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

Examination of Witness (Questions 220 - 223)



  220. Policy by focus group?
  (Professor Petts) Focus groups of course—

Diana Organ

  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.

Mr Jack

  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 masts—and it was the same over contiguous culling in foot and mouth—that 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.

Mr Jack

  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.

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