Examination of Witness (Questions 200
MONDAY 3 DECEMBER 2001
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.
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
(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.
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
(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
(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 thatas an interesting
research exerciseand 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.
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
(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.
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.
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
Chairman: That was very interesting, thank you.
I resist the temptation to be diverted further along that line.
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
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
(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