Monday, September 20, 2004

Consulting we will go

In a parallel existence a.k.a day job, I represent one of the DEFRA stakeholders at interminable meetings called by that ever growing ministry with monotonous regularity. For the benefit of our non-British readers I ought to explain that DEFRA stands for Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Its purpose is uncertain as all of the above are now EU competences. DEFRA cannot initiate any regulation and its ministers cannot initiate legislation in Parliament. All they can do is put the detailed instructions received from Brussels into law.

Despite this anomaly, DEFRA is a growing department. It now occupies at least half a dozen large buildings in and around Smith Square and it seems that every time I turn round another monstrous pile has been requisitioned by what is popularly known as Death to Farming and Rural Activity. Come to think of it, there is one thing DEFRA can do without consulting Big Brother in Brussels and that is to lead the legislative fight against hunting and other country sports.

Civil servants do not like admitting that they are merely the messenger boys for the real legislators. At those interminable stakeholders’ meetings there is much talk about needing to co-operate with other countries and international organizations such as the WTO, the OIE and the EU. Only repeated and pointed questioning will drag out the admission from a tight-lipped functionary that yes, indeed, we do have a legal obligation to implement all EU directives and regulations. This statement is usually greeted with polite incredulity by most of the stakeholders who refuse to believe that the endless discussions they attend are of no importance whatsoever; that decisions will be taken in Brussels with fonctionnaires of 25 states haggling over various details and our own negotiators usually showing themselves to be either incompetent or uninterested.

Stakeholders? Stakeholders? I hear you ask. What are stakeholders in the particular context of, as it were, implementation of CAP rules, health and environment rules, waste disposal rules and so on? Sharp eyes and sharp minds would have noticed a tendency on the part of the government, both in Whitehall and Brussels to import the vocabulary of the private sector into the public. Not the activity, just the vocabulary.

Thus, we hear a great deal about the new CAP reforms introducing market rules into agriculture. What that actually means, as it is occasionally admitted by the likes of Commissioner Franz Fischler or Agriculture Minister Lord Whitty, is the need to justify to the public how the subsidies are handed out. As the public is not happy with produce subsidy, there has been a change in the way the booty is divided. The same money will go largely to the same people but now there will be environmental considerations. As ever, political considerations rather than straightforward market discipline will apply.

The idea of stakeholders’ meetings appeared soon after the catastrophic foot and moth epidemic of 2001. DEFRA’s ill-thought out, panicky policies and refusal to look at scientific evidence or recent research led to about 11 million healthy animals being slaughtered, devastating pictures that kept visitors away and led to a spectacular fall in income in many parts of the countryside and a feeling of fury and helplessness.

The ministry was accused of not listening to anybody. The officials responded in the only way they knew: they set up structures. This is, of course, how the EU progresses its great project and why it has the sometimes inexplicable support of British civil servants. They, too, believe in the superiority of a system of governance that is based on management rather than politics.

To this end, DEFRA, as all ministries and agencies, has set up a series of stakeholders’ meeting. Obviously, the term is misleading. It is the ministry that decides who is and who is not a stakeholder, how many meetings are set up and who is to come to them. Sometimes, organizations can manage to put themselves on the list of invitees if they persevere. But, and this is the crucial part of the exercise, no amount of talking round small tables, long tables or round tables gives the so-called stakeholders any power to change any decision the ministry has made. In fact, in most cases, the decision is then made in Brussels and, even the ministry’s own powers are limited by the fact that there are negotiators from 25 countries, though nobody is limited by a need to be accountable to any elected assembly or the electors.

The other part of this process is the great consultation process. Stakeholders are consulted on everything, large and small. By consulting them, the decision-makers attempt to give an impression of power. In fact, consultations go in and are, even, published on the website for all to look at. And that is the end of the process until the next tranche. Sometimes there are several consultations on one piece of legislation: when it is first proposed in Brussels; on the response to be given by, say, DEFRA or the Food Standards Agency; again, when Brussels replies to the responses, at the final stages of the EU legislation; when the British legislation, primary or secondary, that will put the EU legislation into effect (a legal requirement, let us recall), is first discussed; when that legislation is drafted; when it is in its final form. There might be more consultation when secondary legislation is proposed on the basis of an enabling act – an ever more frequent occurrence in British parliamentary procedure.

All this is a mere substitute for real politics, that is open and accountable legislation.

A week ago I decided to catch up on the consultations I needed to submit responses to, having already discussed what the stakeholder I represent would say to the latest enquiry on whether pesticides should be taxed.

Keeping a very strict watch on what is directly relevant I downloaded 14 consultation letters. They range from consultations on drafts of new Codes of Recommendations for the Welfare of Ducks, Goats and Turkeys (that was three separate documents), through a consultation document on Clean Neighbourhoods to matters to do with Milk Quotas, Waste Disposal, Recycling, National Scrapie Plan, various EU Regulations and, of course, changes in the State Veterinary Service.

With some help, I shall reply to all or almost all of these to the best of my ability. Other organizations will do the same. And huge tranches of legislation and regulation will go through without anyone, least of all our elected representatives, noticing it. But hey, the stakeholders were consulted, weren’t they. One day I shall imitate Professor Van Helsing in the way he used the stake against Count Dracula.

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