Examination of Witness (Questions 186
MONDAY 3 DECEMBER 2001
186. Professor Petts, you are a Professor of
Environmental Risk Management at Birmingham University for the
(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
(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
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.
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
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.
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
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
(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