Why are we consulting? – A peculiar situation
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 has, by law, to be implemented!
Directives from the EU set out standards that all EU countries must achieve and are required by member states 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 only affect a tiny percentage of the population, if any. The Institute 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 they may not really be sure why they are consulting in the first place!
In this respect, the consultation exercise is more of an information and awareness-raising nature, rather than an opportunity for the public to influence the decision-making process…some decisions are so minor that the Institute believes they probably do not warrant a full-blown 12-week 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 must be introduced following a 2014 EU Directive (2014/45/EU) and are required to be implemented by May 2018. A link to the consultation document can be found here.
The Department admits in its own cover note to its 16-page narrative: “The 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, merely seeking information from consultees about possible impacts. However, it does raise the question of ‘consultation fatigue’ – a term coined in N. Ireland nearly two decades ago, and whether we are bringing the Public Consultation into further disrepute?
In addition, the scenario for Northern Ireland becomes even more peculiar and unusual due to the continuing political deadlock in the Northern Ireland Assembly, since 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 they be subject to the Great Repeal Bill or be part of Brexit negotiations, as unnecessary red tape? We should be told!