want to weigh up that
information, and we have to make a decision here, "This is
our view or choice from our group or meeting." My experience
is that people are entirely pragmatic when they come to those
sorts of decision contexts. And the fact that this is an issue
that has to be managed, most people will realise that a solution
needs to be found and that, in fact, the non-management solution
is the absolutely worst case option here which presumably would
be publicly unacceptable under all circumstances.
Diana Organ: Is not the problem the issue Michael
Jack talked about of telephone mastsand it was the same
over contiguous culling in foot and mouththat the public
do not trust scientists, they do not trust somebody writing in
the case of the Stewart report, and they do not believe the scientists,
they do not believe the technocrats. They think, "No, it
is not accurate", and, as he says, the situation that happens
in those two happens with nuclear waste as well. It does not matter
what you say, if the scientists advice is that, they are going
to reject it.
223. Just to add to that, we are dealing now
with an increasingly large proportion of the public who are clever
enough to arm themselves with their assessment of the facts on
the Internet. They come in clutching reports saying "I have
read this, therefore it is fact, therefore it is dangerous, what
are you doing about it?"
(Professor Petts) There are two elements to the issues,
I think. Firstly, this issue of people not trusting scientific
information. What they are generally not trusting of is information
that is foisted upon them when they have not seen the different
stories or the whole stories. The area I am most familiar with
from most years of work is, for example, dioxins which is scientifically
uncertain and there are a very large number of scientific views
on the health safety of dioxins. When you bring people to debate
they are very aware that these are opposing views about the issue,
from official views through to counter-expert views. My experience
is that when you give them the time to actually question those
views, the opportunity to see what they are for real and not potted
histories produced by someone else, potted summaries produced
by someone else, when they have the chance to question the scientists
head on they are more than able and willing to weigh up the information
and come to a view. I ran focus groups for the Department of Health
on mobile phone information, for example, prior to the production
of the information most recently, and we actually managed to get
people in the room who said "There is no problem with these,
I do not know what all the fuss is about". There are people
who write letters but, on the other hand, there are lots of people
out there who do not and do not see any problem with this whatsoever.
What you are trying to do in opening up public engagement is toensure
you are not just getting the voices of the letters, if you like,
you are getting the broader voice so you have an understanding
of the broader public view.
Chairman: There is a danger, I think, Professor
Petts, that the Committee will be tempted to show you all their
surgery scars and ask you to comment, so I am going to restrain
them and thank you very much indeed for coming in front of us
today, it has been an extremely helpful session. We have enjoyed
it as well as learning a lot. We are most grateful to you.