"Why are we consulting?"

26 September 2017 - by Quintin

We have all at some point have been instructed to carry out an activity which is seen to have little importance – whether this be making your boss a coffee in the morning or holding a public consultation for an EU directive which must, by law, be implemented.

Directives from the EU set out standards that all EU countries must achieve and are required to be implemented; however, individual member states, and their devolved jurisdictions may consult on how to implement these directives and devise supplementary provisions if necessary. 

EU directives can range from major changes in product provisions, for example, to minimal or technical changes which will, at most, only affect a tiny percentage of the population.

Stratagem recalls a famous food standards consultation in 2004, relating to the importation of seafood from the Czech Republic – a landlocked country.

On this basis, the relevance and salience of some public consultations deriving from an EU directive can often be perceived as tokenistic, and a 'tick-box' exercise by government, presenting minimal meaningful engagement opportunities, as it may not really be sure why it is consulting in the first place.

In this respect, the consultation exercise is more for raising awareness and providing information, rather than an opportunity for the public to influence the decision-making process. Some decisions are so minor that we believe they probably do not warrant a full-blown 12-week (or eight, under the Stormont House Agreement, or six, if you are undertaking in-year health cuts) public consultation, but could instead be subjected to a sense check by an expert group, or by testing a sample of the public through focus-group engagement.

The Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland this month launched a standard eight-week consultation on how best to introduce changes to periodic roadworthiness tests including the MOT, goods vehicle and PSV tests. The changes, mandated by a 2014 EU directive (2014/45/EU), are to be in place by May 2018. A link to the consultation document can be found here.

The Department admits in its own cover note to the 16-page narrative that "technical changes are minor and will have little impact on either the private, public or voluntary sectors." It refers to the testing of reversing lights and front fog lamps – potentially life-saving for some?

The consultation document itself, understandably, given its provenance, offers no options; it merely seeks information from consultees about possible impacts. That said, it does, therefore, raise the question of 'consultation fatigue' – a term coined in Northern Ireland by then deputy First Minister Mark Durkan MLA nearly two decades ago – and whether we are bringing public consultation into further disrepute?

In addition, the scenario for Northern Ireland becomes even more peculiar and unusual due to the continuing political deadlock at Stormont, dating from January 2017.

As one official notes: "Normally, a synopsis [would be] provided to the Infrastructure Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly a short time after the consultation period ends. However, given that there is at present no Assembly in Northern Ireland, we are not certain exactly when this may happen."

So will Belfast's reversing lights be tested or not? Will it be subject to the Great Repeal Bill or be part of Brexit negotiations, as unnecessary red tape? We should be told.